Monday, June 25, 2012

The Lawnmower Approach to Sin

Yesterday afternoon found me hobbling around the house, my big toe red, and throbbing.  By evening, I could barely walk without yelling at the children to watch out for mommy's foot!  On a whim, I brought the foot up to eye level.  Only then did I realize my symptoms weren't caused by an ingrown toenail but from a rose's thorn buried deep under flesh.

Digging it out would be painful.  But there wasn't another choice.  I couldn't treat the symptoms without treating the cause.  

Twenty minutes later, I unearthed a quarter-inch long sliver and began a day-long road to recovery.

Such an injury likely wouldn't have stayed in my mind had I not been recently working on my hopeless flower bed, trying to keep the hay field from reclaiming its property.  The bed's problem is similar to mine--what lies beneath the surface.

Try as I may, I've been failing to destroy the Alicia Bermuda runners that sprout up here and there among the pink roses and white verbena.  No matter how many times I mow them down or spray them with Round Up, they always come back. Husband tells me that if a single joint of a runner is left in the soil, it will take root and grow again.

The only remedy?   Dig it out.

Such is the advice Jesus gave in The Sermon on the Mount. When speaking of lusting after a woman in one's heart as being adultery,  He said, "If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell" (Matt. 5:29-30).

Dig it out.  Cut it off. 

Even an eye-less man can lust after a woman in his heart, so surely Jesus was not advocating maiming one's body.  Yet, He used such extreme language to demonstrate the seriousness of sin in our lives.

Even a nearly-invisible, quarter-inch long piece of sin is so destructive that if it were possible to chop off an arm or dig out an eye and remove sin in that manner, we would be better off doing so. 

Mutilation of the body, though, is not the way to dig out sin.

The only way is to take our sins before the Father, confess them, turn from them, and seek in the Holy Spirit's power to commit them no more. God alone has the power to help us dig out the roots of sin in our lives.

The problem is, especially with sins we deem "small" or insignificant, we want to take the lawnmower approach to them.  We want to mow over the top, eliminating any visible evidence of sin in our lives so that we look holy, righteous, blameless in the eyes of our fellow man. 

But the problem is we never take the sin seriously enough to dig out the roots.  As a result, one week, one month, one year later, that root breaks through the surface again.

Paul admonishes Christians to "Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.  Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.  You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived.  But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips" (Col. 3:5-8).

Put it to death.

Dig it out.

Putting aside sin isn't easy.  It's painful to dig out something so deeply embedded in the flesh.  But as Christ sought to show us, the eternal consequences are much more severe should we choose to let it remain in our lives.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

My Father's Hands

My Father's hands are brushed milk chocolate by the sun, their tops stippled with a darker hue of brown. With each passing year, the skin thins to paper-weight, making large tendons jut up higher like earthquake-created mountain ridges, each crisscrossed by pulsing blue rivers that sustain life.

The roughness of working the land has started to give way to the softness of age, but the strength is still there because of constant labor. Still, these are the same hands that have provided for me, protected me, and led me to the path I now walk.

On Father's Day, I joined with a nation that gives thanks to earthly fathers.  It's important that we honor these great men.  What's more important, though, is to emphasize their continued importance in a nation where 19.7 million children are growing up in single-mother homes.

Men are importantFathers are important.

And yet, what is a father to be? How can men seek to become stronger, better fathers who leave a positive, Christ-filled legacy for their children? Or is it just too late?

Author Douglas Wilson says, "We learn what tangible fathers are supposed to be like by looking to the intangible Father. And we look to Him by looking at Jesus, the One who brings us to the Father" (p. 192).

The very essence of Christ was knit with the Father.  The logical outgrowth of such an intimate relationship is that the Father's nature was daily demonstrated through His Son.

Thus, to be a good earthly father is to mirror the eternal Father.  To mirror the eternal Father is to mirror Christ in one's heart, mind, speech, and actions.

Wilson concludes that one unifying characteristic both Christ and the eternal Father share is that of generosity.  He summarizes: God the Father is "generous with His glory (1:14), with His tasks (5:18), with His protection (10:28-32), with His home (14:1-2), and with His joy (16:23-24).  The Father gives (3:34-36).  The Father gives His Son (3:16; 18:11); the Father gives His Spirit (14:16-17); the Father gives Himself (14:22-24)....Christ images the Father, and we are to image Christ.  The way to do that is clearly to be open-handed" (p. 196-197).

This call to open-handed generosity does not mean that fathers are to give their children everything those little hearts desire.  Even so, this generosity does involve a giving of the tangible sort--a giving of financial support, of physical protection, of a roof overhead.  But it is more than that.  It is more a generosity of self.

