Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Too Big …

Thoughts on the Sabbath School lesson for 2.4.12

Did your parents ever tell you that you’d gotten too big for your own britches?  Usually your parents were giving you fair warning that you had stepped over the disrespect line and you needed to step back quickly or experience a refresher course in who was the parent and who was the child, right? 

Well, I’m thinking that, with respect to honoring the holiness and sanctity of God, we crossed that line so long ago that we don’t even remember it.  I know, I know, not you, but some of us have, so stick with me for a few minutes.

Can you remember a time when the word ‘holy’ actually meant something; when it wasn’t just the first word in a two word phrase that ended in something like ‘cow’ or ‘moly’?  Do you remember when we had clothes and shoes that were only for church?  Do you remember when we were taught to treat the Bible itself with respect and reverence?

I think over the years that many of us (I know, not you) have come to a place where church is just another place to be, the Bible is just another book, and God is just another Person in our lives.
“In his book Soul Searching, Christian Smith summarized perceptions about God that are prevalent in the church and in contemporary culture. He said that most young evangelicals believed in what could best be described as ‘moral, therapeutic deism’ (we could also call this viewpoint ‘the Santa Claus god’).
“Moral implies that God wants us to be nice. He rewards the good and withholds from the naughty.
“Therapeutic means that God just wants us to be happy.
“Deism means that God is distant and not involved in our daily lives. God may get involved occasionally, but on the whole, God functions like an idea not a personal being actively present in our world.
“According to Smith, this is the version of God that's prevalent in our culture and in our churches. Often without realizing it, every culture quietly molds and shapes our views of God. But we can't grow in our relationship with God when we insist on relating to God as we think he should be. …
“That's why our surrender to God-as-he-is, as revealed in the Bible, is so important. Otherwise, we will have a god of our own imaginations—and, embarrassingly, our American god is an obese, jolly toymaker who works one day a year.”[1]
It’s one thing to want to become closer to God – that’s something we all want, but becoming closer is not becoming equal to.  In fact, if we look in the Bible at people’s interactions with God, we see that the closer their relationship with God, the more humble and unworthy they felt.  Isaiah for example:
“… I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple.  Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: … And one cried to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!’ … “So I said: ‘Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, The Lord of hosts. …’”  Isaiah 6:1-5 NKJV
“I knew a girl who used to think the stars were tiny specks of light just over her head. I'm not kidding. And she wasn't in grade school when she believed this. She was in college. … She was intelligent in many ways. But one day in a conversation she mentioned that she had just learned that stars in the night sky were actually really far away. I asked her what she meant. She said, ‘You know, they're not just right up there. They're not just tiny dots. They're really far away.’
“I was incredulous.
“‘What did you think they were before?’ I asked.
“‘I thought they were, you know, just right up above us.’
“If you were to ask me why it matters that we study the doctrine of God, I'd say for the same reason that it's worth knowing that stars are not tiny pinpricks of light just above our heads. When we know the truth about God, it fills us with wonder. If we fail to understand his true character, we'll never be amazed by him. We'll never feel small as we stare up at him. We'll never worship him as we ought. We'll never run to him for refuge or realize the great love he's shown in the measureless distance he bridged to rescue us.”[2]
Do we feel that awe for God anymore?  I remember hearing a story about Teddy Roosevelt.  Supposedly, when he had a meeting with difficult people over difficult things, he would schedule the meeting in the evening.  Before they’d start the meeting, he’d walk outside and just look up at the stars for what I’m sure his guests thought was a very long time.  But, after a while he would look around and say something like, “Well, I think we all feel small enough now.”  And then walk back in and have his meeting.

Do we feel humbled and small when we look at Creation?   We live in cities that are so full of light that we can hardly see the stars, at all.   We know enough science that we can explain the mechanics of most of the natural things we see. Historians and scientists have done their best to explain away any miraculous happening, past or present.  Men have walked on the moon; we’ve seen pictures of Mars.  Is there any part of Creation that takes your breath away?  

I have to tell you that when my sons were small we would go to SeaWorld from time to time.  It was interesting and the boys enjoyed seeing all the animals.  I usually spent most of the day appalled at the price of everything in the park.  That is, until we sat down in the killer whale theater; something very strange would happen to me there.  I would become completely overwhelmed with awe while watching the whales do their stuff.  The people around me would be talking, screaming, laughing, trying to either get splashed or stay dry, but I would be crying and praising God for making such amazing creatures.  It sounds silly now, to be so moved by watching some animals, but I think those were some of the times that I felt the holiness of God.
“The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God's acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God in the dock.”[3]
Let’s not get “too big for our britches.”  Let’s remember Who’s in charge and worship Him in reverence and awe.

