Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Persecution, Anyone?

Have you ever been persecuted for something you stood for?  I mean really persecuted, not just teased or laughed at – beat up, put in jail, threatened with death?

I’d have to say no.  I don’t believe I’ve ever even lost a job because of the Sabbath.  I’d ask if it was going to be a problem, and if the boss wouldn’t compromise, I just didn’t take the job.

In high school I used to take some heat from my band director and fellow band members because I didn’t march in the Friday night football games.  They always wanted to know why I couldn’t just get a note from my pastor telling me it was okay to march.  I’m not sure how that would have worked, really.  Who would I give the note to?  God?

“Please excuse Lillianne for breaking the Sabbath when she marches at half-time at the football game.  She’s still a good person.”

The thing that made that situation a tiny bit tougher to deal with was that my brother DID march in those games…so people did have a hard time understanding why he could and I couldn’t.  They didn’t realize it wasn’t an issue of could or couldn’t; it was an issue of would or wouldn’t.  And my brother and I both made our own choices.  And I wasn’t kicked out of the band or beat up because I wouldn’t march on Sabbath.  I have to say, though, in my whole life that is the biggest conflict I’ve ever experienced. 

That’s why I can admit, that when I think about persecution, I really can’t even imagine it, much less the concept of martyrdom.  Those are things that are completely foreign to me.  But, it isn’t to everyone, and it won’t always be to me.  2 Timothy 3:12 says, “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.”

Hang onto your seats!  That says ALL that follow Jesus SHALL be persecuted.  So, where does that leave you and me?  Have you ever seriously thought about what might be involved in standing up for what you believe in?  I don’t believe I have thought enough about it.

When I was in college at Keene, there was a boy there – I don’t even remember his name – who was probably the most intensely spiritual person I have ever met.  He thought a lot about “the time of trouble” and what that would mean to him personally.  What hardships he would have to experience.  And he wasn’t afraid; he spent every day getting ready for that time.

I have to say that the majority of us were not as spiritually minded as he was and we were kind of embarrassed by his intensity.  We weren’t particularly kind to him.  In retrospect, I wish I had gotten to know him.  He had the most recognizable “amen” on campus.  I’d be in assembly or church or prayer meeting, whatever, and from somewhere in the crowd I would hear his unmistakable “a-MON!”  And my friends and I would nudge each other and smile.  We were persecuting him, but the joke was on us.  He was always focused on Jesus…and we weren’t.  Who was the winner there?  Exactly.

When many of us think about persecuting we think of the early Christians being fed to the lions and then we jump to the time before Jesus comes, that thing we call, “the time of trouble”.  We don’t really think of persecution going on right now – it’s in the past and it’s in the future, but it doesn’t really have much to do with us, right now, right?
That’s not true.  A man named Thomas Hall states in an article that “More Christians died for their faith in the twentieth century than at any other time in history, says Christian Solidarity International. Global reports indicate that over 150,000 Christians were martyred last year,…”

Excuse me?  150,000 martyred Christians?  How can this be?  Why isn’t this on every news program all the time?  Where are these people?  Here are just a few of today’s headlines from a website called, oddly enough, The Persecution Times: 

•          Violence Against Christians on the Increase in Turkey
•          Breaking News: Pastors beaten up in Devgoan, Maharashtra
•          Christian Attorney’s Arrested and Tortured
•          Church Meeting Disrupted by Hindu Radicals
•          New Cartoon Riots Kill Christians in Nigeria
•          Pastors beaten and arrested on charges of conversion
•          Church Ransacked and Desecrated in Karnataka state in India
•          Nine Christians killed following accusations of blasphemy in Nigeria

Now, maybe it’s just me, but did you know this much persecution was taking place?  Do you have as much trouble as I do imagining myself in these types of situations?
“To human wisdom, all this now seems impossible; but as the restraining Spirit of God shall be withdrawn from men, and they shall be under the control of Satan, . . . “ E.G. White, The Faith I Live By, page 330.
As we go through our every day lives, here in the United States, being imprisoned, harassed, beaten or even killed because we say were Christians seems totally impossible, doesn’t it?  But I’m worried that that is going to be a big part of our problem when we are challenged.  We have become so comfortable being quietly Christian that being openly Christian will be too hard for us.

Think about it.  How often do we just keep quiet when the subject of what church we belong to comes up?  Or when someone asks where we stand on a particular Christian topic?  Have we learned the lesson of compromise so well that we don’t know how to stand firm anymore?
“In the absence of the persecution there have drifted into our ranks men who appear sound and their Christianity unquestionable, but who, if persecution should arise, would go out from us”.--Ev 360 (1890).
Will we be among those who will “go out” when persecution begins?  I have to say that four years of explaining every single week during football season why I was not going to be marching in the half-time show led me to a rock solid understanding of why I keep the Sabbath.  But, nobody was slapping me or carrying me off to jail because of it.  Mostly folks just shrugged and said something along the lines of, “Bummer, see ya Monday.”  Not exactly painful on any level.

