Monday, January 6, 2014

Once Upon A Time

I love a good story, don’t you? 

Storytelling is a distinctly human trait. No matter how proficiently animals like dolphins, apes and some birds can communicate with us, they don’t care about stories. People, on the other hand, almost seem to be born craving stories. Think about the child at bedtime – “One more story, mommy! Just one more.”

As we move through our lives, we find stories almost everywhere: books, movies, TV shows, music, even commercials tell us tiny little 30 second stories. The Bible is filled with stories. Who doesn’t enjoy retelling or listening again to the stories of Joseph, his beautiful coat, and his treacherous brothers; Samson’s feats of strength; and King David’s battle with Goliath.

A well-told story can transcend time and place, social status, education level, and political or religious affiliation. That explains why Jesus used stories and parables so often in His teaching. The people who came to hear Jesus speak varied widely in their intellect, occupation and education. There were theologians, farmers, beggars. If He had directed His lessons to any one group, He would have lost the interest of the others. By telling parables, each person was engaged and able to understand the story within the framework of his own education and experience.

As I thought about the effectiveness of storytelling as a teaching tool, I remembered a study I’d read about that found that when people are shown a normal (realistic) drawing of a person along with a caricature of the same person, they will recognize the caricature more readily than the realistic drawing.

Why? Well according to the study, it’s because the caricature minimizes the “average” parts of a person’s face and emphasizes the distinctive features.[1]

“OK,” I hear you saying, “but we’re talking about stories and parables, not caricatures.”

True, but I believe that the best stories do the same thing as caricatures do – they condense ideas into their most important points so that they’re easier for us to imagine and remember.

Think of the story of the Prodigal Son. Jesus could have told His audience about all the disagreements the younger son had had with His father; the step-by-step progression that brought him to ask for his inheritance. He could have gone into specifics about the relationship between the two brothers, too. He could have mentioned the boys’ mother and how she felt about the whole situation. But all of that would have diluted the story until it sounded just like everyday life. People would have gotten bored; they might have decided that since they weren’t a man, or a younger brother, or whatever that the story didn’t apply to them. By telling just enough, Jesus made it possible for every one of us to share the experience each of the characters in the story.

Another great advantage of storytelling is that we can say things in the context of the story that we probably wouldn’t get away with saying directly.

An example of this is the story of David and the prophet Nathan. Think about it – David has just pulled off what he figures is the perfect cover-up of his affair with Bathsheba when Nathan shows up and tells him a parable about a rich man stealing a poor man’s only, much loved, sheep. Once David is properly worked up about the injustice of the story, Nathan points out that David had done just that.

Chances are, if Nathan had marched into David’s throne room and spelled out all the things David had done wrong, Nathan wouldn’t have lived through the afternoon. As it was, David was convicted by his own reaction to the story and was brought to repentance instead of defiance.

Jesus could have gone from person to person spelling out exactly where each one was wrong and needed to change immediately, but as we all know, that only puts people on the defensive and really makes it much less likely that they will listen to anything anyone has to say after that.

Using parables allowed Jesus to put the needed information out there in a way that didn’t back anybody into a corner … it allowed (and still allows) each hearer to face their own need for forgiveness and redemption and take steps to receive those things.

This story from Kevin Harney’s book, Seismic Shifts, illustrates this point.
“It was a battle. A wrestling match. A test of wills. Every day, at exactly the same time, Margaret would go to the bathroom cabinet, open it, and take out a huge bottle of castor oil. Then she would head to the kitchen to get a tablespoon. At the sound of the drawer opening and the silverware rattling, Patches, her Yorkshire terrier, would run and hide—sometimes under the bed, at other times in the bathtub or behind Margaret's recliner. Patches knew what was coming.
“Someone had convinced Margaret that her beloved dog would have strong teeth, a beautiful coat, and a long life if she gave him a spoonful of castor oil every day. So, as an act of love every 24 hours, she cornered Patches, pinned him down, pried open his mouth, and—as he whimpered, squirmed, and fought her with all his strength—poured a tablespoon of castor oil down his little doggie throat. Neither Patches nor Margaret enjoyed their daily wrestling match.
“Then one day, in the middle of their battle royal, with one sideways kick, Patches sent the dreaded bottle of castor oil flying across the kitchen floor. It was a momentary victory for the canine, as Margaret let him go so she could run to the pantry and grab a towel to clean up the mess.
“When Margaret got back, she was utterly shocked. There was Patches licking up the spilled castor oil with a look of satisfaction only a dog can make. Margaret began to laugh uncontrollably. In one moment, it all made sense. Patches liked castor oil. He just hated being pinned down and having it poured down his throat.”[2]
Jesus’ use of parables and stories is just one more evidence that He loves us enough to let us choose our own destiny. He never tries to shove anything down our throats. He puts it out there and it’s up to us to make our choice.

