Sunday, February 26, 2012

Can Sin-Shackled Dust Be God's Friend?

The first upbeat chords rocket through the van's speakers. I sing along with the first verse: "Who am I that you are mindful of me / That you hear me when I call..." The words resonate within me. Then comes the refrain, and I stumble over the words, clench jaw over the chorus that repeats "I am a friend of God / He calls me friend."

God as my friend? I can't assume to be so presumptuous. It's inconceivable . A relationship, yes. A friendship? How can holiness be friends with sin-shackled dust like me.

Besides, friendship is reserved for the elite of the elite in that Hall of Faith in Hebrews. Right?

In the Old Testament, I've only located two individuals whom God called His friend--Moses and Abraham.

Of Moses, Scripture says, "Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend" (Ex. 33:11).

Twice, Abraham is referred to as God's "friend forever?" and then as "Abraham My friend" (2 Chron. 20:7, Is. 41:8).

For God to call these men friend makes sense--Abraham, the Father of Israel who offered his son in sacrifice, who left home and family for some nebulous promised land somewhere, someday. And then there's Moses, the man who challenged a Pharaoh before leading a group of malcontents from captivity, around the wilderness for forty years, and finally to the banks of the land of promise.

I get this. But they're completely out of my spiritual league.

The problem, though, is that in the New Testament, James revisits Abraham's friendship with God, implying that this friendship is something attainable for all believers: "and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, 'AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS,' and he was called the friend of God" (Jas. 2:23).

How can we become a friend of God?

The first requirement is clear. Faith. Not dead faith, since James is infamous for his stance that made Martin Luther want to hack the letter from the Bible-- "faith, if it has no works, is dead" (Jas 2:14). Faith in action is a key element to friendship.

Jesus makes a similar statement to His disciples: "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you" (Jn. 15:13-14).

Here, this Scripture seems to lay out two additional requirements besides faith in action. First, Christ calls "friends" all those who obey His command to "Love one another." Jesus then tells these friends to "bear fruit" before reiterating the command to love.

The twice repeated command along with a mention of bearing fruit seems to imply friendship with God requires not only FAITH in action but OBEDIENCE in action, which can be summed up as LOVE in action.

The amazing thing? The part that really gets me? Back in 2 Chronicles where God calls Abraham His "friend forever," the word translated as "friend" ('ahab) is translated as love or beloved in 174/208 of its usages in the Old Testament.

One of those 174 usages is likely quite familiar to you and speaks of God's mercy: "showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments" (Ex. 20:6).

The verse could likewise read "to those who friend Me and keep My commandments." And there, we have Christ's own words in John about friendship, now echoed way back in Exodus.

While James recognizes Abraham's faith as the reason for his friendship with God, the Old Testament Hebrew and Christ's words about friendship make a direct link between friendship and love.

In short, the three are all one and the same--to truly believe in God is to love God is to obey God is to be the friend of God.

What an invitation.

Image: Paul Hazelton's Dust Sculptures...and I just thought those dust bunnies were worthless.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Tongue Lit By Hell's Fire

Whoever first coined the little ditty about sticks and stones breaking bones but words never hurting him was a liar. Words hurt. They can do immense damage, many times leaving scars much greater and much longer lasting than the bruise of a stone or bloody gash from a stick.

Most of us have both used our tongues for evil and have received third degree burns from such a hell-bent tongue. Likewise, we have all used our tongues for good and have had our hearts warmed by others' tongues as well. Good or bad, our memories hold tight to the actual words much like a burr in an animal's coat. Some conversations, we can repeat verbatim twenty years later even though we may not remember the time, place, or any other trappings of that day.

Because God knew the power of words, He cautioned us as Christians to use our tongues for good, not evil. James said, "the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell... it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10 from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way" (Jas. 3:6, 8-10).

Here, James first denotes the tongue's tendency to speak evil, to act as a fire that devours, as a poison that destroys an entire entire life. He also notes where such fleshly tongue-tendencies come from--hell.

However, in the same passage, James mentions that the Christian's tongue can also be used for good, for blessings, towards other men and towards God. Though James doesn't use the exact words, the implication is that this tongue-tendency comes from the opposite location--from heaven, or in this case, from the third part of the trinity, the Spirit that resides within.

Although the tongue may have both conflicting tendencies since flesh wars with the spirit within, James makes it clear that we must strive to use our tongues only for good and not for evil.

Many times, even when we suppress the Spirit and speak otherwise, it is perfectly clear as to whether we are using our tongues for good or for evil. But what about those times when it's gray, when we're unsure, when maybe we're unsure our motives are 100% pure in the speaking? What then?

I believe part of the answer is housed in another usage of the same term tongue.