So, where does that leave me?  Am I willing to stand for Jesus even if it means that I will die?  Or will I compromise and walk away.  Am I more afraid of pain and death than I am of losing forever with Jesus?  If you’re like me, all this talk of persecution is really frightening, but read what Paul wrote in Romans 8:15-39.  It gives me a lot of hope for what is on the horizon.
“For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.  For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance.  Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.  And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.  Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.  What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: ‘For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’
Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The Bible tells us that the time is coming when it will be a crime to believe the way we do.  When we have to make the choice to follow man and live, or follow Jesus and die, what will you and I decide?  Maybe we need to start making those decisions today.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Attitude Adjustment

Thoughts on the Sabbath School lesson dated 12.2.11

If someone asked you to explain the difference between the old covenant and the new covenant in the Bible, could you?  I would have a really hard time, but with a lot of help from the Holy Spirit, I’m going to try.  Hold on to your seats.

I’ve always heard that the old covenant was grounded in salvation by keeping the law, while the new covenant was all about faith.  That always made me vaguely uncomfortable.  Why would a God who never changes, change the rules in the middle of the game?  Especially when the rule change seemed to be in our favor…what about all those folks who came before?  That just didn’t seem fair. 

I think I’ve learned something very important recently, though.  I think that the old and new covenants didn’t change the way God deals with us, but the way we deal with Him.
Hang on, let me explain – Abraham and Sarah’s story can illustrate both attitudes.  When Sarah and Abraham decided to help God by having a son through Hagar, they were living by the old covenant.  When they trusted God to keep His promise to them, they were under the new covenant.  God had not changed; they had.
“When I started a new church in Los Angeles County, California, I found that I was overwhelmed with pressure and stress. I was working more than seventy hours a week. My wife would ask me to take a day off, and I would say, ‘I can't.’ I wasn't sleeping at night, and I started to take sleeping pills. When the church was about a year old, I woke up in the night, and I had this strange sense that God was laughing at me. As I lay in bed, I wondered, Why is God laughing at me?
“It would take five years before I finally got an answer to that question. Here's how it happened: when we moved into our current house, I saved the heaviest piece of furniture for last—the desk from my office. As I was pushing and pulling the desk with all my might, my four-year-old son came over and asked if he could help. So together we started sliding it across the floor. He was pushing and grunting as we inched our way along. After a few minutes, my son stopped pushing, looked up at me, and said, ‘Dad, you're in my way.’ And then he tried to push the desk by himself. Of course it didn't budge. Then I realized that he thought he was actually doing all the work, instead of me. I couldn't help but laugh.
“The moment I started laughing at my son's comment, I recalled that middle-of-the-night incident and I realized why God was laughing at me. I thought I was pushing the desk. I know that's ridiculous, but instead of recognizing God's power and strength, I started to think it all depended on me.”[1]
That’s why Israel carried God’s covenant with them like it was such a burden; they believed that keeping the law was all about them. God intended the covenant to be a joy and a privilege pointing to the promise of salvation and the debt being paid by His Son.
“If we could be saved through our works, there would have been no need for the law or the sacrificial system, which pointed to Christ’s atoning sacrifice. The law is a ‘shadow of the good things that are coming’ (Heb. 10:1, NIV), but it could not save in Moses’ time, and it cannot save now.
“If an animal sacrifice could really make the people perfect, then there would have been no need for Jesus’ sacrifice. But “‘“sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings [God] did not desire”’” (Heb. 10:8, NIV). So Jesus came to earth to do His Father’s will (Heb. 10:9). Jesus was sent to do what the law and sacrifices were too weak to do.”[2]
That makes so much more sense to me.  Doesn’t it to you?

Check out this scene from the movie Get Low. It takes place in the 1930s in Tennessee.  An old hermit, Felix Bush (Robert Duvall), wants to throw his own funeral party while he was still alive. Felix visits the Rev. Gus Horton to get his help arranging his funeral.

Bush puts a wad of cash in front of the pastor, and says,
"‘It's time for me to get low.’ When Rev. Horton asks what he means by that, Felix replies, ‘Down to business. I need a funeral.’ When the pastor asks who the funeral is for, Felix says, ‘Me.’
“Rev. Horton is bewildered by the request, but Felix presses forward, asking, ‘Well, what would you say [about me]?’
“‘Oh, eulogy. Well, ah, I don't know. What would you want me to say?’
“‘Say what you'd say right now to my face.’ Felix replies sternly.
“‘Mr. Bush, I don't know much about you,’ the reverend responds. ‘I've heard stories, but …’
“‘What stories?’ asks Felix.
“‘Stories, you know. People talk,’ replies the reverend.
“‘What kind of stories?’ Felix asks.
“‘Well sir,’ the reverend answers, ‘my mother used to say that gossip is the devil's radio. What matters is when you come to the end of your life that you're ready for the next one. Now, have you made peace with God, sir?’
“‘I paid,’ replies Felix.
“By ‘I paid’ Felix means he has spent most of his adult life trying to atone for his sins. … Now forty years later, after his long self-atonement project, he hopes that he's finally paid his debt.
“But Rev. Horton wisely disagrees with Felix. ‘Mr. Bush,’ he replies firmly, ‘you can't buy forgiveness. It's free, but you do have to ask for it.’
“With that, Felix reaches and picks up the wad of cash and stomps out of the church.”[3]
Isn’t that really sad?  We would rather torture ourselves to earn our own salvation than to just ask for forgiveness.  That’s what living under the law is.  From the instant that Adam and Eve sinned, God promised them salvation by faith in Jesus Christ – period.

