Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Clinging to Our Circumstances

Some days, it seems like I'm trapped in an inescapable cycle that will only end when this life passes away.  For a time, things seem better.  Then, there is a settling of accounts, and I find myself walking in the same fossilized footprints from twelve months ago. Nothing had really changed.

"I just don't know what to do," I say, head lowered in defeat.

"There is nothing to do," my husband responds.  "God has taken care of us so far.  There's nothing to 'do' but trust He will continue this next year."

These are the times when I must choose to not let my emotions overrule what I know.  I can choose to feel trapped by my circumstances.  They can enslave me to living in fear or in defeat if I allow them to. Or I can choose a different path.

When I look back into Scripture, I see the children of Israel trapped as slaves in Egypt.  Literally.  There was no way out, or at least there seemed to be no escape from their oppression.  Ultimately, they did the only thing they could do: cry out to God:

"Now it came about in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died. And the sons of Israel sighed because of the bondage, and they cried out; and their cry for help because of their bondage rose up to God. So God heard their groaning; and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God saw the sons of Israel, and God took notice of them" (Ex. 2:23-25).

This passage records two simple steps: (1) They cried out.  (2) God heard them.  The second step did not come about without the Israelites reaching the end of their own striving.  Only when they came to the end of themselves did they cry out to God, asking Him to provide a way out.

And God did hear and answer, sending Moses who spoke a message of deliverance to the Israelites: "I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments...I will bring you to the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession" (Ex. 6:6,8). 

God would answer the Israelites' cries for help by redeeming them from their circumstances, but He wanted them to know He would do so because of the covenant He had established with their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

God was communicating to this broken people that their redemption was sure because He had made a promise, which He would now fulfill because He is a covenant-keeping God.

The sad thing is the children of Israel did not believe the words.  Their bondage was so all-consuming that they were enslaved to it even once God had offered them a way out. Even with the promise of God's help--which they had asked for and were receiving--the children of Israel still clung to their bondage, to their circumstances, instead of to the covenant and God's promise.

Scripture says, "So Moses spoke thus to the sons of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses on account of their despondency and cruel bondage" (Ex. 6:9).

This begs the question of us--if we have called out to God in the midst of our circumstances, what are we clinging to? God has promised He will never leave nor forsake us.  He has promised all things work together for the good of those who love the Lord.  He has promised eternal life for those who live by faith in Him.  Yet, are we continuing to cling to our circumstances? To our bondage?  Or are we clinging to God's promises of redemption?

It's all too easy to cling to what we feel, to cling to what our circumstances are even if those are the very things we are begging God to help us escape from.  We cling with clenched hands because it's often hard to see beyond the here and now and simply let. go.

Still, like Moses, God has spoken words of victory over us.  He has called us to walk by faith in that victory, believing the promises He has given us in His Word and believing in Him as a God who never breaks His covenant promises.  Those are our two choices.

Image: Roots clinging to life in Nova Scotia.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

How Short Is Long Enough?

I grew up as a child of the 80s watching gymnast Mary Lou Retton in the 1984 Summer Olympic Games.  With her short-cropped brown hair and winning smile, she was a whirlwind of positive energy.  We watched on the edge of our seats as she flipped on the rings, gripped the bar with white chalked hands, and vaulted across the floor mat.  For many of my generation, Mary Lou became a symbol of power and purpose combined into one small, all-American girl.

Unlike many modern-day sports stars, hers was short-lived.  She was in the limelight one moment and then virtually gone the next when she retired from competitive gymnastics just a short two years later.

Back then, I knew her gold-medal performance was the result of hard work and a life of dedication, but I couldn't grasp just how dedicated she was to her craft until I grew into adult with my own pursuits that required such diligence and persistence for success.

When looking at the life of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, it seems that his entire life was also spent year after year in preparation for his ministry.

Scripture tells us that John the Baptist was at least six months older than Jesus.  As the angel told Mary, "your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month" (Lk. 1:36).

Great things were expected of John.  The angel told his father, Zechariah, that his son would "'be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.'" (Lk. 1:15-18).

It wasn't just his family, though, who had high expectations for John.  After Zechariah prophesied after his son's naming, "All who heard them kept them in mind, saying, 'What then will this child turn out to be?” For the hand of the Lord was certainly with him'" (Lk. 1:66).