How will we share His love with the people we meet – by pointing out all they’ve done wrong or by showing them all that Jesus has done to make us right for His Kingdom?

[1] Sam S. Rakover, Baruch Cahlon, Face Recognition: Cognitive and Computational Processes, John Benjamins Publishing, 2001
[2] Kevin G. Harney, Seismic Shifts (Zondervan, 2005), p. 23-24

Operation: Discipleship

This will almost certainly shock most of you who know me, but I want to be a runner. Crazy, right? For those who don’t know me, I should tell you that I am not (nor have I ever been) built for speed…or even for slow. I have never been an athlete of any kind, but when I watch people run, I want to run too.

There’s a problem, though. Well, there are several, but one of the most significant ones is that nobody can just lace up their running shoes, step out their front door and start running. It takes careful practice and training so that the runner can reach their goal without injury.

So, there’s this program called C25K (Couch to 5 Kilometers) that claims to be able to take someone who has never trained to run and gradually build them up until they can run in a five kilometer event over a nine week period. When I read about the program I got really excited. It starts out having the person walk a certain amount of time and gradually adds in intervals of running. The week’s assignment, for example, is 
“Brisk five-minute warmup walk. Then alternate 60 seconds of jogging and 90 seconds of walking for a total of 20 minutes.”[1]
I read through the nine week plan and decided to start the next week … and immediately hit my first road block. I couldn’t run for a full 60 seconds. That’s ok, I thought, everybody starts somewhere, if I have to, I’ll just repeat the first week, until I can run for 60 seconds at a stretch.

So, after about a week and a half, after asking everyone I knew who I thought might know something about how to run, I finally succeeded in running for a full 60 second stretch. At which point, I ran straight into the next road block – 90 seconds of walking was nowhere near enough time for me to recover enough to do it again – and certainly not for a total for 20 minutes.

I lasted about three weeks, at which point I got terribly discouraged and quit. I realized something very important. Wanting to run, reading about running, having the program on my phone and listening to someone tell me how to run, and actually trying to run are not enough, for me anyway. Without a living, breathing coach, teacher or mentor to help me and encouragement, I’m just banging my head against a wall.

That’s when something else occurred to me. How often do we tell people who want to improve their Christian experience to read such-and-such book or listen to this preacher, or follow this study schedule? We might even try that method ourselves.

Now, I realize that my analogy breaks down here because we have the Holy Spirit to guide and lead us into a saving relationship with Jesus. Even so, how often have we started a Bible reading plan or other type of study program, only to get bogged down and discouraged after a couple of weeks of trying to do it on our own? 
“Atul Gawande, a distinguished Harvard surgeon and author, argues that everyone needs a coach. After working eight years as a surgeon, he realized that his operating room success had slowly reached a plateau. Soon after that realization, he attended a medical meeting and had an afternoon free, and tried to track down someone to play in a game of tennis. Finally, he went to the local tennis club and was told that he could practice his ground strokes only if he paid for a lesson and hit with the club pro.
“Gawande writes what happened next: ‘He was in his early twenties, a recent graduate who'd played on his college team. We hit back and forth for a while. He went easy on me at first, and then started running me around. I served a few points, and the tennis coach in him came out. "You know," he said, "you could get more power from your serve." I was dubious. My serve had always been the best part of my game. But I listened. He had me pay attention to my feet as I served, and I gradually recognized that my legs weren't really underneath me when I swung my racquet up into the air.
“‘My right leg dragged a few inches behind my body …. With a few minutes of tinkering, he'd added at least ten miles an hour to my serve.’
“Not long afterward, Gawande was watching tennis star Rafael Nadal playing a tournament match on TV.
“‘The camera flashed to his coach, and the obvious struck me as interesting: even Rafael Nadal has a coach. Nearly every √©lite tennis player in the world does …. But doctors don't. I'd paid to have a kid just out of college look at my serve. So why did I find it inconceivable to pay someone to come into my operating room and coach me on my surgical technique?
Coaching operates from the premise that “no matter how well prepared people are in their formative years, few can achieve and maintain their best performance on their own.”’
“The apostle Paul knew that we need coaches in living as Christians. Watch me, he said. And let me give you some pointers. We learn by seeing truth lived out and modeled. We learn by imitation. Some things are caught, not taught. Some things are caught and taught.”[2]
The writer of Hebrews was led by the Holy Spirit to remind us that we need fellowship with people who believe the same way we do so that we can “hold tightly without wavering.”
“Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.” Hebrews 10:23-25 (NLT)
Just like learning to run is a process, following Jesus is a process. Nobody wakes up one morning and runs five kilometers without training. As Christians we grow closer to Jesus as we study and share our experience with others –almost never in isolation.