God never told Abraham that if he worked hard enough and never made any mistakes, that He would make him the father of many nations.  God just asked Abraham to trust Him, and “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”  Genesis 15:6
“As Scripture says, ‘Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.’  For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”  Romans 10:11-13

[1] Adapted from Kyle Idleman, Not a Fan (Zondervan, 2011), pp. 96-97
[2] Dan Solis, associate pastor, Village Seventh-day Adventist Church, “Lesson 10 The Two Covenants,” The Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide
[3] Get Low (Sony Pictures, 2009), Directed by Aaron Schneider, Scene 2; submitted by Van Morris, Mt. Washington, Kentucky

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Psalm 23

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.  He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.  Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
Whoa! I know what you just did.  You read as far as “The Lord is my shepherd”.  You thought to yourself, “Oh, the 23rd Psalm.”  And then you skipped right past the rest of it and started reading again.  How do I know that?  Because I do the same thing.  But today I want you to go back up there and take a couple minutes and really read…not just let your eyes slide over the words…really READ and meditate on what that Psalm is really saying.  Go ahead; I’ll wait…………………………

It’s hard isn’t it?  We know the words so well that we almost can’t get to the meaning.  We’ve even given it a certain rhythm when we say it so it’s almost like the pledge of allegiance.  We could all say it together as a congregation and we’d pause at the same times and emphasize the same words, and we still wouldn’t have thought one bit about what the words themselves really mean to us and our everyday lives.

One author made a novel suggestion:  
Read the first phrase, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” through nine times.  Each time stress a different word in the sentence.  By the time I had emphasized each of the nine words, I was amazed at how each reading altered my understanding of the entire phrase.  Try it.  It was really educational!
Another part of the problem is that most of us have absolutely no idea what a shepherd’s life is like other than what we’ve heard about in relation to religion.  When was the last time you had a chat with a shepherd?  Hm.  Same here.

So, what I did was go on the internet to see what I could find.  And I found some really interesting stuff.  First of all, I found out that absolutely every group has its own “Psalm 23”.  There’s the American Indian version, a Japanese translation, one for Firefighters, for Alcoholics Anonymous, a reggae version (Jah-mon), a sailor’s paraphrase, a student’s version, a politically correct version, a psychiatrist version and one specifically for the workplace. Now, I’m not saying I agree with or even understand all of them, but they all have some very important factors in common.

Each version, even though the words may be quite different, talks about a God who takes care of us, worries about us, protects us, loves us, wants to spend eternity with us and walks with us through the toughest parts of our lives.

Can you imagine that?  It’s hard for me to imagine sometimes that God is right there with me in the valley as completely as He is with me in the green pastures.  Rabbi Harold Kushner is an author.  He wrote a book named when Bad Things Happen To Good People.  He’s also written about the 23rd Psalm.  He says, 
“…the 23rd Psalm answers the question, how do you live in a dangerous and unpredictable world?”  
Rabbi Kushner continues, 
“God’s promise was never that life would be fair.  God’s promise was, when it’s your turn to confront the unfairness of life, no matter how hard it is, you’ll be able to handle it, because He’ll be on your side.  He will give you the strength you need to find your way through.”
Another thing I learned is that the 23rd Psalm is part of a trilogy.  Did you know that?  We all love trilogies, right?  The Hobbit, Star Wars, you know.  Anyway, Psalm 22 and 24 make the trilogy.  Psalm 22 is about Christ’s crucifixion.  Psalm 24 tells about the Kingdom of God.  Psalm 23 tells us about what we can expect in between.  I had never put that together before, but I like it.  Jesus was here and he redeemed us.  He’s coming back to take us home.  While we wait, we’re not alone, we have a relationship with Someone who loves us.
“The more you trust your Redeemer, the more you will love Him. He is your Friend in life or death. He is the Crown of your rejoicing. He is worthy of your fullest faith. All the sorrows and afflictions that we suffer here only constitute our discipline for the higher life. God designs that thus we shall be fitted for heaven. Wait upon God. Lean upon Him in entire dependence; for His everlasting arms will sustain you. He who says that not a sparrow falls to the ground without the notice of the heavenly Father will care for those who love and trust Him. Jesus knows every throb of pain, every throe of anguish and distress, and He will give His children grace to endure the afflictions that He permits to come upon them. His heart beats in sympathy with suffering humanity and those who suffer most have most of His pity and sympathy. "Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; and His greatness is unsearchable." "Thou hast a mighty arm; strong is Thy hand: and high is Thy right hand." "Trust ye in the Lord forever; for in the Lord Jehovah is everlasting strength." If He is for you, who can be against you. "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" "Yea, tho I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me." Let us trust Him who sees the end from the beginning, and who will make all things work together for good to those that love the Lord.” E.G. White, The Signs of the Times, “Trusting Christ”, February 28, 1906.
Okay, I have a challenge for you.  Sometime this week, paraphrase the 23rd Psalm so that it becomes yours.  We don’t know much about shepherds anymore.  It’s not really an image that we can totally identify with.  Find an image that tells what your relationship with Jesus is like.  You never have to show it to anyone else, ever.  Nobody is going to grade you.  What you will learn, though, is what David was saying about God when He wrote that Psalm.

