Monday, September 30, 2013

When We Are Wounded By God's People

Some of the worst hurts in this life come not just from family, friends, or the general population but from God's people.  The problem?  We expect more from those professing to be like Jesus.  What's more, we also oftentimes let our guard down more around fellow believers.  And why not?  Christians should be the people we expect our hearts to be the safest with, the ones we can trust to act justly more than any others on the face of the earth....right?


Somehow, we get it in our minds that when a person chooses to become a follower of Christ, he is hit over the head with a Fairy Godmother-esque magic wand of salvation that transforms him in the twinkling of an eye into the spitting image of Christ.  We expect his struggle with that old fleshly nature to be done away with, his propensity towards sin to just vanish.  In short, we expect every Christian to go to sleep a sinner and wake up as a perfect clone of Jesus. 

But the salvation process doesn't work that way. 

The concept of salvation is a past, a present perfect, and a future action.  I was saved.  I am being saved.  I will be saved.  And because of that, a newborn, middle-aged, or even long-tenured Christian will spend a lifetime in a state of becoming like Christ but never, not ever, completely achieving that level of perfection.  In short, every Christian will plod down life's path of what Scripture refers to as "sanctification," a ten cent word meaning "the process of becoming holy." 

Yes...note that word process.  Becoming holy, like Jesus, is not instant.

And yet, even if we understand this concept, the knowledge doesn't help our hearts be any less broken when God's people fail to act in accordance with how Jesus would act.

In her latest book Wounded by God's People: Discovering How God's Love Heals our Hearts, Anne Graham Lotz pulls a few skeletons from her own emotional closet as she explores how many of her most painful hurts have been inflicted by the hands of God's people.

Lotz begins with the Biblical story of Hagar, using it as a starting point for exploring how everyone is wounded and how that pain can cause the wounded to lash out and wound others in their path. 

The majority of Lotz's book is an attempt to show the "what happens next" after we have been wounded.    Do we run from God?  Do we inflict pain in return?  Do we wander around aimlessly in rejection? Do we reject God and all his people? Turn our backs from him in stubbornness? 

Or do we choose to move forward, turn towards God, forgive, and be reconciled?

The book explores each of these choices as they are demonstrated in the Old Testament story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac.  In fact, each chapter begins with a specific printed Scripture passage, followed by a personal example from Lotz' own life, then a deeper look into the specific Scripture and how it can relate to each of us who has been wounded.

While I did not find this book as deep as many of Lotz' previous books (such as her Just Give Me Jesus or I Saw the Lord), I do believe that was part of the point--to present a familiar, simple story and connect it to every man and woman, guiding them to Jesus in a culture when professing Christians are all too often driving them away from Christianity and anything associated with Jesus.

Perhaps you are like Hagar.  Perhaps you have been wounded and rejected by God's people.  Perhaps you have been sent "into the wilderness" and are blind to God's presence (Gen. 21:14).  Perhaps you even blame Him for what has happened in your life. 

When we are there--helpless, hopeless, abandoned, and alone--we should remember well this story of Hagar, how God stooped down from heaven and found her.

I can't help but think of that old Fanny Crosby hymn, the second verse and chorus of which reads:

A wonderful Savior is Jesus my Lord,
He taketh my burden away,
He holdeth me up and I shall not be moved,
He giveth me strength as my day

He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock,
That shadows a dry, thirsty land;
He hideth my life in the depths of His love,
And covers me there with His hand.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Parenting 101 in the Desert

They say you can read The Bible through thousands of times and learn something new with each reading.  And why not?  A reading is couched within different life circumstances, different phases of maturity that drive our quest for meaning in passages fraught with multiple levels of understanding.

Over the past two weeks, I've been plumb stuck in a brain fog as I've sought to understand the Jerry Springer-esque family dynamics of Genesis' Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Hagar, and Ishmael.

On our weekly prayer walks so far this September, my pastor has asked what I've been reading, learning, studying.  Each time, my cheeks have burned, embarrassed, as I've stumbled over my admission that I am still mulling over Genesis.  It sounds like a cop-out, an admission of someone not really in the Word at all.

But, the truth is I've been trying to make meaning out of a passage that has suddenly made little sense to me, one I thought I was comfortable with when I read it in the past, but now find it deeply disturbing.

The difference in then and now?  Then, I had not experienced the sacrifices a mother makes for her children.  I saw only through the eyes of a woman, not through the eyes of a mother. Now? I know a mother's love...and a mother's wrath. 

