Monday, June 30, 2014

Hands, Feet, Eyes, and Teeth

It started as an almost imperceptible pinch each time I closed my teeth together while chewing my meal.  Three weeks later, the discomfort was becoming more persistent to the point where I could no longer chalk it up to my imagination; there was a problem with my lower back molar.

In my mind, a cracked tooth doesn't happen to thirty-seven-year olds who take good care of their teeth; eat healthily; and avoid chewing ice or hard candy.  Yet, there I was in the dentist's chair with that very problem.

My usual jolly dentist leaned back and tightened his jaw before speaking, those lines creeping outward from the corners of his mouth in a classic "this is bad news" kind of way. If the crack were vertical, a crown would take care of it. If it were horizontal, I'd need a root canal.  Wear the temporary for six weeks and see. Just wait.

By week four, the problem had only worsened.  At times, it felt like my mouth was in labor, the pulsing waves ever-dull in the background, cresting whenever I tried to chew near that tooth.  Shoulders slumped in defeat, I contacted the endodontist only to discover she was on a family vacation!  It would be another week and a half until I could have the root canal, then another week of "recuperating" agony before the ligaments calmed down and the permanent crown was in place.

Her diagnosis was a "small crack deep inside the tooth and situated right on top of the nerve."  One tiny crack had inflamed the ligaments surrounding the tooth to the point where even a week after the root canal, just clinking my teeth together could send me to my knees.

Small.  Tiny.

Tomorrow marks eleven weeks since I felt the first sharp pain, and I'm beginning to feel whole again.  Through it all, though, I have been devastated at how one small part of a person's body can have such a monumental impact on the remaining members and, what's more, how one small part can impact everyone else around.

It's a lesson I thought I had learned last August when witnessing my husband suffering through his first root canal.   Obviously not.  There's just something about suffering first-hand that gives more clarity, puts the flesh of experience on bare bones of theory.

Less than a year ago, I looked at Paul's warning in 1 Corinthians to the body of Christ, exhorting them to consider each member of the body as equally important to the health of the whole.  That definitely is a life lesson we could learn from a little tooth pain.  And yet, this time around, my mind has kept settling on the gospels and body parts that cause you problems!

Jesus told His disciples, "If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire. If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be cast into the fiery hell" (Matt. 18:8-9). 

A hand, foot, or an eye--definitely not a tooth.  Definitely something I would miss if I cut it off or plucked it out. What's more, it's something others would surely notice.

If one tooth could alter the course of my life for eleven weeks, imagine the trouble a foot could cause?  By using this metaphor of a hand, foot, or eye (versus a tooth), Jesus demonstrated several things.  

1.  Even useful body parts that are integral to who we are as a person can be instruments of our own destruction and, yes, our own damnation. 

2.  Every part of our body or "life" affects our walk with Christ.  It could be that we have a "hand" we've used for our entire lives, but that hand is now causing us to stumble in our Christian walk. Just because we've always lived with two metaphorical hands, feet, or eyes isn't a reason to keep them in our lives. 

And yes, sometimes, those parts of our lives that are the most deeply entrenched--those people, habits, and traditions we've known for what seems like forever--those are the most difficult to cast off, which is likely why Jesus chose such an extreme analogy. 

In a sense, cutting those things out of our lives that cause us to stumble feels like cutting off an appendage.

3.  Jesus doesn't say change will be easy. In fact, the analogy implies just the opposite--that of much pain, agony, and a lasting sense of "loss" that you do not forget once that hand or foot is gone from our lives--but He does say it's better to cut it off than to live with the other eternal consequences.

4.  Jesus also doesn't say change is private.  If I cut off a hand or foot or even pluck out an eye, everyone around will know it.  It is reasonable to assume that many actions a Christian must take to keep himself from stumbling will be very public to those around him.

Perhaps it is that you cannot socialize with a best friend anymore or that you must distance yourself from a close family member because she causes you to stumble.  Or perhaps it is a place you have frequented or an activity you have participated in your entire life but you now find it causing you to waver in your devotion to Jesus.

Hand, foot, eye, or (yes) even tooth--a single part of our lives affects the entirety.  No matter how large or small, how painful, or how public, we are called to leave behind whatever entangles us so that we can run the race God has set before us...completely unhindered, so we can walk without stumbling.

Monday, June 23, 2014

I Know That I Know

Bookstores abound with historical and fictional stories of people searching for their past, trying to find out where they came from. Even many popular films show a main character on a sometimes lifelong quest to discover herself.