Here’s mine:
Jesus is my best friend; He meets all of my needs
He has given me the Sabbath so I can rest in Him and drink in the living water of His word.
He gives me the strength and courage I need for each new trial.
He promises to help me make the best decisions every day.
But even when I've made really bad choices and my life falls apart,
I don’t need to worry because You’re still right beside me.
Your Holy Spirit and Your angels teach and protect me.
You shower me with your blessings everyday, even when I have alienated everyone or when I am surrounded by people who tell lies about me.
You wrap Your arms around me and welcome me home.  You fill my heart with your love.
I can be sure that for the rest of my life, You will clothe me in Your robe of grace and forgiveness,
And I will live with You in the home you built for me until the end of time.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Flavored or Filled?

Thoughts on the Sabbath School Lesson dated 11.26.11

“[The label on the bottle said:] 'Blueberry Pomegranate, 100 percent juice, all natural.'  [There was also a picture of] a ripe pomegranate [spilling] its exotic, glistening seeds onto mounds of fat, perfect blueberries. …
“And then I read the ingredients list: ‘Filtered water, pear juice concentrate, apple juice concentrate, grape juice concentrate.’ Where was the blueberry? Where was the pomegranate? Finally I found them, fifth and seventh on a list of nine ingredients, after mysteriously unspecified ‘natural flavors.’
“By law, food ingredients are listed in descending order of weight. That means a product contains the greatest proportion of the first ingredient on the list and successively less of those farther down. So according to this list, the jug in my hand held mostly water and other juices, with just enough blueberry and pomegranate for flavor and color.
“In the bottom corner of the front label, in small, easy-to-miss type, were the tell-tale words: ‘Flavored juice blend with other natural ingredients.’ The enticing pictures and clever labeling were decoys to sell a diluted, blueberry-pomegranate flavored product, convincingly disguised to look like something it wasn't. I put the juice back on the shelf.
“I left the store empty-handed and wondering, What if I had an ingredients list printed on me? Would Jesus be the main ingredient? If not, how far down the list would he be? Would my ‘label’ accurately represent my contents? Or would I falsely project a misleading outward appearance that cleverly masked diluted ingredients? My packaging may be convincing. I may look and sound like the real thing. But what if someone came to me looking for Jesus beneath my ‘Christian’ label and found something else? Something Jesus-flavored, but not Jesus-filled? …”[1]
When Paul wrote to the Galatians, he begged them to be Christ-filled. Being Christ-filled is the antidote for being led into legalism by false teachers.  Legalism is being Christ-flavored: looking, smelling and maybe even tasting like Christ, but lacking that One Essential Ingredient – Jesus.

It’s interesting that if you ask a bunch of people if they are Christians, chances are good that they’ll say yes, but in some cases, they haven’t really made a full commitment to Jesus.  They want to be associated with Christianity but don’t really want to change their lives.

Steve Sample, president of the University of Southern California, offers this illustration:
“In the spring of 1970, when I was 29, I learned I had won a fellowship from the American Council on Education, which would allow me to serve an administrative internship with Purdue University President Fred Hovde for the 1970–71 academic year. I was elated by the opportunity. Despite having only recently been awarded tenure and promoted to associate professor of electrical engineering at Purdue, I was already leaning toward a career in administration….
“Soon after the award was announced, I happened to bump into a colleague, Vern Newhouse, who was a highly respected senior member of the electrical engineering faculty. ‘So, Sample,’ Newhouse said, ‘I see you've won some sort of administrative fellowship in the president's office.
“‘Yes, that's true,’ I said.
“‘And you'll be learning how to become an administrator?’
“‘I suppose so.’
“‘And then you'll probably want to be president of a university somewhere down the road?’
“‘Well, I don't know. I guess I've thought about it now and then,’ I said, somewhat disingenuously.
“He smiled and said: ‘Personally, I've never had any ambition whatsoever to be an administrator. I am totally inept at managing things…. But I've been a careful observer of ambitious men all my life. And here, for what it's worth, is what I've learned: many men want to be president, but very few want to do president.’ And with that he wished me well and walked away.”[2]
It’s so easy to slip away, isn’t it?  We want to be Christian, but we don’t necessarily want to do Christian.  It’s a moment by moment commitment, and if someone comes along and tells us there’s an easier way, our instinct is to jump at it.

 We want the benefits without the hard work so we listen to the folks who say that following Jesus is as easy as checking off the boxes on a list of do’s and don’ts.  That’s what the false teachers were telling the Galatians – that relationship was nothing, following the rules was the way to go.  Paul is using every argument to convince them of the truth.
“Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.”  Galatians 4:21-23
In other words, “Come on people, you know better!  Where are you getting your information?”

