Sunday, December 29, 2013

Knowing Your Limitations

He firmly grasps the wooden handle with both hands and stretches the sharpened ax out in front of him, learning its weight before he fulfills his task. With the crowd watching in curiosity and horror, the offender is brought forward and made to kneel down with her bare neck lying exposed on the block.

Then, like a golfer practicing before his putt, he tentatively raises the ax over his head before slowly lowering it until it hovers over his intended target, perhaps even slightly brushing the tiny hairs atop the woman's skin. One practice swing, maybe two. Until suddenly, with arms fully extended, he mightily swings the ax heavenward and then back down in a rapid arc, slicing clean through life to rest on the dead wooden block beneath.

This is the chief image associated with England's Henry VIII and his time period's penchant for beheading those who crossed them.

The ax and the wooden block.

My heart pounds at these scenes. I close my eyes, knowing I would never have been a willing part of the crowd that watched such an execution.

Imagine my surprise when God showed me a similar image in Scripture.

In Matthew's gospel, John the Baptist was in the desert, the "voice in the wilderness," calling all to repent of their sin and then baptizing the repentant in the Jordan River. Throngs of people came from around the region to see this prophet in camel's hair who subsisted on locusts and honey.

Then along came the Pharisees and Sadducees, two sight-seeing groups who had apparently come out of curiosity more than for the heart-changing message.

When John saw them, he criticized their evil hearts and warned them of God's judgment to come if they remain unrepentant: "Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matt. 3:7-8, 10).

My heart dropped when I read verse 10: "The ax is already at the root of the trees."

God--holy judge and executioner--isn't just giving an empty warning to these fruitless tree-men. He's taken the ax in hand.

And what's more? What gives me chills?

He isn't just holding the ax.

He's already taken his practice swing, bringing it down to rest on the root of the trees. All that remains is the moment when He says "enough"and arcs the weapon heavenward before it crashes down, exacting His perfect judgment.

It's one thing to think of God's judgment as coming in that ever-vague "one day." It's quite another to see an image of God preparing for that judgment to the point where His holy hands are gripping the instrument, just waiting.

As Christians, we must seriously consider our efforts to proclaim Jesus to those lost souls around us.

James says, "Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes" (Jas. 4:13-14).

With 2014 upon us, we who know Him as Lord and Savior must pause to reevaluate our commitment to sharing the gospel with others around us.  The time is now.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Seeing Past the Bottom Line

Christmas is the time of year when we more readily put others before ourselves and generosity blossoms more freely in our hearts.  I feel this swelling overflow as I spend several afternoons baking small loaves of banana nut bread by the dozen.  I wrap each aromatic wonder in festive red with silver curling ribbon, then give them away just to bring a bit of joy to another, to say how glad I am they're part of my life.

You won't find my husband participating in this annual Christmas bake-off...not, that it, unless you count eating a loaf or two by himself.  Although he is normally a frugal man, he does enjoy blessing others in his own way.  Usually, that involves cooking labor-intensive dishes for our extended family on Christmas Day and New Year's Eve.  Tonight, he wanted to make a couple trays of sandwiches for an after church fellowship.

As seems to happen every year, we disagreed about how many and what kind of sandwiches to make.  His logic was good--that this was just one way to give back and bless others at this time of year.  He wanted to do so lavishly, with ham, roast beef, and turkey from the deli.  But with one of my part-time jobs being cut for at least the upcoming spring and maybe even the summer semester, I couldn't see past the bottom line. 

Three pounds of meat, three loaves of bread, cheese slices, mayo....  Fifty dollars.

We buried our disagreement over the cost and breadth of the project, and he made the sandwiches as he saw fit, all as a gift to our entire church family.  But in our hearts, it was still a sore subject we had simply buried so we could enjoy the Christmas Eve service.

My husband--not me--got it right.  After placing the sandwiches on the tables for fellowship, he came and lay a Christmas card in my lap, one that had been left in our church's seasonal "post office."  What lay tucked inside the card almost led to a pre-service meltdown in the church pew-- an unexpected gift to us in the exact amount we had spent hours before on the sandwiches.

Fifty dollars.

In my focus on the cold facts of our finances, I had forgotten a truth I have learned so many times before and apparently still need to be reminded of--you can't out-give God.

Paul speaks to this truth of being generous with what we have: "whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work....He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God" (2 Cor. 9:6-11).

Many use this verse to preach a prosperity gospel.  Yet, such a gospel is false and incorrectly transforms Christianity into a what-I-can-get-from-God religion instead of a true Christianity which is concerned with what I can give to God who is worthy, no matter what He gives.  Still, time and again, I have found that what I sow in others' lives, I always seem to reap when I least expect it and in unexpected ways.  I may not reap riches, but I always seem to have "sufficiency in all things."

Since the above verses directly follow a passage encouraging the Corinthians to send money to those Christians suffering in Jerusalem, Paul was definitely speaking of sowing financially in others' lives. However, I don't believe that meaning is to the exclusion of "sowing" in other ways.   When we sow our time, our talents, and any other bit of ourselves for the benefit of others, we will also reap a bountiful harvest.

This close to Christmas, the tendency is now to turn inward and focus on just ourselves and our families, to feel like we're done with giving to others.  Still.  Give of yourself this week.  Give generously.  Not for anyone else.  But as a way to give thanks to Him for all He's done through the one single act of sending His only Son to earth for us.   

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Separate But Not Indifferent
We've all had family and friends who have gone their separate ways.  Sometimes, the separation is due to one side wronging the other, either in reality or in perception.  Other times, even when blood binds people together, their lives and personalities simply propel them in two opposite directions.

In Abram's case, his separation from his nephew, Lot, was a little of both.

