Monday, April 28, 2014

When The Daily Grind is the Only Way

Saturday afternoon found me trapped in the kitchen making my mother-in-law's special potato salad recipe for Sunday dinner.  Like many dishes that are made from scratch, it is memorable and unparalleled by anything I've ever bought at any restaurant or store.  In other words, it's worth it in the end.

The secret to this dish's success is what makes it so frustrating and time consuming--no shortcuts.  Believe me.  I've tried.

Try and mince the celery in the food processor and it's more soggy, irregular-sized mush than crunch.  Use pre-chopped onions?  More mush.  Use the mandolin chopper with your five pounds of red potatoes, and the consistent-sized cubes are too small so that post-boiling, they tend to fall apart.  More mush.  And fresh boiled eggs don't peel themselves--no shortcut possible for that step.

Unless you're Rachael Ray with everything minced, chopped, boiled, and peeled by your expert staff off stage before your thirty minute show begins, this recipe alone will keep you in the kitchen for a solid hour.  It sounds ridiculous to invest such a large amount of time into a single side dish you can buy by the tub at the grocery store.  But the longhand labor is necessary.

Slow step by slow step, I craft a culinary masterpiece that turns mere food to be consumed into food to be savored.

This isn't how we generally look at food or life in general for that matter.  We're always looking for a shortcut, a faster, easier way to get from point A to point B, to achieve X result.

I am guilty of sometimes even trying to take shortcuts when it comes to my relationship with God--cramming a week's worth of Bible study into a couple days, shoving a day's worth of prayer to the very end...all the while expecting the same results as if I had studied His Word  every day of the week instead of just a few, as if I had prayed all throughout the day instead of just at bedtime.

But our relationship with God doesn't work that way.  No matter how hard we may wish for one, there are no shortcuts to a relationship with God, no shortcuts to becoming a mirror image of Christ.

Instead, once we have the cornerstone of Christ as our foundation, the only way to build the walls of that relationship is one stone at a time.  The Word of the Lord  is given to us precept upon precept, manageable only one stone at a time.
In Isaiah's day, the people ridiculed the prophet for his manner of teaching them God's Word.  They felt Isaiah was trying to teach them the basics, much like a baby, and complained, "To whom would He teach knowledge, And to whom would He interpret the message? Those just weaned from milk? Those just taken from the breast? For He says, 'Order on order, order on order, Line on line, line on line, A little here, a little there'" (Is. 28:9-10).

The Message paraphrase of the same verses says, "We’re not babies in diapers to be talked down to by such as you—‘Da, da, da, da, blah, blah, blah, blah. That’s a good little girl,that’s a good little boy"

And yet, since the children of Israel refused to listen to even the most basic, childlike lessons from the mouth of God's prophet, this is exactly how God said He would speak to them, though through a foreign tongue of their oppressors and through judgment: "He who said to them, 'Here is rest, give rest to the weary,' And 'Here is repose,' but they would not listen. So the word of the Lord to them will be, 'Order on order, order on order, Line on line, line on line, A little here, a little there'" (Is. 28:12-13).  

In these verses, God offered His children "rest."  He offered them "repose."  The requirement, though, was that they trust in Him, that they listen to His Word and obey it. 

They needed to listen to and learn those foundational truths in order to proceed to the more difficult truths of God.  Yet, since man can only build upon what he already knows and God's children really didn't know too much in their hearts, God had to start again to lay the groundwork before starting up on the walls.

God told them, "Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone, A costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed.  He who believes in it will not be disturbed" (Is. 28:16).

This is Jesus, our firm foundation, the one God was sending to a people who would not listen, who did not want to be taught from the ground up.

As much as our flesh wants to shortcut everything, we must commit ourselves to the daily grind of the Christian walk with Jesus if we want a real relationship with Him.  This means learning precept upon precept, not considering any Word too childish for our learning, returning again and again to those foundational truths, and listening to both the deep and the deceptively simple messages we think we have already learned from God.