There are some things we just can’t completely learn by just reading about them. I thought of it this week as my mom and I made candy together.

There’s something about candy like caramel and English toffee and divinity that goes beyond a recipe. It’s something that you have to learn by watching someone who has done it before and then practice while they watch you.

That’s how I believe being a Christian is. Jesus didn’t send His followers off to study the scriptures by themselves. He ate, slept, and lived with them for three and a half years. He talked to them and taught them and demonstrated to them the way that He wanted them to live. Then, Jesus’ disciples walked with, ate with, and taught the next generation of Christians and so on.

Don’t try to tough it out alone. This week, let’s pray that Jesus will show us each (if we don’t already have one) a mentor/friend/guide from whom we can learn to be better followers of Jesus, and someone we can encourage and walk beside as they grow into a more mature Christian.

[1] Cool Running,
[2] Tim Jones, Nashville, Tennessee; source: Atul Gawande, "Personal Best," The New Yorker (10-3-11)

Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam

“What is a sunbeam?” you ask.

Well, just in case it’s been too long since you sang this song, here are the words (I’ll admit I only remembered the first verse):
 “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam,
To shine for Him each day;
In every way try to please Him,
At home, at school [at work], at play.
A sunbeam, a sunbeam,
Jesus wants me for a sunbeam;
A sunbeam, a sunbeam,
I’ll be a sunbeam for Him.
Jesus wants me to be loving,
And kind to all I see;
Showing how pleasant and happy,
His little one can be.
I will ask Jesus to help me
To keep my heart from sin;
Ever reflecting His goodness,
And always shine for Him.
I’ll be a sunbeam for Jesus,
I can if I but try;
Serving Him moment by moment,
Then live for Him on high.”[1]

(You can thank me later for getting that song stuck in your head.)

Well, so much for my plan to show up for church every week, sit in my spot, doze through the sermon and then go home to take a nap…now I’m supposed to be a sunbeam? What does that mean, anyway?

I’m thinking that a sunbeam is a blessing or an encouragement, does that sound right to you?
“Are you, with your whole soul, might, mind, and strength, loving and serving God in blessing others around you by leading them to the Light of the world?” (E.G. White, Testimony Treasures, Volume 2, page 188)
I know what you’re thinking. “That sounds like a full time job! I don’t have time for that.” or “How can I be a blessing to others when my life is still a mess?” But I think that we let Satan tell us that stuff when being a blessing (a sunbeam) is not one big thing we do, it’s a piece of everything we do.

One author talks about the moment she figured that out. 
“For years I never felt I measured up to all I thought the Lord wanted me to be, or all I thought I should be. Satan convinced me that since I wasn't "perfect," I had no right to minister to others. Then one day, my children brought me a bouquet of flowers they had picked. I hugged each child with joy. As I tried to arrange the flowers in a vase, I discovered my children had picked no stems, just blossoms. I laughed--I had been blessed with their gift of love, however imperfect. It was then I realized we don't have to be perfect to be a blessing. We are asked only to be real, trusting in Christ's perfection to cover our imperfection”.[2]
What a relief, right? One of the drawbacks, though, is that being a blessing is something that we have to do consciously, it’s probably not going to happen on its own, or ever our own. We have to have asked for God’s help to be a blessing to the people we meet.

