Sunday, December 28, 2014

What Carries You Away?

Last Christmas week was marked by faded skies and torrential rains, all culminating in a good amount of flooding throughout the state. Our farm’s fishing hole has swelled well beyond its banks to birth an endless river racing across the asphalt where a parish road should otherwise be.

As you  might imagine, it wasn’t long before that young stream began to carry away the blanket of autumn that had covered our lawn and the edges of our hay fields for the past few months.  Fossilized leaves, small branches, and even plastic toys moved in unison towards the lowest point.  No matter that they would eventually bottom out in an enormous pile elsewhere, the current was too strong to remain still.

As 2014 ends, I can’t help but think of how short the year has seemed, how carried away I have been through the days and months on the calendar.

We would all do well to realize this life is about being carried away.  If we are not carried away by one thing, we will be carried away by another.

The prophet Isaiah gives opposing images of being taken away by one of two things.

To begin with, he describes the person who is carried away by sin, saying:

For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.  There is no one who calls on Your name, Who arouses himself to take hold of You; For You have hidden Your face from us And have delivered us into the power of our iniquities” (Is. 64: 6-7).

Our sins “take us away” like the leaf in the wind, our divinely-granted “free will” actually leaving us at the mercy of our sinful act in that freedom.  With each sin, we become imprisoned to the path our lives take, no matter what we would have otherwise chosen for ourselves. 

That’s the thing about sin—we attempt to categorize them, to rationalize them, to minimize them when justifying our choices.  But no sin is pure.  No sin will leave us firmly planted where we want to be.  Instead, before we even realize it, that sin will wither our tender hearts until we are but a husk of one who was once sensitive to the voice of God and farther downstream than we ever thought possible. 

There is another choice, though.

Isaiah speaks of one who, instead, chooses to love obedience to the Lord, who chooses to love the people of Israel and her God, Yahweh:

Be joyful with Jerusalem and rejoice for  her, all you who love her; Be exceedingly glad with her, all you who mourn over her, That you may nurse and be satisfied with her comforting breasts, That you may such and be delighted with her bountiful bosom.’ For thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, I extend peace to her like a river, And the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream’ (Is. 66:10-12).

Just as surely as our sin will carry us away, so, too, will our obedience to the Lord, only this time, the result is positive, although just as equally out of our control. 

When we choose obedience to the Word of God over sin, we are taken away by the Lord’s peace.  We don’t wake up and choose a path of peace.  It chooses us when we choose to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and mind.

In this life, we will be carried away by something.  Free will is not free.  And what happens next is beyond our control but is also dependent upon what we do now.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be the withered leaf of Isaiah 64.  I want to be the well-nursed child of Isaiah 66.  What I become, though, depends of what I allow myself to be carried away by—my sin…or my love and obedience of the Lord.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Remember the Lamb

I pass our family nativity, each time pausing just a moment to glance at the herd of sheep. One, two, three, four, the two held by the shepherds. Seven sheep.

Each year, our family adds one piece to the nativity. This year's addition was the woman at the well. Today, she pours water for Mary's donkey. This coming spring, she will stand by a well, waiting for Christ to change her life by offering her a living water so she will never thirst again.

A few years ago, though, was the year for adding sheep. Five of them came in one box, so they technically counted as "one" piece. At that time, the lambs outnumbered the few shepherds circled around Mary and Joseph.

Each year I set them out, I have thought, "that's quite a lot of lambs," but five days ago, I realized how wrong I was.

It's not too many's not enough.

This week, I've been dwelling on the babe in the manger, on His role as the Lamb of God.

In preparation for Passover, Old Testament tradition required that on the tenth day of the Hebrew month Nisan, the people were to choose a sheep or goat "year-old mal[e] without defect" for sacrifice so that God would literally "pass over" their sin (Ex. 12:5). Then, each family was to take that sheep in the house and care for it "until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight" (Ex. 12:6).

One lamb for the sin of each family. MacArthur says this would have meant the sacrifice of at least a hundred thousand Passover Lambs*

A hundred thousand lambs. But not just once. A hundred thousand lambs each and every Passover year.

Yet still, it wasn't enough to save the world from sin, to reconcile mankind with God the Father.

But then came one in a lowly manger, a perfect, spotless lamb.