[1] Preaching Today,  Submitted by Dave Dorr, Cincinnati, Ohio
[2] Joshua Harris, Dug Down Deep (Multnomah, 2010), pp. 48-49
[3] C.S. Lewis in God in the Dock. Christianity Today, Vol. 35, no. 13.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

I'm all for having more patience... I just hate all the waiting!

Do you consider yourself a patient person?  I like to think that I am...but I'm not really.  I have somehow developed the ability to look relaxed and patient while my insides are one huge knot of frustration and impatience.  I guess that's a good thing sometimes, but it doesn't help me when the One I'm impatient with is God—what with Him knowing all my inner thoughts an all.

Am I the only one who gets impatient with God?  I tend to think not.  Not so much because I know so much about other people but because of the number of books and sermons I found that deal specifically with learning to “wait on the Lord”.  One book, especially, I think I want to check out.  It's called  You're Late Again, Lord!  The Impatient Woman's Guide to God's Timing.  The author, Karon Goodman, seems to really understand how hard it is to submit to God's perfect timing.  In the introduction to the book, Goodman sums it up quite nicely.

“We have become so accustomed to ordering and orchestrating and planning and scheduling that it is incredibly hard to admit that not all is within our control. Many decisions every day are ours to handle, and we get pretty good at taking care of things. We believe that we could carry on even better if God would only cooperate. We demand the answers we need from him, and yet we hear no response. We question and condemn the intolerable delays in the events we need to happen in our lives, and yet nothing changes. Doesn't God know that we need those answers NOW?
“Yes, he knows, but thankfully, he's smarter than we are. Because he knows how hard it is for us to wait, to abandon control and to trust beyond ourselves, he has devised a plan just for us. The basis of the plan appeared many years ago, but it applies so well today, to you and me. God is so clever.”
That's the hardest part, I think—trusting God enough to release our grip on our life and handing it over to Him,...even if we don't know or understand what He has in mind for us.
As Christians, I believe our definition of patience differs from the secular definition.  Secular patience can be defined as 
“the bearing of provocation, annoyance, misfortune, or pain, without complaint, loss of temper, irritation; the ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay.”
Patience in the context of secular behavior is more about appearance than anything that might be going on in a person's heart or mind.  But in a Christian context, patience becomes something very different.  It is wrapped together with things like faith, contentment, and meekness.  Christian patience is about waiting or resting.  According to a pastor by the name of J. Hampton Keathley, III, 
“waiting means resting in God's timing and activity while taking care of our responsibilities—the things we can do and should do as set forth in the Word of God.”
Additionally, Keathley says that “waiting always means seeking the Lord.”  Waiting for God is not like waiting in a doctor's office.  There are things we need to be doing while we wait.  We need to be studying the Bible to find answers to our questions and
“claiming God's promises” and  praying for wisdom and understanding.
“The Lord is good to those who wait hopefully and expectantly for Him, to those who seek Him [inquire of and for Him and require Him by right of necessity and on the authority of God's word. “  Lamentations 3:2
Keathley states that 
“Waiting means claiming God's promises by faith and resting in what God is doing in our lives so we can faithfully follow God's principles and keep His values, priorities, and pursuits.”
If we're not waiting for the Lord or resting in Him, we are probably trying to solve things by ourselves, in our own strength.  We are trying to protect ourselves because we are angry, afraid and/or jealous.  We whine, grumble, or even run away from the problems. 
 “We try to control others, call attention to ourselves to bolster our feelings of inadequacy or to defend ourselves against the comments of others.  Out of fear of failure or loss we compromise our convictions, or what we know is rights.  But fear, which has displaced faith in the Lord, causes us to lean on the arm of flesh.”  
Keathley sure doesn't beat around the bush does he.
“To wait on the Lord means learning to be content and patient as we cling to God in a fallen world and rest in His love and wisdom.”
Paul already had that all figured out, didn't he. 
“Not that I am implying that I was in any personal want, for I have learned how to be content (satisfied to the point where I am not disturbed or disquieted) in whatever state I am.” Philippians 4:11.
Mrs. White made this comment about patience:  
“Patience under trials will keep us from saying and doing those things which will injure our own souls and injure those with whom we associate. Let your trials be what they will, nothing can seriously injure you if you exercise patience, if you are calm and unexcited when in trying positions.”  E.G. White, Our High Calling (1961), page 70. 
“Do your best, and then wait, patiently, hopefully, rejoicingly, because the promise of God can not fail. Christ's life of untiring effort has been recorded for our encouragement. He did not fail nor become discouraged. In time of trial, be patient. Patience is a precious jewel. It will bring health to heart and mind. Wait on the Lord until he sees that you are ready to receive and appreciate the blessings for which you ask. Exercise faith, even though the trials are severe. "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Of faith hope is born.” The Review & Herald, May 30, 1912.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Extravagant Grace

