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

http://drbillwooten.com/2012/05/01/indifference/
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.

Hope.

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 wretchedness...to 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.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Hanukkah and Thanksgiving: Two Holidays in One

For most Christians, Hanukkah means little more than brass menorahs with nine branches, toy dreidels, tiny candles, and dark blue and white decorations. Yet, as with most Jewish holy days and feasts, this one, too, is significant for non-Jews as well.

Were it not for Hanukkah, the Jewish nation could have easily become just another Greek province.  There would have been no distinct Jewish nation or family for Jesus to have been born into.  in short, there would be no Christmas.

Hanukkah is the Hebrew word meaning "dedication."  What may surprise you is that this Feast of Dedication is actually found in Scripture.  John 10:22 records, "Then the Festival of Dedication took place in Jerusalem, and it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon."

The Messiah was in the temple at the time of Hanukkah, no doubt celebrating in remembrance with His fellow Jews. 

The eight day Hanukkah celebration serves as a reminder of the period of time immediately preceding Christ's birth when Alexander the Great and the Greeks sought to assimilate everything and everyone in their path, including the conquered nation of Israel.

As you might imagine, there was pressure from the upper classes and priests for Israel to fit into this Greek culture.  Conforming would just make life easier, right?

Sure...except for the parts where Hellenistic Greek culture was filled with rampant immorality, worship of false gods, and disregard for the non-progressive idea that Jehovah was the sole God of the universe and not Zeus. 

Antiochus Epiphanes, King of Syria, held this part of Alexander's empire and, two hundred years before Christ's birth, decided to turn all Jews into Greeks, to force them to assimilate.  How better to do this than to conspire with several Jewish leaders to conscript the temple of God for Greek worship.  The result was God's temple transformed into a temple for Zeus with his statue placed inside the Holy of Holies.  What's more, the corrupt priests sacrificed pig's blood to this idol within the temple walls, an abomination and flagrant disregard for God's instructions regarding the purity of His holy temple.

Then there was King Antiochus, himself.  His second name meant "the epiphany of the gods," a personal attempt to claim divinity in flesh for himself.   In short, he claimed to be a god made flesh, dwelling among them. Immanuel, with a lowercase "i."

In 165 B.C.E., a devout group of Jews called the Maccabees revolted against this attempt at assimilation.  They reclaimed the temple, cleansed it after the desecration, and then dedicated it once again so worship of God could continue as He had prescribed in the Torah.

Dedication.  Hanukkah.

Fast forward to that Festival of Dedication in the New Testament.  Into the temple walks another man of flesh claiming to be God and saying, "I and the Father are one" (Jn. 10:30).  With memories of Antiochus Epiphanes fresh in their mind at this Feast, it's no wonder the crowd picked up stones to use against Jesus "'for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God'" (Jn. 10:33).

The sad thing is that while Antiochus had been mere flesh, Jesus was the one they had all been waiting for.  He really was God dwelling among them. Immanuel, God with us, but this time with a capital "I."

This year, Hanukkah begins in the evening of Wednesday, November 27 and ends in the evening of Thursday, December 5, 2013, is one of those rare occurrences when Hanukkah and Thanksgiving overlap.

We Christians already gathering to give thanks for God's blessings could benefit from pausing to remember Hanukkah as well.  As Messianic Jewish Rabbi Derek Leman says, "Hanukkah is about more than Jewish survival--it's about Jewish people resisting the temptation to assimilate and disappear.  It's about Jewish people remaining Jewish, no matter the cost" (Leman 110).


Sound familiar?  In a modern world where Christians are fighting this same battle to not assimilate, to not take the easy road and disappear into the throngs who refuse to acknowledge Scripture as God's revelation of Himself and His holy requirements, our remembering Hanukkah  could be as simple as reminding us to dedicate ourselves to purity and holiness in our worship of God.

It's about God's children remaining God's children....no matter the cost.


*Source: Leman, Derek.  Feast: Finding Yourself at the Table of Tradition.  Lifeway P, 2008.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Setting Your Internal GPS to the Right Destination

Last Thursday evening was one of those moments when I dipped low, frustrated with the struggles of this life that seem to persist.  No matter what I do, no matter what I pray, it is always the same short list.  Husband held me as I gave voice to those unspoken feelings of both sadness and anger I didn't realize was still within.

It has been almost eight years since one woman's choice to deceive and tell a single lie completely incinerated any plans we had framed up for a future.  A career, financial security, and husband's good name lay in the ashes that surrounded us, but back then, I still held out hope of justice in this lifetime, of us rebuilding something...somewhere else. 