I just got an email today that had a list of “random acts of kindness,” that look a whole lot like people being sunbeams. There was the Subway restaurant that welcomes the homeless for a free meal every Friday; the older couple who pays for the meal of a young couple trying to eat out with a one-year-old; the dollar bill taped to the snack machine with the note saying, “Your snack is on me. Enjoy your day.” There’s a mailman who drops encouraging notes into random mailboxes as he does his mail route and the person who left the money for another person’s parking ticket on their windshield. And then there’s this:
“The Crimson Tide’s starting kicker missed three field goals during the game, then was yanked with one second remaining in favor of redshirt freshman Adam Griffith, who ended up missing the 57-yard field goal that was returned 109 yards for a Tigers game-winning touchdown.
Foster received threats and horrible, awful messages on Twitter. His teammates stuck up for him though.”
You know that it was a really tough time for that kicker…death threats? really? over a college football game? Anyway, two and a half weeks after that horrible game, Cade Foster posted a picture of a very special letter he’d received on the social website, Instagram.

The letter said, 
“Dear Cade (#43), Life has its setbacks. I know! However you will be a stronger human with time. I wish you all the best – Sincerely – another 43 George Bush.”[3]
Those things only took a second or two and made so much difference for the recipients. Just knowing that someone else noticed you and cared enough to let you know they noticed is huge! It just takes a little thought and the willingness to respond to a nudge from the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes thought, I think it’s easier to do those kinds of things for strangers than it is to encourage people we know. Have you ever noticed that? We can smile and make a joke with the person at the cash register to brighten their day, but we don’t have anything nice to say to someone in our office, at church, or in our own family. We’re quick to criticize the people closest to us. They are often the people who need our encouragement the most.
“And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:25-26
As “the Day” approaches, what can we be doing for those closest to us to encourage them as we wait for Jesus to return? How can we make sure that they know that they matter to us? that we want to see them in Heaven? that we want to help them along the way?

Instead of criticizing, let’s encourage; instead of gossiping, let’s bless; instead of tearing down, let’s build up.
“I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Ephesians 4:1-3

[1] Nellie Talbot and Edwin O. Excell, Jesus wants me for a Sunbeam,  1851-1921
[2] Gigi Graham Tchividjian, "Heart to Heart," Today's Christian Woman.
[3] Zac Ellis, Alabama kicker Cade Foster receives handwritten note from George W. Bush, Sports Illustrated Campus Union,

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Filling the Empty Chair

Maybe you’ve experienced something like this: You are talking with someone when suddenly they openly yawn and look at their watch. How did you interpret those actions? Can you remember how you felt at that moment? Were you hurt? insulted? enraged? How did you react? How do you wish you had reacted?
What about this: You’re discussing ideas with a colleague and while you’re speaking you think you see them just barely roll their eyes in response to something you’ve said? How do you go on from there – as co-workers?

As a teacher I knew that seeing a student do something like that in class made me angry, but I usually assigned the actions to rudeness and generally poor upbringing, did my best to ignore it and move on. This week, however, I learned that in many cases it’s not just rudeness, it’s actually an expression of contempt for the other person.

These psychologist watched the interactions of married couples as they talked to each other and then predicted the success of the marriages. The psychologists were able to make correct predictions after just three to five minutes. It turns out it had very little to do with what the couples talked about or even their tone of voice. The predictions were based on minute, seemingly incidental signs of contempt – a little, almost imperceptible eye roll, or a mostly concealed yawn, for example.

Now think of our own behavior during worship and Bible study, sometimes…what kind of prognosis would those psychologists be able to make about the health of our relationship with God? Have we forgotten why we come to church? What does it mean if we’re bored in church or if we keep putting off Bible study?

How can we excuse those behaviors, especially when the Bible tells us to “Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come; and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water.”? Revelation 14:7