After Sarah abused her suddenly haughty servant Hagar, after Hagar ran away to find the "God who Sees" her in the desert, and after Hagar returned to give birth to Abraham's son Ishmael, Scripture glosses over a decade and a half until that time when Isaac, the true son of promise, is born to Sarah and Abraham.

We pick up with Isaac's birth, his naming, and then his weaning.  And on the day his mother is to stop nursing him, Scripture shows us a picture of a sixteen-year-old Ishmael mocking the toddler Isaac.  Commentator Matthew Henry says the original Hebrew more readily describes Ishmael's actions as "persecution," but in our day, we would likely refer to it as a good case of mean-spirited bullying.

Either way, there was evil intent on Ishmael's part, and it's readily understandable.  Ismael had been the apple of his daddy Abraham's eye for a dozen or so years before the golden child came along.  And overnight, with Isaac's birth, Ishmael's place in the succession had been supplanted by this little kid who was referred to by all as the "child of promise."

Yikes.  After all these years, suddenly being treated as the second-class son of a slave rather than Abraham's firstborn son and heir--with all its rights, perks, and privileges--had to sting.  It had to feel unfair.  And so, he lashed out at young Isaac, seeking to persecute the object of his displacement who had done nothing more than be born.

Of course, Sarah saw the bullying.  I'm guessing Sarah was a hover parent.  Heaven only knows I would be, too, if I had waited until the ripe old age of 90 to bear my first and only son.  I can imagine her instantly scooping up that precious curly-headed boy and rushing straight to Abraham's tent, her hands on her hips as she spat venom at her husband, demanding, "Get rid of that slave woman. Get rid of her son. The slave woman’s son will never have a share of the family’s property with my son Isaac” (Gen. 21:10).

Sarah's maternal anger pierced through her word choice.  No matter how long they had lived in quasi-peace as a rather dysfunctional family, now, she no longer referred to the two objects of her wrath as Ishmael and Hagar. No.  Now, they were nothing more than "that slave woman" and "her son." 

Abraham was distraught.  As Scripture says, "What Sarah said upset Abraham very much. After all, Ishmael was his son" (Gen. 21:11).  He was in an impossible situation.  So, God stepped in with a solution: "But God said to him, 'Do not be so upset about the boy and your servant Hagar. Listen to what Sarah tells you, because your family line will continue through Isaac. I will make the son of your servant into a nation also. I will do it because he is your child'" (v. 12-13).

Perhaps Abraham knew this was the best and only solution.  Perhaps he had already picked up on Ishmael's attitude towards Isaac, maybe even had witnessed with his own eyes another example of Ishmael persecuting the young boy and knew two competing roosters in the hen house would only lead to trouble

Either way, Abraham did not procrastinate, did not question God's plan, did not even mourn the decision although his father's heart surely must have broken.  Instead, "Early the next morning Abraham got some food and a bottle of water. The bottle was made out of animal skin. He gave the food and water to Hagar. He placed them on her shoulders. Then he sent her away with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the desert of Beersheba" (v. 14).

This is where I have stumbled most, reading with a mother's eyes.  How could Abraham--who by all accounts was quite affluent at this point in his 100+ year old life--how could he just send Hagar off with just some food and water?  Why couldn't he have given her a horse? a donkey? a herd? a servant? or at least a trusted male companion to guide her safely to the next city or even small town?  How could he just send the mother of his child and his firstborn son out into the desert with nothing more than "some food and a bottle of water?"

My mother's heart has wanted to criticize Abraham for this action, to treat him as the villain in this part of the story.  Initially when I read this passage, I thought this was a good example of there being a wrong way to do the right thing.  And honestly?  I'm still not sure that's a bad interpretation of the facts.

But I think there's more to Abraham's actions than that.  When God told Abraham to send Hagar away, He had also informed Abraham that He would "make the son of your servant into a nation also" (v. 13).  With this knowledge fresh in his mind and heart, then, perhaps Abraham's sending Hagar and Ishmael out into the burning hot desert with nothing more than food and a bottle of water was an act of faith on his part, a faith in God that HE would protect the pair as they wandered in the barrenness where life-giving water was nearly impossible to find.

Perhaps Abraham's refusal to provide more for Hagar and Ishmael was also his attempt to show them that they must not rely on him any further for support but must rely fully on God, a lesson both would quickly learn two verses later when their supplies ran out and they had nowhere else to look but up.

This is the lesson I've been trying to see for three weeks now.  