In the book of Acts, Paul describes the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as "cloven tongues like as of fire," which "sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance....we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God" (Acts 2:3-4, 11).

This tongue literally came down from heaven and commandeered each man's fleshly tongue so that it spoke (in James' words) to "bless our Lord and Father."

A second effect of these heavenly tongues was unity.

The first indication of unity is that even though there were many different nationalities and languages present, each man heard in his own tongue, one man asking "how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?" (Acts 2:8).

A second indication of unity was the Christians' actions after the tongues of fire. Paul writes after this event that "all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart" (Acts 2:44-46).

As such, it seems there are two indicators we as followers of Christ can use to determine whether our speech is of a tongue lit by hell's fire or by heaven's fire. First, will my words serve to glorify God? Will they serve to bless others or God, Himself? And secondly, will they serve to bring unity or division?

It's not a fail-proof checklist. But there have been many times when asking myself these two simple questions would have saved me miles of scorched earth that I had to reseed in repentance.

Photo: Michael Wells' Photography

Sunday, February 12, 2012

When You Want to Throw in the Towel

I know what it's like to be bitter. I have spent near sleepless nights dreaming of what I would say to the one whose lies have caused my family such pain. I have cried in anger over the unforgivable injustice my husband has suffered, have questioned God's justice, have felt the bile welling up in my soul to choke off any forgiveness I had already offered but would need to extend again and again...and again.

Even so, I also know what it's like to let it go and move on, to serve God and accept His just decision to not act...even when my circumstances don't change.

Although I'm neck-deep in the book of Jude, my head keeps turning to look further down the rabbit trail of Moses' act of defying God, the action that kept him from stepping foot into the Promised Land.

Leading a group of malcontents could not have been the easiest job in the world. In fact, except for the meeting with God face to face part, it sounds pretty miserable. Throughout Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the Israelites were constantly complaining about something--no food, daily manna but no meat. Add 2.5 million "are we there yet's," to the mix, and Moses might have been able to blame them for his prematurely grey hair, had being in God's immediate presence not taken care of that already.

The Israelites' complaints may have started differently, but they always seemed to end the same way--"we might as well have just stayed slaves in Egypt."

This time when Moses finally lost his temper and sinned against God, "There was no water for the congregation" (Num. 20:2). And so, this new generation did what their fathers before them had done 38 years before--come to Moses to complain: "The people thus contended with Moses and spoke, saying, 'If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the LORD! Why then have you brought the LORD’S assembly into this wilderness, for us and our beasts to die here? Why have you made us come up from Egypt, to bring us in to this wretched place? It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, nor is there water to drink'" (v. 3-5).

My humanity would have felt like calling down a lightening rod to grind them into powder right then and there, but like always, Moses went to bat for the people. In the very next verse, he and Aaron "came in from the presence of the assembly to the doorway of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces" (v. 6).

God was clear. Moses was to "speak to the rock" (v. 8). But as we well know, Moses did not. Instead, he "struck the rock" (v. 11). It seems even a man who meets face to face with a holy God on a daily basis still must contend with his own humanity.

But why? What was different after 38 years* to make Moses "not believ[e] Me [God], treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel" (v. 12). Why did Moses' anger at the people's discontent boil over into disobedience? Was it a rash act of anger? Or was it a conscious choice to disobey, to strike versus speak?

Scripture doesn't record Moses' heart. Yet, though man saw only the action, God did see the heart--the heart of both Moses who struck the rock and of Aaron who did not, both hearts which were condemned for lack of faith in God and disrespect for His holiness.

There is one major difference about this people's complaint than the others, something mentioned one verse before the lack of water scene plays out: "Then the sons of Israel, the whole congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin in the first month; and the people stayed at Kadesh. Now Miriam died there and was buried there" (v. 1).

No matter their differences over Moses' choice of a wife or their differences caused by the time Miriam challenged his authority so that he had to pray for God to spare her from leprosy--this was his sister, the one who had helped her mother hide him from Pharaoh's swordsmen, who had watched from the reeds as he floated down the Nile in a basket made of reeds towards a princess. This was his sister, his helper, the "prophetess" who had led the women in worship with "the timbrel in her hand" after Moses held up his rod to part the Red Sea (Ex. 15:20).

Could it be that Moses was still mourning his sister's death when the people started complaining about lack of water? Could his human grief have played a part in his anger against a people with an "It's all about me attitude" lack of sympathy? Or could human grief have even played out as lack of faith in God?

I don't know. But what I do know for certain is that after God chastened Moses, he didn't walk away. Even after Aaron's death at the end of the chapter so that Moses was now without brother or sister, even then, Moses did not abandon this stiff-necked people.