After stepping out on faith and leaving everything to follow God's command, Abraham grew rich.  In fact, all too soon, Abraham and Lot's flocks grew so great that "the land could not support them while they stayed together" (Gen. 13:6).  Naturally, when there's a shortage of anything (especially food and water), generally unified people will take sides, and sure enough, "quarreling arose between Abram’s herders and Lot’s" (v. 7).

Abraham determined "close relatives" shouldn't quarrel, so he proposed their family should part ways and, to that end, divide the grazing lands between them.  Abraham then showed a true heart of generosity as well as utter faith that God would continue to bless Him no matter what--he gave Lot first choice of the land.  

Uncle and nephew had surely grown very close over the years; alone and away from their homeland, they were all each other had for family.  That closeness must have made Abraham keenly aware of his nephew's inner character so much so that I'm sure Abraham was not surprised by Lot's response.  Still, just the fact that he gave Lot the chance to do the right thing and divide the "best" lands between them implies that Abraham still held out hope for his nephew.

Lot, though, greedily snapped up the better grazing lands, leaving the less-lush land for his Uncle: "Lot looked around and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan toward Zoar was well watered, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt....So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan and set out toward the east" (Gen. 13:10-11). 

Scripture records that "Abram went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he pitched his tents" while "Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom"  (v. 18, 12).

There couldn't be two more extreme images, one of Abraham separating himself from the world to the point of the closest landmark being some trees and the other of Lot living near one of the most evil cities in history.

The problem with setting up one's tents this close to a city known throughout history as being the epitome of all things immoral is it's only a hop, skip, and a jump before you're camping closer and closer to the city gates.  Then, before you know it, you're comfortable enough to step through those gates and, eventually, live within the walls with little to no hesitation, and that is exactly what happened.  

Just one chapter later, a conglomerate of kings captured the city of Sodom and, with it, Lot's family.  As Scripture records, "They also carried off Abram’s nephew Lot and his possessions, since he was living in Sodom" (Gen. 14:12).

Living.  In.  Sodom.

At this point, Abraham had a choice.  He could save Lot or let him suffer the consequences of his own actions.

The two men had already separated.  Abraham owed Lot nothing more.  And besides, Lot had chosen poorly, obviously demonstrating a heart not devoted to remaining completely separate from the world.  Yet, whether Lot was participating in the worldly living found within Sodom's walls wasn't the point.  The question was, what would Abraham, God's chosen man, do about it?  

Although there is no other instance in Scripture of Abram picking up his sword to take the battlefield, in this solitary episode, Abram did just that:  "When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan...He recovered all the goods and brought back his relative Lot and his possessions, together with the women and the other people" (Gen. 14:13-16).

Stupidly enough, Lot apparently did not learn his lesson here about separating himself from the world.  He evidently went back from captivity to his home in Sodom so that a mere five chapters later, angels have to come and warn Lot to leave or be destroyed along with the city.

Since Lot did not learn his lesson, does that mean, then, that Abraham should have just left him the first time to rot in the consequences of his sin?  I don't believe so.  

In Abraham, I see seeds of God's heart as shown throughout the New Testament in Jesus Christ:  first,our God is not indifferent to suffering, even when that suffering is a direct result of our choices.  Secondly, our God is a God of second chances, One who doesn't give up on us even when we seem to never learn our lessons.

These are the characteristics I see in Abraham.  These are the characteristics I believe God wants to see in the church today.  Yet, too often, it seems that the church unintentionally equates God's requirement to be "separate" from the world with being "uninvolved."  That un-involvement then leads to a heart of indifference.

Yet, God did not call His children to be indifferent or uninvolved.  He merely called us to be separate. Yes, there is a difference.

As we enter this holiday season, there is a lost world around us.  We may even have family and friends living in a modern version of Sodom.  Perhaps we have intentionally separated ourselves from them because of different moral or religious beliefs, fearing the impact on us and on our children.  

While I can honestly understand that desire, I still believe God wants us to look at that person as one who needs a Savior, as one who may only hear that gospel from your lips.  In all things, may we guard our hearts against indifference.  Let us not ignore the plight of the lost simply because we have chosen to be set apart in pursuit of sanctification.  

Image: entitled "Indifference."

Sunday, December 1, 2013

One Flame of Hope

This evening marks the first Sunday of advent, the season when we Christians pause in concert to remember the sacrifice a King made when He chose to enshroud himself in the flesh of a newborn babe.

After sundown, Husband, the children, and I gathered still unsure stomachs around small cups of soup and cornbread to light the first of the long purple tapers.

As husband searched for the matches, I stepped to the living room and reached for the most well-worn Bible in the house, a New American Standard version that husband and I clung to through the worst season of our lives.

The faded cover has long since ceased to be attractive; its binding has been glued more than once; and some of its pages are stained from always being set down in the midst of life, itself. Its words, however, are still just as piercing and perfect as when the book was glossy and stiff bound with that audible crackle upon opening.

Little eyes watched as red-tipped match struck, sulfur sputtering, leaping to golden flame.

"This candle represents hope," I proclaimed.


Even though at times we may despair, feel there is no hope, none of us really knows what it is like to live in a world without hope.

The prophet Jeremiah spoke of hope. In his letters to the exiled Israelites, to those people who felt as if their God had abandoned them to their this group, he spoke words of hope.

"'For thus says the LORD, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’" (Jer. 29:10-14).

Even in exile, in judgment, in slavery, in the midst of God's wrath--even then, there was hope for them.

A Savior was coming, one who would save them from their sin, who would reunite humanity with a holy Father.

The same holds true for us today. As Peter rejoiced, "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade"(1 Peter 1:3-4).

Hope has come.

Hope is here.

Hope is coming.