And one Passover, He hung in agony on the cross, until 3 p.m. when the shofar blew, announcing the time when a lamb would be sacrificed for the whole nation of Israel.**

At that exact moment, He intentionally gave up His life as a sacrifice, saying, "'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.' When he had said this, he breathed his last" (Lk. 23:46).

Five lambs. A hundred thousand lambs. A million lambs.

Ironically, they weren't enough. But one was and is enough.

As Peter reminds us, "For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect" (1 Peter 1:18-19).

When you see that babe in a manger, picture in its place a spotless lamb being born for the sole purpose of dying as a sacrifice.  Look at his chubby baby hands, and imagine them pierced and hanging on an old rugged cross.  Look at his feet that both fit into one of your hands, and see them walking willingly to his slaughter.  Hear the tiny cry of a helpless infant and remember his words, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Lk. 23:34).

In the hustle and bustle of Christmas, take time to  remember the Lamb.

* MacArthur. The Murder of Jesus: A Study of How Jesus Died, p. 47.
**Ray Vander Laan. The True Easter Story: The Promise Kept (video, 2000).

Pub. 12.19.10

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Mentor: Preparing the Way

Many of us know well the straight-line plot of the Christmas story.  Angel Gabriel visits Mary with the news that she is with child, though yet a virgin.  She immediately runs to her cousin, Elizabeth, who is miraculously pregnant despite her age, and when she returns three months later, Mary tells her fiance Joseph who obviously does not believe her since he plans to privately put her away versus having her publicly stoned.  

Then, the angel appears to Joseph in a dream, confirming Mary's words so that when he awakens, he immediately takes Mary as his wife, even going so far as to protectively take her along with him to Bethlehem to be counted in the census.  There, amidst the least of humanity is born the greatest of all, Immanuel, God made flesh, dwelling among us.

But what about that little side trip to Elizabeth's?  In those days with no Wal-Mart or Dollar General on every corner, trade caravans frequently traveled between cities.  If anything, being under Roman rule only increased traffic along the trade routes.  So, although it sounds insane for a young girl like Mary to just take off to her cousin's house in a nearby town, it probably wasn't as crazy as it sounds.  Also, the fact that the angel named Elizabeth as a relative, or cousin, implies she and Mary may have already had a relationship as family would have, especially in those days.

When Mary asks the angel "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" the angel explains about the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, then without pause adds, "'And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. For nothing will be impossible with God'” (Lk. 1:34, 36-7).

God needn't have given Mary further "proof" than the angel's presence that His Word would come true.  In other places in Scripture, He chastens those who ask such questions.  And yet, perhaps because Mary was so young or perhaps because God knew her question wasn't so much a lack of faith but a lack of comprehension of the nuts and bolts of the process,  He did give Mary a kind of Gideon-like fleece in this verse about Elizabeth, not only providing proof that could be confirmed but also a place touched by God's miraculous hand where Mary could go to for encouragement and mentoring.

Mary's response to the angel shows obedience and belief, and in this faith of a young girl, Scripture says, "Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth" (Lk. 1:39-40)..

 She hurried.  I imagine Mary hurried because she was excited to know her relative who had been barren all her life was suddenly six months into her pregnancy even though she was past typical child bearing age. Perhaps Mary, herself, had even prayed diligently for years for Elizabeth to be with child and to remove the curse from her household. 

I imagine she hurried because as much as she believed by faith, she wanted to believe by sight as well.  

I imagine she hurried because she wanted desperately to share what was happening to her with someone who would truly understand the miracle of God.

And Mary wasn't disappointed.  

As soon as Mary's foot passed over the threshold of her cousin's home, Elizabeth was speaking words of affirmation and comfort to Mary's soul.  Scripture reads, 
"When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.'" (Lk. 1:41-45).

Luke records that Mary stayed with Elizabeth "about three months, and then returned to her home" (v. 56).  It is likely Mary was there when Elizabeth gave birth to John who would become known as John the Baptist, the one whom Scripture says, "came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.' For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet when he said, 'The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight!’'" (Matt. 3:1-3).

Just as John the Baptist came to prepare the way of the Lord, to prepare hearts for Jesus and the baptism by the Holy Spirit, so, too, Elizabeth helped prepare the way for Mary to be the mother of the Savior.