Thoughts on the Sabbath School Lesson for 1.28.12
“My wife is ... a mirror. When I have sinned against her, my sin appears in the suffering of her face. Her tears reflect with terrible accuracy my selfishness. ... But I hate the sight, and the same selfishness I see now makes me look away. ...“The passion of Christ ... is such a mirror. Are the tears of my dear wife hard to look at? Well, the pain in the face of Jesus is harder. It is myself in my extremest truth. ... The death he died reflects a selfishness so extreme that by it I was divorced from God and life and light complete. ...“Nevertheless, I will not avoid this mirror! No, I will carefully rehearse, again this year, the passion of my Jesus--with courage, with clarity and faith; for this is the mirror of dangerous grace, purging more purely than any other.”[1]
Have you seen that commercial that’s out right now that’s pushing some prescription medication?  It shows a “doctor” standing outside, next to a full length mirror, and he says, “I wish my patients could see what I see.  Then as each person walks past the mirror, his (or her) health concerns pop up on the mirror.  They’re things like “high cholesterol,” “risk for heart attack,” and other things like that.  The problem is, the reflection of the person doesn’t change at all.  They just look the same.

I think the commercial would be much more effective if the image in the mirror changed, Portrait of Dorian Gray style, ya know?  Like, if the person had high cholesterol, there’d be big chunks of fat stuck all over him.  Don’t ya think that would work lots better?

Well, it’s kind of the same way with us.  We walk around in our little lives thinking we’re pretty much okay, but we don’t see ourselves the way God sees us. 
“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” Revelation 3:17
Now THAT would be an eye-opening experience, wouldn’t it -- to see the world from God’s perspective?  That’s kind of a lot to think about.  We want to think of ourselves as pretty likeable, but we’re not seeing the thick, oozing coating of sin that God sees.  We can’t imagine how far we are from His original creations, Adam and Eve.

And, as if all that didn’t make us hard enough for God to love, much less even look at, our sins took the life of His Son.  Now, if you’re a parent, you know how you feel about anyone who had just hurt your child’s feelings…