It is only in this long walk that we will be transformed, sanctified, and made righteous like Christ.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Withholding Gifts from Our Children

Good Friday found me driving sullenly back to my parents' house while three children sat in perfect silence behind me.  The five of us were supposed to be enjoying a rare lunch out at Chick Fil A, but less than cooperative behavior during the biannual family pictures that morning had consequences.

As a mother who loves her children dearly, I wanted nothing more than to lavish this special treat on them all.  But because I am a mother who dearly loves her children, I simply couldn't.  Heart heavy, I drove home to the routine lunchtime meal of peanut butter sandwiches, bananas, and carrots.

This isn't the first time I have been unable to shower my children with every good and perfect gift because they failed in some way to uphold the rules of Scripture and of our family.  Each time, it hurts my heart to uphold justice and stay my hand, but I know how much my children learn through these teaching moments, lessons they retell for years to come because they remember what blessing was lost due to their own choices and actions.

In these times, I am merely shadowing what God the Father does with His own children.  While I usually think of God as staying His holy hand when it comes to judging the world or waiting to pour out His wrath on a perverse and unholy generation, God also holds back His blessings. 

After explaining of God's judgment to come, the prophet Isaiah appealed to Israel, saying, "Therefore the LORD longs to be gracious to you, And therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you.  For the LORD is a God of justice; How blessed are all those who long for Him" (Is. 30:18).

Gracious. Compassion.  Blessed.  These are words to describe how the Lord desires to treat His children.  In the King James version, the phrase "Therefore the Lord longs" is translated as "and therefore will the Lord wait."  He must wait to bless us with His grace and compassion...because He is a God of justice.

God doesn't deprive us of blessings out of spite or anger but simply because He is perfectly just.  As a parent, I understand this longing, this waiting to bless my own children.  How much more must our God long to bless us with all He has?

Isaiah continues, saying "He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry; when He hears it, He will answer you. Although the Lord has given you bread of privation and water of oppression, He, your Teacher will no longer hide Himself, but your eyes will behold your Teacher.  Your ears will hear a word behind you, 'This is the way, walk in it,' whenever you turn to the right or to the left. And you will defile your graven images...You will scatter them as an impure thing, and say to them, 'Be gone!' Then He will give you rain for the seed which you will sow in the ground, and bread from the yield of the ground, and it will be rich and plenteous" (Is. 30:19-23).

In this passage, the prophet alludes to three things that cause God to stay His hand--(1) not relying on the Lord, (2) not listening to the words of the Lord and (3) idolatry.  At the time, Israel was guilty of all three--it had turned to Egypt (not God) for protection, had rejected the words of the prophets, and was worshiping false idols.

Today, though, we, too, are often guilty of all three as well.  Sometimes, we trust in our bank accounts, our connections, our skill, and our intelligence for our security instead of in God.  We may seek out help from our spouse, friends, our family, and neighbors before we stop and ask God for help.

Likewise, we often fail to listen to the words of the Lord.  Any day that passes where we do not crack open the Bible or where we read simply to check it off our daily routine while not really engaging in the text is a day we have failed to listen to His Word. 

And finally, any time we put anything before God--even good things--we are guilty of idolatry.  Our family.  Our job.  Our favorite TV show.  Our children.  Anything can become our idol if it keeps us from putting God first.

As generally happens after we have experienced God's judgment, the people of God in the above passage grew more sensitive to God's voice to the extent that they could hear "a word behind" them. God, Himself, became their Teacher, implying they were willing to receive and be tutored by His Word  Also, they recognized their idols for what they were ("impure thing[s]") and rid their lives of them.

The result?  Blessing.  Rain. Rich, plenteous, bountiful blessing.

Yes, Scripture says "He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matt. 5:45).  Still, God's Word shows that He longs, He waits to pour out more blessings on us than He already does simply because we fail to rely wholly on Him, fail to listen to Him, and fail to put Him first in our lives.

How differently might our lives look if God could give us everything He wanted to lavish upon us?