Can you imagine how frustrating it must have been for Paul? This group of people that he felt like he practically had given birth to, had started placing greater value on their behavior than on their identity in Christ.  And that was because of where they were getting their information.
“My eight-year-old embraces some interesting sources of truth. We were coming home from the grocery store recently when he asked, ‘Dad, do you believe in the Bermuda Triangle?’
“‘Jack,’ I replied, ‘if you're asking me if I believe that this place exists, my answer is yes. If you're asking me if I believe all the mysterious stories about ships and planes disappearing, no: I think that's all baloney.’
“‘Well, Dad,’ Jack said with a note of defensiveness, ‘I believe in it. And I bet you want to know why.’
“‘Yes, Jack. I do.’
“‘Well, I was watching Scooby Doo …’”[3]
Where are we getting our information?  Someone who wants to convince us of the easy way?  or someone who tells us the truth?  Someone who agonizes over our salvation as though it were his own – Christ-flavored or Christ-filled?

[1] Erin Bunting, "Jesus Flavored, or Jesus Filled?" (10-7-09)
[2] Steve Sample, The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2002), pp. 159-160
[3] David Slagle, Atlanta, Georgia

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Hedged In

"Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land.” Job 1:10
What does the writer of Job mean when he talks about God having put a hedge around Job?  Have you ever thought much about that concept?  I have thought a little about what it might mean to have God place a hedge around my family and me.  I’ve heard people talk about people “praying a hedge around” someone.  I’m don’t believe I spent very much time thinking about what that actually might mean.

The implication is that if you and I walk with God, He will protect us.  I can see the logic in that theory, but I also believe there is an element of “degree” involved.  I also believe there are some differences of opinion of what  “walk with God” and “protect us” might look like.

For example, an article that appeared on July 30, 2004 in the Friends Bulletin, states, very simply, “There is safety in following God.”  The author uses the example of the Israelites in the wilderness.  “Although we talk about them wandering in the wilderness, they weren't strictly lost.  Certainly, they didn’t know where they were, where they were going, or when.  But they were being clearly guided every step of the way.”  I find enormous hope in that statement, because it reminds me so very much of my own life, much of the time.  I don’t know where I am, where I’m going, or when I’ll get there, but I know that as long as I let Him, God is guiding me every step of the way.  Isn’t that awesome?

From there, though, I’m not sure about some things.  For one thing, if we understand that God “puts a hedge around” those who obey Him, does that mean that those who don’t obey Him are out there completely on their own?  Hmm. 

According to one gentleman from Grand Prairie,  TX, the answer is an absolute YES.  He describes a time when He was not a member of a church.  He was attending, but He was not member.  One week he felt he was being strongly urged to join the church he had been attending.  So he did and two days later, his little girl was the only child not seriously injured in a school bus accident.  His belief is, that if he had put off joining that church that day, the outcome of the bus accident would have been very different.    I’m not altogether sure.  I could be wrong, but that seems to take this whole concept of “hedge” to a superstitious level.  What do you think?  Let me know what you think.

When we think about Noah’s life, we don’t see superstition, we just see Noah obeying God quietly and steadfastly.  Linda Michaels a producer quoted this line from a devotional she was reading. "The safest path is dangerous if it is outside of God’s will.  The most dangerous path is safe if He is calling you to walk that way.”  That certainly describes Noah’s experience, doesn’t it.  Even though John hadn’t written it down yet, Jesus could have been talking about Noah when He said, “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in His love.”  John 15:9-10

Another idea that seems to be tied to the “hedge” is guardian angels.  It’s an idea that I really, really love.  I love knowing that I have an angel who is watching over me all the time.  I love the idea that when I get to heaven I will be able to talk to my angel and learn about all the times he (she?) protected me when I didn’t even know I was in danger.  With that in mind though, I remember when I was younger being told that if I went somewhere I was not supposed to go, my angel wouldn’t go with me.  Do you remember hearing that?  I found many articles by people who also believe that theory. 

One article, in particular, got my attention because of this author’s “hard line” on when God’s protection is available to us.  His example goes like this, “… if that angel hears your mother tell you to stay out of the street, would the angel stay in the yard or would he go in the street with you?”  And his conclusion is that the angel would not go in the street and that the child who disobeyed his mother would then be on his own, because to go with you where you were told not to go would be the same as the angel pardoning your transgression. 

I have to tell you I have a problem with that theory.  If our angels left us every time we stepped out of God’s will, I don’t believe any of us would be living right now, much less coming to church and growing in Jesus.  I understand that sin has natural consequences and that we experience those when we step away from God’s plan for our lives, but I don’t believe He ever leaves us on our own.  Again, I could be wrong.  Maybe I’m just trying to comfort myself, but I believe that even in times when God and I both knew I was not living the way He wanted me to live, He never left me.  His heart was breaking because of my behavior and my poor choices, but He never left me.

Now this author I was just telling you about completely lost me when he equated God with the President of the United States by saying 
“The president doesn’t personally read or answer all his mail.  He has staff to take care of it.  The president’s ‘angels’ deal with the mail using predetermined rules.  What they can’t handle they refer to him for a decision.”  
His conclusion is that when we pray to God, a guardian angel actually hears our prayer and then determines whether he can handle it or if he needs to send it up to God.  Definitely not.