Those three months with Elizabeth were a divinely appointed preparation time for Mary to be mentored both spiritually and physically for what was to come in the days ahead.

And that's it.  Story over.  Scripture never records what happens to Elizabeth.  Did she die before King Herod served up John then Baptist's head on a platter?  Or did Elizabeth live long enough to suffer through the loss of her one and only son?  I'm not sure the answer really matters.  

Whether or not God required Elizabeth to suffer in this way, the death of John the Baptist must have been a way to prepare Mary for what was to come with her Jesus, whether through continued mentoring as she watched Elizabeth grieve the loss of her flesh or through the grieving she felt as she mourned, herself, due to the spiritual connection she must have felt with John since he was an infant.

These side-stories in Scripture, those names included in the larger story but whose sub-plots we dismiss or too easily pass over--these are where we should see ourselves.

Are we the Elizabeth, mentoring a young Mary as she prepares to begin a life devoted to supporting the Savior?

Or are we the Mary, seeking out that Godly mentor to show us how to live Godly lives both during the good and the bad we know must come on our journey?

For me, I am both, and in a way, that's how I believe it should be for us all.  At this time of year, may you and I earnestly seek to be an Elizabeth in someone's life.  Likewise, may our hearts be sufficiently tender (no matter how old and wise we think we are) to seek our our own Elizabeth to prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The "Opportunity" of Advent

Yesterday marked the first day of Advent, the countdown to Christmas. 

Around the world, God's people gather round the kingly purple and pink candles to strike the first into flame, lighting the darkness with a single light of hope

Our family reads Scripture, discusses the story of Messiah as told from the pages of the Old through the pages of the New Testament.  We try to prepare our hearts for Who is to come in 25 short days.

In Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, the editors compiled such authors as Bonhoeffer, Luther, Donne, Kierkegaard, Aquinas, and Yancey as a day-by-day journey through Advent to help Christians think beyond the manger to the cross.  It is a challenge to, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, think more deeply about the meaning of Christmas to understand that the Word made flesh is first and foremost, "frightening news for everyone who has a conscience" (p. xv).

As the book's Introduction says,

"We miss the essence of Christmas unless we become, in the words of Eberhard Arnold, 'mindful of how Christ's birth took place.'...Advent is not merely a commemorative event or an anniversary, but a yearly opportunity for us to consider the future, second Advent--the promised coming of God's kingdom on earth" (p. xv).

In the excerpt from Luther, he draws us to see ourselves in the Christmas story:

"Therefore see to it that you do not treat the Gospel only as history, for that is only transient; neither regard it only as an example, for it is of no value without faith. Rather, see to it that you make this birth your own and that Christ be born in you" (p. 219).

It is the you that Luther focuses on, quoting Luke 2:10 when the angel said to the shepherds, "Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people; for there is born to you this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" and Isaiah 9:6 when the prophet said, "Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given."

We are that you, that us in the Christmas story. And with that inclusion of humanity in the story of Christ's birth comes a responsibility to not merely hear the Christmas story but to become the Christmas story.  As Luther says, "This is the principal thing and the principal treasure in every Gospel. Christ must above all things become our own and we become his" (p. 219).

It is with that knowledge that we are called to be like the Shepherds--to hear and share the good news, the gospel of Jesus' birth, death, and call to be like Him in a faith walk with God that demonstrates itself in a lifetime of selfless acts of love to one's neighbor.

Bonhoeffer likewise echoes this call to consider the season of Advent not as merely Jesus coming to a manger bed but of a holy God coming in our midst and seeking to take up residence in our hearts and lives: "When we hear Jesus knocking, our conscience first of all pricks us: Are we rightly prepared? Is our heart capable of becoming God's dwelling place? Thus Advent becomes a time of self-examination" (p. 201-202)..

Jesus knocks on our heart's door during this Advent season.  It is not a mere season or holiday.  It is an opportunity for us to examine our lives in light of the gospel of Jesus.

If you're looking for something a little out of the ordinary when preparing your heart for Advent, consider ordering from Amazon a copy of Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and ChristmasIt will send you beyond the manger and even beyond the cross to the heart of Christmas that should live within us all.