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Truth About Passover

On the rectangular block designated for today's date, a ghostly gray font spells the word "Passover."  The word sits there quasi-transparent, hidden at the bottom line, as if the publisher were almost ashamed to put it (and every other holiday) on a wall calendar, choosing to label the holidays in the palest, smallest font so anyone could ignore them if he so chose.

For much of my life, Christians have ignored Passover as something for Jews only.  But the more I study Scripture, the more I'm learning the only way I can understand Jesus is to understand the Jewishness of Jesus.  The more I want to understand God the Father, the more I need to understand His relationship with His promised children in the Old Testament.

And understanding Passover?  It is integral to understanding Christ's sacrifice on the cross.

The first Passover was celebrated in Egypt, where the Israelites were slaves.   God told them "I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn...The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you" (Ex. 12:12-13).  Here, the word translated as "pass over" is the Hebrew word pasah from the noun pesah, which is translated as "Passover."  While "these words have no connection with any other Hebrew word,...they do resemble the Egyptian word pesh, which means 'to spread wings over.'"1

As Arthur W. Pink says in his book Gleanings in Exodus, "The word has, consequently, the very meaning of the Egyptian term for 'spreading the wings over and protecting;' and pesach, the Lord's Passover, means such sheltering and protection as is found under the outstretched wings of the Almighty.  Does this not give a new fullness to those words, 'O Jerusalem! Jerusalem!...How often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen does gather her brood under her wings?' (Luke 13:34)...It is not merely that the Lord passed by the houses of Israelites, but that He stood on guard protecting each blood-sprinkled door!"2

Can you see the image here of our "mother hen" of a Savior standing with His protective arms spread in front of each blood-painted door while the death angel canvasses Egypt for firstborn sons? This is an image foreshadowing Christ's own sacrifice covering our sins, thereby protecting us from the curse of sin and death.  Yet, this image is not the image of a passive Savior whose past shedding of blood merely hides our sin, but of one who actively stands in the way at each door to protect His children.  He is our defender.

This story of Passover--it is, at its core, a story and a promise of redemption through such a defender.  

As Messianic Jewish rabbi and author Derek Leman says, "At the first Passover, it was more than just a promise.  There was an actual sacrifice, and an actual firstborn was redeemed....The lamb's blood in Egypt was the means of a mighty act of redemption."3

In other words, God's promise to redeem the firstborn son's life in Egypt was not a forward-reaching promise that would merely require faith now and sight generations later.  Even though this promise did allude to faith in such a future fulfillment found in Christ's sacrifice on the cross, at the very first Passover, the Israelite slave witnessed a fulfillment of the promise--an actual sacrifice of a pure, spotless lamb, an actual redemption of a firstborn son.

Here, though, the blood was mere animal blood, not the blood of the only pure Son of God. Much like with Abraham, the Israelites' salvation came not through the blood of animals but by their faith (see Galatians 3:6 and Hebrews 10).  As Lemen says, "though the option was given to the people for escape, they still needed to choose to exercise that option.  The Israelites needed faith and obedience, to believe God's Word and act on it.  The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world calls for action as well as faith"3

Faith in action was necessary for salvation.

Understanding Passover, then, is important to understanding the very nature of salvation, itself.  Had the Israelites merely hidden behind the doorposts and lentils covered with the lamb's blood yet did so without faith in God, they would not have been redeemed.   The same is true of us.  We cannot really have faith in God if we choose to not obey God's holy Word--all of it.  Faith in action.

For the Jews to celebrate Passover each year was for them to remember God's promise of redemption and His fulfillment of that promise.  Its celebration was intended to give future generations a real, historical example of God's faithfulness, of faith and a pure, blood sacrifice mingling together to redeem a son from the power of sin and death.  This reminder was preparing them for faith in Christ as their Passover lamb, hence John the Baptist's calling Him "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (Jn. 1:29).

Christ's blood shed at Calvary--He is our choice.  We must act in faith, choose His covering of blood by living a life of obedience to Him.