Husband is always quick to rattle off a list of how far we have come in those eight years.  God has given us three children when we thought there would be none.  He has provided a house that we call home.  Our relationship with our extended family has grown closer.  And our faith walk with God has deepened to levels I never imagined possible.

Yet, in those darker moments, I can't see these mile markers.  All I can see is the same problems plaguing me year in and year out; in those times, they are like a dense wall of smoke, keeping me from seeing any progress.  Instead, I look down to see my feet cemented permanently in those ashes, unable to move as the world whizzes by around me.  And all I can think is "What if this is all there will ever be? If these struggles really never will cease?  If I must fight them until my dying breath?"

This basic need to see progress in our lives is important to surviving the strains of this life.

The good news is our heavenly Father knew this about us.  Through the pages of Scripture, He inspired men to remind us that no matter how stagnant our lives may seem, we're never standing still.  Instead, we are on a journey.  We are moving forward to that ending point in the distance even when we can't see any movement.

In the Psalms, David writes,

"Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
    whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.

As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
    they make it a place of springs;
    the autumn rains also cover it with pools.

They go from strength to strength,    till each appears before God in Zion" (Ps. 84:5-7).

In this passage, the speaker speaks of being "blessed" to be on a pilgrimage to Mt. Zion where he will meet with God in the temple.  The word "Blessed" in verse five is transliterated as "'esher," meaning "happiness."  The word "has the force of an interjection" or exclamation, implying an announcement of good news.*

In other words, the psalmist is exclaiming with much excitement and expectation that happiness in this life is found first when we "set [our hearts] on pilgrimage."  This means we must acknowledge what this life actually is--not a destination but a pilgrimage through temporary circumstances.

Secondly, the psalmist is telling us happiness is to be found in keeping our hearts focused on that destination.  This is where I falter, forgetting that my destination is not a new job, better financial security, retirement, children out of the house, etc.  The psalmist is clear--we pilgrims must recognize that God and God alone, enthroned, in Zion, our heavenly Jerusalem--He is our goal and destination. 

If we want to feel like we're merely spinning our wheels, all we must do is set our eyes on a different destination other than God in Zion.  The blessing, the happiness, the good news to be exclaimed in these verses is not here on this earth.  Yet, we are headed for Him who is our "good news" and our "happiness."  This is the same "good news" the angel proclaimed to Mary.  Jesus.

Paul used similar pilgrimage imagery in Hebrews, although because of his setting in the culture of the day, he utilized the metaphor of racing, encouraging his readers, "let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith" (Heb. 12:1-2).

As did the psalmist, Paul, too, says the key to this life is two-fold: (1) running the race (i.e., setting our hearts on pilgrimage) and (2) keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.  Somehow, I wonder if Paul didn't also employ the racing imagery (versus the image of a pilgrim plodding down a sandy road) because he was showing how this side of the cross, we must live with anticipation that Christ may return at any second. 

This passage comes after the infamous "Hall of Faith" in Hebrews 11, wherein Paul lists one pilgrim after another who faithfully completed his or her pilgrimage to God.  While Christians typically look to those pilgrims as larger than life heroes, wonder men and women of God, Paul reminds us, "All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth" (Heb. 11:13).  

These pillars of the faith likely had moments when they, too, wondered if they were making any progress towards that final destination.  At times, I'm sure they, too, focused their eyes on earthly destinations rather than the eternal one.

If we set our internal GPS to any destination other than God enthroned in a heavenly Zion, then yes, our lives may be stagnant and not making any progress.  Yet, if our hearts are set where they should be and if we embrace this life as what it is meant to be--a pilgrimage, a journey where we're just passing through--therein lies one of several keys to happiness in our circumstances.  

The journey is our destination, both focused on God alone.  

He is our peace.  He is our joy.  He is our happiness.  



*Word analysis from Strong's Concordance at Blueletterbible.org

Monday, November 11, 2013

Balancing the Old and the New

As a whole, the modern-day church pays little mind to the Old Testament.  Sure, sermons may dip into that vast inkwell of antiquity for a random verse or two, but aside from camping in the strength and comfort of David's Psalms or delving deep into the books of prophecy for their link to and fulfillment in Jesus, the great bulk of the Old Testament is relegated to history--stored up on the high shelf and draped with a weighty quilt of dust.

I do understand the reasoning behind this choice, to some degree.  A pastor's speaking time is limited and is most likely to be in front of a diverse congregation.  Since there's no telling who might be sitting in that service or even if those persons will ever darken the door of a church house again, it seems quite necessary to present the gospel of salvation, which necessarily requires New Testament Scriptures.

