Sunday, February 24, 2013

Whose Thought Just Went Through My Head?

The word was never used, but the diagnosis was terminal.  Our soft-spoken musings and uncertainty was hushed by a new scan that revealed a shot-gun blast of tumors throughout her body.  There would be no miracle, only a few weeks to get her affairs in order, ensure her heart was right with God, and manage the pain as best as modern medicine can.

Little family. No children. No real property to speak of.  Just four cats, her babies.

Her one request was that her cats all go to good homes.  It's the irony of death's immediacy--only when there's nothing else we can do for ourselves do we turn thoughts completely outwards, towards what we love most.  On her death bed and in tremendous pain, she worried most about her fluffy children being separated, voiced a desire for them to be kept together.

When my mother told me the news, my gut reaction was insta-pessissism.  It would be hard enough to find a new home for four individual cats, much less all four to one owner.  I envisioned her pets going off to the pound, thought of looking up no-kill shelters in the area.

The problem was I had met and loved on at least two of these cats.  One was a stocky deep-chocolate Siamese who liked to head-but you for attention while his motor rumbled as loud as a truck on the highway.  Then, there was the Persian-like dreamsicle cat with his unruly locks and sweet yet shy disposition.

The next afternoon as I stood waiting at the end of the driveway after school for my oldest son's bus, my mother-in-law stood beneath the front live oak, her crouched over and weeding/pruning something in anticipation of Spring's arrival.

She spoke over her back at me about seeing a mouse scampering across the yard.  Then, the words moved towards her thoughts of getting more cats.  Did I know where she could get some?

On a farm, the ebb and flow of barn cats is inevitable.  Sometimes, there are several litters.  Then, those litters succumb to age or the coyote's prowl, meet their end by the yellow and white line running past our house, or simply disappear.

As I stood there and counted, I realized that over the past year, the farm had lost exactly four cats--the nearly-mummified Susie, the orange twins Taffy and Caramello, and the ever-elusive Tuxy who preferred my daughter to anyone else. God had taken away four good mousers and I knew of four more cats looking for a together home.

My mother in law was thrilled.  Yes, she'd take them all.

In my own fleshly desire to be appreciated, to feel important, I would love to take credit for thinking of the dying lady's four cats when my mother-in-law asked that out-of-the-blue question.  My mother could just as easily take credit for being the one who thought to tell me the cats' plight in the first place.

But we all know better. 

God caused my mother to remember to tell me of a problem she couldn't fix on her own.  God then caused my mother-in-law to have that desire in her heart to find feline, not later.  And God caused me to remember one of a million tidbits of information that flows through my cerebral cortex each day.  We were merely tools in the master's hand.

The more of Scripture I read, the more I wonder how many thoughts are actually mine and how many are implanted by the Holy Spirit working within me for the glory of God the Father.

Scripture records numerous instances of this happening.  For instance, in the latter half of Ezekiel, the prophet tells of a coming battle wherein the Chief Prince of Gog and his allies will come up against a peaceful Jerusalem: "Thus says the Lord GOD, 'It will come about on that day, that thoughts will come into your mind and you will devise an evil plan, and you will say, 'I will go up against the land of unwalled villages.  I will go against those who are at rest...'" (Ez. 38:10-11).

The Chief Prince of Gog will believe he has dreamed up this plan to attack an unprotected Israel and to seize its spoils.  Yet, God says a few verses later, "Thus says the Lord God...I will bring you against My land, so that the nations may know Me when I am sanctified through you before their eyes, O Gog" (Ez. 38:14,16, my italics).

Although man thought the idea initiated within his mind, the germ of that idea actually began in the mind of God.  The reason?  To sanctify His holy name, to glorify Himself, and to make Himself known to the entire world.

The same type thing happened with Assyria, which God used to judge Israel for its sin.  In The Message Bible, God says that Assyria is a "weapon of my anger. My wrath is a cudgel in his hands!  I send him against a godless nation,  against the people I’m angry with.  I command him to strip them clean, rob them blind, and then push their faces in the mud and leave them. But Assyria has another agenda; ...Assyria says, ‘Aren’t my commanders all kings? Can’t they do whatever they like?” (Is. 10:5-11).

