Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Ties that Bind: A Heritage of Fire

My father has always been the one interested in our family's heritage.  More than once in my childhood, I would walk past the dining room to find half the table littered with multi-branched charts taped together, tea-stained pictures of some distant stoic-faced relative, and stacks of photocopies.  Some were of pages in library books, detailed letters from one relative to another, or accounting ledgers.

Most all the interesting pieces were filled with cramped, painfully-consistent cursive handwriting, almost illegible and just like my Great Grandma Maggie's

All of it was my heritage.

Biologically, I can trace my lineage across the oceans to a time before America's formation as a country.

But what about my lineage as a Christian?  That's much harder.

Granted, my own salvation is a direct result of my parent's training me up in the Lord as is their salvation.  From there, though, moving backwards is a bit more difficult, especially since faith isn't always passed down biologically.  Often, one's faith is a direct result of someone of a different bloodline sharing the gospel.

While I can't fill in the gaps in-between, I do believe Scripture provides Gentile Christians like myself with the starting point, the "Adam and Eve," if you will, of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the consuming fire that burns within each Christian.

Consider both the tabernacle and temple in the Old Testament.

When God first deigned to dwell below with His people in the desert, He gave Moses plans to build the tabernacle.  Then, when this temporary dwelling place was completed, He filled the tabernacle with His presence in two ways: by cloud and fire: "Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle...the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and there was fire in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel" (Ex. 40:34, 38).

The fire from heaven was not merely a symbol.  It was the only fire permitted to light the lamp stand of God's presence within the Holy place as well as to light the altars of sacrifice wherein people could gain atonement for their sin.  Any other fire on the altars would be considered "strange fire" presented to the Lord, an act punishable by death (Lev. 10:1-2).  

When the priesthood of Aaron first offered burnt offerings to the Lord at the newly completed tabernacle, God sent the needed fire from heaven: "Then fire came out from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the portions of fat on the altar; and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces" (Lev. 9:24).  Once God lit the fire, making a way for man to find atonement, it was supposed to be permanent: "Fire shall be kept burning continually on the altar; it is not to go out"(Lev. 6:13).

Later, when King Solomon built a permanent dwelling for God, His presence came down in the same manner: "Now when Solomon had finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the house.  The priests could not enter into the house of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled the Lord’s house" (2 Chron. 7:1-2).

But then, Israel fell into sin.  The fire on the altar was allowed to go out, the temple was ransacked, and God's people were carted away in the chains of slavery.  When the lamp of God's presence flickered its last, there was no longer any potential for atonement for one's sin.

That's when the Father sent His only Son, Jesus, to be God with Us, the ultimate sacrifice, once and for all.

When Christ left, He left His followers with God's comforting presence in the form of the Holy Spirit to light the temple lamp of as many who would come to Him.  This is why Jesus told His followers: "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house" (Matt. 5:14-15).  This is why Paul told Christians, "Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?" (1 Cor. 6:19).  

When God's Presence came down to fill His earthly temples one last time with the Holy Spirit, it was, again, with fire: "And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:3-4).

Fire filled the temple of God for the third time in recorded Scripture, only this time, the temple was made of flesh and blood.  This time, the lamp lighted with God's presence was you and me.

Just imagine--when the Holy Spirit fell in tongues of fire on those first Christians, he was lighting the first lamps that would stay lit until today.

If you are a Christian, your heritage goes all the way back to that upper room when the Holy Spirit fell on the very first believers in Christ, lighting the lampstand of the new temples of flesh. 

It is an awesome thought.

It's also an awesome responsibility.

Just as the priesthood of Aaron wasn't supposed to let God's fire go out, we Christians today are also charged with keeping our lamps trimmed and mounted high on a stand for all the world to see God's Presence within our temple.

To God be the glory!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

God Doesn't Wear Camouflage

Many of us remember spending the six years of junior high and high school just trying to blend in, to be invisible.  More than anything, young people want to be like everyone else.  They want to be liked, accepted, to simply not feel so socially awkward in an environment where standing out for the wrong reasons is the equivalent of painting Target's bright red logo on your back.

Yet, for me, even in a small school, or maybe especially in a small school, invisibility was an impossible goal.

No matter how I tried to camouflage myself, I was always easily identifiable as the smart one--not pretty or popular or athletic.  Just smart.

One day, I learned I was also easily identifiable as something else--a follower of Christ.  Although my teenager self was never bold enough to openly proclaim my faith, it wasn't something I intentionally hid either.  It simply was.