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. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Greatest Counterfeiter of Them All

I hand a twenty dollar bill to the cashier and watch as she pulls out what appears to be a yellow highlighter.  Although this has happened to me dozens of times, my chest always tightens a bit; I unconsciously hold my breath those few seconds until, satisfied, she opens the register and tucks my twenty into its appointed slot. 

What color the bill would turn if it were counterfeit, I don't know, but I don't really want to find out. Words like "virtually undetectable" aren't exactly reassuring, nor is the Secret Service's comment earlier this year that "authorities reported that 6.5 counterfeit banknotes are passed as real currency out of every 1 million banknotes in U.S. circulation."

It's those 6.5 I'm concerned about and the damage they could do to my life.  

In Scripture, God speaks of counterfeit Christianity, of wicked men growing up right alongside righteous men, virtually undetectable. 

Isaiah says, "Thus says the LORD, 'As the new wine is found in the cluster, and one says, 'Do not destroy it, for there is benefit in it,' so I will act on behalf of My servants in order not to destroy all of them" (Is. 65:8).

Here, God compares the children of Israel to a cluster of grapes, using this analogy to explain why He allows wicked men to continue living alongside the righteous. Just as you can't pluck a bad grape out of the center of a cluster without the possibility of dislodging other good grapes, the Lord says the same is true when it comes to judging His people.  To destroy the bad grape would be to destroy the good grapes in the process.

This should sound very familiar to Jesus' parable of the wheat and tares when He said, "'The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away. But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also....The slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them. Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, 'First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn''”(Matt. 13:24-30).

The bad grapes growing in the same cluster as the good, the tares growing amongst the wheat--I've heard this latter passage so often taught as a warning for the church to beware of wolves in sheep's clothing coming through our front doors and sitting next to us each week on the pew. It's a deceptively simple parable concerning authentic and inauthentic Christianity.

And yet, the passage in Isaiah makes me reconsider God's purpose in allowing the bad to grow up with the good. 

For starters, in both Isaiah and Matthew, there is a sense of certainty of this happening, not an "if" mentality.  In fact, since Matthew refers to the greatest counterfeiter of all sowing the tares while men slept--and since only God needs no sleep--I would assume this is Christ's way of saying "Hey, this is going to happen.  Just expect Satan to plant counterfeit Christians amongst you. You can't be on guard out 24 hours a day."  Likewise, since God needs no sleep, He is quite aware of Satan's actions--it doesn't surprise Him.

I believe this part.  I've experienced the tares among the wheat inside the church.  And perhaps that is what makes me pause, because I know the consequences of tares in the wheat field...of counterfeit Christians in the church.  My heart bears the scars.

Allowing the bad grapes to remain in the same cluster with the good grapes can sometimes spoil the grapes near them.  Likewise, allowing the tares to remain in the same soil as the wheat can sap away vital nutrients in the soil and suck up much needed water that will negatively affect the wheat's growth. 

In my feeble estimation, it just sounds like a bad idea...until I read the second half of the verse in Isaiah and the second half of the parable in Matthew--to destroy the bad, one may destroy the good in the process.  

And so, God waits for the day of judgment.

That is God's purpose--to grow a harvest. Our God has a "whatever it takes" mentality when it comes to maturing His wheat for the day of harvest. He is patient as He waits to see how each stalk will turn out. He sends trials in the life of the true wheat, purifying them for the day of judgment.

We Christians have a tendency to put ourselves in the place of God, believing we can be the Holy Spirit for other Christians, that what we think, God must think, and surely, we are able to discern who is truly Godly and who is not.  We also have a tendency to be less than patient with new Christians, expecting them to be light years ahead in their walk with the Lord when we only stuck a bottle in their mouths yesterday.  If nothing else, this should easily prove to us that we are not God, and in our human mindset, we can do more harm than good if we set about to root out the tares in the church.  

We cannot tell 100% of the time the tares from the wheat until they bear fruit.  Without God's perfect accuracy, that means we can't run around like the boy who cried wolf screaming "Tare! Tare!" In doing so, we might misidentify a wheat as a tare, cutting off what may have only needed to be brought under a Godly mentor for instruction.   How damaging would that be to the kingdom?

In the end, we must remember: the Father allows the tares to grow up right beside the wheat; this tells me that there is a purpose in His plan.   