A father is generous with his full attention.  "Full attention" does not mean having a conversation with a child when one eye is on the TV,  one finger on the computer keyboard, or one ear to the cell phone.  The eternal Father listened--really listened--to Jesus.  The Son never questioned whether His Father was truly listening or just nodding His holy head even though His ears were really closed.

Before raising Lazarus from the dead, Christ said aloud, "'Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me'" (Jn. 11:41).   This kind of listening lets children know their ideas are important, they are important.

A father is generous with his example.  Like it or not, a father must be ever-conscious that every word and deed is an example for his child.  Christ said, "the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner" (Jn. 10:19).  To expect a child to do what the father does not is like expecting a child to fluently speak a language not spoken daily in the household.  Whatever daily "language" a parent's actions speak, that is the language he is teaching that child.  It may be a language of impatience, of greed, of apathy, of anger, of irreverence, of selfishness.  Or it may be a language of love, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self control, respect, peace.  

A father is generous with his teaching.  Most importantly, a father is generous with his teaching about God.  Many in my generation know of God. They were raised in church.  A good many even claim to be Christians, themselves.  Yet, too many fathers (and mothers) in this same generation are choosing to not raise their children in church.  Christ said, "It is written in the prophets, ‘ And they shall all be taught of God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me" (Jn. 6:45).  

But how can a child come to Christ is he has not learned from the Father?  Jesus said of the eternal Father, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day" (Jn. 6:44).  If God the Father is the type that earthly fathers should imitate, then such would imply earthly fathers should also seek to draw their children to Jesus' feet.  A Godly father will draw his children to Christ not with his words alone but in deed as well.  As Jesus said "I showed you many good works from the Father" (Jn. 10:32).

This is the intimacy of fatherhood, something that gets lost in the idea that men are mere monetary providers, teachers of all things sports, tool, math, or science related.

Such spiritual intimacy with one's children is not something a man can drum up within himself.   It starts with a right relationship with the heavenly Father.

If a man's soul is not in a right relationship with God the Father, then he is limited to merely the generic generosity that is common to mortal man.  That's a recipe for failure. 

What a man is in his soul is all he can give to his child.

Pause and think on that.  

What a man is in his soul is all he can give to his child.

Ultimately, to learn how to be a good Father is to give one's heart to Christ, to seek first to become like Christ.  

Image: My daddy making a batch of homemade ice cream for his daughter and grandchildren.  Such love.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

When You Feel Like You're Spinning Your Wheels

It's one of those evenings when I take stock of life and envision my feet stuck fast in rubber cement. Dust bunnies outnumber humans inside our home.  Husband's magnificent pipe-laying project takes my beginning-to-look-nice-yard back to square one again, only this time, it looks like an overzealous, mean-spirited gopher took the concept of revenge to a whole new level.

Then there are the children.  My oldest still can't stop talking back even after we've focused on this issue for two solid weeks.  My youngest is starting week four of throwing half hour screaming tantrums when he gets sent to the naughty bench.  And all three have suddenly forgotten how to pick up their toys, put shoes in their cubbies, and stack up books on the shelves when they're finished.

Add to that a month where I have spent more time laboring for the kingdom in the back of the church with preschoolers who may or may not remember my name than I have spent at the feet of my pastor or lifting my voice in praise with other Christians in a corporate worship service...

 The result is a feeling that I've just been spinning my wheels without moving forward an inch--both in my personal and spiritual life.

In the midst of my pity party, I open my Bible study, just flipping through pages I've already studied, and lo and behold, God directs me to a Scripture that makes me slack jawed.

 The second time Moses climbed down from a forty-day stay on Mount Sinai, the Israelites weren't dancing around a calf.  This time, they were waiting: "When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord.  When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him" (Ex. 34:29-30).

Moses had spent forty days in God's presence, and he was physically changed by it.  His face glowed with the reflected glory of God the Father.  But he didn't know it!

Not until the Israelites kept their distance from him out of fear, not until someone (Aaron, maybe?) had the courage to stop the whispers and speak up about his holy glow did Moses realize the impact being in God's presence had on his physical body. Had Moses known the magnitude of the change that had been wrought on him, he could have become prideful.  Yet, his ignorance was God's way of protecting him against being prideful in his new-found closeness with God.

Consider how this may apply to us Christians today.  As we continue to study God's Word, let it take root in our hearts, apply His Word to our lives, actively serve him (yes, even if it's in a nearly invisible role like teaching preschoolers a Bible verse)--I believe our faces become radiant just as Moses' did.    