This search for who I am, to know myself, is a major step to becoming what I can be. To know who I am is to avoid being swayed by any other versions of myself that people or society may try to impose on me. To know who I am means I don't have to prove myself to anybody.

The problem is many of us don't know who we are...or even if we do know, we sometimes forget, questioning whether what we know is true. And that forgetting, questioning, uncertainty is where we stumble and lose our effectiveness.

Jesus? He knew who He was. The religious leaders hated him. The people wanted Him to be something He was not. Even His disciples really didn't understand Him.

But He knew, and that was all that counted, what determined His actions.

One interesting demonstration of this concept is found at the Last Supper. Scripture says: "Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him" (John 13:3-5).

Look at the connection between the first and second parts of verse three. Taking out all the extra words, the verse reads simply, "Jesus knew...SO..." He "began to wash his disciples' feet."

It's like saying, "I was thirsty SO I drank some water." But in this verse, it's not readily apparent why Part B of the verse is caused by Part A. What's the connection? How does "Jesus knew" and His subsequent actions relate?

The answer lies in Jesus' knowing who He is.

He knew His position in the godhead. He knew He was royalty with a throne awaiting Him. There was no questioning, no forgetting, no doubting.

He knew that He knew that He knew.

And because of that knowledge, He had no problem washing the disciples' feet, lowering Himself below the role of a servant, making Himself a servant of servants.

Many times, I wonder if it would be easier to follow Jesus wholeheartedly if we really and truly knew with 101% of our being who we were.

Imagine the difference it would make in our actions and attitudes if we knew that we knew that we are royalty, too? If we didn't question it--ever?

How much easier it would be to turn the other cheek, do the selfless duties nobody else wants to do, and live life fully as a servant, sacrificing everything for the sake of Christ...and not worrying about how crazy our actions made us appear to the world.

(Republished from the archives: July 2010)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Twisted Definitions: What Belief Really Means

A Harris Poll from December 2013 reports a decline in American adults' belief in God.  This should not be surprising to anyone living in our present culture.  Currently, 74% of Americans believe in God, compared to 82% less than a decade ago.  In that same time, belief in Jesus as the Son of God also slipped from 72% to 68%. 

Belief.  It's a word that means different things to different people.  In our culture, we have tied the term to mere intellectual acknowledgement, separating one's actions from one's mind.  In other words, I can intellectually believe something is true while still acting differently.

And yet, that's not true belief, at least, this is not the kind of belief God is looking for.

Paul tells us, "if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation" (Rom. 10:9-10).

There's that word "believe" again.  Vine's Expository Dictionary says this word means "'to believe,' also 'to be persuaded of,' and hence, 'to place confidence in, to trust,' signifies, in this sense of the word, reliance upon, not mere credence"

It's that phrase "reliance upon" that is the key to true belief, especially true belief in Jesus that results in salvation.  

The prophet Isaiah states the same concept: "In repentance and rest you will be saved, In quietness and trust is your strength" (Is. 30:15).

The key to salvation is two-fold: (1) repentance (Paul's "confess with your mouth") and (2) resting in the Lord.  It's this "rest" that mirrors the New Testament's concept of "reliance upon." This is the type of belief God is looking for in the hearts of men and women today--not mere intellectual assent that He is God or that Jesus was His Son but rather a heart that moment by moment rests constantly in Him.

The Psalmist explains this heart-resting in the Lord quite well: "My soul waits in silence for God only; From Him is my salvation. He only is my rock and my salvation, ...My soul, wait in silence for God only, For my hope is from Him. He only is my rock and my salvation, My stronghold; I shall not be shaken. On God my salvation and my  glory rest; The rock of my strength, my refuge is in God. Trust in Him at all times, O people; Pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us. Selah. My stronghold; I shall not be greatly shaken" (Ps. 62:1-2; 5-8).

Waiting.  Resting.  In the Lord.  This is true belief in God.

A soul that intellectually acknowledges Jesus as Lord of their life but whose life shows no evidence of relying upon, of resting in God--that is not true belief.  If I say I believe in God but I run my own life, make my own decisions, all without ever consulting him, then I'm not truly believing or resting in Him.

If I really believe the Bible, then I obey it.  I rest in its Words.  I rely upon its Words.

And therein lies a reward--strength.  

Strength to survive this life is not found in large armies, scientific discoveries, or a big bank account.  It's not found in might or fighting tooth and nail.  Ironically, it's the opposite.  Strength is found when we truly believe with all our heart, soul, and mind in Jesus as the only Savior of our souls.  Strength is found in rest and only when we rest in Him.