As such, a sermon's primary text usually is situated firmly between Matthew and the book of Revelation.  Yet, what disturbs me is the thought that in the privacy of our own homes, Christians seeking to walk further down the path of righteousness do the same thing--they cling to studying again what they have unconsciously been led to believe is more important in the New as they neglect the "must-be-unimportant-because-the-pastor-rarely-turns-there" Old.

Perhaps my role as a K4-K5 Sunday School teacher allows me to see such a pronounced gap in the overall church congregation's continued exposure to Scripture in its entirety.  In the children's department, my young pupils are saturated with stories from The Old and New Testaments.

Yet, steeping oneself in the Old Testament should not stop once we don a cap and gown and fling wide the doors to adulthood.  These are not mere history lessons full of facts that, once memorized, need not be studied again.  Since we are adopted as sons and daughters, grafted as "wild olive shoots" into the true Vine, these pages are snapshots of our family tree  (Rom 11).  They are flickering glimpses through the veil to reveal who God is.  They are mirrored reflections of our own present-day society's coming demise if it, likewise, continues to turn its face from the Lord in pursuit of idols.

The prophet Isaiah made the importance of Old Testament Scripture clear when he stated,

"Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth.  When I called him he was but one, and I blessed him and made him many" (Is. 51:1-2).

In other words, as Christians, we should have this same longing to look back to our roots, which began with Abraham and Sarah

You don't have to look far to find someone in an intense quest to determine who they are and where they came from.  Perhaps that person is you.  Tracking one's ancestry is a booming business.  Now days, all it takes is a painless cheek swab and a couple hundred bucks to one of several genome projects to tell us about our ancestors.

Yes, our nation thrives on understanding its roots, on ferreting out ancient familial and cultural connections once thought lost.  The same must be true of our pursuit of who we are in the family of God.

I challenge you as I challenge myself--to ask what percentage of time this past year you've spent pouring over the inspired words of God found in The New Testament  as compared to the time you've spent pouring over the equally inspired words from God found in The Old Testament. 

If the scales are tipped so far that one side drags the floor, perhaps it's time to "Look to the rock from which you were cut" and see what God would teach you there.


Image: Geno Chip from National Geographic's genographic project.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Living Like An Orphan


"Can I help you," I ask my son.

He hears me but doesn't even look up.  "No.  I've got it." 

I raise an eyebrow and shrug but back away without further comment.  He doesn't have it, of that I'm sure. 

The floor surrounding him is covered with a confetti bomb of magazine clippings and torn out pages yet to be attacked by the snub-nosed black and white zebra scissors.  Emerson works diligently to cut out another tiny picture for his collage, but his brute force approach is no match for the delicate twists and turns needed to cut out the golden tamarin monkey's thin, winding tail.

Sure enough, I'm standing elbow-deep in dishes at the sink when he finally gives up and asks for my help.

The problem is he's not the only one in my household dead-set against accepting assistance.  My other two children and almost forty-year-old husband all suffer from the same I-don't-need-help malady, an illness usually stemming from a belief that the project "isn't that hard" or that they'll "be a burden or inconvenience" to someone else.

Some days, it's maddening to live with these people.  It's when I'm ready to choke the stubborn lot of them that I realize I am guilty of much the same thing.  Five years of raising twins has taught me well that I need to rely on others, to ask for help.  I strongly believe God gave me twins to bring me to the end of my own self-reliance so that I could finally learn to be quick in asking others for help, even when it's something I could do myself but would be easier and quicker with more helping hands working alongside me.

The problem is I can't always say the same is true when it comes to my interactions with the heavenly Father.

All too often, I find myself living like an orphan with no Father, as one who "lacks support, supervision, or care" when nothing could be further from the truth 

I work hard, trying to provide for my own needs, all the while forgetting to petition Him to "Give us this day our daily bread" (Matt. 6:11).

I struggle against various temptations in my own strength, pulling myself up by the bootstraps and forging ahead despite my constant failures, forgetting to simply ask "And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil" (Matt. 6:13).

The story of the Prodigal Son is a tale of a self-declared orphan living in his own self-imposed, wretched state.

Yes, the young man had acted sinfully.  Yes, he had squandered all his material wealth.  Yet, for a time, he chose to live as an orphan: "So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him" (Lk. 15:15-16).

Perhaps he chose to live as an orphan because he was too ashamed to face his father.  Or perhaps he feared his father's rejection were he to return.  Whatever the reason, the Prodigal Son submitted to this life as an orphan, a sub-human life full of physical hunger, social rejection, and a corresponding emotional hunger to return home to the father.

