Sunday, May 27, 2012

One Tile in History's Mosaic

Like many other Americans, my family has a rich military heritage full of real-life war stories.  My two grandfathers fought in WWII. My father served in Vietnam. Most recently, my brother served a tour in Iraq.  It is these stories that are precious to me, the ones not found in history books, those stories of comrades who were severely wounded or who died in battle, yet whose names hold no significance to most Americans.

And still, even with headliner names and places attached to them, all stories hold importance.  

By its very nature, a study of history is like a mosaic composed of smaller photographs.  History generally glosses over the smaller stories, gives a generic, almost sterile overview with dates and statistics.  In return, most people remember this larger design shown from a distance.  Yet, only when an individual steps closer does she see the small parts that form the whole.

In learning history as a bulleted list of events on a timeline, we don't feel it, make an emotional connection to it that is needed to really understand the impact war has on a nation of individuals.

For example, consider the statement "On July 9, 1755, the French and Indian War was raging in a fight over American soil."  A date + a fact + main characters = emotionless history, devoid of application.  Yet, when we look closer at a factual, yet individual, photograph of one of a young British officer and a band of Indian sharpshooters, history becomes personal and speaks a lesson in God's sovereignty.

In a fascinating collection entitled Under God, the authors speak of the French and Indian War.  As the battle progressed, the American Indians picked off one red-coated British officer after another until only one lieutenant colonel remained mounted high on horseback. Although Indian sharpshooters fired thirteen rounds of ammunition at him and shot two horses out from beneath him, this officer remained uninjured. That evening, he found four holes where bullets had pierced his coat yet had miraculously disappeared before piercing his body.

Several days after the battle in a letter to his brother, the officer wrote, “But by the all-powerful dispensations of Providence I have been protected beyond all human probability or expectation; for I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me yet escaped unhurt, although death was leveling my companions on every side of me!” This officer went on to become our first president, George Washington (Mac and Tait, 2004).

Seeing this snapshot of a larger historical event speaks of God's sovereignty over life and death.

Even though war, danger, and death are synonymous in many minds, no one is promised another moment beyond this one. Life and death are ordained by God. Our days are already numbered before we were born, and no man, no bullet, no bomb, no “accident” can shorten the days God has allotted each of us.

The psalmist David penned, “For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother's womb….Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Your book were all written The days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was not one of them” (Psalm 139:13,16). In other words, each individual's story is of equal importance to God.  He assembles us all to fulfill our role in history.

The Scripture also shows that, as the poet W.S. Merwin once said, every year, we pass the "anniversary of our death."

God intends to comfort us with the knowledge that a person’s life and a person's death are not random accidents but that He carefully orchestrates them both. We may not know the day or hour of an individual's birth and death, but God already does.

Each conception, each birth, each death were and are all on God’s calendar.

So many people are precious to us—parents, spouses, children, extended family, friends—all of whom we would probably choose to keep close by our side until we crossed over into eternity ourselves. Because we love them so much, each one of us could choose daily to live in fear of their death.

Three years ago, a woman recounted to my mother that her son was finally back from his one-year tour in Iraq, calling it the “worst year of her life.” My mom said she couldn’t relate. While she was concerned about and prayed for my brother’s safety in Iraq, she lived life without the daily, incapacitating worry. She trusted in Jesus’ words: “And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6:27).

Many of us still have family and friends who are serving overseas in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries around the globe. As we remember those who have served our country, I ask you to continue to pray for those who are still serving America.

Write to tell them of your love and support. Send a care package. But leave the worrying to God.

As Christians, we must rest in God’s sovereignty, in his ultimate control over everything, including life and death. The safest place for us to be is not in an underground bunker or in our own backyard.

No, the safest place for us to be is in the center of God’s will…even if that means being, like George Washington, in the center of a battlefield.

**For a special treat, click through the image from the Canadian Military Museums in Calgary, AB to see closeups of each tile.  The mural measures 12' x 20'.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Lessons from The Greatest Campout Ever

I have never camped out.  Not in a tent. Not in an RV.  Maybe a sleeper train would count? (or not)

Although I spend more daytime hours outdoors than the average person, the closest I've ever come to sleeping outside is a bedroom's open window on a cool evening.

I know how many nocturnal creepy crawlies are living la vida loca out there while I slumber.  The children and I see their paw prints in the muddy shore of our swamp, their brothel-like flashing lights at dusk, and their evening's leftovers on my porches.

The safest camp out may be the one we've gone on here in cyberspace, where we've spent the last two weeks camping out in the barren wilderness with the newly-freed Israelites.  Through their story, we have explored how God's presence is just as real and abiding with His children today as it was when He led the Israelites in a visible pillar of cloud.

Last week, the cloudy pillar led us deeper into the wilderness to the bitter waters of Marah where God showed the Israelites a picture of sin's bitterness and the healing power of the coming Messiah who would give His body to be cut down just like the tree that splashed in Marah's waters so that He could soak up all the bitterness and judgment of sin's curse and heal our immortal souls.

But God's teaching moment didn't end there.  

