Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Greatest Exchange

I was only eleven when the television bled with an image of a pastor stumbling to his knees and raising tear-streaked face heavenward in public repentance for his sin of infidelity.  Such scandal required the ten second clip to be replayed at every opportunity, imprinting it on my memory.

Ever since, there has been a steady stream of religious leaders filling the airwaves with forced confessions when their sins are unearthed, so much so that the breaking news and confessions have become almost meaningless.

When a Senator from my own state was caught up in an illicit relationship a few years ago, my response wasn't outrage or shock but sadness and a shrug of the shoulders.  What else was new.  I, like many Americans, had become immune to the news that the mighty could easily fall.

Another response I have noted from the Christian community is not mere indifference but an intentional distancing themselves from a sinful world on the grounds that it is obeying God's command to not be "of the world."

The problem is that this attitude can quickly morph into disobedience to other Godly commands to go spread the gospel or to show mercy.  It can also grow almost overnight into pride, where it becomes all too easy for followers of Christ to just shake a disapproving head and turn their backs on the world to condemn it as "hopelessly lost" rather than, instead, to pray for, witness to, and reach out to lead this lost world to Jesus.

One way to stave off this tendency towards pride is to see who we really are in Christ's eyes.  To do this requires looking back at the initial covenant relationship formed when Christ imputed His righteousness on us as sinners and added us into His kingdom.

Last summer, I did a series here about the concept of covenant in Scripture.  In one of the articles, we explored probably the most well-known covenant between King Saul's son Jonathan and David.

Scripture says, "the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as himself. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, with his armor, including his sword and his bow and his belt" (1 Sam. 18:1b, 3-4).

Imagine Jonathan standing before David offering these gifts of covenant. David would have taken off his robe, the robe of a shepherd, one likely well-worn and pungent, perhaps even torn by jagged rocks on the hillside where he pastured his father's sheep or stained with the blood of wild animals he had slain to defend the flock. This was not a robe to be worn by a king or a prince.

Jonathan's robe, on the other hand, would have reflected his regal status, been made of the finest materials, unmarked by signs of manual labor. With this robe hanging from David's shoulders, everyone would know he was a friend of the King's son, that to make an enemy of David was to make an enemy of royalty.

In such regal apparel, it would have been easy for David to feel important, maybe even puff out his chest or stand just a little taller as he walked by the townspeople, knowing all eyes were upon him.  After wearing the robe for awhile, David might have even momentarily convinced himself that he deserved to wear it.

But if he ever had such prideful thoughts, all he had to do was look back at Jonathan, to look at a true king dressed in the rags of a shepherd boy.  With David's eyes on his covenant partner, there is no way David could have felt pride, but only humility and gratitude for this undeserved gift.

Such is the exchange we can imagine between us and Christ.

Scripture tells us "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21).  Earlier, the prophet Isaiah said, "he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels" (Is. 61:10).

In the covenant relationship each person enters into with Christ, he or she is clothed in a robe of righteousness--CHRIST's robe of righteousness.

Yet, in the terms of the covenant, each covenant partner must give his robe to the other.  That means when Christ gave us His robes of righteousness, we, too, handed him our robes of sin, of unrighteousness.

Imagine standing before the Savior who has offered you this great gift of salvation.  He offers you a regal robe of righteousness.  You wrap it around your shoulders, beaming.  Yet, when you look up, Christ has slipped both arms into your ragged robes.  Sin weighs heavy on this King of heaven and earth, on the One who knew no sin, yet who became sin for you.

At this moment of conversion, when the new Christian's eyes are on Christ, it is impossible to feel pride in his elevated estate.  Instead, the Christian will feel humble, grateful, and merciful.  This is as it should be.

Yet, sometimes, our eyes stray from our covenant partner.  And that is when pride at our righteousness slips in.

When we take even the mildest pleasure in someone's downfall, when we look down on another for their blatant sin, when we elevate ourselves as worthy of Christ's salvation--we must recognize this as pride, look up into the eyes of our covenant partner and see the robe He took from us, the one we truly deserve to wear.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Kingdom Without Lone Rangers

I don't play well with others. 

At its core, my desire to be a lone ranger is founded in my lack of faith in others to follow through with all their might.  Also, it is usually faster to just do it myself than to explain, discuss, ask questions, track down, and schedule meeting times that don’t conflict with two different households.