Still, my mouth gaped and my tongue grew thick when one day standing outside in the lunch line, a tall, popular girl turned around and snarled, "You're one of those Jesus freaks, aren't you?"

Her bluntness made me fumble, quite uneloquently, for a proper response. This was my chance to take a stand.  What should I say? What reply would keep me under the radar of persecution yet not be like Peter at the cock's crowing?

"I believe in Jesus if that's what you mean, so, yeah, I guess I am."  

I paused, my face engulfed in flames. She didn't respond, just looked down at me, coolly and without interest, then turned back around to her circle, which promptly began to snicker and giggle at my awkwardness.

It's been almost twenty years since those awkward days, but the pressure to fit in never gets any easier.  With Christianity constantly being labelled as a judgmental, homophobic, bigoted religion, the political correctness police only intensifies this pressure to hide one's faith.

But our God doesn't wear camouflage.

Our God is one who intentionally chooses to not blend in.  Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, He stands out from the crowd.

Our God is one who appeared unmistakable on the monochrome rocky hillside of Mount Horeb as "flames of fire from within a bush" (Ex. 3:2).  He led the Israelites across the brown, barren desert in the most obvious way possible: "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" (Ex. 12:21).  

Our God is one who sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to stand out like a sore thumb among us: "Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom...The news about Him spread throughout all Syria...Large crowds followed Him from Gaililee and the Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan" (Matt. 4:23-25). 

Our God is also one who sent His Spirit to dwell within believers in a very spectacular way: at Pentecost, "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance...the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language" (Acts 2:4-6).
God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit--all parts of the trinity make their presence obvious, easy to see in a lost and dying world.

Likewise, Scripture cautions us believers to not blend in, to follow the example of the Godhead.

Jesus told His disciples, "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 'Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven'" (Matt. 5:14-16).

We are to let the Spirit shine forth from within us so everyone can see God's light even if they're across the room.

Wearing the safe cloak of camouflage may save us from persecution and from losing our jobs.

But sporting politically correct purples and all-is-acceptable aquas won't save the souls around us, those that are looking for the light whether they realize it or not.

Wear burning bush orange and blood-stained crimson instead.

Images: Euonymus, Burning Bush shrub.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Are You Content to Be "Just" a Laborer?

"So, when are you going to write a book?  You should, you know. You have a gift..."

Such compliments once would make my posture straighten slightly, swell my head with pride. Imagine--little me, a book author.  But after several years of writing in the public forum, those compliments are no longer as flattering, even though most intend them to be.

Instead, the words speak criticism. It's like they are saying, "Why are you wasting your time writing on the Internet when you could write something worthwhile? And 'worthwhile' means you get paid, that your words are bound between two hard covers, stitched and held together with glue."

Even one of my college students' parents criticized me for using my blog as an example to freshmen of writing as practice.  As she complained to my employer, "blogs are so immature."

Isn't being published what writers are supposed to do? What writers are supposed to aim for?  Maybe...four bloggers I've followed for several years are now successfully published; a fifth has a book contract and is striving toward that goal. I'm thrilled for each of them.  Their impact on my life has been tremendous, and I see God's fingerprints on their journeys.

Here I am, still virtually unknown, still writing articles for free each week.  Want to know a secret? Honestly? I don't feel called to write a book. This--blogging.....this is enough. It is the service God has asked of me, and I continue to give it willingly and with an open heart.  It is enough.

This "make it big" mentality is consuming, though, and impacts our service to God.  Society teaches it's not good enough to be just a teacher, just a secretary, just a truck driver.  Instead, we must always strive to work up the ladder to be in administration with a better title, better benefits, better office with a better view. There's more, always more to achieve--more power, more prestige, more leadership opportunities until we're at the top and subject to no one but ourselves.

Please understand--goals are good.  Goals are God-given and we would be remiss if we settled for less when God has called us to more. If God calls you to lead, then you lead. Period. 

But many times, God wants laborers who are willing to not have their name stamped on everything.  And he wants many of us to be content to be just laborers, not leaders..

Consider Bezalel, a " skilled Judahite artisan,"* the only blue collar worker in the Old Testament who was filled with the Spirit of God.  All the others God indwelt were leaders, prophets, and kings.

Then, along came Bezalel, a laborer without the name recognition or authority of a leader, without the holy aura of a prophet.  This man likely had large, deeply-calloused hands, skin well-tanned, scarred, and wrinkled from too much time spent working with wood, stone, and metal. He probably didn't have great book knowledge, likely couldn't quite whole books of the Torah.