Once the curse, the illness of sin was removed from their lives, the lesson wasn't over.  Then and only then could God's children experience true fellowship in His blessings.

Metaphorically, that's just what happens one verse after the Israelites taste Marah's bitterness sweetened and hear Moses' message from the Lord: "Then they came to Elim where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date palms, and they camped there beside the waters" (Ex. 15:27).

The name Elim says it all, a "place-name meaning 'trees'"* Here in this vast desert where a lost person could wander for days without finding drinkable water--here (no coincidence) was a bountiful oasis marked by flourishing trees.

God could have brought the Israelites to this bounty first, just skip that frustrating test and lesson with the bitter water.  Yet, this was part of God's plan to show the people not only that He would provide for all their needs if they would only trust Him and that the curse of sin needed a Savior's healing touch, but that there was bounty and blessing waiting for them if they only had faith.

Through Elim, God wanted to go further and show His children that if they obeyed with faithful hearts, not only would He heal them body and soul so they could enter into a right relationship with Him, but that a life with God's healing would be one filled with eternal blessings.

Jesus told His disciples the same: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (Jn. 10:10). 

Yet, such a promise does not mean that all trials, testing, and hardship will go away.  This is no prosperity gospel with all good all the time if a person will only obey and have faith.  God confirmed as much when His pillar of cloud brought the Israelites to this place of physical abundance and then just as quickly brought them away from it to hardship once again: "Then they set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the sons of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin" (Ex. 16:1).

Yet, such a promise also does not mean that abundant life in Christ is only to be had on the other side of eternity.  For those who allow Christ to heal the bitterness of sin in their lives, there is abundance here on earth.  There are places of bountiful blessing here.  

And yet, these blessings are only to be had on the other side of the healing.  Were a person to not experience the hardship and bitterness first, she could not appreciate the abundance and blessings to such a great degree.  The former hardships bring more gratitude to the heart because the heart remembers what has gone before on the journey to the blessing.

I never appreciate the blessing of good health as much as after a good round of illness has gone through my entire family.  I never appreciate the blessing of family unity as much as after I have allowed Christ to heal the bitter discord that sometimes springs up in marriage.

God didn't just stop the lesson with Marah because He wanted to show that He is not all about doom and gloom, a "do this or else" mentality.  God truly loves His children both then and now.  And He wants to give them all abundant life.

First, finding abundance means allowing Christ to heal us unto salvation.  And then, finding abundance means continually giving over any bitterness that can creep into every Christian's heart.

*Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, p. 480 .

Monday, May 14, 2012

When God Leads You to a Bitter Place

The concept that for God's child, there is no aimless wandering even when she can't see the path is both comforting and disconcerting at the same time.  It's comforting in the sense that even if I feel lost, am blinded by the storm, and have no sense of my bearings, I can feel at peace knowing God knows exactly where I am and where He is guiding me towards.

Yet, this theology is also disconcerting in those moments when I am not leading myself astray through sin but when I am wholeheartedly seeking to walk the straight and narrow only to see everything fall apart.  It is then that I stop and lift my head in confusion.  

"God, did you lead me hereReally!?  Here!?"

Last week in this space, we contemplated how God led the Israelites in a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night in order to show that His presence, always leading, guiding and protecting His children.  Such Scriptures serve as a reminder to us modern-day Christians that even when we feel as if we're wandering with no clear direction, God is leading us with His presence.

And yet, that path, though clear, may be anything but smooth.

Such was the case with the Israelites, fresh on the road to freedom away from Egypt and long before they incited God to slap a forty-year-curse on the whole lot of them.

In the beginning, it was obvious they were on a God-ordained path.  If any doubted, all he had to do was look back three days in the rear-view mirror to see a picture of the Red Sea miraculously sweeping to the left and right so the whole lot of them could cross over on the dry riverbed before God slammed that corridor shut, drowning Pharaoh and his army.  

If that memory wasn't enough to convince their steps were Holy-led, day or night, all they had to do was look up and see Him in cloud or fire.

And yet, that God-paved path was anything but smooth.

Three days into their exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were without water, which in a dry and barren wilderness was a sure recipe for death.  And so, God rolled out the red carpet directly to a place called Marah where there was water, but "When they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore it was named Marah" (Ex. 15:23).

I can imagine them dreaming of water at night.  Maybe in the haze of heat shimmering on sand, someone had imagined he saw the shimmer of water ahead and cried wolf several times before so that everyone no longer trusted his eyes.  Then, that mirage kept growing larger and larger until someone realized this time, it really was water.

In that instant of God's promised protection turned reality, I imagine he praised the I AM aloud as he took off running right into the flood, almost giddy as the liquid splashed his feet and thighs, covering him with cool relief as he threw handfulls of water heavenward.

And then in the midst of that relief and joy, he actually tasted that water. It was undrinkable.  Was this some kind of cruel joke!?  What kind of God would lead His people to water they couldn't drink?

If they were wandering aimlessly, this would seem like pretty bad luck.  But this was God-directed.  God intentionally led the group to a place where the water was too bitter to drink. 