Yes, we must be ever-watchful and discerning, rooting out blatant evil in our midst and protecting the church from false teachings & doctrine, as Paul admonishes us to do.  Still, we can't treat our brothers and sisters in Christ with immediate suspicion when their walk with Christ doesn't look exactly like ours.

Part of living out loud for Jesus means putting our hearts out there.  Just expect it--you will be hurt.  I will be hurt.  In those times, though, we must stop and remember God's greater purpose in it all--a great harvest of souls.

Monday, October 20, 2014

When Assassinations Become Entertainment

"I watched an assassination today,"  she said.

My head jerked upwards in shock, but she continued calmly swirling her spoon through the steaming bowl of soup as if she were merely speaking of the weather.

"It's not that I wanted to," she continued.  "It was just on Face book, and I couldn't believe the video would be of an actual assassination, so I clicked......and I just watched.

I sat astonished, not really knowing what to say.  Earlier in the day, I had prayed through an email from missionaries I know personally in the Middle East.  This couple reported how in a particular village where the UN has withdrawn, ISIS is methodically going house to house to all Christians and asking the children to denounce Jesus.  So far, he said, "not one child has.  And so far all have consequently been killed.  But not the parents." 

This missionary couple begged prayers for courage, for the grace to be able to minister to those families whose children have been martyred for the cause of Christ, and for the faith to accept their own martyrdom if called to do so.

A militant Islamic group is beheading children.  Assassinations are being posted on Facebook alongside videos of cat tricks.  And I sit here helpless, asking the Lord for deliverance, for Him to be jealous for His name.  I ask the Lord, "who can make a difference?"

Lately, I have noticed a pattern in Scripture wherein a hopeless situation presents itself.  Then, either man or God, Himself, seeks for a righteous man to stand in the gap.

This happens when the prophet Isaiah receives his initial calling.  When he is transported into the presence of the Lord seated on his throne with the angels proclaiming His holiness, Isaiah is confronted with his sinfulness and the sinfulness of his people: "Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips,And I live among a people of unclean lips" (Is. 6:4).  Yet, in the midst of this hopelessness, the Lord seeks one to go to the people of Israel with a message of both warning and of hope: "Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, 'Here am I. Send me!'" (Is. 6:8).

Here, the Lord seeks and Isaiah responds as a willing man of God to stand in the gap for his people.

Later in Isaiah, though, the Lord seeks one righteous enough to stand in the gap--not to merely warn or offer a message of hope, but to be hope itself, to reconcile Himself to mankind...but He finds no one: "Now the LORD saw, and it was displeasing in His sight that there was no justice.  And He saw that there was no man, and was astonished that there was no one to intercede" " (Is. 59:15-16).

This is very similar to when the Lord told Jeremiah to look for a righteous man in Jerusalem but found no one: "Roam to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, And look now and take note. And seek in her open squares, If you can find a man, If there is one who does justice, who seeks truth, Then I will pardon her" (Jer. 5:1-3).

In Isaiah 59, though, God provides a solution: "Then His own arm brought salvation to Him, and His righteousness upheld Him" (Is. 59:16).

A few chapters later, God's search for one righteous enough to redeem His people occurs again in much the same language: "I looked, and there was no one to help, and I was astonished and there was no one to uphold; So My own arm brought salvation to Me, and My wrath upheld Me" (Is. 63:5).

In the two verses above, there is none righteous enough, none just enough, none who seeks truth enough to intercede for the people, so God says his "own arm brought salvation," a reference to Messiah who alone is able to bring salvation for His people.

There was none righteous to deliver mankind from the sinful mess and devastation he has made of this world.  And so, God sent His son because He alone is "mighty to save" (Is. 63:1). He is the only mediator worthy enough to bridge the great divide between a holy God and sinful man.

In John's vision in Revelation, he witnessed this same search at the end of time: "I saw in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne a book written inside and on the back, sealed up with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, 'Who is worthy to open the book and to break its seals' And no one in heaven or on the earth or under the earth was able to open the book or to look into it. Then I began to weep greatly because no one was found worthy to open the book or to look into it; and one of the elders *said to me, 'Stop weeping; behold, the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome so as to open the book and its seven seals.' And I saw between the throne (with the four living creatures) and the elders a Lamb standing, as if slain"  (Rev. 5:1-6, 9).