Much like the Chief Prince of Gog, Assyria's movements were controlled by God.  Here, though, Assyria does not acknowledge its submission to God's will.  Instead, Assyria is puffed up, arrogant, asserting that it is acting of its own free will.  

God makes it clear that such arrogance will be punished: " When the Master has finished dealing with Mount Zion and Jerusalem, he’ll say, “Now it’s Assyria’s turn. I’ll punish the bragging arrogance of the king of Assyria, his high and mighty posturing, the way he goes around saying, 'I’ve done all this by myself. I know more than anyone. I’ve wiped out the boundaries of whole countries. I’ve walked in and taken anything I wanted.'  Does an ax take over from the one who swings it? Does a saw act more important than the sawyer? As if a shovel did its shoveling by using a ditch digger! As if a hammer used the carpenter to pound nails!" (v. 12-16).

Assyria, Gog--they were both tools in God's hand to ultimately sanctify and glorify His holy name before the entire earth.

God says something similar later in the book of Isaiah when He prophesies of King Cyrus long before he is ever born:

"Thus says the Lord to Cyrus His anointed, Whom I have taken by the right hand, To subdue nations before him And to loose the loins of kings...:'I will go before you and make the rough places smooth;...I will gird you, though you have not known Me; That men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun That there is no one besides Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other, The One forming light and creating darkness, Causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these" (Is. 45:1-7).

Here, The whole point of God guiding Cyrus' actions was so "men" would know that He is the Lord.  It's the same concept--to glorify His name and cause others to know Him.

Later, as Isaiah prophesied, Cyrus did send the Israelites home to their land and support their building a new temple: "He [Cyrus] will build My city and will let My exiles go free, Without any payment or reward" (Is. 45:13).  But, though Cyrus' hands did the freeing, the idea began in the mind of God.

No, I can't mesh together the concept of free will with the idea of God directing my thoughts and actions, but I do believe Scripture to be true, and when both opposing points seem to be true, I must trust God's heart and simply realize that my human thoughts are just not high enough to understand how the seemingly incongruent thoughts really are congruent.

Still, what these passages do clearly tell me is to ward against personal arrogance.

That wonderful idea we had to do _____ or create _____? That spur-of-the-moment decision we made to go _____ or visit _____?  It may not have been our thought at all. Rather, the idea may have initiated in the mind of fulfill His purpose of glorifying His holy name, of causing the whole world to know Him.

One day when I get to heaven, I expect to be shocked at how many ideas I thought to be my own brilliance were actually God's ideas implanted in my mind.

This is a call to humility, to remember that the mightiest of the mighty in Scripture were merely hammers, axes, and saws in God's hand.  God forbid we become puffed up with pride over our own intellect and actions.

It's all about pointing the way to Him, not to ourselves.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Could The Bible Go Missing from Our Churches?

Six little people are strewn across the living room rug. In the main hall sits a plastic feast of purple grapes, bumpy corn, and assorted cookies, all to be consumed by the plush birds seated around the plates. Beside the kitchen table lay a dozen or more unstacked books, one left open in mid-story.

I've already de-cluttered these three rooms today. I know I did. But it always seems that as soon as I put a toy in its place, it is almost immediately found and deemed worthy of playing with again. And the books underfoot? While their titles are rarely the same, there is never a room without one or more dropped after a quick "read."

With young children in the house, the cleaning is never done. It weighs on me sometimes.

I wonder if that's how King Josiah felt when spending six years cleaning all vestiges of idolatry out of Israel. Did he, too, grow weary at yet another altar to be torn down, another graven image to be burned, another set of false priests to be dealt with?

A few years ago, we compared six reforms of King Josiah's time to our own.  The seventh reform is the story of Josiah that most churched grown-ups remember learning about as children.