If our actions do not match up with our intellectual beliefs, then those beliefs are not true, will not save our souls, and will not result in daily strength to overcome this world.

I am convinced Satan rejoices over these twisted definitions, allowing us to be so close to the truth but so far from it at the same time.  It's time for us to stand up and help the world around us understand what belief in God really means.

Monday, June 9, 2014

If Prophecy Is More About "Who" Than "When"

Like many in the modern church, I grew up learning an unspoken doctrine called "replacement theology," a big phrase meaning that the birth of the New Testament Church replaced the nation of Israel in God's eyes.  In essence, Jews were cut off from God's blessings when they rejected His Son at Calvary, opening up the door for Gentiles to come into the fold as adopted sons and daughters.  This new family of God' became the new owners of any prior blessings or promises made to the nation of Israel .

Less than a decade ago, though, I opened the pages of the Old Testament and studied it--really studied it, not just browsed the stories as historical accounts.  Not only did I find Jesus foreshadowed in every book, but I learned that God wasn't finished with Israel, that there was still a remnant of God's promised people yet to play a part in end-times prophecy.  In other words, Israel and the Jewish people were still important to God and were still privy to God's promises.

At that time, my heart began to soften my heart towards the nation of Israel.  I began learning about the Jewish Feasts of the Lord and how, although as a Gentile, I was not required to celebrate them, that I was missing out because of my naive belief that they were Jewish and, thus, unimportant to me.  In truth, the traditions so much a part of each Feast or Holy Day pointed straight to fulfillment in Jesus, the Messiah. This knowledge, though, was not part of my childhood upbringing in church.  I was quickly learning that there was a gap in my theology, one that completely ignored the Jewishness of Jesus. 

Pastor and author Ray Bentley states, "When the church became disconnected from her Jewish roots, Christians lost the fullness of God's glory" (p. 40).  This disconnectedness traces back even to the Council of Nicaea, typically seen as a solidifying marker for modern Christianity, but which actually "furthered the alienation of Christianity from its Jewish roots" (p. 83).  Wanting to distance the church from the Jews, Constantine both changed the date for celebrating Jesus' resurrection and  "planted in the heart of the church the seeds of contempt for Jews and a clear separation from them as the only proper Christian attitude" (p. 84).

The historical persecution that followed--and that is still at work today--is well-documented.

This ancient history lesson is how Bentley begins his newest book, The Holy Land Key: Unlocking End-Times Prophecy Through the Lives of God's People in Israel.  It's a catchy title sure to draw in numerous people from the modern church looking for a "key" to understanding the prophecies concerning Christ's return.  Yet, this isn't a book about Revelation or anything to do with the when or how of Christ's return.  Overall, it has to do with the who of Jesus' return and how both the New Testament Church and the nation of Israel both play a part in that prophecy.

In short, to understand Biblical prophecy hinges on our understanding not the what or the when but rather the who God's people are.

As the author states, "Israel is people--not just a prophetic clock on the wall, revealing a prophecy timetable" (p. 21, my italics).

He then defines this "who" as including Israelis, Palestinians, and Arabs, not what I typically think when I picture God's chosen children in my mind.  Yet, by exploring God's covenant with Abraham and his two subsequent children Isaac and Ishmael, along with where those peoples settled down, my own heart was convicted much like the author's who stated, "In my zeal to get to know the Jews, I almost ignored the children of Abraham's other son, Ishmael" (p. 58).

When I consider the children of God, I don't automatically think of Palestinian Christians.  And I certainly don't think of Arab Christians, even though "Arabs were present in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (see Acts 2). Arabs accepted the new faith from the beginning, and Arab Christian tribes thrived in the Middle East from the earliest days of Christianity...[until today] as a struggling minority of second-class citizens for generations" (p. 61).

To ignore Palestinians or Arabs as God's children and only accept the Israelite is to house prejudices within our hearts, racist tendencies we may not have even known to exist within our breast.

Bentley does give several chapters to explaining how God's people seek patterns in prophecy and how the seasons and feasts in the Jewish Calendar can open our eyes to God's work.  But overall, his thesis remains that God is calling the Church to "step into the prophetic story": "God is inviting the church to travel with His chosen people, to bless Naomi's descendants, to build the bridge" between Gentile and Jew, Palestinian and Jew, Arab and Gentile, one in which we all join God together where He is working to fulfill prophecy (p. 200, 57).