The God I believe in hears my innermost thoughts, my deepest fears and my heart’s desire.  My God is the God that David describes in Psalm 91.  Check it out:
"He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.  I will say of the LORD, 'He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.'  Surely he will save you from the fowler's snare and from the deadly pestilence.  He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.  You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.  A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.  You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.  If you make the Most High your dwelling—even the LORD, who is my refuge-then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent.  For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.  You will tread upon the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent.  ‘Because he loves me,’ says the LORD, ‘I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.  He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him.  With long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation.'"

Monday, November 14, 2011

Family Ties 4

Thoughts on the Sabbath School Lesson for 11.19.11

“Therefore, you are no longer a slave (bond servant) but a son; and if a son, then [it follows that you are] an heir by the aid of God, through Christ.” Galatians 4:7
Can you really imagine being adopted by God, being Jesus’ adopted brother?  What does that really mean?  I mean sure, it’s pretty easy to think of all the benefits that come to us by being children of the King, but do any of us think about what it is like for God?  He adopted these sinful, wretched, beings who reject His “parenthood” constantly.   Why would He put up with the grief?

Karen Moderow of Today’s Christian Woman gives one explanation:
“After an elegant evening out, I discovered--to my dismay--that my back collar was unbuttoned, exposing a three-inch triangle of flesh. I realized the parallel between my fashion woes and spiritual life. Despite the care I take with my appearance, I unexpectedly find myself exposed. My ‘unmentionables’--the sharp word, the critical attitude--show through. I have no more success making myself presentable to the Lord than I have at dressing. But there's hope. Although my own righteousness is like filthy rags, God has ‘clothed me with the garments of salvation, and covered me with the robe of righteousness.’ Good thing, too! Otherwise, I wouldn't stand a chance!”[1]
Aha!  That’s the only explanation:  God doesn’t see us, He sees Jesus who stands for us.  Isn’t that a beautiful mental picture?  If you or I stood before God by ourselves, our sinfulness would destroy us, but if we ask Him to, Jesus will stand in front of us, covering our filth with His righteousness. 

The way we avail ourselves of that covering is to be baptized.  I know, baptism alone won’t save anyone, but it is an important step in bringing yourself into harmony with Jesus – accepting His Brotherhood openly and without shame.
“In baptism we are initiated, crowned, chosen, embraced, washed, adopted, gifted, reborn, killed, and thereby sent forth and redeemed. We are identified as one of God's own, then assigned our place and our job within the kingdom of God.”[2]
“For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” 1 Corinthians 12:13
Isn’t that exciting?  When we’re baptized, we are brought together into one unit, “the church,” the family of God.  Wow!

Do you remember that old crusade song by Bill Gaither?
“You will notice we say "brother and sister" 'round here, /  It's because we're a family and these are so near; / When one has a heartache, we all share the tears, / And rejoice in each victory in this family so dear.
“From the door of an orphanage to the house of the King, / No longer an outcast, a new song I sing; /From rags unto riches, from the weak to the strong, / I'm not worthy to be here, but PRAISE GOD! I belong!
Chorus / “I'm so glad I'm a part of the Family of God, I've been washed in the fountain, cleansed by His Blood! / Joint heirs with Jesus as we travel this sod, For I'm part of the family, The Family of God.”
Isn’t that a great song?  (It’s a great earworm too, isn’t it?  You’ll be singing it for the next week.)  I think sometimes we forget that if we accept God as our Father and Jesus as our Brother, we have to accept each other as brothers and sisters too.  We want the benefits without the responsibilities.
“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Costly grace ... is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”[3]
“A March, 2011, issue of The New York Times featured a story about a 51-year-old ex-convict named Robert Salzman. After a horrific childhood, Salzman spent most of his adult life in prison. When he was released from prison in 2001, Salzman found it difficult to enjoy freedom outside prison walls, struggling to pay rent or doing stints in homeless shelters.
“Finally, in June of 2010 Salzman had a grace-like experience. While he was riding a New York City subway car, he was ‘found’ by Rashaad Ernesto Green, a writer and director who was searching for someone to play a tough-looking former convict for an upcoming film. After an audition, Green surprised nearly everyone when he gave Salzman a key role for the film.
“In the ensuing months Salzman found it hard to believe that he had actually been set free from his prison life. On one occasion, while filming with Green on location in a Long Island penitentiary, an exhausted Salzman fell asleep on a cot in the prison cell. When he woke up, he became confused and thought he was still a prisoner. Salzman started weeping in despair … until it slowly dawned on him that he was now a free man. Salzman was overwhelmed by the joy of knowing that at any moment he could walk out of that cramped cell and through the prison doors. On the other side of the prison walls he could enjoy his new life of freedom.
“As those who trust in Christ, regardless of our past, we can leave our slavery to sin and condemnation as we joyfully step into our freedom in Christ.”[4]
Have you and I forgotten that we’re free because we are the brother or sister of Jesus Christ?  Are we still sleeping in prison?
“Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
“For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship  And by him we cry, “Abba,[Daddy] Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”  Romans 8:12-17
We can call Him, Daddy…

[1] Karen Moderow, Roswell, GA. Today's Christian Woman, "Heart to Heart."
[2] Leadership, Vol. 11, no. 4.
[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship. Christianity Today, Vol. 38, no. 2.
[4] Matt Woodley, managing editor of; source: Corey Kilgannon, "Sidewalk Is His Prison Yard," The New York Times (3-11-11)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Soap Opera or Salvation?

