Sunday, November 23, 2014

When I'm Not So Thankful

People are SO pushy this time of year. Seriously. Thanksgiving isn't quite here yet, but I've been "encouraged" all week by my pastor, the local radio station, a few salesladies, and the news media to count my blessings, to be thankful.

"Badgered" might be a better word than "encouraged." It's like in the months of November and December, Christian and non-Christian America alike is saying, "It doesn't matter if you're having problems with the mortgage or if your job is in peril or if all three of your children are crying because two of them peed down their only clean set of clothes and the third one dropped his banana in the dirt--if you're not feeling particularly thankful, it's your fault for not seeing the bigger picture in this season of thanks, so get with the program and be thankful already!"

But what do you do if your smile is fake? If, sure, you're thankful for a roof over your head, clothes in your closet, and food on the table...but truthfully? Your heart still focuses on the "don't have's," on the corrupt, evil people around you whose prosperity and happiness seem to flourish while you struggle daily in silence just to make ends meet?

What then?

I've been stuck on Psalm 73 for three weeks. Yes--three weeks. I've tried to get away from it, but David's words have stuck in my mind like play dough on the bottom of my children's shoes:

"Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked" (Ps. 73: 1-3).

These words grip me. This testimony could easily be mine when everything seems to be going wrong for me (and, as I'm convinced in those moments, only me).

Like David, I know that I know that God is good to those who are "pure in heart," but sometimes, my foot dangles over the cliff as I look into the darkness of sin flaunted openly by people I know...and without knowing it, my heart sparks green envy as I watch them live lives of ease while I seek righteousness yet struggle.

David continues, describing the "wonderful" life the sinful masses seem to lead:

"They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills. Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. From their callous hearts comes iniquity; their evil imaginations have no limits. They scoff, and speak with malice; with arrogance they threaten oppression. Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth. Therefore their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance. They say, 'How would God know? Does the Most High know anything?' This is what the wicked are like—always free of care, they go on amassing wealth" (v. 4-12).

In those moments, this is what I envy--the ungodly who have no struggles weighing on their minds, who are chiseled visions of health and strength, whose overwhelming greed reaps enormous wealth, whose actions reap no consequences.

Their mouths speak God's name, post God's name, tweet God's name...they even quote Scripture when it's convenient. But in the next moment, their tongues lap up the fleshly fruits of the earth and feast off the sinful vices that bring worldly pleasure.

Upon seeing these people, David says, "Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments" (v. 13-14).

This is not a thought I've ever voiced, but like David, like Habakkuk, like Jeremiah--I've asked God why the righteous suffer while the wicked seem to go unchecked in their sin. And, if I'm honest, in the asking is a hint of envy at their ease.

When David enters God's sanctuary, though, he remembers who God is--a holy, righteous judge whose very nature requires Him to judge all sin. And in that moment, he says, "Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! They are like a dream when one awakes; when you arise, Lord, you will despise them as fantasies" (v. 18-20).

You may not feel thankful every second of this Thanksgiving week. I know my fleshly limitations, and I can promise you that I won't.

But when the grumbly feelings of unthankfulness threaten to consume you, when the green-eyed monster rears his head, when sin seems to go unchecked around you--remember, remember, remember…

Who. God. Is.

Pub. 11.02.10

Monday, November 17, 2014

Speaking Without Words: The Story of Joseph

Six stockings are hung by the faux chimney with care, the upstairs balcony railing twinkles with a hundred miniature starry lights, and the pink tinsel Christmas tree is fully decorated.  Already, the children's Advent box is filled with candy, the snow village is covered in a thick blanket of white, and the velvet poinsettias decorate any remaining flat surfaces. 

Little hands have arranged and rearranged (at least a dozen times) the nativity with its shepherds and other visitors at Jesus' birth.  Even the Christmas gifts are all wrapped and ready for the giving. And on the kitchen table sits my favorite, the circle of purple and pink candles awaiting the first night of Advent. 

All around me, my home whispers in celebration.  The Light of the World is coming!