OK, we know that none of the behaviors we’ve talked about so far demonstrate fearing or glorifying God, what would fearing and glorifying God look like? I found what I think is an excellent picture:
“To live in fear of God means that we live before God and the rest of reality in such a way that there is never contempt within us. We take nothing for granted, everything as a gift. We have respect. We are always poised for surprise before the mystery of God, others, and ourselves.
“All boredom and contempt is an infallible sign that we have fallen out of a healthy fear of God.”[1]
What do you think? Is living in fear of God a good thing? Is it the same as being afraid of God? I don’t believe it is.
“Jerry Bridges, in his book The Joy of Fearing God, describes the healthy tension between loving and fearing God:
“In the physical realm there are two opposing forces called ‘centrifugal’ and ‘centripetal.’ Centrifugal force tends to pull away from a center of rotation, while centripetal force pulls toward the center.
“A stone whirled about on the end of a string exerts centrifugal force on the string, while the string exerts centripetal force on the stone. Take away one and the other immediately disappears.
“These two opposing forces can help us understand something of the fear of God. The centrifugal force represents the attributes of God such as his holiness and sovereignty that cause us to bow in awe and self-abasement before him. They hold us reverently distant from the one who, by the simple power of his word, created the universe out of nothing. The centripetal force represents the love of God. It surrounds us with grace and mercy and draws us with cords of love into the Father's warm embrace. To exercise a proper fear of God we must understand and respond to both these forces.”[2]
How do those opposing forces play out in our relationship to God?
“To grow in wisdom and love is not to lose all fear of God; it is to change our fear of God. It is to pass from the servile fear of the slave, the fear of punishment, to the loving reverence of the son, fearing to offend his father, and in the end to the purely selfless fear of the lover, the fear of hurting what you love.”[3]
Most of us will agree that God is always with us, but sometimes I believe this becomes more of a theory than a reality. Our picture of God becomes skewed by our interactions with the world around us. We begin to see God as distant and uninvolved with the everyday details of our lives. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. God wants to be included and involved in every aspect of our lives.

So, with that in mind, let’s do an experiment this week: Try to do things that will help you imagine Jesus’ physical presence with you. Can you think of concrete things you can do to help?

If you eat around the dinner table, maybe you could set a place for Jesus. When you sit down to watch TV or use the computer, maybe you could pull a chair near where you are sitting. If you’re reading something, maybe you could read it out loud and imagine that Jesus is right there listening. Is there something you could do at work to help you imagine that Jesus is right there with you?

How do you think your actions will change during this experiment? Would you feel comfortable watching some of the things you watch on TV if Jesus was sitting next to you? Would you visit the same websites if Jesus was looking over your shoulder? Would your reading material change if Jesus was listening to you read? If you imagined Jesus working beside you, would your behavior at work be the same? Would you treat the people with whom you work any differently? Would your conversations be any different?

Remember the song we learned in Cradle Roll and Kindergarten – “Oh be careful little hands what you do. Oh be careful little feet where you go. Oh be careful little ears what you hear. Oh be careful little eyes what you see. Oh be careful little lips what you say. For our Father up above is looking down in love.”

God isn’t distant or disinterested. He wants to eat with us, sit with us while we’re relaxing, be included in our work, our play, and our relationships, our laughter and crying, our heartbreaks and joys.

Let’s make sure we leave room for Jesus in our lives.

[1] Ronald Rolheiser, The Shattered Lantern (Crossroad Publishing Company, 2004), p. 117; submitted by Kevin Miller, vice president, Christianity Today International
[2] Jerry Bridges, The Joy of Fearing God (Waterbrook Press, 1997)
[3] Gerald Vann, The Divine Pity (Scepter Publishers, 2007)


Have you thought about the story of Job lately? Some people don’t like his story because it reminds them that following God doesn’t always make sense. Sometimes following God (being a Christian) finds us experiencing excruciating physical and/or mental distress, for which there is no logical explanation – surrounded by family and friends who say exactly the wrong things.

Here’s the thing, we want the “happily ever after” part of the story without having to go through the messy parts of the story to get there. Remember, before Cinderella rode off to the palace with her prince, she was orphaned and treated like a servant; Hansel and Gretel were abandoned by their parents and kidnapped by the owner of the gingerbread house; and Snow White was put into a 100 year coma while everyone she had ever known grew old and died before she woke up. Be careful when you wish for a fairy tale life, the unpleasant parts take up most of the story.

Anyway, we get caught up in looking for that happy ending, and when we not only don’t find it, but end up in often seemingly hopeless situations, we want to ask God, “Why?” 

That question will never have an answer that is going to help us in any way. The only answer to “Why” is “because there is sin.” The only explanation for bad things happening in this world is that we not only live on the battleground of the Great Controversy between God and Satan, we are the battleground. Once we’ve committed to God’s side, Satan is going to do everything in his power to change our minds. We have to be ready for that.

In one predominantly Hindu South Asian country, a Christian mission agency has a list of seven questions that they ask new believers to think about as they consider being baptized. These questions help them to think through the possible consequences of living openly as a Christian.
1.    Are you willing to leave home and lose the blessing of your father?
2.    Are you willing to lose your job?
3.    Are you willing to go to the village and those who persecute you, forgive them, and share the love of Christ with them?
4.    Are you willing to give an offering to the Lord?
5.    Are you willing to be beaten rather than deny your faith?
6.    Are you willing to go to prison?
7.    Are you willing to die for Jesus?[1]
Those are some serious questions, and those of us who live in, what we consider, Christian countries, may think those questions aren’t realistic. But at some point, they will be real for all of us – our examples are the believers in the Bible, not to mention Jesus, Himself.