I am 100% certain this is not how the Israelites expected God to meet their need.  And yet, I'm equally certain this is exactly how God intended to meet their need.

There, at Marah, God instructed Moses: "the Lord showed him a tree; and he threw it into the waters, and the waters became sweet" (Ex. 15:25).  Moses cut down the tree and threw it into the water--instant healing.  In the next verse, God continues this healing theme, instructing the people that they are being tested to follow His commands so that "I will put none of the diseases on you which I have put on the Egyptians; for I, the Lord, am your healer" (v. 26).

God had healed the waters' bitterness.  But this people were already deathly ill with a bitter malady only "the Lord...your healer" could cure--that deadly cancer of sin. 

God had listened to three days worth of the people's sinful hearts in their constant bitter grumbling, as bitter as the waters they spat from their mouths in complaint.  

They needed a healer, one who would offer Himself to be "cut off out of the land of the living For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due" (Is. 53:8).

Yes, they needed a Savior, a Messiah who would give His body to be cut down just like this tree so that He could soak up all the bitterness and judgment of sin's curse in their lives and heal their immortal souls.

When we are in the center of His will and find ourselves in a bitter place like Marah where we sink to our knees and wonder why God has led us here, the answer could be that He is refining us as silver or testing us.  It could also be that He is showing us once again our complete need for a Savior.

Either way, God's pot-hole-filled path has a purpose.  And in the midst of it all, He is right there with us, working it all together for our good.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Even If There's No Pillar of Cloud to Guide You

If you have been having Monday Morning Manna here with us for any length of time, you've read about how God created me totally lacking in some areas in order to keep me humble.  It's hard to feel too much pride with your face burning hot in embarrassment.

One of the largest blank portions of my brain is the part that provides others with a sense of direction.  As you can imagine, being lost is a great fear of mine.  To leave my house and drive to a never-before-visited destination or even via a road I've only traveled a dozen times or so, I literally have to force down an almost tangible knot of fear, tell myself I'm a big girl with a fully charged cell phone, and slip the van into reverse.

Probably because I fear getting lost, I've always had this image in my head of the Israelites just meandering aimlessly around the wilderness.  Sand storms, a lack of direction, or some other divine stellar re-mix in the cosmos--I've always imagined this million man, woman, and child march continually getting lost in the Sinai peninsula, especially after they failed the test of faith when it came time to cross the Jordan River and possess the land.  In my mind, they lived out the forty year curse struggling to find their way back to Canaan after God allowed the land's native inhabitants to send them running. 

Yet, my childhood image is wrong. God never allowed this group straight off the bus from Egypt to just wander around aimlessly. 

Wander?  Yes and no.  God always had a definite goal in mind even if the Israelites couldn't see it and felt like they were meandering at an irregular pace.

Aimlessly?  Definitely  not..

God led them--visibly--all the way: " The Lord was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people" (Ex. 13:21-22).  

With these visible signs of His presence always with their camp, God's people had a sign they could always look to for confirmation that He was leading them. 

After God instructed them to build the Tabernacle and saw its construction complete, the cloud's presence over the tent of meeting determined when the Israelites would make and break camp: "Whenever the cloud was lifted from over the tent, afterward the sons of Israel would then set out; and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the sons of Israel would camp... Whether it was two days or a month or a year that the cloud lingered over the tabernacle, staying above it, the sons of Israel remained camped and did not set out; but when it was lifted, they did set out" (Num. 9:17, 22).

I remember this part.  But what I don't think I ever understood was that even after they disobeyed, God didn't just shake His holy head and turn His back on the whole lot of them, then pick them back up forty years later.

Right before Joshua entered the land of Canaan after the forty years, when Moses spoke his last words to the Israelites, "The Lord appeared in the tent in a pillar of cloud, and the pillar of cloud stood at the doorway of the tent" (Deut. 31:15).

The prophet Nehemiah later confirms this history of God's continued presence during the forty year wandering: "You, in Your great compassion, Did not forsake them in the wilderness; The pillar of cloud did not leave them by day, To guide them on their way, Nor the pillar of fire by night, to light for them the way in which they were to go. You gave Your good Spirit to instruct them, Your manna You did not withhold from their mouth, And You gave them water for their thirst. Indeed, forty years You provided for them in the wilderness and they were not in want;Their clothes did not wear out, nor did their feet swell" (Ne. 9:19-21).

God's Presence had been with His people the whole time, leading them with this cloud over the Tabernacle.  His Presence had caused them to wander on a God-approved path, one with His continued presence.

Next week, we will look at where God led the Israelites.  But for now, I can only stop here and sit in wonder at our God and what this means for us who are called the children of God.

Even when we feel as if we're wandering with no clear direction, even when our sin leads us on a path of consequences and God's judgment in the wilderness--EVEN THEN, God's presence is still with us.

We may not have a literal pillar of cloud to serve as a guide, but for those of us who are called by His name, who are His children, He will never leave us or forsake us.  He is always present, leading, guiding and protecting.

"Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the LORD your God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you" (Deut. 31:6).