While I'm sure some of you will roll your eyes at my rushing the season, this early preparation for Christmas is quite intentional.  All the trappings of the season are ready.  Even the weather has brought the bitter cold of winter.  All that is left is for me to prepare my heart for Advent.

Yes.  Instead of spending the whole month before Christmas focused on buying presents, taking family pictures, or decorating, I have more time to focus on making sure my family and I pause to dwell on Jesus.

This year, our ladies Bible study group has been working through Karen Kingsbury's The Family of Jesus.  Each week, we have been gathering to discuss one person in the nativity story--Joseph, Zechariah, John the Baptist, Elizabeth, James, and Mary.   

We're two weeks from the end of our study, and while the book, itself, hasn't provided groundbreaking revelations about the Christmas story, it has served as a wonderful springboard for my diving into Scripture to explore these persons in-depth.

Perhaps because I'm a mother, I tend to look at Christmas from Mary's perspective.   And yet, Joseph has captured my attention the most this year.  

I read through the pages of the gospels and find there is not one word by Joseph recorded in Scripture.  

Mary has the Magnificat, Elizabeth praises aloud when the infant John jumps in her womb at Mary's presence, and even Zechariah sings aloud at his son's--the forerunner of Jesus'--birth.  

Joseph, however, is oddly silent.   It is this quiet nature that makes me pause.

Matthew writes of Joseph, "Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.  But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.' All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel' (which means 'God with us'). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus" (Matt. 1:19-25). 

The words "divorce her quietly" and "after he had considered this" reveal an introspective man, a man who, like Mary, pondered things in his heart without the need to make all his thoughts known to the entire world...without the need to convince an entire world that he was right.  

What I often forget is that as soon as Joseph obeyed the angel, he assumed Mary's guilt publicly.   

By marrying his pregnant fiance, he was claiming both the child and the sin as his own.   

For the rest of his days, those around him would label him a Sinner with a capital S.  Even as the years passed and as his family grew more distanced from the birth and shotgun marriage so that Mary and Joseph were again accepted more in the community, I'm sure every once in awhile, he would flinch under a Pharisee's critical tone aimed directly at him or hear his name invoked as a warning to children, "Don't do what Joseph did.  Wait until you're married to consummate the union."

Perhaps this is why God chose Joseph.  Another man when faced with this situation may have spent a lifetime yelling from the street corners to proclaim his innocence.  Another man would have spent a lifetime shoving his young son in the world's face in a "Here's the Messiah!!!" way, like some grand circus act.  

Yet, this was not Joseph.  He did not yell his innocence from the rooftops.  He did not loudly insist upon his personal importance in the kingdom plan.  As far as we know, no one but him, Mary, and likely Elizabeth and Zechariah ever knew and wholly accepted the truth of Jesus' conception.  We are not even sure if Joseph's parents or even Mary's parents knew about the angels and/or if they completely believed the story in faith, although I personally think any parents who raised such righteous people as Mary and Joseph likely knew and believed. 

Instead, Joseph simply continued walking the path he had always been on--a path of righteousness where he continued to obey God and listen for His voice...all without speaking a recorded word for the generations to come to read.

When the angel appears to Joseph in a dream not once, not twice, but three times in Jesus' early years, Scripture does not record Joseph speaking one word to question, to ask, or to reply. He simply awakens and immediately acts in accordance with what God has told him to do.

Even when young Jesus is found in the temple after having been missing for three days and Joseph is surely concerned, only Mary is recorded speaking words of concern when they find Jesus.  Joseph says nothing.   

In our present culture, it's too often about how many people can you get your message out to, how loud you speak, and how many people you can convince with your arguments.  Even Christians are guilty of getting into verbal arguments with other Christians, browbeating or withdrawing fellowship from those who dare to not agree with them on the finer points of Scripture that life-long devoted commentators dispute. Sadly, the "I am right, so you must listen to me" mentality permeates both the world and the church.

And then there is the example of Joseph. 

We who love the Lord with our whole heart, soul, and mind, can benefit from being like Joseph.  We need not insist on our own righteousness.  We do not need to make a huge name for ourselves or loudly proclaim our knowledge of Scripture as the correct reading of God's Word. 