We are not promised a peaceful, easy existence as Christians, in fact, we are guaranteed the opposite:
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake.” Matthew 24:9
There it is – from Jesus’ own lips – just one of the many verses that make us wriggle in our seats just a little bit when we are reminded of them.

Look at those seven questions again … are you still willing to openly live your life so that the universe can see the truth about God, even if it means that you will most likely, at some point, be persecuted for it? Are you willing to be surrounded by well-meaning, but completely wrong-thinking friends and family who, instead of offering support, tell you all the ways what you’re going through is your own fault? What if the persecution doesn’t come from humans? What if it’s like Job’s trials that looked like random tragedies?
“Schutt Sports, a major supplier of football helmets for the National Football League, issues the following warning label on all their helmets and on their website's homepage: WARNING …. NO HELMET SYSTEM CAN PREVENT CONCUSSIONS OR ELIMINATE THE RISK OF SERIOUS HEAD OR NECK INJURIES WHILE PLAYING FOOTBALL.
The warning label continues with some information about the symptoms for concussions and concludes by repeating the original warning: ‘TO AVOID THESE RISKS [OF PLAYING FOOTBALL], DO NOT ENGAGE IN THE SPORT OF FOOTBALL.’[2]
By the same token, the only way to eliminate the risk of becoming a Christian, is NOT to become a Christian. What are you willing to go through to be associated with Jesus Christ?

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Amy Carmichael, she was from Ireland, but spent 55 years of her life working as a missionary in India. Her life was rarely smooth or easy, but she did amazing things for God. She had quite a lot to say about her experiences but one of my favorite quotes is this one.
“Certain it is that the reason there is so much shallow living—much talk but little obedience—is that so few are prepared to be, like the pine on the hilltop, alone in the wind for God.”[3]
I have to ask myself, am I willing to stand “alone in the wind for God?” As we come closer and closer to Jesus’ return, Satan is working harder and harder to make following Jesus more and more unpleasant. He wants us to give up, to take the broad road that leads to destruction. Whether he uses persecution, our own health, or our friends against us, we have to be willing to say with Job, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, And He shall stand at last on the earth;  And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, That in my flesh I shall see God, Whom I shall see for myself, And my eyes shall behold, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” Job 19:25-27

“In shady, green pastures, so rich and so sweet,God leads His dear children along;Where the water’s cool flow bathes the weary one’s feet,God leads His dear children along.Refrain:Some through the waters, some through the flood,Some through the fire, but all through the blood;Some through great sorrow, but God gives a song,In the night season and all the day long.Sometimes on the mount where the sun shines so bright,God leads His dear children along;Sometimes in the valley, in darkest of night,God leads His dear children along.Though sorrows befall us and evils oppose,God leads His dear children along;Through grace we can conquer, defeat all our foes,God leads His dear children along.Away from the mire, and away from the clay,God leads His dear children along;Away up in glory, eternity’s day,God leads His dear children along.”[4]

[1] South Asian nation struggles to shape itself, Mission Network News (1-17-12)
[2] Schutt Sports,, last accessed August 23, 2013
[3] Amy Carmichael, Irish missionary to India (1867–1951)
[4] George A. Young, God Leads Us Along 1903

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

It’s A Good Thing

“In his book By Grace Alone, Sinclair Ferguson identifies four major ‘fiery darts’ Satan uses to unsettle believers and rob them of their assurance and peace in the gospel:
·   Fiery Dart 1: ‘God is against you,’ Satan says. ‘He is not really for you. How can you believe he is for you when you see the things that are happening in your life?’
·   Fiery Dart 2: ‘I have accusations I will bring against you because of your sins,’ Satan argues. ‘What can you say in defense? Nothing.’
·   Fiery Dart 3: ‘You can say you are forgiven, but there is a payback day coming—a condemnation day,’ Satan insinuates. ‘How will you defend yourself then?’
·   Fiery Dart 4: ‘Given your track record, what hope is there that you will persevere to the end?’ Satan asks.”[1]
The enemy uses every trick in his effort to get us to doubt our Salvation. One of his most successful lies is fiery dart number one. Haven’t you heard people talk about God as though He is just waiting for us to screw up so He can keep us out of Heaven? It’s almost like the heathen practices where, if we want God’s blessing, we have to appease Him in some way.