Scripture records, "But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.'' So he got up and came to his father" (v. 17-20).

Whether or not his father chose to accept him back as his son would be his father's choice, but this young man made a decision to leave the life of an orphan and return home.  The words "he came to his senses" could not be any clearer concerning how totally idiotic it is to wallow in the mire of our unrepentant state, to struggle alone in the daily difficulties of this life, and to live as if there is no father to turn to.

The text could also not be clearer concerning the father's response to any child who returns home: "But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him" (v. 20).

This parable well demonstrates how God the Father is just waiting with open arms for His children to return home to Him, to realize there is no sin too great for God to forgive, no distance too great that He cannot bridge the gap to reconcile Himself to His child.  In short, any self-labelled orphan need only repent and turn to the Father to be adopted into His kingdom as sons and daughters (Rom 8:17).

But I think this parable doesn't just speak to those far away from the grace of Christ.  Instead, I believe it shows an image of what happens each and every time those of us who are already in Christ attempt to live as if we, too, are orphans.

Each time there is a difficulty, an illness, a concern.  Each time there is a problem, an uncertainty about what to do, a hardship.  Each time I attempt to tackle anything in my own power, I am as guilty of denying that I have a Father as the Prodigal Son lying in the slop with the swine.

Each day you and I live like we don't have a heavenly Father watching over us, waiting for us to turn to Him, extending His hand to help since He is just a prayer away--each moment we live like an orphan, we are doomed to utter failure, frustration, and heartache because to live like an orphan is to try and be someone we were never created to be.

God did not create us to stand on our own two feet.  He never meant for you and me to live as orphans in no (or even "little") need of a Father's moment-by-moment guidance.   He did not save our souls, give us a push toward the right path and say, "Good luck!"

We are sons.  We are daughters.  Moment by moment, may we reject this notion that we are independent, self-sufficient orphans and choose, instead, to be the child wholly and irrevocably dependent on the Father... just as we were created to be.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Even If One Came Back From the Dead

What must it have been like to stand in the presence of God?  To realize you weren't dreaming or hallucinating but that in a twinkling, the veil between the visible and the invisible had parted to give you a glimpse of heavenly things in the form of an angel of the LORD, sent straight from the throne room with a message to you?

Just the thought strikes fear, awe, reverence, and a little bit of jealousy in me, all at the same time.  I would like to believe such an encounter would radically change my life, that it would erase any doubts that flicker through my mind on occasion.

And perhaps that is why I am still quicksand-stuck in Genesis with the story of the slave woman, Hagar, who was not worth much in the eyes of humanity but who suddenly found herself not only blessed to be living with God’s chosen people but also to be the recipient of God’s tangible presence—not once but twice.

The first time Hagar ran from Abraham and Sarah’s presence, “The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert” (Gen. 16:7).

In these verses describing the encounter, the Hebrew word for “LORD” is transliterated as “YÄ•hovah.”  Jehovah. “Lord and master.”  “The existing one.”  The God of the Abraham and God's holy people in whom He placed His name forever.  This was the God she met with out in the wilderness.

As Blue Letter Bible states, Jehovah is “the promised name of God…While YHWH is first used in Genesis 2, God did not reveal Himself as YHWH until Exodus 3” when God told Moses to tell the Israelite slaves, “Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, ‘The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you” (Ex. 3:15).

The Jehovah God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob came to save His people.

This same Jehovah God was the one to visit Hagar, already pregnant with Abraham’s seed, although not with the child of promise.  When Hagar responds to Him, “She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me’” (Gen. 16:13).

Here, her words seem to express a belief in Jehovah God in that she confesses with her mouth the LORD as God.  At this point, although the Scripture doesn't say it directly,  I have always believed her return to the camp serves as evidence of her submission to Jehovah as her Lord and Master.

Yet, two facts make me wonder if the submission were only lip service to this Jehovah God and not a submission of the heart to Him as her Master and Lord.  First is the fact that Ishmael grows into a young man who cruelly mocks young Isaac, an evil attitude that had to come from somewhere.  Could it be that he had picked up on his mother's ill will toward Sarah and Isaac? Had she even complained to the boy of how Abraham and Sarah had mistreated both her and him?  Second is Hagar’s subsequent stony-faced,unrepentant exit from Abraham’s camp and refusal to call on the name of the Lord even when such hard heartedness would almost certainly lead to the death of her son.

This idea seems even more likely considering the second time she leaves Abraham’s camp by force and meets with God in the wilderness, she does not meet with Jehovah.  Instead, Scripture records, “And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven and said unto her, ‘What aileth thee, Hagar? Fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is’” (Gen. 21: 17).