Yet, God may not show us the full extent of our progress.  Indeed, He may intentionally hide our progress from us, keep us in ignorance so we will not become prideful in our relationship with Him, in our becoming more like Christ.

Paul said, "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Gal. 6:14).

May we repeat Paul's words and say, yes, Father.  May the same be said of us.  Even if it means difficult days when we can't see how far we have come and how far we have to go--keep us humble so we may never boast in ourselves and our progress in being sanctified in the righteousness of Christ.

May we boast alone in Christ Jesus and in Him crucified.  

'Let not the wise boast of their wisdom
    or the strong boast of their strength
    or the rich boast of their riches,

     but let the one who boasts boast about this:
    that they have the understanding to know me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
    justice and righteousness on earth,
    for in these I delight,'
declares the Lord" (Jer. 9:23-24).

Image: Optical Illusion--"Spinning Wheels" from CultivatorX on Flickr.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

How to Love Someone Who Complains

Have you ever had a friend or relative who complained about everything big and small from the weather to the price of pasta to the depth of potholes in the highway?  Every time you get together, you know the conversation will be one-sided as you listen to her grumbling.

Chronic complaining probably put a strain on your relationship to the point where you began screening her phone calls, avoiding places you knew she frequented regularly.  Or maybe you even went so far as to duck in a store when you caught a glimpse of her face, pretending you didn't see her.

If there were no blood tie holding you two together, you probably parted ways.  And yet, such a one-sided relationship is what I see between Moses and God's chosen people.

Moses must have loved the Israelites. 

The Israelites, though, didn't deserve Moses' love.  Almost every conversation recorded in Scripture between Moses and the people involves them grumbling at him and about him.  Sometimes, they blamed God for their trials, but more often, they directed their anger and blame at Moses' feet, demanding he fix the problem he had created.

This angry grumbling began as soon as they reached the Red Sea, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?" (Ex. 14:11, my italics).

Moses did not flinch at this grumbling born out of fear.  Instead, he encouraged the people to watch God work.  Then, although Scripture doesn't record such a prayer, Moses must have prayed because the next verse reads, "Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on" (Ex. 14:15).  

Evidently, Moses prayed to the Lord on the Israelites' behalf, an action that began a pattern of the people grumbling and Moses praying, going to the Lord on their behalf.

Later, when there was no water, the Israelites again "grumbled against Moses" (Ex. 15:24).  And again, "Moses cried out to the Lord" on their behalf (v. 25).

When the people tired of walking in the wilderness as well as tired of eating quail and manna, "they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, 'Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!'" (Num 21:5).

In response, God sent poisonous snakes in their midst until the people repented.  And again, "Moses prayed for the people" (Num. 21:7).

Yes, there was that time when Moses lost his temper with the whole lot of them, an outburst that cost him the privilege of his feet touching the land of milk and honey.  There was the time when he chunked two God-engraved tablets at the foot of the mountain as his "anger burned" at their inconstancy (Ex. 32:19).  There were plenty of times when speaking to the Lord that he referred to the Israelites as "your people."  

And yet, Moses constantly interceded for them.

Perhaps the greatest tests of Moses' love for this people came as they danced 'round a golden calf and as they refused to enter Canaan.  With the former, God said, "Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation” (Ex. 32:10).

And when they feared Canaan's inhabitants more than Him, God said, " I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they" (Num. 14:12).

In both these instances, God expressed a desire to wipe out all His people and start over again with Moses.  Imagine!  One word and he could be free from these grumblers as well as have an eternal nation that would trace its roots all back to him!  What honor!

And yet, in both cases, Moses said no, begged God to guard His glory among the nations, to be true to His promises to Abraham, to be true to His character.  He asked, "'In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now.' The Lord replied, “I have forgiven them, as you asked." (Num. 14:19-20).

At the very end of his life, his prayer to the Lord was still for God's people: "May the Lord, the God who gives breath to all living things, appoint someone over this community  to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd." (Num. 27:16-17).

How could Moses love these ungrateful people so very much such that they were the last thing on his mind as he prepared to die?  I believe the answer lies in Moses' prayer life.

He prayed for these people.  He interceded for them constantly, meeting with the Lord on their behalf, petitioning for their very lives at times. 

As far as I can tell, Moses' praying for this people didn't change them, didn't stop them from grumbling against him. Yet, I strongly believe his constant intercessory prayer life, face to face with God almighty, changed Moses' heart for this people.

Matthew 5:44 states, "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven."

Consider this verse in light of Moses' prayer life: when we pray for an enemy, a grumbler, a complainer--it may not change that person in the slightest.  And yet, praying for that person will change us, making us more merciful, more compassionate...more like the God we serve.