Well, put all that together, and we really should be absolutely hideous and completely unlovable, from God’s perspective…and yet…
“I learned an enduring lesson about grace from my church's response to Adolphus, a young black man with a wild, angry look in his eye. Every inner-city church has at least one Adolphus. He had spent some time in Vietnam, and most likely his troubles started there. He could never hold a job for long. His fits of rage and craziness sometimes landed him in an asylum.“If Adolphus took his medication on Sunday, he was manageable. Otherwise, well, church could be even more exciting than usual. He might start at the back and high-hurdle his way over the pews down to the alter. He might raise his hands in the air during a hymn and make obscene gestures. Or he might wear headphones and tune in bebop music instead of the sermon.“As part of worship, LaSalle [Church] had a time called ‘Prayers of the People.’ We would stand, and spontaneously various people would call out a prayer for peace in the world, for healing of the sick, for justice in the community around us. ‘Lord, hear our prayer,’ we would respond in unison after each spoken request. Adolphus soon figured out that Prayers of the People provided an ideal platform for him to air his concerns.“‘Lord, thank you for creating Whitney Houston and her magnificent body!’ he prayed one morning. After a puzzled pause, a few chimed in weakly, ‘Lord, hear our prayer.’“‘Lord, thank you for the big recording contract I signed last week, and for all the good things happening to my band!’ prayed Adolphus. Those of us who knew Adolphus realized he was fantasizing, but others joined in with a heartfelt, ‘Lord, hear our prayer.’“A group of people in the church, including a doctor and a psychiatrist, took on Adolphus as a special project. Every time he had an outburst, they pulled him aside and talked it through, using the word ‘inappropriate’ a lot.…“We learned that Adolphus sometimes walked the five miles to church on Sunday because he could not afford the bus fare. Members of the congregation began to offer him rides. Some invited him over for meals. Most Christmases he spent with our assistant pastor's family.“Boasting about his musical talent, Adolphus asked to join the music group that sang during Communion services. After hearing him audition, the leader settled on a compromise: Adolphus could stand with the others and sing, but only if his electric guitar remained unplugged (he had absolutely no music ability). Each time the group performed thereafter, Adolphus stood with them and sang and played his guitar, which, thankfully, produced no sound
“The day came when Adolphus asked to join the church. Elders quizzed him on his beliefs, found little by way of encouragement, and decided to put him on a kind of probation. He could join when he demonstrated that he understood what it meant to be a Christian, they decided, and when he learned to act appropriately around others in church.“Against all odds, Adolphus's story has a happy ending. He calmed down. He started calling people in the church when he felt the craziness coming on. He even got married. And on the third try, Adolphus was finally accepted for church membership.“Grace comes to people who do not deserve it, and for me Adolphus came to represent grace. In his entire life, no one had ever invested that kind of energy and concern in him. He had no family, he had no job, he had no stability. Church became for him the one stable place. It accepted him despite all he had done to earn rejection.“It gave him a second chance, and a third, and a fourth. Christians who had experienced God's grace transferred it to Adolphus, and that stubborn, unquenchable grace gave me an indelible picture of what God puts up with by choosing to love the likes of me.”[2]
God is so good!  He looks at our horrible ugliness and loves us anyway.  Jesus draws us close to Him and tenderly covers our filthiness with His spotless sinlessness because He wants to spend eternity with us.  Thank you, Jesus, for your extravagant grace

[1] Walter Wangerin, Jr., in “Reliving the Passion.” Christianity Today, Vol. 38, no. 4.

[2] Philip Yancey, "Taking My Stand with the Church," Leadership (Spring 1996)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Meek Shall Inherit ...

not published

... well, right now, the meek shall inherit the jokes.  So many jokes about the meek inheriting the earth and not knowing what to do with it once they get it, or after everybody else is through with it, etc.

I guess a lot of folks find those jokes funny because they really don't get what Jesus means when He talks about meekness.  The people who make the jokes equate meekness with mousiness and weakness.  But is that what Jesus meant?  Does He want us to be door-mats and let people walk all over us?
Here are some people who are described in the Bible as meek.  See if they fit the world's definition of meek.  Moses is described as the meekest man on earth.  Jesus is described as meek, as are David, Steven, Paul .  Not one of those guys looks like a pushover to me, what about you? 

Although the folks who painted pictures in the middle ages tended to paint Jesus looking pretty sappy, the Bible tells us that He was not a weakling.  He worked hard as a carpenter for at least fifteen years.  We also  know that neither David or Moses were wimps either.  They both were in charge of lots and lots of people that they had to keep in line.  Weaklings don't handle those types of jobs very well.  A leader on the level of Moses and David has to possess a considerable amount of internal steel.
So how could those guys be considered meek? By anyone's definition!  But check this out: 
“Meekness is defined as 'enduring injury with patience and without resentment.'” 
Ah hah!  That makes a big difference doesn't it!  Meekness isn't standing in the background hoping to be anonymous.  A meek person can do one of the hardest things in the world:  face mental and/or physical pain, torture, unfairness and humiliation patiently and without getting mad. 

In the fifth century, St. Benedict wrote down a guide to becoming humble.  In it he describes the twelve degrees of humility.  The fourth degree of humility is this: '...if hard and distasteful things are commanded, nay, even though injuries are inflicted, he accept them with patience and even temper, and not grow weary or give up…'  But beyond that degree, things take a bit of a turn. 

In the sixth degree, Benedict says this:  '...when a monk is content with the meanest and worst of everything, and in all that is enjoined him holdeth himself as a bad and worthless workman, saying with the Prophet: 'I am brought to nothing and I knew it not; I am become as a beast before Thee, and I am always with Thee.''