Here, the God who comforts her is the Hebrew word for “'elohiym.”  This is God in the plural sense, as in God the creator of Genesis 1-2.  This is not Jehovah God.  

It is interesting that God chose to come to her and Ishmael as Elohim, not as Jehovah.  While both words for "God" are used thousands of times each in the Old Testament, I strongly believe this shift in who God presents Himself as is extremely important.

But why did God come to Hagar as Elohim and not as Jehovah?  

I honestly can't say for certain, and no other commentator I've consulted has thought this detail important enough to even mention.  Yet, I wonder if it was because since God is the One who sees into our hearts, He had already seen Hagar's lack of faith in Him.  He already knew that in her heart, she had rejected Him as "Jehovah," as Lord, Master and Savior of her life and, as such, He came to her not as her Lord and Master but merely as the One True God of the universe who is the God of all creation...even those parts that reject Him as Lord.

If this is true, then Hagar's exile from Abraham's camp and entrance into a wilderness was merely a fulfillment of what had already happened in her heart.  This physical exile from God's people simply reflected what had already occurred in Hagar's soul as she had already spiritually rejected and exiled herself from God as her Lord and Master, as her savior.

This view of Hagar's heart seems to hold more validity when one considers how Scripture concludes the passage on Hagar: "Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.  God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt" (Gen. 21: 19-20).

Unlike with the first encounter when God spoke to Hagar and she followed by confessing Him as LORD Jehovah God, this time, Hagar says nothing at all.  She does not confess Him with her mouth.  She does not give thanks.  She does not demonstrate awe that He is a "God who sees."  Instead, Scripture simply says she fills up her skin with water and gives it to her son.

Elohim hears Ishmael's cry.  Elohim calls to Hagar.  Elohim opens her eyes. Likewise, Elohim is the God who is with Ishmael as he grows up...not Jehovah.  

God's protection to both Ishmael and Hagar, then, is either an example of them being blessed because of Abraham's faith in God OR, equally likely, that this is an example of "common grace" versus "saving grace" where God extends common grace to all humanity, even those who reject Him as master and Lord of their lives.  

Finally, the v. 19 description of Ishmael living in the desert as an archer seems to portray him as a self-made man, not one reliant upon God for his daily bread.  And, that last sentence in v. 20 showing Hagar return to her pagan, idolatrous roots--the land of Egypt--to procure Ishmael a bride seems most compelling.

Perhaps this is why Paul refers to Hagar as being a symbolic figurehead for all those enslaved by the law and sin, saying, "Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children" (Gal. 4:25).

Two visits from the Lord.  And yet, it doesn't seem to have been enough to change Hagar's heart. It's terribly sad and scary at the same time, how hardened our hearts can become,  Yet, Jesus spoke of the same thing in the New Testament story where the rich man in hell begs for Lazarus to be sent to his family and Abraham responds, "‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead’”(Lk. 16:31).

It's not a miracle, a dead man walking, the audible voice of the Lord, or even an angel that saves our souls.  It is the Word of God taking root in our hearts that will work the miracle of salvation.  No other inexplicable phenomenon is needed or will even transform us if we merely believe with our heads but fail to submit with our hearts.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The American Storage Unit

It wasn't that long ago when "storage" meant people tucking away unused items in their attics and barns. If it didn't fit your body or home, you either threw it out or found someone else who could use it.

Now? I can't drive twenty minutes from my home without seeing huge complexes filled with row upon row of storage units. Some are climate controlled and large enough to live in!

The popularity of these businesses shouldn't be surprising. Accumulating "stuff" is the American way. To have more, better, bigger a sign of prosperity, of achieving the American dream.

When I think of storage and Scripture, my mind immediately goes to the man who tore down the barns he had to build bigger ones to store his earthly treasure...and then he died, leaving it all behind (Lk. 12). I recall God's words about bringing my tithes into the "storehouse" (Mal. 3:10). I remember Matthew 6: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (v. 19-21).

Yet, what stands out to me most is not the physical storage mentioned in Scripture, but two other metaphorical kinds of storage. One is the storage of sin--not something the average person would intentionally do; I mean, who in his right mind would want to store up his sin? But without the saving blood of Christ, that's just what a person does--creates a storehouse of sin. Romans 2:5 states, "But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God."

To create a storehouse of sin is to create a storehouse of God's wrath.

In Hosea's message to Israel, he also speaks of this sin storage in connection with God's judgment: "The iniquity of Ephraim is bound up; His sin is stored up" (Hos. 13:12). This verse, though, speaks of more than mere storage of one individual's sin. Instead, it speaks of a storehouse established for the whole country of Israel--here referred to as the tribe of "Ephraim."