The response to this lamb is immediate worship: "And they *sang a new song, saying, 'Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation'" (v. 9).

This lamb, this Messiah--He is our only hope for deliverance both from our sin and from the evils of this world.  Our response should be to worship Him, to seek Him for salvation, for deliverance both on this earth and in eternity.

It is an understatement to say I am devastated at the daily massacre of Christians around the world--especially of children who profess the name of Jesus.  I feel helpless.  And so I do the only thing I can--I pray to the one who can intervene on their behalf.  

Join me this week in concentrating your prayers on the Middle East.  Pray that God would keep our hearts from being desensitized just because this is happening on the other side of the globe.  Pray for God to work in a miraculous way to deliver His people.  

Pray for God to be jealous for His name.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Bearing the Permanent Marks

In The Blood Covenant, Clay Trumbull (a late 1800s clergyman) explores the concept of covenant, a binding agreement, and how it permeates cultures around the globe, even those not reached by modern Christianity. No matter how remote the culture, each one he encountered in his studies demonstrated understanding of the solemnity of "cutting covenant" with another.

From the darkest heart of the African Jungle to the deserts of the Middle East and on into Europe and Asia--cultures throughout time have shared many significant similarities when it comes to cutting covenants, from the sacrifice / shedding of blood (Gen. 15 & 31, Ex. 24) and partaking of a meal to the sharing of gifts and creating a visible sign to memorialize the covenant.

In one passage, Trumbull writes of African blood covenants as witnessed by Christian missionary and explorer Dr. Livingston: "Commander several illustrations of the observance of this rite...'The first operation consisted of making an incision on each of their right wrists, just sufficient to draw blood; a little of which was scraped off and smeared on the other's cut; after which gunpowder was rubbed in [thereby securing a permanent token on the arm]'" (p. 15-16).

At first, this blood rite may not seem like anything found in the Old Testament. Yet, while the intentional maiming oneself and the co-mingling of literal blood may not be found in its pages, the intentional marking of one's body as a sign of covenant definitely is.

The second time God entered into covenant with Abraham, He gave two memorial signs--the changing of names and circumcision. God says, "No longer shall your name be called Abram, But your name shall be Abraham...This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you....But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant" (Gen. 17:5, 10-11,14).

The first memorial of this covenant is the changing of Abram and Sarai's name. Matthew Henry's Complete Commentary says, "Some think it added to the honour of Abraham’s new name that a letter of the name Jehovah was inserted into it, as it was a disgrace to Jeconiah to have the first syllable of his name cut off, because it was the same as the first syllable of the sacred name, Jer. 22:28 . Believers are named from Christ, Eph. 3:15."

What a beautiful depiction of how God's covenant would find its fulfillment later in the New Covenant, with God, Himself, inserting not merely the letter of His name into our names but His Spirit, Himself, within all Christians--Yahweh within us.

While the symbolism of this renaming is fulfilled by the Spirit residing within Christians, it seems there is still a literal re-naming of God's people. God tells His people that in the New Zion, "
you will be called by a new name Which the mouth of the LORD will designate" (Is. 62:2). In the New Testament, the apostle John also alludes to those who enter into the New Covenant through the blood of Christ receiving an actual new name: "To him who overcomes, to him I will give...a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it"(Rev. 2:17)

The second memorial of covenant is the act of circumcision, where all male Israelites
were to shed their own blood, symbolizing their being God's covenant people. This was a literal "cutting" of covenant; without the shedding of this blood, God is quite clear that those un-cut should be "cut off" from His people.

While the apostle Paul makes it clear that literal circumcision is no longer necessary for partakers of the New Covenant of faith since "circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter," he mentions other bodily scars as a reminder of his covenant with Christ Jesus, saying, "I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus" (Rom 2:29, Gal. 6:17). Here, Paul does not speak of his actual circumcision as a Jew but likely of scars from many beatings he endured while sharing the gospel. As one who often refers to Himself as the servant/slave of Christ, Paul also may be referring to himself (and other Christians by extension) as having a literal brand or "seal" similar to those that slaves would receive in ancient Rome...but if that is the case, then that's the subject of another post entirely.