Hmmm. Well, I can still see that as part of humility or meekness...but something seems to be missing.  Can you spot what's missing?  Read on...
'The seventh degree of humility is, when, not only with his tongue he declareth, but also in his inmost soul believeth, that he is the lowest and vilest of men, humbling himself and saying with the Prophet: "But I am a worm and no man, the reproach of men and the outcast of the people.'The eighth degree of humility is, when a monk doeth nothing but what is sanctioned by the common rule of the monastery and the example of his elders.'The ninth degree of humility is, when a monk withholdeth his tongue from speaking, and keeping silence doth not speak until he is asked; for the Scripture showeth that 'in a multitude of words there shall not want sin.''The tenth degree of humility is, when a monk is not easily moved and quick for laughter, for it is written: The fool exalteth his voice in laughter.'The eleventh degree of humility is, that, when a monk speaketh, he speak gently and without laughter, humbly and with gravity, with few and sensible words, and that he be not loud of voice, as it is written: 'The wise man is known by the fewness of his words.''The twelfth degree of humility is, when a monk is not only humble of heart, but always letteth it appear also in his whole exterior to all that see him; namely, at the Work of God, in the garden, on a journey, in the field, or wherever he may be, sitting, walking, or standing, let him always have his head bowed down, his eyes fixed on the ground, ever holding himself guilty of his sins, thinking that he is already standing before the dread judgment seat of God, and always saying to himself in his heart what the publican in the Gospel said, with his eyes fixed on the ground: 'Lord, I am a sinner and not worthy to lift up mine eyes to heaven;' and again with the Prophet: 'I am bowed down and humbled exceedingly.''  "The Christian Classics Ethereal Library,"
Were you able to see the flaw in Benedict reasoning?  He concentrates only on our unworthiness without moving into the hope of redemption.  Someone who used Benedict's model for humility would look like a wallflower, somone who is weak.
Let's look back at the Bible figures I mentioned earlier.  Did they walk around with their eyes downcast and their heads bowed?  Truthfully, I can't imagine any of them walking around like that, can you?

So, then I found an essay by Matt Friedeman.  And it really helped me to see the true power of meekness.  Friedeman describes meekness not as weakness or wimpiness; 'not lack[ing] of energy or strength; rather, power under control.'  In fact, he paraphrases the third beatitudes this way; 'Blessed are the meek...for their power is controlled by the Master.'

Friedeman describes meekness in terms of a meek horse and here's how a horse trainer describes what that looks like.
'Once broken, a good horse doesn't require much correction.  He has learned to accept the reins of his master, and a gentle tug is all that is needed to urge him one direction or the other. The process of “breaking” a horse does not 'remove the power and verve that used to make the animal wild; rather it places the energy under control.”  Horse trainers use the phrase 'channel their spirit' and have found that with 'appropriate channeled, the horse is generally able to jump higher, run faster, and even work harder than an uncontrolled animal.'
It gets better. 
'A special relationship develops between the horse and master.  After years of working together, they develop a rapport that becomes second nature to both of them.  Thus trained, a good horse can sense a bad rider and will resist false guidance.'
Wouldn't it be wonderful to have that relationship with God?  To be able to know Him so well, that we can sense false guidance and not be lead down a wrong path?

Friedeman also talks about the partnership between a well trained horse and his rider.
'The horse knows its job and is capable of working even when it doesn't feel the immediate presence of its rider.  They work as a unit, even when physically apart.'
According to Friedeman, 'the meek horse has an elevated sense of loyalty and commitment.'  He goes on to describe horses from the old west and the pony express. 
'The lives of the mail carriers depended upon the horses they rode.  A Pony Express horse needed to be swift and hardy, with a certain measure of grit that enabled it to keep going, no matter what.  Those horses would die in the running if that is what it took.  They were bent upon completing the course.  And despite the heat, the parching thirst, raging storms, Indian attacks, and injury, horses of that caliber never whined or whinnied in protest. Meek horses...have learned the secret of submitting to the control of their master.  They trust that rider enough to follow uncomplainingy wherever he leads them.
And finally, Friedeman reminds us that 'a horse does not become [meek] overnight.  It takes a long, hard period of training.'