Even if what the world thinks about us is dead wrong, we need only keep walking in the path of righteousness.  Our lives, not merely our words, will most accurately record our relationship with God.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Hey Santa, Define Good

Three weeks before Thanksgiving, and the mall is aglitter with everything corporate Christmas.  Tinseled lights span the open air over shoppers' heads.  Cantaloupe-sized ornaments adorn a floor to ceiling tree near one of the larger stores.  And every storefront's picture window tries to outdo the next in an attempt to catch a shopper's eye.

The store window that makes my jaw drop isn't a nearly naked Victoria's Secret or the more edgy Spencer's.  It's P.S. Aeropostale for kids.  Flanking both sides of the door on the glass are vinyl letters that read "Hey Santa, Define Good."  Behind the identical slogans hang life-sized images of young teens.

The right image shows a boy casually tossing a snowball inches above his hand while his left hand tightly grips a second snowball.  His deep smirk shows he's seriously considering his next move, likely pelting the person or place he's staring at intently in the distance.

To the left, though, is the more disturbing image.  A redhead smirks mischievously while she points behind both shoulders, an image that hearkens back to those old animated classics where a cartoon angel sat on one shoulder and a red devil on the other as the poor character struggled with these two parts of his conscience within.

Here, the angel is represented by a white girl holding a golden halo above her blonde hair.  The devil is represented by a black girl with a sulky attitude, her hands on her hips in defiance.  While the model has no horns on her raven-black haired head, her thin red leggings mimic the shape of those horns, making her association with the "devil" side of the conscience more subtle than with the cartoon devils of the past.

If I could get past the blatant racism that makes me gag where white girls are angels and black girls are devils, where white girls make good choices and black girls make bad choices--then I would be stuck with the equally disturbing Bill Clinton-esque message to our children:

Hey Santa, Define Good.

Define.  Good.

The Psalmist says, "There is no one who does good.  The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men To see if there are any who understand, Who seek after God.  They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; There is no one who does good, not even one" (Ps. 14:1b-3).

Our God who minces words, who skips over centuries without comment in Scripture--this same God repeats this passage almost verbatim in Psalm 53: "There is no one who does good. God has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men To see if there is anyone who understands,Who seeks after God. Every one of them has turned aside; together they have become corrupt; There is no one who does good, not even one" (Ps. 53:1b-3).

When God repeats Himself, He wants to make sure we get the point.  There is no one good.

And if that's not enough, Paul repeats the same passage a third time in Romans 3:10-12: "as it is written, 'There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for GodAll have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one.'"

No matter how good we think we may be, it's clear--we're not, no matter how good we think our words and deeds are.  

So, let's define 'good.'

As Paul reminds us in Romans 3, to be "good" is to be "righteous."  Righteous is one of those big words that simply means to be perfect as God is perfect.  To achieve Godly perfection, a person would need to be perfect in every action, in every thought, in every word, and in every intent of our heart.  

Action.  Thought.  Word.  Intent.  

To be righteous is to be 100% perfect according to God's plumb line, not according to man's definitions.

Based on God's definition of righteousness and goodness, then, we all fail.  Jesus, Himself, said, "For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).

The Pharisees worked diligently to make certain their actions lined up with God's laws.  The problem was that righteousness and goodness is not merely about our external actions.  It's about the heart.  

In the Old Testament after a long "to do" list of actions that one should do if he is to be considered righteous, God sums up by saying, "if he walks in My statutes and My ordinances so as to deal faithfully—he is righteous" (Ezekiel 18:9).  And if we go back to those Psalms, both repeat the phrase "seek after God."  

It is this seeking that indicates a person's faith in God.  As Paul says, "For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, 'But the righteous man shall live by faith'" (Rom. 1:17).

Righteousness is only obtained--even if only in a small part while here on this earth--by demonstrating faith in God, by seeking after God.  Faith is not empty faith like "I believe in the existence of God" but a faith in action, one that demonstrates belief that God means every word He says in Scripture and then acts and thinks accordingly.