I am a natural mother.  I have this innate ability to want to mother everyone, to want to care for others even not of my blood with a mother's heart.  Yet, there comes a point when I must turn my back on my natural mothering instincts that say "take care of him!!!" and, instead, choose to have faith that God is the ultimate provider.  There comes a point when I must point a person to God as the ultimate life-giver and not me.

Had Abraham provided for all Hagar and Ishmael's needs when he send them away, they would have had no need to turn to God.

Although it may break our hearts at time, let us seek the discernment to know when to help and when to stand back and allow God to provide.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Telling the Future: Why God Usually Doesn't

There was a time when I didn't know if my house would ever be filled with the chaos and high pitched laughter of little ones.  In fact, several years were fraught with the stress and shame of infertility treatments, the loss of two babies, and the feelings of incredible guilt and inadequacy, all which culminated in one particularly gut-wrenching day when a new series of tests came in and the nurse answered my "So this is it?" question with a sad grimace and a nod.

We had reached the end of the road.  There would be no children.

Until that day, I was positive we would get pregnant, that God would work a miracle as he had with Hannah, Sarah, Rachel, and Elizabeth.  I read my Bible, listened to sermons, and went about my day to day life with my ears and eyes hyper sensitive to any word from the Lord about our struggles, any direction He might give, any tiny hint of hope.

I wanted a baby so badly that many times, I read what I wanted to read, I heard what I wanted to hear.  In short, I saw God's answer everywhere, in everything...but it wasn't God at all. It was my own longing to make my own future.  But, it wasn't until I gave up and accepted whatever He chose for us that He worked His miracles...on His timeline.

Without this experience, I might still believe that knowing the future is a good thing.  Perhaps I might still be convinced that if I just knew why God allowed this or that trial in my life or if He just showed me where this was all headed or how long I had to endure that difficulty, then going through the storm would be easier.

Yet, I know the real truth--if God were to give us a hint at our future, we would feel the need to "help" Him along the way.  And the results would be catastrophic.

Such was the case with Abraham and Sarah.

God had told Abraham the future, that "You will have a son of your own who will inherit what you have" (Gen. 15:4).  Both Abraham and Sarah believed God.  They had faith.  Yet, after so many years passed, Sarah decided to help bring God's prophecy to pass.  

Scripture records that "Sarai, Abram’s wife, had no children, but she had a slave girl from Egypt named Hagar.  Sarai said to Abram, 'Look, the Lord has not allowed me to have children, so have sexual relations with my slave girl. If she has a child, maybe I can have my own family through her'" (Gen. 16:1-2).

Sarah nor Abraham consulted God in this.  They attempted to bring about God's vision of the future through human means.  The result from this meddling was a boy named Ishmael.  Yet, he was not the son of promise.  God confirmed this later when He said, "[Sarah] will be the mother of many nations. Kings of nations will come from her.'...Then Abraham said to God, 'Please let Ishmael be the son you promised.'   God said, 'No, Sarah your wife will have a son, and you will name him Isaac. I will make my agreement with him to be an agreement that continues forever with all his descendants'" (Gen. 17:15-19). 

Abraham and Sarah's attempt to force God's hand is still playing out centuries later in the Middle East as the Islamic descendants of Ishmael fight against the Jews.  

This same type of "taking over for God" happened later in Israel's history with Rebekah and her son, Jacob.

When Isaac was old and ready to die, he called in his older son, Esau to give him the blessing and inheritance typically given the older son.  Scripture records that "Rebekah was listening as Isaac said this to his son Esau. She said to her son Jacob, 'Listen, I heard your father saying to your brother Esau, ‘Kill an animal and prepare some tasty food for me to eat. Then I will bless you in the presence of the Lord before I die.’ So obey me, my son, and do what I tell you.Go out to our goats and bring me two of the best young ones. I will prepare them just the way your father likes them.Then you will take the food to your father, and he will bless you before he dies” (Gen. 27:5-10).

Why would Rebekah interfere and trick her nearly blind husband into giving her favorite son, Jacob, the blessing and not her older son, Esau, as was tradition? What was she thinking!?

In all honesty, I think she was trying to "help" God just as did Sarah.  Years earlier when the two boys were still struggling in her womb, "The Lord said to her, 'Two nations are in your body, and two groups of people will be taken from you.  One group will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger'" (Gen. 25:23).

Could God have accomplished this future without Rebekah's help?  Certainly.  Yet, knowing the future led Rebekah to connive to bring it about, to force God's will to come to pass on her timeline and not His.  And due to her interference, the resulting animosity between two brothers exploded into enmity between two warring nations--Israel (Jacob) and Esau (Edom).