What an excellent picture of a meek Christian!  
'Those who have placed the reins of their lives in the guiding hand of the Master may give up control.  But in its stead they will receive the guidance and protection of One whose vision is far higher than theirs.  Instead of spending their energy in frivolous pursuits, their lives will reach their full potential-and they will inherit the earth.'
Meekness is not weakness; it is power under control.  Think about Moses, David, Paul and Jesus.  They weren't wimps.  They were powerful people who allowed God to hold the reins and direct them into their full potential.  I want that kind of meekness, don't you?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

By His Stripes

Thoughts on the Sabbath School Lesson for 1.21.12

Marilyn Sewell, a Unitarian minister, made the following statement while interviewing Christopher Hitchens, a well known atheist:  
“The religion you cite in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I'm a liberal Christian, and I don't take the stories from the Scripture literally. I don't believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example).”[1]
Wait!  What?  How is that possible?  I mean, either you believe that Jesus died for your sins and you’re a Christian, or you don’t believe it and you’re not.  Right?  That’s what I always thought.

Anyway, Ms Sewell finishes with a question for Mr. Hitchens:  
“Do you make any distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?”[2]
And then things really get weird!  Why? Because Mr. Hitchens’, the atheist’s answer makes more sense to me than the minister’s question.  Mr. Hitchens says, 
“I would say that if you don't believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you're really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.”[3]
This from a man who wrote a book called, Why Religion Poisons Everything.  Interesting.

Maybe it’s easier, on some level, to believe in a Jesus who doesn’t ruffle any feathers, just a really great Guy, who said some really nice things about loving everybody.  It’s easier to keep everything neat and tidy, I guess.
The problem is, that molded plastic Jesus can’t save you or me.  He wouldn’t take the punishment for my sins.   He’s more like what Max Lucado calls “The Rabbit’s Foot Redeemer. 
“For some, Jesus is a good luck charm. The ‘Rabbit's Foot Redeemer.’ Pocket-sized. Handy. Easily packaged. Easily understood. Easily diagrammed. You can put his picture on your wall or you can stick it in your wallet as insurance. You can frame him. Dangle him from your rear view mirror or glue him to your dashboard.
“His specialty? Getting you out of a jam. Need a parking place? Rub the redeemer. Need help on a quiz? Pull out the rabbit's foot. No need to have a relationship with him. No need to love him. Just keep him in your pocket next to your four-leaf clover.
“For many he's an ‘Aladdin's Lamp Redeemer.’ New jobs. Pink Cadillacs. New and improved spouses. Your wish is his command. And what's more, he conveniently reenters the lamp when you don't want him around.
“For others, Jesus is a ‘Monty Hall Redeemer.’ ‘All right, Jesus, let's make a deal. For 52 Sundays a year, I'll put on a costume coat and tie, hat and hose and I'll endure any sermon you throw at me. In exchange, you give me the grace behind pearly gate number three.’
“The Rabbit's Food Redeemer. The Aladdin's Lamp Redeemer. The Monty Hall Redeemer. Few demands, no challenges. No need for sacrifice. No need for commitment.
“Sightless and heartless redeemers. Redeemers without power. That's not the Redeemer of the New Testament.”[4]
Or anywhere else in the Bible, for that matter.

Isaiah describes a very different Redeemer.  
“Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  Isaiah 53:4-6
There’s nothing tidy or polite about the Jesus that Isaiah describes – a Redeemer who loves me so much that He took my place in Hell so that I could stand with Him in Heaven.
Ellen White says it so beautifully in The Desire of Ages
“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.’”[5]
Jesus isn’t a polite, pinky out, only when it’s convenient kind of Redeemer.  He’s a wade in up to His waist, reach down and haul us out of the mud kind of Redeemer.  He’s messy and controversial, and He loves each one of us, personally and individually.
“Jesus does not excuse [our] sins, but shows [our] penitence and faith, and, claiming for [us] forgiveness, He lifts His wounded hands before the Father and the holy angels, saying: I know them by name. I have graven them on the palms of My hands.”[6] 
“Author Henri Nouwen tells the story of a family he knew in Paraguay. The father, a doctor, spoke out against the military regime there and its human rights abuses. Local police took their revenge on him by arresting his teenage son and torturing him to death. Enraged townsfolk wanted to turn the boy's funeral into a huge protest march, but the doctor chose another means of protest. At the funeral, the father displayed his son's body as he had found it in the jail—naked, scarred from electric shocks and cigarette burns, and beatings. All the villagers filed past the corpse, which lay not in a coffin but on the blood-soaked mattress from the prison. It was the strongest protest imaginable, for it put injustice on grotesque display.
“Isn't that what God did at Calvary? … The cross that held Jesus' body, naked and marked with scars, exposed all the violence and injustice of this world. At once, the cross revealed what kind of world we have and what kind of God we have: a world of gross unfairness, a God of sacrificial love.”[7]
“For God so greatly loved and dearly prized the world that He [even] gave up His only begotten (unique) Son, so that whoever believes in (trusts in, clings to, relies on) Him shall not perish (come to destruction, be lost) but have eternal (everlasting) life.  For God did not send the Son into the world in order to judge (to reject, to condemn, to pass sentence on) the world, but that the world might find salvation and be made safe and sound through Him.”  John 3:16,17 (Amplified Bible