Imagine this verse speaking to America, warning her that her sins are not going unnoticed. Instead, they are being stockpiled as God stands by and watches, waiting to enact His judgment just as He did in Hosea's time with Israel. It is a scary picture.

But there is hope.

Scripture speaks of a second kind of storage--of prayers. In John's vision of the throne room of heaven, he sees an angel at the "altar, holding a golden censer; and much incense was given to him, so that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angel's hand" (Rev. 8:3-4, my italics).

My prayers. Your prayers. All the prayers of the saints are gathered in golden storage bowls before God's throne.

While I don't fully understand the part our prayers play in God's final judgment, I do know one thing--God wants us to realize that not one prayer is wasted. Not one prayer is in vain. Every silent and every uttered prayer is stored up on that heavenly altar, just waiting for the God-ordained time when He will pour them out on the earth to accomplish the judgment of sinners and redemption of saints.

Be encouraged. Even though you see America storing up sin by the bag-full so that some days, our country resembles one giant garbage dump of sin, do not despair. Continue to pray for our nation, "pray and not to lose heart" (Lk. 18:1).

Whether you can see results or not, keep storing up prayers in those golden bowls.

(Posting from the archives this week after an incredibly trying week dealing with sin at my house, applying for new jobs, and reclaiming my office, a frazzled craziness that culminated in a failed attempt to try and verbalize what God has been teaching me through Scripture. Praying next week finds my life, family, and office more "together" than this past one.) 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Disillusioned By God & His People: Part II

I can look back in my past and see God's footprints as He carried me through one trial or another, those watershed moments that broke my heart and buckled my knees so I couldn't take another step on my own. In hindsight, I know God has always been for me, even when I couldn't lift my eyes to see Him or couldn't comprehend the why for the pain of the what.

Somewhere along the way, I bought into the assumption that the more I turned to God in these times of trial, the easier it would be to turn to him the next time I entered another trial, for I realize that there is always another struggle somewhere in front of me, just past the vanishing point where the horizon meets the sky.  

I assumed that as I matured in Christ, it would just become second nature to encounter the next difficulty sent my way, accept it as part of His plan, and move forward by His grace.  

But that's not how it works.  

For starters, no two trials are alike, so learning how to live abundantly in one trial doesn't make overcoming the next trial an easy task.  Then, there's the problem of reconciling what we know with what we expect--we may know in our hearts that another trial is coming, but we never expect it to come so soon on the heels of the last trial.  We also don't expect the next trial to be as hard as it always is; in our Christian walk, we assume maturity will make the trials easier to endure, if for no other reason than because we're more experienced in dealing with them.  

Yet, each time, we're blindsided by the sheer magnitude of the thunderstorm bearing down on us when seconds before, nothing was on the radar except clear blue skies.  As such, the latest trial is much like the first trial God sent our way.  It is a new choice to either turn to God or turn away from God.

Last week's message ended with Hagar running from an abusive Sarah, meeting the God of Israel, and returning to Abraham and Sarah where she would give birth to Ishmael.  Out there in the wilderness, the Lord had come down and spoken to her, offering her comfort and a promise that through Ishmael, her descendants would become too many to count.  In that moment of trial and despair, she chose to turn to the Lord, saying, "'You are a God who sees'” (Gen. 16:13).

Years passed fairly uneventfully as she continued her life as Sarah's maidservant.  Then came the birth of Isaac, the true child of promise, who, in her motherly eyes, usurped her son's place in both Abraham's heart and inheritance after all these years.  

After Ishmael incited Sarah's ire by taunting the young Isaac, slave mother and son were sent packing.  evicted from the camp and with nowhere to turn.  Scripture records, "So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar, putting them on her shoulder, and gave her the boy, and sent her away. And she departed and wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba" (Gen. 21:14).

Here Hagar was, sixteen years later, right back in the same wilderness to which she had fled before. The irony of the situation couldn't have escaped her as she made her way into that place where she had once met with God.

Yes, it was the same place, but it was still a different trial.  And while Hagar chose to believe God those many years ago, things weren't so certain this time around.

For starters, the absence of any dialogue on her part when Abraham sends the pair away shows a woman as hard as flint.  If I had been Hagar being sent away with only a skin of water and bread, you'd better believe the annals of history would record me repenting, begging, pleading, and promising nothing shy of my firstborn child just to not be turned out on the road with thieves and jackals.  Yet, Scripture records nothing of the sort here.