As you might expect, this do-it-self tendency doesn’t work well in marriage.  The same goes for motherhood--it's much easier to just put up the cutlery, pick up the toys, and set the table myself.  Accepting help, involving others means having to repeat myself, accepting that the task won’t be done as I would do it or on my timetable, and that I’ll likely need to clean up an extra mess the “help” created along the way.

Since last summer, I have made a more concerted effort to put myself out on a limb, partner with other Christians in teaching and in two other ministry opportunities.

As you might expect, things have not always gone smoothly.  But through these real life applications and through His Word, God has been revealing a truth about building His kingdom:

God could easily build His kingdom without man.  He could also empower a single man or woman with everything needed to go it alone.  Yet, that isn’t how God works.

Instead, God chooses to both include mankind in the kingdom-building and to bless mankind with different spiritual gifts in order to teach us how we, too, should include when doing kingdom work. 

As Paul says: “But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7, my italics).  Each individual’s gift is for the kingdom, for others, like one piece in a larger puzzle.

God desires His children to work together, to support, to aid one another in the building process.  It’s a lesson in putting aside “I” in favor of “we” in God’s work, a lesson He’s been teaching time and again since the Old Testament.

Consider when Amalek came to fight against Israel: “So it came about when Moses held his hand up, that Israel prevailed, and when he let his hand down, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands were heavy. Then they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it; and Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other. Thus his hands were steady until the sun set” (Ex. 17:11-12). 

God could have caused the earth to open and swallow Amalek, no help needed from mankind.  God could have used only His servant Moses and his staff to strike the offenders dead at once.  God could have supernaturally endowed Moses with the strength to hold his own hands up through the entire battle.  But He did none of the above.

Instead, God allowed Joshua and his men to fight while two others literally supported Moses and, thus, all be a part of the victory.  The joy of that shared victory was surely much more intense than it would have been had a single man brought it about.

Scripture teaches, “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart” (Ecc. 4:9-12).

In this light, let us look to our own lives to see if we’re trying to be lone rangers in a faith that isn’t autonomous.  Are there any ministries in which we are involved where we could include others?

Including others and receiving their support in kingdom ministry may make you a blessing to someone else, may draw them closer to the body.  But such joining together just might be a blessing to you as well. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

To and Fro: Whose Eyes are On You?

I'm not the type person who goes around looking for Satan and his crew of fallen angels hiding behind every rock.

More often, I know life's hardships are either a work of my own making or a direct work of God to draw me closer to Him, to reel me back in when I've strayed, or to burn off some impure part to make me as gold refined.

Over the past week, though, I have distinctly felt as if my family has been under attack. Each turn of the day found me reliving a Job-like moment when one servant after another would run in with more bad news.

Monday brought my daughter a painful ear infection, Thursday added her twin brother to the injured reserve with a case of pink eye, Friday brought sinus infections and high fever for both sons, and Friday evening found me with a scratched right cornea after I impaled it with a stick.

Then came Saturday morning with husband's news that no, he wasn't minutes from home but stranded out west because of flight delays and cancellations.

In the midst of it all, my mind kept envisioning Satan as he twice describes himself in the book of Job, as one who is "roaming about on the earth and walking around on it" (Job 1:7 & 2:2). The King James Version words it as Satan is "going to and fro in the earth."

I could even hear Peter in the New Testament warning Christians of Satan: "Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (1 Pet. 5:8).

The above verses are imprinted in my mind because they incite a bit of fear in me, serve as a warning that no Christian is ever "safe" from temptation, that I must ever be on alert against a vicious foe whose desire is to destroy man--any man--as a hungry lion seeks to devour any animal in its path.

Yet, these verses only tell half the message. And working with an incomplete message from the Lord will lead to nothing but fear, despair, and a gaping hole in our gospel.

While my heart clung to those images of Satan roaming around the earth, somehow, I missed a more important verse about my sovereign God doing the same, but with the opposite intent.

The writer of Chronicles states, "For the eyes of the LORD move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His" (2 Chron 6:9).

To and fro. The whole earth. Just like Satan.

But not at all like Satan.

Our God's eyes are moving throughout the earth not to destroy, not to devour, but to support, to strengthen His children.