From The Nehemiah Project and American Friends of Ariel to The Joshua Fund and Hope for Ishmael, Bentley gives several ways in which American Christians and the New Testament Church can begin getting involved in fulfilling Romans 1:16-17: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, 'The just shall live by faith.'"

The warning is clear--learning prophecy is unimportant if we are unwilling to place ourselves within prophecy: "It is not enough just to read a book or study prophecy the way we might study American literature or the history of ancient Egypt.  This is God's work we learn about in the Bible from the mouths of the ancient prophets. And it is His work we see unfolding today in the Middle East. As the prophesied events continue to unfold, the entire world will be affected...To understand God, His work on earth, history, and the future--including God's plans for the end of the age--we must understand and stand in support of Israel. It is our opportunity now to get involved in advance of the warfare that will precede God's judgment" (p. 201-202).

Let us not be guilty of being interested in the end times just for curiosity sake.  And may our hearts not be prejudiced such that we fail to see our Palestinian, Arab, and Israelite Christian brothers and sisters working within that prophecy until its fulfillment.

I challenge you as I challenge myself to find a way to plug in to God's work in the Middle East. God's Kingdom is coming. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

If I Die Without Ever Knowing

It has been the same routine every Thursday morning for almost three years now.  The alarm brings a frown much earlier than usual, no matter how late my work the night before.  Except for those mornings that find the temperatures below freezing or rain pouring down hard upon the earth, I obediently rise to lace up my well-worn tennis shoes, load up whatever children are in the house, then drive to my local church house.  There, I gather with a handful of heavenly brothers and sisters to pray before driving together to one of dozens of neighborhoods within a ten mile radius of our church. 

Unlike three years ago, I no longer have to lug out the stroller and push two year old twins down the asphalt or maneuver them up and over the concrete curbs.  My now five-year-old children bounce, run, and leap as we walk, pray, speak God's love to any neighbors we come in contact with, and leave Scripture on every door in each subdivision. 

When I first felt God's call to commit myself to this ministry, I hoped I would make a difference.  I trusted in the words of Isaiah 55:11: "So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it."

My heart clings to these words, that God will accomplish what He desires from our giving others His Word, no matter what.

But even the gentle wind manages to wear solid rock down to mere sand.  Year after year, I have not seen much fruit as a result of my obedience.  What's more, it has sometimes been difficult to find fellow laborers to walk with me on this journey to fulfill the command that "you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

My feet continue to pound the pavement in my Jerusalem.  Every time I even think about calling it quits, that gentle voice within reminds me of this fact and spurs me onward once more. 

I remember my first voyage through the winding roads and cookie cutter houses that looked all the same.  More than once, we got "lost" while walking.  Now, though, I don't see my Jerusalem the same way.  Instead, I see the nuanced differences.  I pass by the yards a second, third, fourth time and remember them from before, praying for my Jerusalem not as an unknown place with unknown people but as somewhere familiar and filled with individuals

I know the house with the large dog whose paws reach the top of the fence, the house where the man asked me to pray for his cancer and who was cancer free when I knocked a year later.  There's the house with the pet potbellied pig, the one with the new mother of twins, the one whose occupant grew up in an orphanage.  I remember the house whose driveway was torn out last year, the one with the creepy pretend graveyard on the front lawn, and the one with cigarette butts strewn down the tiny front porch.  

This may not seem like a big deal, but it is a giant step in coming to see people as God does--individuals, all in need of a Savior, not just identical house after another in an endless line of nothing that I can ignore as meaningless and unimportant. 

A few weeks ago, I read an article I haven't been able to get out of my mind:

Missionary Died Thinking He Was a Failure: 84 Years Later Thriving Churches Found Hidden in the Jungle.

The article begins, "In 1912, medical missionary Dr. William Leslie went to live and minister to tribal people in a remote corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After 17 years he returned to the U.S. a discouraged man – believing he failed to make an impact for Christ. He died nine years after his return."

Meanwhile, Christian natives who had heard the gospel from Leslie began a network of small churches that began spreading the gospel throughout the jungles.  Not till 2010 did someone re-enter those jungles to share Jesus only to find He was already there and quite alive in the hearts of many.


The question is the same as always--are we willing to serve the Lord for nothing?  Are we willing to serve Him, however He commands...even if we die thinking ourselves a failure?

For the sake of a world full of the hopeless and lost, I can only hope our answer continues to be yes.

Image: Dr. Leslie's Vanga mission from 1912.