Thankfully, because of Jesus’ life and death, we know that’s just not true.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” John 3:16-17
Now, fiery dart number two, on the other hand, is 100% true – he has a record of every sin we’ve ever committed. And without Jesus, we have absolutely no defense. Without Jesus we are doomed.
“Satan has an accurate knowledge of the sins that he has tempted God’s people to commit, and he urges his accusations against them, declaring that by their sins they have forfeited divine protection, and claiming that he has the right to destroy them. He pronounces them just as deserving as himself of exclusion from the favor of God. . .  But while the followers of Christ have sinned, they have not given themselves up to be controlled by the satanic agencies. They have repented of their sins and have sought the Lord in humility and contrition, and the divine Advocate pleads in their behalf. He who has been most abused by their ingratitude, who knows their sin and also their penitence, declares: ‘The Lord rebuke thee, O Satan. I gave My life for these souls. They are graven upon the palms of My hands.
They may have imperfections of character; they may have failed in their endeavors; but they have repented, and I have forgiven and accepted them.’” (Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, pp. 588, 589)
Fiery dart number three is not far from number two, but Satan brings in the threat of a condemnation or judgment day to up everyone’s anxiety. He has made sure that when most of us, even those of us who claim to rest our assurance of salvation in Jesus, experience some sense of foreboding when we think about a day of judgment. The enemy has twisted and clouded the purpose of the judgment so much that most of us don’t see the promise of freedom within it.

The pre-Advent Judgment, something that is going on right now, is described by Daniel.
“I was watching; and the same horn was making war against the saints, and prevailing against them, until the Ancient of Days came, and a judgment was made in favor of the saints of the Most High, and the time came for the saints to possess the kingdom.” Daniel 7:21-22
“A judgment was made in favor of the saints…” Does that sound like condemnation? It doesn’t to me. It sounds like Jesus showing God each of our records wiped clean because we have accepted Jesus’ sacrifice in payment for the wages of our sins.
“But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had pass over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Romans 3:21-26
As for the last fiery dart, well, we know that Jesus will ensure that anyone who loves Him will spend eternity with Him. He has paid the price for us to enter God’s Kingdom.
“Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.” John 14:1-3
“For many Americans, the college admissions process is an oppressive and extraordinarily stressful area of life. A number of years ago, I watched as two best friends, Wayne and Dave, applied for early admission at the same college. That December, Wayne was accepted and Dave was deferred. The next four months, during which Dave waited for the final ruling, looked very different—and very similar—for each of them. … No longer under the watchful eye of the all-important transcript, Wayne decided to branch out in his extracurricular activities. He started a band and got into rock-climbing. He even pioneered a program teaching underprivileged kids in the community how to climb. … Meanwhile, Dave got involved in a bunch of extracurriculars … that he thought might boost his chances at getting into his dream college.
“By the end of the semester, Dave was exhausted, and Wayne was full of energy. Although Dave did well and kept up his GPA, Wayne got the best grades of his high school career! Freed from having to play it safe, he wrote his papers about topics he was genuinely interested in, rather than the ones he thought the teacher would appreciate, and it showed on the page. Their paths may not have looked very different to the outside eye, but one of these guys was carrying a burden of expectation and one wasn't. No wonder it felt like such a slog.
“The fruit of assurance in Wayne's life was not laziness but creativity, charity and fun. Set free from the imperative to perform, his performance shot off the charts. Set free from having to earn his future, he enjoyed his present. Set free from the burden of self-focus, he was inspired to serve others—and without being told he needed to do so!"[2]
Because of the pre-Advent judgment, we can live like Wayne, free in the assurance of God’s love for us.

[1] Sinclair Ferguson, By Grace Alone (Reformation Trust, 2010), p. 68
[2] Tullian Tchividjian, "Grace and the Summer of George," Liberate: Tullian Tchividjian blog (4-19-13)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

In My Place

“Christ was treated as we deserve, that we might be treated as He deserves. He was condemned for our sins, in which He had no share, that we might be justified by His righteousness, in which we had no share. He suffered the death which was ours, that we might receive the life which was His. ‘With His stripes we are healed.’ ” (E.G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 25)
I believe those are some of the most profound, powerful and potentially life-changing words ever written, outside of the Bible. In a very clear and succinct way they explain the sacrifice Jesus made so that we could spend eternity with Him.