The story is simple enough--the temple was a mess, so Josiah issued a command for it to be cleaned up and repaired. While cleaning, a priest named Hilkiah "found the book of the law of the LORD given by Moses" (2 Chron. 34:14). He had another man bring the book to Josiah and then read it to him: "When the king heard the words of the law, he tore his clothes" (2 Chron. 34:19).

On its face, the story seems absurd! The people of God losing the Word of God? How could they let such a thing happen? It hadn't even been 50 years since Josiah's God-fearing grandfather Hezekiah had been on the throne. And yet, in that short span of time, the Word of God was LOST...and not lost just anywhere in the nation of Israel but lost in the temple.

I can hear people say, "Well, that couldn't happen today! There are 1400 different translations of the Bible available. Anyone can pick one up in a hotel nightstand, Wal-mart, the dollar store! They're still even distributed in our schools by the Gideons."

No danger of the word being lost in our time.

But I beg to differ. Instead, I would assert that The Word of God is already lost in many of our churches today. It's already lost in our country.

The sheer number of translations has served to make a book so common that it is readily stuck in the night stand drawer to make room for the newest bestseller. Additionally, creating translations for ease of reading or to make Scripture seem more modern hasn't merely drawn more to its pages for daily council but has, at the same time, watered-down the Word.

For the church-goers? Why, the Bible has become a colored fashion accessory with everything from pink princess crowns adorning the covers for our preschool daughters to camouflaged-covers for our military men...many stamped with our name in gold.

And when those lambskin-covered Bibles are opened? Even then, in many churches across America, the word is still lost because too many pastors refuse to preach all of the word...and too few churchgoers take the time to really read, examine, breathe the Word into their souls while outside the walls of the church.

I like the Holman Bible's version of 2 Timothy 4:2: "Proclaim the message; persist in it whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching."  That's the kind of God's Word Christians need to feel on their lips, hear in their hearts, and read with their eyes--the whole Word, popular or un.

We must be like Paul who said, "For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God" (Acts 20:27). Some versions interpret it as "the whole counsel of God."  Either way, the point Paul was trying to communicate was that one should seek to communicate the gospel in its entirety, not allow oneself to be caught up in one specific doctrine or verse.

I'm not the first, nor will I be the last, to send forth the call for the Word of God to be found again. In 1996, theologian David Wells wrote a pamphlet entitled "The Bleeding of the Evangelical Church." In it, he says these profound words:

We must recover the lost Word of God. The problem is not, of course, that the Bible itself has disappeared. There are, in fact enough Bibles in America to put one in every home. No, the problem is that we are not hearing the Word of God. It does not rest consequentially upon us. It does not cut. And it is surely one of the great ironies of our time that in the 1970's and 80's so much of our effort was put into defining inspiration and looking at what were the best words to express and protect it. And while all of that work was going on, unnoticed by us, the Church was quietly, unhitching itself from the truth of Scripture in practice. Biblical inspiration was affirmed but its consequences were not worked out for our preaching, our techniques for growing the Church, our techniques for healing our own fractured selves. These all happened largely without the use of Scripture. It is as if we think that while the Bible is inspired, it is nevertheless inadequate to the tasks of sustaining and nourishing the twentieth-century! The result of this divine myopia is that he has left us with something that is inadequate to the great challenges that we face today.

If we do not recover the sufficiency of the Word of God in our time, if we do not relearn what it means to be sustained by it, nourished by it, disciplined by it, and unless our preachers find the courage again to preach its truth, to allow their sermons to be defined by its truth, ...we will lose our capacity to be the people of God....We have to recover a vivid other worldliness by making ourselves once again captives to the truth of God regardless of the cultural consequences.

If the Word of God does not "cut," as Wells says---then it is lost.

In our individual lives and in our corporate worship services, we must again find the word. And once we have found it, we must do as Josiah did: "The king went up to the house of the LORD and all the men of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the Levites, and all the people, from the greatest to the least; and he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the LORD" (2 Chron. 34:30).