As the son of a priest, as a child identified by God as the forerunner of Messiah, as a babe indwelt with the Holy Spirit from the womb--John's life would have been focused from birth to fulfill this calling. Everyone would have been expecting great things.  Talk about pressure...

Some scholars believe the verse that reads "And the child continued to grow and to become strong in spirit, and he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel" (Lk. 1:80) implies that John would have even left home as a young child to become part of the Nazarite community in the desert, training daily for priesthood and devoting himself completely to the task at hand.

This was discipline beyond what we can even imagine with the strictest boarding school.  It was all consuming.  Then, in Luke 3, John's ministry finally begins.  Luke pinpoints its start in the midst of much darkness: "Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene" (v. 1).

His entire life had been preparing for this moment, and when it finally came, he made the most of it.  As we discussed here earlier this month, people of all social classes flocked to him in the desert.  

But then the Messiah came.  John baptized Jesus.  And just as quickly as his ministry began, it was over.  John's own disciples even began to understand this and followed Jesus, instead: "Again the next day John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as He walked, and *said, 'Behold, the Lamb of God!' The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus" (Jn. 1:35-37).

At the next mention of John, Jesus hears "that John had been taken into custody" (Matt. 4:12). Then, just as quickly, John's head is served up on a platter for Herodias in such a silly, meaningless end to such a well-devoted, serious live.

Like old kindling that ignites the hearth into bright flame long enough to light the logs around it before burning quickly to ash--this was John.  A lifetime of preparation for 1-3 years of service in which he lit the hearts of those around him into flame for serving Jesus.  

I don't know about you, but sometimes, I wonder why I'm here.  What is my purpose.  What ministry am I supposed to do.  Is there, like John, a single mission I'm working towards?

I can't answer that question--not for myself and certainly not for you.  But what I can learn from John is that (1) dedication to the task God gives me and (2) submission to Jesus' agenda over my own must be the game plan.  

Maybe God will show us our mission early in life as He did with John.  Or maybe we won't know our mission until it is upon us.  Either way, I believe God expects us to prepare, prepare, prepare.  

Let us seek to discipline ourselves in the spiritual disciplines with the fervor we would exhibit if we knew that tomorrow were the day we've been waiting upon...for who is to say it is not and we simply haven't been given that insight yet from on high.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Twice in a Lifetime

God speaks. Through his Word, prayer, visions, dreams, or the divine arranging of life’s circumstances—Christians believe God speaks to them as part of their personal relationship with the Father and Son.

And were you to ask any of us, even when we have the Word of God before us in our hands...deep down, we still have difficulty with those dry spells when God is silent. The publishing world is filled with billions of words exploring those deserts.

As God’s children, we’re taught to live out Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” And so we bring everything before the Father’s throne—every petition, every request, every decision we need to make.

Then, we’re many times disappointed because the kind of God we want is one who readily responds with “yes,” or “no” answers, one who gives 24-hour call-backs, one who speaks in clear 20th-century-ese instead of cryptic ancient Hebrew or Greek. In essence, we want a man-made God who thinks like us, not an Alpha and Omega God who strives to transform us to think like Him.

The interesting thing is that in my own life and in the lives of others, I’ve seen that even when God does reveal Himself to us on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis, it’s not enough. We want the communication to be easier, faster, more plentiful. So, we read books and attend seminars to learn how to hear God speak. We look at others who are receiving fresh revelations from God and wonder what they have that we don’t.

And yet, I think we’re getting it all wrong.

The more I look at individuals throughout Scripture, I see stories of men and women who had a healthy relationship with God—but I don’t see where God spoke to them every single day in a “Here’s your simple answer” kind of way.

Yes, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge” (Ps. 19:1-2). God speaks as God each day. But, the intimate speech of relationship isn’t nearly as prolific.

Those times when God doesn’t speak, those “dry spells.” Isn’t that the foundation of faith? Believing in something I cannot hear, see, or feel? I believe so.

Consider one verse, one of those I normally gloss over, even if I’m familiar with the names: “The word of the LORD that came to Hosea son of Beeri during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and during the reign of Jeroboam son of Jehoash king of Israel” (Hos. 1:1).