Whether you choose to celebrate a traditional seder meal at Passover or not is a personal conviction, not something I'm trying to force on anyone. Understanding that Christ IS our Passover and living a life of active faith in Him is what is important. 

(With Passover starting today (Monday, April 14),  I'm pausing our march through Isaiah to appreciate the beauty that is Christ's sacrifice.  Set aside the bunnies, family photos, baskets, eggs, and chocolate for the moment and just relive all He has done for you.)

1 Rosen, Ceil and Moishe Rosen.  Christ in the Passover.  Chicago: Moody, 2006, 27-28.
2 Pink, Arthur.  Gleanings in Exodus.  Chicago: Moody, n.d., 93. 
3 Leman, Derek.  Finding Your Place at the Table of Tradition.  Nashville: Lifeway, 2008, 23-24.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Mother Nature or Father God?

Tornadoes continue to rip across the United States, the most recent ones touching down late last week.  This past winter, the United Kingdom has suffered more severe flooding than has been recorded in over two and a half centuries.  Even now, North America remains covered in the third highest recorded level of snow, with a blizzard slamming into the northwest only six days ago.

It seems every time I flip to a news page, I'm reading about one natural disaster or another.  Blizzards. Tornadoes.  Floods.  Hurricanes.  Earthquakes.  Tsunamis.

The media calls it "Mother Nature."

But as I listen to the loud rumblings and watch the narrow slivers of light from another thunderstorm shaking across our hay fields this evening, I know better. 

"Mother Nature" is not the supernatural force beyond our control.  We have not offended "Mother Earth" with the way we have polluted the land.  As Christian writer and speaker Kay Arthur is so fond of saying, "It's not Mother Nature; it's Father God."

And yet, an act of God's judgment is not how the world perceives what some media outlets have dubbed "wild weather."  As the prophet Isaiah says, "O LORD, Your hand is lifted up yet they do not see it" (Is. 26:11).

Mankind does see the judgment of God with his lifted hand, but it both denies God the authority behind the resulting destruction as well as refuses to accept it as a demonstration of judgment.   As such, the weatherman claims "Mother Nature is sure angry today" when, in fact, it is Father God who is demonstrating His wrath.  Or, on other occasions like with the tsunami in late 2012 that killed thousands, we watch clip after clip of people wringing their hands and asking "why!?" while refusing to look upwards and inwards for the answer.

I do understand this "head in the sand" attitude.  It's often too harsh to think of a God who would massacre 19,000 people in a matter of seconds, isn't it? And so, as Isaiah's words state--the Lord's hand is lifted in judgment; yet, the world does not see it.

Isaiah, though, gives an explanation for all of God's judgments, whether they be of the natural kind or not: "For when the earth experiences Your judgments The inhabitants of the world learn righteousness. Though the wicked is shown favor, He does not learn righteousness; He deals unjustly in the land of uprightness, And does not perceive the majesty of the LORD" (Is. 26:10).

God judges mankind for one purpose--so each man or woman will learn righteousness.  That's what it all boils down to--doing whatever it takes to get our attention, to make us righteous.

To become righteous means to become right with God.  This requires moral perfection, which we are utterly unable to achieve on our own, no matter how many good works we accomplish.  As Paul says, "This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe" (Rom. 3:22).  Christ's righteousness, then, justifies us, covering our sin, so that we become right with God once again.

This is the sole reason for God's judgment of any man or woman on this earth--to lead that individual to righteousness and, thus, to salvation in Jesus.

Tonight's thunderstorm outside my window is a blessing, not a curse, for my rows of corn and newly planted potatoes, giving them life that they might live.  And yet, so much of the erratic weather we witness is less a blessing and more a sign of God's judgment.

Let us not blame Mother Nature nor shake our heads in bewilderment as so many do.  Instead, let us recognize the power of Father God at work as He seeks to draw a lost and dying world to its knees in order for its people to learn righteousness, which is found only in His son Jesus.