One other interesting comparison is that in the blood covenant of Livingstone's Africans, both covenant partners would have had remaining visible scars. Similarly, God describes Himself as having cut His own palms to remind Himself of His covenant promises; He tells His chosen people, "Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands" (Is. 49:16).

While this Scripture does pertain directly to the Old Covenant, one need only look at Christ, Himself, to see the scars of the New Covenant that He still bears.

After His resurrection, Christ appears to His disciples with the scars of His sacrifice: "Then He said to Thomas, 'Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing'" (Jn. 20:27). Even in Scripture's final vision of heaven, the apostle John makes sure to describe Christ as appearing with the scars of the New Covenant, as "a Lamb standing, as if slain" (Rev. 5:6).

Even in its non-religious uses in cultures around the globe, the historical understanding of covenant seems to show even more so that we modern-day Christians have lost our way simply because we have minimized what a covenant is supposed to be.

The marks on our Savior's body aren't just so someone can pick Him out of a lineup or a painting hanging in an art gallery. They are tokens of remembrance, marks of everlasting one.

Published 08.07.11

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Life Out of Alignment

"Just listen to me," I sighed audibly and moved forward to snag him by the shoulder and draw his eyes to mine as I spoke.

Obviously, the "arguing with everything mommy says" phase was rearing its ugly head again, making communication between adult and child, male and female, that much more difficult.

Three times before, I had tried to give instructions while I worked to clean off the gathering table in the kitchen, but each time, my son failed to hear me.  As his mouth opened to argue with my statement before it was even complete, his ears ceased to function, causing him to miss the full import of what I was trying to say.

"Listen," I said again as he squirmed under my hand.  This time, I looked at him as I spoke.  This time, he heard me.  "Oh," he sheepishly uttered before wordlessly shuffling off to complete the task I required of him.

All it took was listening for him to understand what I required of him.

In the book of Isaiah, the Lord asks the peoples of the world to do the same--listen to Him.

Chapter 55 begins with an invitation from the Lord: "Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; And you who have no money come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk Without money and without cost...Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, And delight yourself in abundance.  Incline your ear and come to Me. Listen, that you may live; And I will make an everlasting covenant with you..." (v. 1-3).

The invitation is clear--Come to the Lord.  Everyone--Jew and Gentile--come and enter into the everlasting covenant of salvation, free for all men and in such abundance that there is no limit.

In these verses, the word "come" is repeated three times along with the word "listen."  Thus, although salvation is a free gift from God (and one which God, Himself, initiates in these verses), it requires us to listen to determine what God seeks from those He offers this free gift.

A few verses later, Isaiah says, "Seek the Lord while He may be found; Call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way And the unrighteous man his thoughts; And let him return to the Lord, And He will have compassion on him, And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon. ' For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,' declares the Lord. 'For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts'" (Is. 55:6-9).

Clearly, the offer of salvation is not for the wicked or the unrighteous, but these are the ones addressed here since they are in most need of God's offer.

While I have often heard this Scripture passage used to explain how the mysteries of God are beyond human comprehension, that's not exactly what Isaiah is saying.  Reading the verses in context shows that these verses are, instead, seeking to explain how the wicked man can "forsake his way" and how the unrighteous man can forsake "his thoughts" so that he may enter into God's covenant of salvation.

A true "return to the Lord" requires wicked, unrighteous men and women to listen to the Lord and forsake their old thoughts, forsake their old ways, and take up God's thoughts and God's ways. In essence, they are choosing to give up their own self and align their values and agenda with God's values and agenda. 

Verses 7 and 8-9 are even parallel in structure to emphasize this comparison, verse 7 mentioning the wicked man's "his way" and "his thoughts" before verse 8 and 9 mentioning the "My thoughts" and "My ways" phrases twice in reference to God.

This passage should remind us of the New Testament verses wherein Jesus says, "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth," reminding us we cannot live with one foot in the world and one foot in heaven (Matt. 6:24). We must choose a side--God or ourselves.

The apostle Paul took up this idea as well, saying, "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please" (Gal. 5:16-17).

The spirit and flesh in Galatians are in opposition just as man's natural thoughts and God's thoughts in Isaiah 55.  One must reject those values and thoughts of the flesh in order to take up, to put on, the values of God.  In essence, the offer of salvation is the offer of a total transformation from flesh to spirit, as Paul describes in Galatians.  