Hagar's tight lipped retreat into the wilderness shows a proud woman...and a very angry woman, too.  I imagine she was so furious with Abraham for following Sarah's orders to send them packing that her pride wouldn't allow her to ask Abraham's forgiveness for Ishmael's actions. 

I imagine her turning on one heel and wordlessly marching away into the dust and sand, her head held stiff and high....never turning back for a second glimpse of the life she was leaving behind. No, her body would have stayed erect and unyielding until she was out of sight, as if she feared her resolve would crumble if she turned her head for just an instant.

But adrenaline fueled by anger can only last so long, and when the heat of the day along with the seriousness of her situation set in, Hagar had two choices--return to Abraham and beg for mercy or continue on this path to nowhere.  Drowning in her own pride, she chose the latter.

Still, Hagar did have another choice.  She could have called on God, the One who sees.  Yet, she refused.   

Scripture records, "When the water in the skin was used up, she left the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him, about a bowshot away, for she said, 'Do not let me see the boy die.' And she sat opposite him, and lifted up her voice and wept" (Gen. 21:15-16). 

Death was imminent.  And still, Hagar did not call out to God for help.  She may have believed God had simply sided with Abraham and against her. Perhaps she had even convinced herself the previous encounter with God in the wilderness was just a fluke, that she had misheard Him, or that He had gone back on His word, abandoning her like everyone else in her life.  In truth, though, I believe she was angry with God, that she would have rather died in her anger than ask for His help, blaming Him for her present plight.

Although she may have been hardened with anger, Ishmael did cry out: "God heard the lad crying; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, 'What is the matter with you, Hagar? Do not fear, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.' Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water; and she went and filled the skin with water and gave the lad a drink" (Gen. 21:17-19).

The phrase "What is the matter with you, Hagar?" could just as easily say, "What's your problem, Hagar!?  Why haven't you called to me for help?  Don't you know I'm just a call away? Are your pride and anger really worth your death and the death of your son?"  It reminds me of when Jesus said to Philip, "Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me?" (Jn. 14:9).

God then reached out and provided that life-giving water to Hagar and Ishmael, but this mercy wasn't extended because of anything Hagar had done.  No.  It was extended because Ishmael cried out for help, and the Lord answered him.

This wounds me, the thought that like Hagar, my child may be the one who calls out to the Lord for me when I am too hurt, proud, or angry to seek His face.

Hagar knew the God of Abraham.  She had met Him in a most intimate way sixteen years earlier. Yet, this time, Hagar chose to embrace her anger, pride, and despair, and turn away from the Lord.  As much as I'd like to shake my head at her unbelief, I honestly can't.  If I've learned anything in my thirty six years, it's that my proper response to God in the next trial is not assured.  

A Christian can never grow complacent, believing him or herself "mature enough" to always respond as the Lord would have him do.  Turning to God in the midst of a trial will always be a conscious choice we will need to make again and again.  But we can be encouraged, knowing that although we change like the shifting sands, our Father never changes.  He will always be there for us, waiting for us to petition Him and rest in His arms of mercy as the storms of this life rage around us.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Disillusioned By God & His People: Part I

A little over three years ago, popular author Anne Rice made front page news by posting to her Facebook page that she was leaving Christianity.  The news was surprising, especially since she had so publicly abandoned atheism for Christianity just years earlier in her novel Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession, a compelling memoir tracing the winding path that took her from atheism to faith in Jesus.

Yet, here she was, writing, "Today I quit being a Christian ... It's simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else." 

Sadly, Rice isn't the only person I know who has turned her back on religion...and maybe on her faith.  While there are a multitude of reasons many turn their back on both religion and God (two separate things in my book), two seem to top the list--the actions of Christians and the trials of this life.

I know too many people who have been hurt by professing Christians or who have witnessed too much hypocrisy in the church to the point where they incorrectly equate these people's actions to be representative of true Christianity.  Then, there are the others whose life circumstances have been incredibly difficult to the point where they've chosen to believe no God of goodness would allow such heartache.  

Both groups have said "enough" and turned their backs as they make their own path across a barren desert of their own choosing.

Abraham and Sarah's servant, Hagar, would fall into both these groups--those disenchanted with the actions of those who claim to be God's people and those whose life is cruel is unfair.

A day was coming when she would turn her back on God for these very reasons.  

But before then, Hagar met the Lord.

It is easy to look at the servant Hagar's life and conclude that if anyone had a grievance against God for the hand she'd been dealt, it was her.  Once a slave in Egypt, she had been casually given to Abraham, forcing her to leave behind likely the only country she'd ever known, friends, and perhaps even family to join these foreigners whose customs, God, and language were strange to her.