From the greatest to the least--all must hear "all the words of the book." It must cut us. It must be where we run when facing the great and small challenges of life.

And if the Word doesn't, then it is as useless as if it were literally lost in an ancient temple.

Photo: Between the Lines, by Ariana Boussard-Reifel: A book with every single word cut out.

(Revamping an article from the archives tonight as I continue to dive deep into my the murky waters of Ezekiel and discern the message God is speaking.)

Monday, February 11, 2013

Never Too Late for a U-Turn

How often have you heard the phrase "it's too late for him" or "she'll never change."

Human beings in general have a bad habit of giving up on others around them.  We grow impatient, weary at the lack of progress, and express dismay or despair over friends and family walking a toxic, destructive path.  Even within the church, the general consensus is that the bulk of mankind has already passed the point of no return and is heading downhill to certain destruction.

We sigh.  We shake our heads.  Sure, we want to have hope, especially with that person keeps a permanent residence in our hearts.  Still, the mustard seed of faith doesn't match up to the words on our lips--totally devoid of hope, no chance left, not worth my time, why bother.

Or perhaps that person is even closer.  Perhaps you are the one who believes you've gone too far and God could never have a place in His kingdom for someone like you.

God's Word begs to differ.

In a Bible that covers thousands of years, God minces words.  Still, sometimes, he repeats the same concepts over and over (and over) so hard headed humans like us get the point.

One such repetition is of the word "turn."

The prophet Ezekiel uses the word "turn" twenty three times.  The prophet Jeremiah uses the same word, "turn," twenty seven times.  That means not even looking into the other sixty-four books of the Bible, the word "turn" appears in just these two books a whopping total of fifty times.

Its placement on these particular pages is vitally important to anyone who thinks he is beyond God's grace.  Jeremiah and Ezekiel were writing to such a people as this, those who had endured (and were still enduring) God's seventy-year judgment for their disobedience to God's commands.

In the midst of the judgment, though, God used these two men to also prophesy a hope of restoration for the remaining remnant.  The key to such a restoration?  The word turn.

Jeremiah prophesied from 627 to 574 BC, before and during the three waves of exiles sent to Babylon.  Ezekiel's prophesies overlap Jeremiah's, his from 593 to 559 BC, before the last wave of exiles was sent from Jerusalem after the final destruction of the temple.

Living in exile, the remaining Israelites thought God's judgment of them meant all was lost.  Some said, "'Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we are rotting away in them; how then can we survive?'" (Ez. 33:10).  Others said, "'Our bones are dried up and our hope has perished.  We are completely cut off'" (Ez. 37:11).

God's chosen people felt defeated, without hope, worthless.....beyond redemption.

Yet God tells Ezekiel, "Say to them, 'As I live!' declares the Lord God, 'I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live.  Turn back, turn back from your evil ways!  Why then will you die, O house of Israel?'" (Ez. 33:11).

The word "turn" correlates with repentance, which is more than mere sorrow over sin.  It also denotes turning one's back on that sin and doing it no more.  In other words, there was still hope for even those people who were feeling the sting of God's judgment.  All they needed to do was repent of their sin, their wicked practices, their unrighteousness and turn back to God.

As God later said, "'For, behold, I am for you, and I will turn to you, and you will be cultivated and sown..." (Ez. 36:9, my italics).

This God who sent His own precious people into exile, who allowed thousands to be slaughtered by the sword of the Assyrians and the Babylonians, who poured out his full bowl of judgment and wrath upon an entire nation that defiled His holy name...this is the same God who sent prophets to speak to the remnant still living in captivity.  This is the same God who says, "I want you to live!"  The same God who says even today, "I am for you."

As long as there is a person has breath in his/her body, there is still hope.  Even if we or those we know are currently experiencing the lash of God's judgment, even if that same person feels abandoned by God...we must know the truth of Scripture that any judgment is for the purpose of purification, for causing us to turn from our sin and back to Him.