So, many of the stories in the old testament, if you didn’t know where they came from and just heard them told out of context, you might think they were the story lines of soap operas.  And I would have to say that the story of Hosea and Gomer takes the cake in that category, wouldn’t you?  Hosea and Gomer is one of those stories that people would rather forget is in the Bible at all.

I have to admit, once again, that I knew very little about this story until just recently.  I had heard that Hosea was married to a woman who kept walking out on him and that he always took her back.  But that’s pretty much it.  Wow, was I in for a shock!

Maybe some of you thought what I used to think of when I heard the story…     "That Hosea, what a doormat.  He needs to stand up for himself and quit putting up with Gomer’s games."  I was very young then.  I didn’t understand what the story of Hosea was really about – Redemption and Forgiveness.

When we remember that Hosea, like so many other Old Testament men, is a type of Christ, this story becomes the most poignant portrayal of our relationship with Jesus.  Watch Hosea struggles to hang onto his wife.  He gets frustrated and angry.  He threatens to disown her and humiliate her.  He weeps for her.  He follows her as she trails through the worst parts of society.  But then he finds her, redeems her with everything he has and then brings her home and loves her. 

We don’t often think of Christ like that.  Often we see Him as artists have portrayed Him – freshly washed white robe, neatly combed hair and an angelic, sometimes sappy look on His face.  Even on the cross, we see little or no strong emotion.  I mean, we don’t want to see anything too disturbing, right?

Remember when Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out, it was so controversial because of the graphic violence.  Um, what did they think the Crucifixion was?  An afternoon picnic?  It was a violent, ugly scene.  I just heard Bruce Marchiano speak at a church in New Zealand, I think.  He recounts things that happened during filming of the crucifixion scenes in The Gospel of Matthew. (I’ve talked about Bruce Marchiano before.  His is an amazing story.)  He describes how brutal just the filming was, and then he reminds us that he didn’t go through even the tiniest fraction of what Jesus went through.

If we thought about the things Jesus went through in his final days, and were really honest with ourselves, I think we would understand what our “harlotry” (as Hosea would put it) has cost Him.  It wasn’t nice and neat.  It was ugly, brutal, painful, and bloody.

Jesus struggles to hang onto us.  He must get frustrated and angry.  He weeps for us.  He follows us as we trail through the worst parts of society.  But then He finds us, redeems us with everything He has and then brings us home and loves us.  How is that possible?  My puny, little human mind really can’t wrap itself around that kind of love and forgiveness.

A friend once gave me a definition of forgiveness that, I think, is slightly different from the one most of the world lives by.  It’s this: “Forgiveness is giving up my right to hurt you back.”    Another author I’ve mentioned before, Richard L. Strauss, defines forgiveness as paying for “the other person’s offenses.  We will refuse to retaliate in any way to make the guilty person pay.  We will absolve him (or her) of all guilt.” Have you met many folks who use those definitions?  Wow.

That sounds a lot like 1st Corinthians 13:4-8:  “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.”  (italics supplied)

Jesus loves us like that. Each one of us is Gomer to His Hosea, and His heart breaks every time we sin.  He tries to guide us into what’s best for us spiritually, emotionally, healthily (?), and we fight Him every step of the way.  Sometimes we run away altogether telling ourselves that His rules are too restrictive; we need to experience life our own way.

Ya know, several months ago we found a stray shi-tzu.  He was matted; he had a skin infection, and eye infection.  He smelled and looked absolutely awful!  But we brought him home and soon named him Rugby – because he sleeps all the time and looks more like a rug than a dog.  The funny thing is, this little guy was absolutely miserable because of his eyes, his skin and his matted hair, but as soon as we started trying to clip the mats, put medicine in his eyes and give him baths, this hairy lump of dog became a wild beast!  He wiggled and squirmed and bit whatever he could get his teeth around.  I still haven’t figured out how to clip his claws.

The point is Rugby reacts to me trying to make his life better almost exactly the way we react to Jesus trying to make our lives better.  We would rather be miserable that take what Jesus knows will make us better.  And yet, Jesus keeps trying and His heart keeps breaking.

One of my favorite Loma Linda Broadcasting Network preachers is Don Pate.  He has a weekly program where he discusses the Sabbath School lesson.  He also has a radio program called Between the Lines.  Well, he has had a series of programs this week on LLBN about Jesus’ second coming.  I unfortunately missed all but this last one.  But in this program he discussed a little bit about what Heaven will be for us and for God.  Hmmm.  Never really thought about what Heaven would be like for God before.  Anyway, the point he was making was, what the best thing about Heaven will be, and he quoted another one of my favorite songwriters, Annie Herring.  Unfortunately he didn’t say which of her songs this line was from, and I’m still looking, but the line itself completely took my breath away.