Righteousness...goodness, if you will, should be the divine goal of all children of God.   It is not the punchline for a store window.

God, not Santa, defines what is righteous.  He defines it with His very character, with His just actions, with His mercy and compassion, with His judgment of sin. 

That's the message we should be teaching ourselves and our children. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Highest Form of Praise

It was an early Sunday morning when I lost my second child.  Hours later while the world slowly roused itself from sleep to the rosy rays of a new day, my world grew only darker.

The endocrinologist had given me the sad news earlier in the week as he read off a test results' declining numbers.  It was just a matter of "when," not "if" the pregnancy terminated.  Like most mothers-to-be, I prayed against the odds that this baby would live, prayed against hopelessness and barrenness until this morning when there was no more reason to pray.

What to do next was simple--it was Sunday.  On Sunday, husband and I always worship at our local church.  And so, we dressed and drove there in silence.

I can still visualize myself that day singing the hymns and praise choruses with my Christian family.  It was almost an out of body experience where I could hear my voice singing the words, but I did not feel them in my heart.

A few tears slipped silently down my upturned face as husband held me intentionally close.  No one knew, no one mourned but the two of us. In that moment, I could feel my stoic husband holding me up as if letting go might break us both.  I remember consciously asking God to accept these songs of praise as a sacrifice for Him, one I offered in my brokenness even if I could not offer a heart of joy.

Last month, I relived this moment as I watched our church's music minister leading the congregation in worship even though his mother had died earlier that morning, the second parent he had lost in a month's time.  

My eldest daughter later asked me, "Why didn't he just take off? Have someone else fill in for him?"

"What else would he do?" I replied.  "She was already gone, so there's nothing he could really do that couldn't wait.  Besides, when you're hurting, there's no place more comforting than worshiping God with your brothers and sisters who love you."

It sounds crazy--to give praise to God when we're hurting the most.  And yet, that is where the most peace can be found. 

2 Samuel gives one well-known example of this type of worship in Scripture.

The prophet Nathan told King David that his son conceived in sin with Bathsheba would die.  David repented and mourned for six days, begging God to change His mind.  In fact, he mourned so deeply that when the child died on the seventh day, Scripture says "the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they said, 'Behold, while the child was still alive, we spoke to him and he did not listen to our voice. How then can we tell him that the child is dead, since he might do himself harm!'" (2 Sam. 12:18).

King David figured out that the whispers could only mean one thing, and upon learning the truth of his son's death, he "arose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes; and he came into the house of the Lord and worshiped" (2 Sam. 12:20).

He worshiped.

In Lynn Austin's newest historical fiction book entitled Keepers of the Covenant, she says, "We show our faith in God when we keep moving forward even when our prayers aren't being answered.  It's the highest form of praise to keep believing that God is good even when it doesn't seem that way" (p. 35).

More than any book I've read over the past year, this text displays the need for hope in the midst of doubt and loss.  Time and again, Austin demonstrates how we must choose to worship God, to have faith in God, even when we can't see the good in the horrific events that happen in our lives.

Keepers of the Covenant tracks the life of the prophet Ezra as he must lead the Jewish remnant living in Babylon back home to Jerusalem.  Austin begins with King Xerxes' decree that all Jews be slaughtered and takes us through the fall-out of this battle on the 13th day of Adar, which the Jews celebrate as "Purim."

After the death of his own brother at the hands of the Gentiles, Ezra must choose to worship God or to allow the bitterness to mark his family and witness in the community.  Ultimately, he must choose the path of forgiveness, to trust God in the midst of heartache.

Austin puts it best when she says, "If we deny God, our lives aren't worth living" (p. 467).

Nowhere is this more true than when we are suffering.  It is then that we need faith more than ever before.  I believe it is also then that our worship is the sweetest because it is not given out of our excess but in our lack.

It is in those lowest points when we realize we have absolutely nothing to offer God but our brokenness, our insufficiency, our need--these are the times we must choose to praise Him anyway...for He is worthy of our worship and praise.