We serve a God who is for us, a God who longs for us to turn from evil and embrace Him with our everything.  Praise be to His name.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Bandwagon of Popular Christianity

It sounds wrong to put those two words together in one sentence.  PopularChristianity.  In one sense, it's an oxymoron seemingly so contradictory as to be easily dismissed. 

Yet, the rise of the mega church in America hints at a truth to be found in such an incompatible phrase.  To be considered a mega church, 2,000 people must attend services there each week.  These numbers seem almost impossible considering the national anti-Christian trend across America, especially in the political arena.

Yet, according to Forbes, "Churches across America--like shopping malls, houses, corporations, hospitals, schools and just about everything else--have erupted in size in the last few decades. The number of mega churches in the U.S. has leaped to more than 1,300 today--from just 50 in 1970."  Of those mega churches, 9 out of 10 have "more than doubled in size between 2002 and 2007."

While not all mega churches are the same, the spike in attendees in these type churches along with the continued increasing failure to line up our personal morality with the Ten Commandments shows there are two types of Christianity at play in our nation.

There is a true Christianity that leads to salvation and individuals becoming more like Christ and, then, there is a popular Christianity wherein the hearer is drawn to the Word but stops short so that there is no fruit in their lives as evidence of salvation.

This may seem to be a modern problem, but it's anything but.

In the book of Ezekiel when the children of Israel were living in exile within Babylon, God says, "But as for you, son of man, your fellow citizens who talk about you by the walls and in the doorways of the houses, speak to one another, each to his brother, saying, 'Come now and hear what the message is which comes forth from the Lord.' They come to you as people come, and sit before you as My people and hear your words, but they do not do them, for they do the lustful desires expressed by their mouth, and their heart goes after their gain.  Behold, you are to them like a sensual song by one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; for they hear your words but they do not practice them" (Ez. 33:30-32).

This passage describes God's people as desiring to hear His Word.  It's an "everybody's going to see the prophet" type mentality.  They were drawn to the beauty of Ezekiel's voice as one would be drawn to a beautiful song heard on the radio today.  Although the passage doesn't say so directly, I believe God's people were also drawn in by the beauty of God's Word, itself.

Yet, when it came down to it, the Word of God literally went in one ear and out the other, not staying long enough to penetrate and change their hearts.  The result was continued moral decline as is represented by their repeated greed, idolatry, and pursuit of their own "lustful desires."

This was a perfect example of a popular faith versus a faith of the heart.

Such is the case today with popular Christianity.  The masses are drawn in by the eloquence and popularity of the speaker, perhaps even by the beauty of God's Word spoken from the pulpits.  But when their feet leave the arena, their lives, for the most part, aren't changed by the Holy Spirit.

Some may argue the problem of popular Christianity is caused by the mega churches preaching only a popular gospel with a great big hole in the middle of it, that they only preach positive, humanistic messages to edify and uplift while avoiding messages concerning sin and judgment. 

Granted, this mis-defining of what it means to be a Christian is a definite problem.  Yet, I have heard half-gospel messages preached from both the mega church and the small church pulpit.  The size of the platform doesn't secure a listener from a false Christianity. 

So, what can we do to ensure we are not guilty of being merely a popular Christian? 

First, we can examine the Word of God, ourselves--in its entirety--to ensure we are receiving Godly instruction from our pastors.  If the preaching we sit under each week isn't lining up with the God we read about in Scripture, then we have a problem.

Secondly, we can follow James' advice.  He warned, "But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves" (Jas. 1:22).

In other words, we must realize it is easy to delude ourselves into believing that just because we know the Word of God that we also do the Word of God in our day to day lives.  Then, we must examine our own practices and ask ourselves if Scripture is directing our every action and life choice.

In the end, anyone can be guilty of being a popular Christian.  We want to belong to something greater than ourselves.  We want to feel good, uplifted, inspired...something a worship experience can grant us.  And, as a general rule, we still want to be morally upright people.

We must choose a faith not that is popular and that simply feels good but rather a life-altering faith that consumes our thoughts moment by moment as we seek with all our heart and soul to become more like Christ.