“The best thing about Heaven will be that I will never break God’s heart again.”
Forget everything else you have ever heard or thought about Heaven.  Forget all the reasons you thought you wanted to go to Heaven, none of it matters anymore, because that is truly going to be the best thing about Heaven.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned,…” John 3:16-18

Monday, November 7, 2011

Freedom through Bondage

Thoughts on the Sabbath School Lesson dated 11.12.11

Wait … what?  That just sounds wrong, doesn’t it?  Aren’t we supposed to be free enough to do whatever we want…and now we’re supposed to believe that the way to find true freedom is to submit to being restrained?

Elton Trueblood in an article called “The New Man for Our Time” that was published in Christianity Today says it this way:  
“We have not advanced very far in our spiritual lives if we have not encountered the basic paradox of freedom, to the effect that we are most free when we are bound.”[1]
Jesus said something very similar: 
“‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’”  Matthew 11:28-30
How do you think that works?  I have a theory.  I think that even though we think we want to be free of all restraining rules and regulation, that’s not what we really want.  I can remember, before I had children, that playpens were terrible things.  They were baby cages, in my very young mind.  Then I had children and quickly realized that some relatively simple boundaries freed both my baby and me.  The baby was free to entertain himself without getting into dangerous territory and I was free to do what I needed to do.

At about the same time, I heard a psychologist explain one of the paradoxes of childhood:  children spend a substantial amount of time pushing the boundaries placed around them by their parents, teachers, and any other adults in their lives, but what they’re really doing is making sure that the boundaries are there and secure.  A child with no rules is an unhappy child.

Picture a long hallway with lots of doors on either side.  All the doors are closed and locked.  Running down the hallway is a child who tries to open every door; he (or she) tries to turn all the doorknobs, wiggles all the doors, knocks and bangs on them.  To someone watching it looks like the child is trying to break out, but in reality, he’s making sure that he can’t.

Does that make sense?  Satan makes us think that what we really want is total and complete freedom to behave in any way we want to, but that’s not what we want at all. 
“In The Mennonite Brethren Herald (2-19-99), Jim Holm writes: ‘When I was in third grade, I was condemned to live under a law—the law of near-sightedness. My eyes went bad, and today I am considered legally blind.
“‘I am not free. I am in bondage to this law. Do I like it? No, I hate it. But it doesn't matter. There is no escape.
“‘But one day I discovered there was an even greater law that can overcome the law of near-sightedness. It is called the law of corrective lenses, or the law of glasses. I discovered that when I submitted myself to the law of corrective lenses, the law of near-sightedness was overcome. Did it go away? No, it is still there. But it was overpowered by a greater law, which enabled me to see.
“‘Now here is the ironic thing: When I submit to the law of glasses, I become free. That's crazy. You would think if I want to be free, I should throw the glasses away. But I've been there, done that. I know what that is like. That is not freedom. Only by submitting to the law of glasses do I become free.’”[2]
If you’ve ever had to wear glasses or contacts, you can identify with Mr. Holm.  We sometimes feel irritated by always having to wear glasses or contacts, but if you’ve ever had to go without them for more than a few minutes, you quickly realize how much more freedom you have when you wear them.

Here’s a more dramatic illustration from Colin Campbell:  
“Freedom does not mean the absence of constraints or moral absolutes. Suppose a skydiver at 10,000 feet announces to the rest of the group, ‘I'm not using a parachute this time. I want freedom!’
“The fact is that a skydiver is constrained by a greater law--the law of gravity. But when the skydiver chooses the ‘constraint’ of the parachute, she is free to enjoy the exhilaration.
“God's moral laws act the same way: they restrain, but they are absolutely necessary to enjoy the exhilaration of real freedom.”[3]
You know, that sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?  Can you imagine someone even considering jumping out of an airplane without a parachute…on purpose?  That’s suicidal!  And yet, we kick and strain against God’s Law as though it were not saving us from the pain and grief that sin brings.
Mr. Trueblood from our first quote  has more to say on this subject:  
“But not just any way of being bound will suffice; what matters is the character of our binding.
“The one who would like to be an athlete, but who is unwilling to discipline his body by regular exercise and by abstinence, is not free to excel on the field or the tracks. His failure to train rigorously and to live abstemiously denies him the freedom to go over the bar at the desired height, or to run with the desired speed and endurance.
“With one concerted voice the giants of the devotional life apply the same principle for the whole of life with the dictum: Discipline is the price of freedom.”[4]
Real freedom is learning how to be ruled by the law of heaven.  James, who by the way calls himself a servant (someone bound) of God, tells us that 
“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”  James 1:17
The Law, in spite of what the vast majority of the world says, is a “good and perfect gift” from our Heavenly Father who loves us beyond anything we can understand.  God’s Law is our playpen…it’s not keeping us in so much as it’s keeping us safe from the lies and tricks of the enemy.
“The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple.  The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart.  The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever. The decrees of the LORD are firm, and all of them are righteous.  They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb.” Psalm 19: 7-10

[1] David Elton Trueblood in The New Man for Our Time. Christianity Today, Vol. 37, no. 1.
[2]Jim Holm, The Mennonite Brethren Herald (2-19-99)
[3] Colin Campbell in Fresh Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching (Baker), from the editors of Leadership.
[4] David Elton Trueblood, The New Man for our Time, Harper Collins, (January 1970)