One cannot have a mind filled with both unrighteous thoughts of man and the righteous thoughts of God.  There must be a divine exchange of ways and thoughts if we are to seek God's compassion and pardon.  
This should be a reminder to all of us as we go about our daily lives that we can't use this verse as a get-out-of-jail-free card and say, "Well, God is such a mystery and His ways are so beyond mine that I don't have a shot of understanding in order to align my ways and thoughts with His!" 

On the contrary--our thoughts and our ways must align with God's thoughts and God's ways.

The very next verse explains how we can do this, saying, "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" (Is. 55:11).

The Word of God--The Bible--it is the answer, teaching us God's thoughts and God's ways, helping us align our thoughts with His thoughts and our ways with His ways.

Granted, that divine alignment may not be complete until we reach the other side of eternity.

But it begins here on earth.  It begins each time we truly listen to God's Word and choose to line up our lives with the words found in its pages.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Choosing Joy...Even When You're Not
Two weeks ago, I scooted too quickly around the gathering table to help child #2 with his homework.   In the process, I kicked the table leg and had to pause to let the pain pass before moving on.  Like most mothers, I gave it little thought, especially since my bare feet are forever kicking something in a three-child household.  This was no big deal, right? 

Wrong.  A few days later, the toe began to swell until the nail was ringed in red and it had its own separate heartbeat.  Apparently, I had gotten a cut when I hit the table leg's sharp edge, an invisible invitation welcoming infection inside until it grew into a blister under the nail.

A needle relieved the pressure, and Nurse Allison said it should get better.  But there was one caveat--no running until it healed.  That evening, I grumbled to God about how unfair this newest trial was, especially since I was in the midst of training for the half marathon in January, something I was certain He told me to do. Did He really expect me to walk the whole thing!?

James 1 tells believers to "Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (v. 2-4).

But how does a Christian count all life's trials as pure joy  when they certainly don't feel like joy?  In fact, often, those are really painful, life-changing, kick-you-face-down-in-the-dust trials?

HOW does a person count those "all joy"?

The answer can be found back in Isaiah, in a prophecy about Messiah and how he would be put to death on a cross.  The prophet says, "But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand. " (Is. 53: 10). 

In the above verse, the word "pleased" or "chaphets" means "to take pleasure in; to delight in*"  Likewise, the words "good pleasure" come from that same root word and mean the same thing: "delight, pleasure, ...that in which one takes delight"*

This idea of taking delight in something is the same thing as James' counting it all joy.

The two words show that God the Father was pleased, was delighting, was counting it all joy when Jesus was pierced, was beaten, was suspended on a cross between heaven and earth.  He was taking delight and joy when Messiah's soul that had known no sin was burdened down with the sin of the entire world, became sin itself, thereby separating Jesus from God the Father. 

How could God do this? As a mother, in my flesh, I can't comprehend how a Father could delight in His son's physical and spiritual suffering, His son's anguish as it says in verse 11?

And yet, the answer lies in the next verse, explaining how we as believers can count our trials as a delightful joy as well.  

Isaiah writes, "As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities" (Is. 53:11).

The Father could count His Son's suffering all joy because He knew what was coming as a result of that trial, of that suffering and anguish.  Because Jesus submitted Himself to the Father, because He chose to endure the trial, chose the cross, chose to take on our sins, we believers would have the opportunity to be justified through Him and, ultimately, to be reconciled to God.

It's not that the trial, itself, was a joy.  Anyone who has seen Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ could attest to this...and that's only the level of anguish we mortals can imagine.  Yet, what God had planned through that trial--the redemption of His children--was joy.

This should tell us a good bit about trials in our lives.  They may not feel joyful to endure. They may be the hardest thing we've ever endured. And yet, we can count it all joy because of what God is going to do both through that trial and on the other side of that trial.  

We believers must learn to look beyond the moment, beyond the trial, to what God is accomplishing through them.  It could be that the trial will lead to God doing something wonderful in our lives.  Even more humbling, though, it could be that our counting it joy through the trial will lead to God doing a work of salvation in someone else's life.

*Strong's Concordance Online
 Image: from Tutorials for Crafty Hands.  Tammy Tutterow is truly amazing and gifted.