Surely he was lonely to now be one of three remaining aged ones in a group of youngsters. Surely he was more than a little disappointed to not be allowed in the Promised Land after dragging several stadiums worth of people around the wilderness for forty years. A lesser man would have been bitter, would have turned his back on God when He said "No Promised Land for you!"

But Moses continued to follow the Lord, to lead the Israelites all the way around Edom to the Jordan River where they would finally cross over and take possession of the covenant land of promise.

This is what should give us pause--that Moses accepted God's decision as just, that he did not let his disappointment get in the way of his ministry, his divine appointment in God's kingdom plan.

Even with the Holy Spirit residing within us, even meeting with God on a daily basis, it's easy to become disappointed or bitter over circumstances, and leave what God has called us to do, be, or even God, Himself.

Let's strive harder to be like Moses. To not walk away when anyone else would.

*Date per Matthew Henry Complete Commentary

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Case FOR Revival

Over the past month, Christians around the State of Louisiana have been uniting in prayer for revival, twenty-one days of petitioning heaven for the church to awaken, rise up, and be the salt and light it was called to be.

No, the ground has not quaked. There has been no newsworthy event of extreme religious fervor or any other symptoms equaling that of The Great Awakening. Yet, that does not mean God has not sent revival, nor that He will not send it still.

I may know little, but of three things I am certain: one, that not all revivals will look the same; two, that one soul can experience a revival and that be a miracle; and three, revival could still be waiting just off-stage in the wings.

This morning, though, my husband mentioned that not everyone believes a revival is possible because America is too far gone in its moral depravity.

Throughout the afternoon, his comment has haunted me. How hopeless a world view! That this is I'm sure is shared by numerous others. What's more, how limiting is this view to God, for revival does not start in the heart of man but in the heart of God. Salvation, prayer, revival--they all start in God's heart. And who is to say what God will choose to do or not to do with the soul's of those who reside in America?

But to be fair, perhaps it's the term "revival" that is the problem, what with its connotations of entire communities flocking en mass to church buildings. Revival, though, need be nothing more than a reawakening of one soul towards God. Such an awakening then can spread outward from that one heart to another heart. Also, by the very nature of revival being defined as a "re-awakening," the term implies that revival begins in the hearts of God's people (not the unsaved), the ones who have once been awakened but who now need to be re-awakened. Hence, revival starts at the house of God.

Charles Spurgeon wrote, "While a true revival in its essence belongs only to God's people, it always brings with it a blessing for the other sheep who are not yet of the fold. If you drop a stone into a lake the ring widens continually, till the farthest corner of the lake feels the influence. Let the Lord revive a believer and very soon his family, his friends, his neighbors, receive a share of the benefit...and thus the world gains by revival" ("What Is a Revival". Sword and Trowel. Dec. 1866).

This concept of revival being for the child of God is Biblical, found both in the Old and New Testaments.

Many times, God pricked the heart of His people and they repented, turned from their evil ways and followed Him with renewed fervency. In this space, we have studied a revival after the captive Israelites returned from exile in Babylon.

Another great example is Solomon's prayer at the dedication of the temple. He prayed to God for "when" (not "if") God would stir His people's hearts towards repentance so they would reawaken and "return" to Him, bow the knee: "When they sin against You (for there is no man who does not sin) and You are angry with them and deliver them to an enemy, so that they take them away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near; if they take thought in the land where they have been taken captive, and repent and make supplication to You in the land of those who have taken them captive, saying, ‘We have sinned and have committed iniquity, we have acted wickedly’; if they return to You with all their heart and with all their soul...then hear their prayer and their supplication in heaven Your dwelling place, and maintain their cause, and forgive Your people who have sinned against You and all their transgressions which they have transgressed against You" (1 Kin. 8:46-50).

In the heart's returning is a revival.

In the New Testament, no passage speaks of revival more than the chapters in John's Revelation where he speaks to the seven churches, most of which had serious need of revival. For instance, to the Church at Ephesus he says, "Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first " (Rev. 2:4-5).

Repent. Turn away from sin because only in true repentance can one re-awaken his first love for God. Reawakening--revival.

When God sends revival, it may not look like a page out of our history books...or it might. But our God is consistent and true to His character in that He constantly seeks to refine those sheep who are His and to bring back into the fold those sheep who have gone astray.

My prayer is the one we still sing in Will­iam Mac­kay's old hymn:

Revive us again;
Fill each heart with Thy love;
May each soul be rekindled
With fire from above.
Hallelujah! Thine the glory.
Hallelujah! Amen.
Hallelujah! Thine the glory.
Revive us again.

No matter how dark it looks, my God is big enough to bring revival--to one. to millions. Revive us, O Lord.

Image from Tim Beddingfield.