My question is, then, what stops most of us from completely accepting our already bought and paid for salvation? Well, here’s what I think … I think we tend to gloss over the “what we deserve” part. We jump right to the “what He deserves” part. We don’t spend much time considering what we actually deserve.
We are surrounded by with messages that tell us that we deserve the good stuff – that we’ve earned it. Messages like “You deserve a break today,” “…because you deserve the very best,” and “go ahead, you’ve earned it.”

Even if we accept that “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” Romans 3:23, our human minds aren’t really capable, without the help of the Holy Spirit, of understanding the true weight of sin and what it actually cost Jesus to redeem us.

Sometimes we just take Christ’s sacrifice for granted. We kind of get to the point that we say or read the words without actually thinking about them anymore. Paul describes it in Romans as drifting away.
“Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away. For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him,” Romans 2:1-3
Many years ago, I lived in Germany in an apartment that had several strikes against it – it was above a bar and the last building before the train tracks. Many of you will already know that trains in Europe are much more important for both carrying people and freight than they are in the United States. The German train system is really pretty spectacular, unless your bedroom window is three feet away from one of its busy tracks.

Thinking back on it now, I really can’t tell you how often trains came by. There were travel trains that came as often as buses do in big cities. There were also freight trains that came by several times each day and night.

When I first moved in, I thought I would go insane! I woke up every time a train passed in the night and was often startled by them during the day. Add to that the bar/night club sounds from the floor below, and I really didn’t get much sleep at first.

But with an amazing quickness, I became deaf to all of those sounds. They didn’t wake me up at night or disturb me during the day. I almost forgot they were there. I think that sometimes, as Christians, we get almost deaf to the story of Jesus and what He’s done for us. Is it any wonder, then, that Mrs. White encourages us to spend time thinking about Him?
“It would be well for us to spend a thoughtful hour each day in contemplation of the life of Christ. We should take it point by point, and let the imagination grasp each scene, especially the closing ones. As we thus dwell upon His great sacrifice for us, our confidence in Him will be more constant, our love will be quickened, and we shall be more deeply imbued with His spirit. If we would be saved at last, we must learn the lesson of penitence and humiliation at the foot of the cross.” (E.G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 83)
The church I attend has, for the past several years, done a large reenactment of the last week of Jesus life on the Saturday before Easter Sunday. It’s outside and the audience moves from place to place and watches different scenes … the Triumphal Entry of Jesus in Jerusalem, his interacting with the scribes and Pharisees, the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, His trial at the Sanhedrin and before Pontius Pilate, His crucifixion and resurrection.

Those who come to view the performance are reminded of the reality of Jesus’ last days. For several years, I have helped prepare the scene where Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate. Logistically it’s difficult because it’s one of the only scenes that requires make up and a costume change – the actor who portrays Jesus receives make up so that he looks like he’s been beaten as well as the robe and crown of thorns.

Emotionally, though, it is difficult because of the angry mob that calls for Jesus’ death. Being part of that mob is not something people want to do … it’s hard to find people who are willing to play those parts. The first couple of years I helped, I was part of the mob and I can hardly explain how deeply and profoundly I was effected.

The next day, as I replayed the scene in my mind, my heart was broken when I thought of what Jesus had borne for me – what Jesus had suffered in my place.

A devastating earthquake hit Iran in 2003. It was described as the deadliest earthquake in a decade, and it “filled the nation of Iran with sadness. But in the midst of despair, one story gave people hope. Cradled in her dead mother's arms, surrounded by the crumbled remnant of a collapsed building, a baby girl was found alive.
“The mother shielded six-month-old Nassim from the falling debris and saved her life. Rescuers found the girl 37 hours after the earthquake.
“Hessamoddin Farrokhyar, Red Crescent public relations deputy director in Tehran, said: ‘She is alive because of her mother's embrace. The baby girl is in good condition considering the circumstances.’
“Christ was ‘crushed for our iniquities’ (Isaiah 53:5, NIV). Those who take refuge in Jesus' embrace are shielded from sin's devastating impact, saved through his sacrifice.”[1]
“He was despised and rejected — a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins! But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him    the sins of us all.” Isaiah 53:3-6

[1] MSNBC (12-29-03) and The Herald (12-29-03)