I know historians argue over exact dates, but approximates are good enough for me. One chart gives these dates for the four kings listed above:

Uzziah, King of Judah 790-739 BC
(Jeroboam II, King of Israel) (793-753 BC)
Jotham, King of Judah 750-731 BC
Ahaz, King of Judah 735-715 BC

The Lord’s first words to Hosea were “Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife,” implying that he was of marrying age. Add that number to possibly 75 years living in the midst of the four named kings, and you have a lifetime.

Do you see what that means?

God spoke to Hosea all his life, making his entire life an allegory, a message to Israel.

But even though God spoke to Hosea for that many years, His words seem to have been few. Hosea wasn’t a prolific writer. His God-given Word to the people only covers nine pages in my Bible. And critics disagree as to whether those nine pages are composed of two or four messages from God.

Think of it: a prophet of God, one holy enough to make the pages of Scripture--he may have only received two messages from God over the course of an entire lifetime.

God will continue to speak to His children throughout their lives if they will stay devoted and listening. That is comforting. But, God may not speak a novel to each person.

Some of us will simply be required to live by faith for much longer stretches between messages.

Pub. 08.01.10

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Tripping Over Ourselves

With my children off from school for another week of holidays, my home has turned into an obstacle course of toys, board games, crayons, and books taken out and just as quickly forgotten in favor of the next "fun" thing my trio has dreamed of doing.  Added to this chaos is my own packing away of all things Christmas while simultaneously replacing the tinsel and lights with Valentine hearts to hearken in the next season.

I stumble through this labyrinth with as much patience as a mother can muster, knowing that the only other option is beyond the front door where over seven sopping inches of rain has made the outdoors too swampy for much playtime.

My job is simple--to move aside the stumbling blocks, to make the path sufficiently clear so that no one (like me or their daddy) falls and breaks his neck.  

As we start a new year, this concept is ever before me as I examine my own life, seek to minister to others, and work to disciple my own children.  

What can I do for myself, my family, my friends, and even total strangers to make the path clear for Jesus in each individual life? 

John the Baptist had this same task. Matthew tells how John was "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. 3:3).

His job was simple--to clear the stumbling blocks out of people's lives so their hearts were tender and ready for the message of salvation as only found through Jesus, the Messiah. And yet, despite its simplicity, the message hit home with others in such a way that John didn't need to seek an audience with which to share the gospel.  Instead, the audience came to him in droves: "Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins" (Matt. 3:5-6, italics).

Though his was a simple gospel of repentance, John's approach was unique for each person, the Holy Spirit that resided within giving him the words to reach each heart with an individual message, not some prepackaged witnessing plan.

As John the Baptist preached his message of repentance, Scripture records "the crowds asked him, 'What then shall we do?' And he answered them, 'Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.' Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, 'Teacher, what shall we do?' And he said to them, 'Collect no more than you are authorized to do.' Soldiers also asked him, 'And we, what shall we do?' And he said to them, 'Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.'" (Luke 3:10-14).

The crowds, the tax collectors, the soldiers--they all needed to remove the stumbling block of sin from their lives, but John was sensitive to each heart, understanding that while the message of repentance was a one-size-fits-all message, the words to communicate that message were different.

One good example of this using differing approaches came when John saw the religious leaders coming out to meet him.  He pulled no punches, calling them a "brood of vipers" and warning of the hell fires to come if they ignored his message, a tactic that was apparently appropriate for this situation but would have been too over the top for other witnessing opportunities: 

"But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, 'You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matt. 3:7-10).

John tailored his gospel message of repentance in a way best suited to help remove the particular stumbling block from that person's life, all while never changing or compromising the message, itself. 

Such an example should teach us that no matter how we want an easy plan, there is no cookie cutter way to share the same gospel with each person we come in contact with.  Sometimes it will take an in-your-face approach to bring about saving repentance.  And other times, the message of salvation may be communicated by the simple sharing of a meal with another.

Each sharing will require us to rely on the Holy Spirit for the right words to say, equipping us for the task just as was John.  In 2015, let us take courage in that fact and seek to clear the way for Jesus, working to remove the stumbling blocks of unrepentance so He can come into the hearts of those we around us.