Then her new mistress, Sarah, decided to offer Hagar to her husband Abraham so the two of them could conceive an heir.  As was the life of a slave, Hagar had no choice in the matter.  She couldn't refuse.  And she had nowhere to run even if she did.  

Yet, perhaps she realized that with this forced coupling came her chance to become more than what she was--a somebody in the eyes of her master and perhaps even more...to escape slavery for a better life.  The wheels started turning in her head, how to work this to her advantage.    

Those dreams must have seemed close enough to touch because once Hagar became pregnant with Abraham's son, she grew quite haughty.  Scripture records, "and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her sight" (Gen. 16:4).  Down South, we'd say she had grown too big for her britches, vaulting herself before her mistress in her own self-importance.  

In Hagar's mind, she had succeeded where Sarah had failed.  She had provided what Abraham wanted most when Sarah could not.  She was the one who should be pampered and held in high regard, what with the child of promise (or so she believed) growing inside her swelling belly.  

I imagine she began to act the role of the queen bee around camp, perhaps speaking disdainfully to her mistress, perhaps refusing to do her mistress' bidding or grumbling as she did, and perhaps even giving orders, herself.  

If she had hoped Abraham would stand up for her, would exalt her out of her lowliness as a servant now that she carried his heir, she was shaken from this delusion in short order.   Her place in Abraham's "kingdom" hadn't changed.  

Surely to her surprise, when Sarah complained about Hagar's attitude, Abraham refused to intervene in what he likely considered women's troubles.  In one simple sentence, he gave Sarah carte blanche to treat Hagar as she wished, saying "Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her what is good in your sight" (v.6a).

 So, Sarah did what one would expect and knocked her servant down to size: Scripture records that Sarah "treated her harshly, and she [Hagar] fled from her presence" (v. 6b).

Where Hagar expected to go, I'm not sure, but I doubt she had anywhere particular in mind.  Her heightened emotional state brought on by pregnancy combined with the dream-crushing disappointment of her child's father refusing to stand up for her and exalt her above his own wife (that should have been expected)--Hagar had been shoved firmly back into her social place and couldn't deal with what she perceived as a demotion.  So, she just ran into the nowhere of the wilderness.

 Yet, there in her despair is where God found Hagar.  

There, the angel of the Lord met her, saying, “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her authority...I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count....Behold, you are with child, And you will bear a son; And you shall call his name Ishmael, Because the Lord has given heed to your affliction" (v. 9-11).

These words to return to Sarah and submit must have chafed even while the other part of the angel's message left her feeling vindicated. Her descendants would be too many to count.  

Her.  A woman.  A slave.  A foreigner living in exile from her homeland.  Her descendants would be too many to count.

Then, "she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, 'You are a God who sees'” (v. 13).

Hagar's mistress and even Abraham may have seen her as nothing more than a servant for breeding an heir.   But the God of Abraham saw her. He heard her.  She mattered to Him.

In this instant, she met the God of Abraham.  I believe it was then that Yahweh became her God as well, for Hagar obeyed the angel's command and returned to Sarah where she gave birth to Ishmael.  

Whether Hagar returned with a sincerely submissive spirit (I doubt it), whether the Lord's promise was enough to tuck away in her heart to get her through the daily grind of life as a servant, or whether Sarah and Hagar came to some sort of truce, whether voiced or unspoken--I don't know.  But life moved forward without recorded incident. Scripture swiftly leaps over Ismael's entire childhood, not mentioning Hagar again until Isaac's weaning when her son Ishmael was sixteen or seventeen years old.   

Did Hagar have reason to be disillusioned with a God who not only allowed her to remain a slave but who also instructed her to return to a mistress who mistreated her?  Did she have reason to be disillusioned with a God whose professed chosen people were allowed to afflict their slaves and use them as they wished, seemingly without consequences?

Sure.  Abraham and Sarah didn't act like we would expect God's people to act.  And God didn't miraculously change Hagar's circumstances once she met Him.

Yet, here, she accepted God for who He was, not for who she wanted or even imagined Him to be.  She also accepted God based on her encounter with Him and not because of her encounters with others who professed to be His followers.

And therein lies a lesson for us all in how we should relate to God.  As hard as it may be, we cannot allow others' actions to determine whether we do or don't seek a relationship with God.  Also, when God doesn't act according to our expectations, we must ask ourselves if we are serving the God of Scripture or a God of our making and then choose to turn towards Him and not away from Him.

To do the contrary is the equivalent of walking aimlessly through that wilderness where Hagar first ran, a dry, barren place without the living water to quench our thirst that only can be found in Christ Jesus.

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?

Wrong. 

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.