From Genesis to Malachi, the descendants of Jacob and Esau would be constant enemies.  From Esau came the Edomites from the land of Edom, and because of the hatred set in motion by Rebekah's meddling, several generations later, the Edomites refused to allow Moses and the ex-slave children of Israel to cross through their land on their way from Egypt to Canaan.

Even later, Esau's descendants helped destroy the temple in Israel.  The prophet Obadiah exclaims of Edom: "You did violence to your relatives, the Israelites, so you will be covered with shame and destroyed forever. You stood aside without helping while strangers carried Israel’s treasures away. When foreigners entered Israel’s city gate and threw lots to decide what part of Jerusalem they would take, you were like one of them" (Ob. 10-11).  King David even speaks of Edom's role in the destruction of Jerusalem, saying, "Lord, remember what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. They said, 'Tear it down! Tear it down to its foundations!'"

It makes me wonder if this animosity, this blood-revenge hatred would have been passed down from generation to generation had Rebekah not interfered, had she allowed God to bring His prophecy to pass without her help. Or would God have accomplished the same outcome but without all the animosity.

Sarah and Rebekah show us why God does not often reveal the future to us.  If you know what's coming down the road, you're hyper alert, looking everywhere for the turn-off that you know will take you to your destination.  The problem is, when you're watching and waiting, every exit looks like the right one.

The next time you or I wish we knew what our future held, we should remember God's graciousness in not giving us what we ask for.  

In our humanity, we'd probably just screw it up. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

What's Floating Invisible in the Air Around Us?

My mother spent much of my high school years baking homemade bread.  Somewhere along the way, she got a Ziploc bag full of "starter," and after that, our house was an aromatic long as we remembered to feed the starter.

What looked like little more than a glob of flour and water loosely mixed together could rise into a pock-filled mound after being plied with sugar and water. Back then, I didn't understand how it worked.  I just appreciated the end result.  Who knew my world could be rocked just by learning about how that sourdough starter really worked.

Bacteria. fermentation. lactic-acid-producing yeast. When taken to the pages of Scripture, this knowledge reveals even more about our need for a Savior.

Earlier this year, this blog hosted a series on the Jewish Feasts in our quest to learn more about this Jesus we serve.  One celebration we looked at was the seven day Feast of Unleavened Bread, which begins the day after Passover.

As part of their preparation for this celebration, the Jewish people obeyed the command in Deuteronomy 16:3-4, which required the entire community to clean their homes of any products containing leaven: "Let no yeast be found in your possession in all your land for seven days." 

Such an action symbolized God's people separating themselves from sin, literally "removing" sin from their homes and, by extension, from their hearts.

In the New Testament, Paul furthers this metaphor wherein leaven/yeast is a symbol of sin.  He writes, "Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (1 Cor. 5:6-8).

In other words, a person's sin in one aspect of his life affects all of his life, makes his entire body unclean before the Lord, makes all his offerings and acts of service unclean before the Lord.  In fact, if sin is left unchecked, it contaminates others, leads others into sin.  Sin is contagious. 

Since the Jewish people understood this symbolic connection between sin and leaven, they wanted to be certain they had removed any and all leaven (and sin) from their lives as part of Passover.  That means any packaged foods in the house containing yeast, baking powder, baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate had to be removed.  Imagine going through all your cabinets, refrigerator, and freezer, and reading all the labels to determine if a leavening agent were in the pre-packaged food.  It's a bit like Spring Cleaning, and we all know how long that can take if done properly.

By the time you sat down for the Passover meal, you may have spent hours, even days, on this task, may have meticulously placed your hand on every food product in the house to ensure there was no leaven remaining within your walls.  In a metaphorical sense, you had "worked" hard to symbolically remove all sin from your life.

Yet, there was a problem with this process.  If it were this easy to work and remove sin from our lives, then why would there be a need for Passover?  Why the need for a sacrificial lamb to be slain for our sin?  Why the need for a Savior?

The truth is that even with all the work, the attention to detail in removing leaven from the home, there is no way we could remove all the leaven out of our houses just as there is no way we can work hard enough to remove all the sin from our lives.

No matter how hard I work to remove it, there will always be leaven in my home.


Although science wasn't advanced enough in Jesus' day to explain it, we now understand that there is wild yeast that floats in the air around us.  Mix a batch of flour and water, leave it exposed to the air for a week or so, and you'll experience firsthand the joys of wild yeast (and some yummy sourdough bread, too!).