And the same Peter who wrote of Satan's prowling? He also penned parallel words about the Lord and His eyes being ever on His children: "FOR THE EYES OF THE LORD ARE TOWARD THE RIGHTEOUS, AND HIS EARS ATTEND TO THEIR PRAYER" (1 Pet. 3:12). Again, the Lord's eyes are on those who are His not for their harm, but for their good.

Even in the midst of trials where you and I feel we are under attack from this prowling lion, if we are fully committed to the Lord, we can still feel peace, knowing that the Lord's eyes are always on us, too, always seeking to strengthen us for His glory.

Image: "to and fro" from "not1word"

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Stuffing Jesus Back in the Tomb

They each wanted to touch Him, chubby fingers possessively grasping molded legs and outstretched hands, eyes studying His bearded face. Even without being told, they all knew this, this was Jesus.

When all three had held Him, they crowded around to watch as I lay Jesus in the tomb, then rolled the stone firmly over the entrance. There, the children listened to my warning. Each solemnly nodded understanding and echoed back my words: "Jesus must stay in the tomb. Yes, touch the angel, but do not touch the stone until Easter."

This scene played out some sixty-eight days ago. Since then, the angel has moved from the bathroom to the kitchen to under the covers of someone's bed. But the stone? With a few exceptions early on, it has remained unmoved.

Late yesterday afternoon, like a child at Christmas excited at what was coming with tomorrow's sunrise, I just couldn't wait. Or maybe it was that I didn't want to wait, didn't want to live in the darkness of death for one hour more. So, I rolled back the stone and Jesus came forth--alive!

The twins found Him first. Within seconds, Amelia mumbled her disapproval to Emerson, shoved Jesus within, and rolled the stone back in place. I quickly intervened. "No. It's ok. Jesus isn't dead anymore! He's alive! He rose up from the grave."

It seemed they understood me; yet, sometime later, someone silently slipped into the foyer and re-entombed Jesus. I rolled the stone away again.

Four more times that evening, they and I replayed the scene of Jesus being placed into total darkness of death and sin only to then arise to new light and life three days later (or a few minutes in this case).

You and I--we are not children who have memorized only half the Easter story. And still, sometimes our actions reflect hearts that act as if Jesus is still in the grave.

I am guilty.

I roll the stone back in place...

Each time I live enslaved to the guilt of past sin.
At times, my mind is my worst enemy. It can replay decade-old scenes better than any HD television with closed captioning. In those times when I allow my past sin to incapacitate me, to keep me from living in victory--even for a moment--that is when I am saying that Jesus' sacrifice wasn't acceptable enough to the Father...not enough for my sin.

Paul says, "Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death" (Rom. 8:1-2). Under the blood of Jesus, my sins are forgiven.

And although my mind may still remember them, David says, "As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us" (Ps. 103:12). The prophet Micah even says God "will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea" (Mic. 7:19).

Living in the shadow of guilt over sins that we have confessed, repented of, and turned away from (and that God forgave long ago) is, at best, an act of ingratitude and, at worst, sin itself. In Scripture, God never once asks us to forgive ourselves...just to repent and accept His forgiveness so that we can fulfill the plan He has for us.

I roll the stone back in place...

Each time I live enslaved to present sin . Even for a non-newborn Christian, it's all too easy to grow discouraged at a failure to stop sinning and simply give up the quest to overcome, especially with sin that is habitual, that has its roots deeply embedded in the past.

The problem is we can't just give into sin because "our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin" (Rom. 6:6-7). In other words, Christ was a victor over sin; as Christians, we must claim that same victory and strive, strive, and strive some more to let the Holy Spirit empower us to be victorious over sin...not slaves to it.

I roll the stone back in place...

Each time I live in fear of man, of public perception, of circumstances.
Truth be told, this is where I put my back into it and press against stone the most.

Paul says, "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:6-7). The Psalms are filled with the repetition of "What can man do to me?", a reminder that our free-will God is somehow mysteriously in control of every man's action as well as every atom's function in the universe since He "works all things after the counsel of His will" (Ps. 56:4, Eph. 1:11).

I know all of this. And yet, I get stuck before the "but" in Philippians, forgetting the key to not being anxious is prayer...well, not really forgetting so much as being so caught up in the busy-ness of living with the problems that it's easier to let worry tug at the corner of my thoughts than to stop and take time to bow the knee.