Yet, God told Moses, "See, I have called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have filled him with the Spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all kinds of craftsmanship, to make artistic designs for work in gold, in silver, and in bronze, and in the cutting of stones for settings, and in the carving of wood, that he may work in all kinds of craftsmanship" (Ex. 31:1-5).

God indwelt Bezalel with a purpose: to give him the skills needed to create the tabernacle.  Only God, Himself, could achieve the level of perfection needed to create this dwelling place for Himself on earth.

Amazingly, God chose to fulfill His purpose through a man--but not just any man.  Bezalel must have been one who was a willing vessel, one who would submit to the authority of the Spirit within, who knew he was incapable of the job by himself and, as such, would rely on God's capability rather than his own.

I find it no accident that Bezalel's name means "in the shadow (i.e. protection) of God"*  Imagine living in God's shadow.  To do so means when someone looks at you, he sees God, not you. 

That's what happened here--when God worked through Bezalel, when divine ability reached down to use human hands, all Israel looked at the finished product of the tabernacle and saw God, not Bezalel.  They praised God for the tabernacle's completion, not Bezalel.

This is what it means to be a laborer for God--being willing to work in God's shadow, under His authority.

In the New Testament, Paul told us, "For we are God’s fellow workers" (1 Cor. 3:9).  He didn't say "we might be God's fellow workers" or "we probably will be God's fellow workers."  No.  He said, "we are."  Yet, Jesus said of these fellow workers, "The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few" (Matt. 9:37).

I would argue the workers are few because we don't want to be blue-collar laborers, especially laborers who never (or rarely) receive recognition.  
  • We don't want to fold flyers or sweat (literally) putting Bible tracts on doors in neighborhoods where no one is at home.  
  • We don't want to give up our close-knit Sunday School classes and commit to work in the  preschool wing where the majority of church members never come. 
  • We don't want to pray diligently each day in the secrecy of our prayer closets where no one hears us. 
  • We don't want to help clean up back in the kitchen after a fellowship while everyone else is out there enjoying each other's company.
As a general rule, most people gravitate towards the big, obvious areas of service where everyone can see what they do for Christ, where their name is stamped (somehow) on the work.

Yet, for God to be able to use us, we must be content to work in God's shadow where no one sees us but rather merely sees the work of the Spirit within us. 

God's looking for some content blue-collar laborers like you and me.  It's time we bend the knee and say "yes" to God empowering us beyond our capabilities, to say "yes" to those areas of service no one may ever know we have done in His name.


Sunday, July 8, 2012

Standing in the Gap for the Anonymous

It's always been troubling to me. The dozens of people who have passed through my life, most not even leaving a shadow of remembrance behind.

What about them? What happens when I forget their names? And what if I never knew them to begin with? There are literally faceless hundreds we pass each week as we shop in stores, drive down the highways, or sit to eat in restaurants.

As believers, we are admonished to pray for each other, but to pray for the lost souls more than anything. Yet, how can we effectively pray for those we don't know?

When I get to the part of my prayers where I pray for the lost peoples of the earth, it always seems so forced, like those words are merely bouncing off the ceiling. Some days, voicing the words, "I pray Father for you to redeem the lost" seems so cliche, so empty.

And yet, In Psalms 106, David relates the story of Israel and those who effectively stood in the gap for the multitudes of Israelites, most of whom were probably nameless to the prayer warriors.

In the midst of a history heavy laden with words like sin, iniquity, wickedness, and rebellion to describe the Israelites' post-enslavement-in-Egypt life, David first presents Moses' prayers for the unrighteous: "Therefore He [God] said that He would destroy them, Had not Moses His chosen one stood in the breach before Him, To turn away His wrath from destroying them" (Ps. 106:23).

It's a three step process. God wanted to destroy the unrighteous. Moses prayed for God's people, stood in the "breach" or "gap" between holiness and sinfulness. And God turned from His anger.

Scripture recounts that when leaving Egypt, there were "about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children" (Ex. 12:37). Donald Redford's Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times extrapolates from this figure that the total number of Israelites fleeing Egypt was around 2.5 million.

Knowing the numbers, Moses could not have known the name of every one of those individuals. Yet he prayed for them as a whole...and God heard.

Later in the same chapter, David recounts more evil among the Israelites. This time, God threatened to destroy them all with a plague: "Then Phinehas stood up and interposed, And so the plague was stayed" (Ps. 106:30).

Again, one man, Aaron's grandson, stood in the gap for the nameless millions of God's people. And it was an effective prayer.