This understanding of wild yeast in the very air we breathe further explains why the need for Jesus' sacrifice on the cross.  The image of the wild yeast still in our houses shows that even after all our good works, even after every attempt to rid our lives of sin, there is still sin in our lives.  We still need a Savior to make ourselves acceptable to God.

I don't think I'll ever eat a slice of sourdough without thinking of myself as still being sinful even when I think myself at my most righteous.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Being a "Lesser-Known" in a Fame-Frenzied World

Living beside a brook while being fed from the ravens' mouths, challenging the prophets of Baal to see whose god would light the altar of sacrifice with heavenly fire, running at super-human speed ahead of Ahab's chariot down Mt. Carmel to beat the coming rain--these are the stories of Elijah that I cut my teeth on.  Next week, I'll begin passing down these same stories to my four-year-old Sunday School class as I've done for over a decade.

Yet, somehow, in all those times of listening, reading, and teaching the books of 1 & 2 Kings, I've continuously skipped over an almost invisible character named Obadiah.  The problem is that Elijah's character has such a commanding stage presence, the supporting "cast" members, like Obadiah, just aren't memorable.

Even the prophet Elijah discounted Obadiah's dedication and service to the Lord as not being worth remembering.  He complained, "I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left" (1 Kin. 18:22).

Last week, we examined Obadiah's position within Ahab's palace and how he remained silent about his commitment to the Lord, all while placing his life in danger as he hid/fed/watered 100 prophets from the evil king and his equally wicked bride.

There's something more, though, that we can learn from Obadiah, and it has everything to do with our passing right over him, with our not remembering his name or even that he even participated in the storyline.

Obadiah is an example of the many lesser-known persons in Scripture.  He shows up in only six verses of one chapter and only then as the reluctant liaison between Elijah and King Ahab. 

At first, he is introduced as: "a devout believer in the Lord. While Jezebel was killing off the Lord’s prophets, Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them in two caves, fifty in each, and had supplied them with food and water" (1 Kin. 18:3-4).

Then, he plays his part in the plot.  As Obadiah and King Ahab are out looking for grass for their livestock, "Elijah met him. Obadiah recognized him, bowed down to the ground, and said, 'Is it really you, my lord Elijah?'” (1 Kin. 18:7).  Here he is, just walking along the hillside, and there he meets Israel's most wanted fugitive who calmly asks him to go announce his presence to Ahab.

Knowing Elijah's supernatural ability to elude King Ahab's troops for several years, Obadiah is more than a little reluctant.  In fact, he accuses Elijah of sending him on a suicide mission before adding, " I your servant have worshiped the Lord since my youth. Haven’t you heard, my lord, what I did while Jezebel was killing the prophets of the Lord? I hid a hundred of the Lord’s prophets in two caves, fifty in each, and supplied them with food and water" (1 Kin. 18:12-13).

In the end, Obadiah goes, finds, and tells Ahab who then comes to Elijah.

These few verses provide everything we know of Obadiah's character and activities.  

First, he is a "devout believer."  Verse 12 defines this characteristic further, explaining that Obadiah's devotion to the Lord was life-long, "since his youth."  This devotion was obviously tested and found to be true, as twice we are told Obadiah valued his life less than that of the hundred prophets he was protecting in caves. 

Next, verse 7 shows that Obadiah bowed when he met Elijah, an action that shows his reverence for a man of God, which, in turn, demonstrates his own true reverence for God.  

And that's it.  If you're a journalist, you're probably disappointed at this point.  That's all!?

Well, of course not.  Obadiah's life was surely full of more acts of service to the Lord...just maybe nothing big enough to be front page news like "Obadiah Brings In Troubler of Israel!" or "Hiding a Hundred in the Hills."

But I think that's the point of including him and other equally obscure characters in scripture.  No, it's not to make games like Bible Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy a challenge.  It's to show us how even the lesser-known persons are important to God's God knows even us lesser-known persons by name.

Perhaps you once had a vision of all the magnificent things you could do for the Lord.  Maybe you envisioned yourself as a famous missionary living life halfway around the globe; as an oft-published Christian author whose words brought many to saving faith in Jesus; or an uber-successful speaker teaching standing-room-only Bible studies.  

As the years have passed, none of those dreams has become reality.  Instead, you're still living on obscurity, devoutly serving Jesus.  Perhaps you're the silent partner working in the shadows of some larger than life personality...and no one knows your name.

I understand the feeling.  Yet, I also know HE knows our names and that when we feel we're not making a big difference, we must reconcile in our hearts the truth of our significance in the kingdom of God.   

Big to God might only look like little to us.