If Jesus is a victor over death, what can He not be victorious over? We must embrace the Holy Spirit within us, the same Spirit that Christ's death provided to all believers, and stop living as if He is powerless to help in all circumstances.

Each time we fail to believe in the total cleansing power of a risen Savior, it's like we are placing Jesus back in the tomb, like we are saying He is not an acceptable enough sacrifice for our sin. Not a victor over the power of present sin. Not a victor over the power of death.

Our Savior is enough. And He is alive.

(Posting from the archives today. My daughter has been sick since Friday with high fever. Please pray with us for her healing.)

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Why Hoarding Never Works

To a certain degree, I understand the people who appear on TV shows like A&E's Hoarders. While I crave organization with boxes and labels, I also feel a conflicting urge to save everything.

Toilet paper rolls? Cotton from the tops of vitamin bottles? Creamer containers? They're all great for preschool crafts.

The kitty litter container? Empty peanut butter jars? International Coffee tins? They're so useful containers for sunflower seeds, pasta, and ten penny nails (in that order).

Thriftiness and being a wise steward of what God has given us are both good qualities. But what about those things I really should get rid of, but can't, like those clothes that went out of style in the 80s or that stack of rusted old tin behind the barn.

If I allow myself to dwell on the state of the world, that knot of fear overtakes more than just my gut to the point where I want to hoard large stockpiles "just in case" the world as I know it disappears and is replaced by one where I can't find (or afford) clothes and food.

I get scared. After living through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with weeks of no electricity, no milk or bread, when shopping meant walking through a roped-off section of Wal-mart in small, escorted groups and waiting in long lines at the pump or passing stations with no fuel for days...

I don't want to just trust God. I want to do something, to trust in me and in what I can save up for the rainy day that just might come close to flooding my whole world again in chaos, deep depression, and famine.

This closet desire to hoard is nothing new. The Israelites experienced it when they wandered the wilderness for forty years, fed daily quail and manna by God's daily benevolence, by Jehovah-jireh, our God who provides.

Yet, there were rules to be followed when gathering and consuming God's provision.

First was that the Israelites had to walk outside their tents and actually work to gather the manna from the ground. God provided the sustenance, but the people still had to do their part and gather what God provided. It wouldn't just appear in their pots, ready to eat: "This is what the LORD has commanded, ‘Gather of it every man as much as he should eat" (Ex. 16:16).

Secondly, the Israelites couldn't gather the manna on their own timeline. Scripture records, "They gathered it morning by morning... but when the sun grew hot, it would melt " (v. 21). If someone decided past the cool of morning, she would go hungry.

Finally, the Israelites could not hoard the manna. God had warned through Moses, "Let no man leave any of it until morning” (v.19). But of course, somebody didn't listen. Somebody wanted to hold back a little extra, hoard it just in case God forgot to lay out tomorrow's main course.

The next morning revealed that God would not allow such disobedient hoarding. The first light of morning shone on leftovers "foul" and covered in "worms" (v. 20). God was making a point--He required, not requested His people to trust daily in Him.

In Deuteronomy, God explained why the daily-ness of manna was so important: "He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD" (Deut. 8:3).

God was trying to teach the Israelites what He desires to teach us--humility, our inability to be self-sufficient. But when He provides, we can't just sit back and expect God to spoon-feed the manna in our mouths. We must labor to gather what He provides. That means daily prayer and Bible study, daily labor in the spiritual disciplines.

Also, we don't get to pick and choose how and when God provides. That means we must be in daily relationship with Him so that when He does provide, our hearts are ready to receive it.

In this the week before Easter, such a message may not be quite what you would expect, but Easter Sunday finds people making sure to be in church even though they haven't been regular. These are often hoarders, those who try to fill their tanks with "just enough" God to get by. But hoarders also come in the in-the-pew-every-Sunday variety.

When anyone goes for more than a day, a week, a month without an intimate relationship with God, s/he is attempting to hoard that warm soul feeling he gets in worship, hoard that message God spoke to her.

Living on yesterday's manna will be as healthy as eating worm-laden bread.

And what's more, if we do not have a daily relationship with God, then we will hoard the Word He gives us. We won't be able to share it with others because who knows when we'll step outside our tents, our comfort zones, to go gather another.

It's a serious question to ask ourselves this season of sacrifice: are we hoarding God or are we willingly sharing Him with those around us?