As I read through the remaining eighteen verses, I kept looking for another named man who begged God to save His people. My vision was so narrow that I almost missed it:

"Nevertheless He [God] looked upon their distress When He heard their cry; And He remembered His covenant for their sake, And relented according to the greatness of His lovingkindness" (v. 44-45).

The pronoun "their" implies that an unnamed "they" interceded on Israel's behalf, and God was merciful.

This is you. This is me. We are that "they."

Perhaps we will not play a significant enough role in God's plan to have our individual names listed when what's to come is finally written down as history. Yet, even if you and I are lumped together under the heading of a vague pronoun, our role as gap-standers is still important.

Likewise, that we pray and what we pray for the lost masses is important to God. It may not feel like it at times, especially when the rest of our prayer time is spent raising specific names and needs to God's throne.

But God hears each word. God knows each name.

Keep standing.

Posting from the archives tonight.  Pray for our family--a sick husband and son need God's healing from a summer cold that has long outstayed its welcome.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

True Freedom Is More Than Stars & Stripes

In unison, we stretch right arms across our chests, lay palms flat over beating hearts.  The meek and bold alike lift their voices to recite the pledge, to sing the familiar tunes to patriotic anthems. To celebrate America's birthday is a time-honored tradition.  It is a time to remember a history fraught with difficulty, a time to give thanks for this freedom that is ours.


We who live in America believe we are free.  We point to our Constitution and recite our freedoms--of religion, of speech, of the press, of assembly.  Then, we point at other countries in disapproval, shake our corporate head at the others governments' restrictions that violate basic human freedoms.

And yet, I would argue that most Americans are not free

We merely live under the delusion that physical freedom is true freedom.  Instead, true freedom defies physical location; it is an internal freedom of the spirit that can be experienced even in the most oppressive country in the world.

John records Jesus speaking to a crowd of Jews "who had believed him," saying, "'If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.' They answered Him, “'We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free’?'" (Jn. 8:32-33).

Jesus has just revealed the secret of true freedom--continuing to abide in the Word, continuing in Christ, Himself, by not turning their backs on him, but continuing to be His true disciple.  And yet, the pride within his listeners at the thought of a freedom not yet grasped bubbled over into angry words. 

"Who is this man who implies we are slaves!?  WE are free men! Free! WE are Abraham's descendants.  Of all the peoples on earth, WE are the equivalent of royalty. Slaves--ha!."

What a lie.  Abraham's descendants had been in bondage several generations in Egypt.  Then came the seventy years of being held captive by Babylon.  In fact, even as these men spoke, Israel was in national bondage as a tributary to Rome.

As Matthew Henry says of this passage, "It is common for a sinking decaying family to boast of the glory and dignity of its ancestors, and to borrow honour from that name to which they repay disgrace."   Wow.

As men who were spiritually bankrupt, all they had were memories of yesterday's glory.  So, they argued the physical impossibility of slavery in an attempt to imply that since they were not physically slaves, they couldn't possibly be slaves in the spiritual sense.

Christ, though, didn't allow Himself to become bogged down in this tangent.  He didn't give them a history lesson but, rather, skipped right over this lie to focus again on His point--true, spiritual freedom.  

Jesus answered them, Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed" (Jn. 8:35-36). 

Jesus made it clear that one is enslaved to sin unless He remains in service to the Son of God forever.  A person either continually abides in the Word of God, in Christ's footsteps, OR a person continually abides in slavery to sin. 

It's an either / or situation.  True freedom can only be achieved by continuing in Christ.

This is so important for our nation because much as these Jews argued with Jesus that they were free because of a great Godly lineage, I fear America is doing much the same.

Too many Americans claim the label Christian but not continuing obedience to the Word of God.

Too many claim a childhood memory of walking down an aisle but not continuing fruit of salvation demonstrated in their lives.

Too many claim the blessings of God in Scripture but ignore those passages about His judgment.

Too many claim membership in a particular religion but not the continuing practice thereof.

Too many claim a spiritual experience but not the Holy Spirit's indwelling daily direction.
True freedom isn't in what we claim with our lips or in what we once were or in what our parents were.  Freedom is of the spirit; it is internal, individual, and eternal.

One who genuinely is made free through salvation in Christ will be "free indeed" and will "remain forever" in the Son.

While we have inherited a good many freedoms from America's forefathers, there are only so many things we can borrow from our ancestors.  Freedom in our souls isn't one of them.

True freedom requires more than just a Constitution and a blue-spangled flag with red and white stripes. It requires being individually covered by the blood of Christ and continuing daily in His footsteps as His disciple.