[1]Dr. Ray Pritchard, "Christopher Hitchens Gets it Exactly Right," (2-1-10)
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Max Lucado, Six Hours One Friday (W. Publishing, 2004), pp. 89-90
[5] E.G. White, The Desire of Ages, page 25
[6] E.G. White, The Great Controversy, page 484  
[7] Philip Yancey, Disappointment with God (Zondervan, 1997), pp. 185-186

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Trusting God with Reckless Abandon

The Lord is good, a Strength and Stronghold in the day of trouble; He knows (recognizes, has knowledge of, and understands) those who take refuge and trust in Him. Nahum 1:7 Amplified Bible
I think I can safely say that most of us trust God to some extent.  We will all say that we trust God for our salvation...but do we trust Him with our mundane, everyday needs—having enough money for groceries and bills, getting along with our co-workers and those difficult people who must be gotten along with?  Do we trust God as much as we can trust Him?  As much as He wants us to trust Him?  Can we honestly say that we follow Solomon's directions in Proverbs 3:5:  “Trust the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.”?
What about Psalm 56:11: “In God I have put my trust, I shall not be afraid...”?  Does that mean that I can't claim to trust God and still worry about stuff?  It looks that way to me.  What do you think?  According to that text, the opposite of trust is fear.  It's not possible to do both.

Think about tithing.  When we pay our tithe, we're trusting God to make 90 percent of our income cover 100% of our bills.  Or what about keeping the Sabbath.  We're trusting God to help us complete in six days what should take seven.  Have you ever known someone who paid their tithe and then worried all the time about how they were going to make ends meet?  Or someone who keeps the Sabbath, but worries all Sabbath long about what he (or she) should be doing?

When I was in college, I knew folks who gladly put away their studies as soon as the sun went down on Friday night and didn't think about them again...well, until well after Sabbath was over.  I knew folks who kept studying right through Sabbath because they felt they wouldn't be able to get finished if they put their books up for that 24 hour period.  And I also knew folks who grudgingly put their books away and spent Sabbath wondering how they'd get it all done come Saturday night. 

Now, I'll admit that I was part of the first group, but mostly because I was not much of a studier and was always happy to find some excuse to put my studies away.  But after watching all three groups of people, I can definitely say that those who willingly took Sabbath off and worked hard the rest of the week, accomplished at least the same amount of work that those who studied through Sabbath did.  I learned that I can trust God to make six days of work stretch to fit seven days of tasks.

Of course the same types of things happen when we tithe.  Miracles happen when we trust God in the little parts of our lives. 

But do we trust God to build us into the people who can work for Him?  We tell God that we want to do great things for Him, but are we willing to let God create the ability to accomplish those great things?  Or do we take off on our own because we feel like God is moving too slowly and we want to get the job done right now?  Do we trust God to heal us when we've hit the wall because we've run out ahead of Him?  Do we trust Him with our broken hearts and shattered dreams?

One author I read this week reminds us that we are called 
“to trust God in the midst of it all; to keep returning to the Lord; to continually acknowledge His sovereign control and absolute goodness in the face of crippling pain. ...He is an expert at fixing broken things.  He's also the master of breaking things that need fixing.” 
What an amazing thought!  We are called...called to be broken, so that we can be mended to “use what is broken to magnify His glory and spread His gospel of grace throughout your sphere of influence.”
“God offers us peace in the time of war, and He takes away our peace when our desire for comfort distorts our sense of right and wrong. God is never a reflection of us at all, and yet He always responds to us right where we are.  He provides for the poor, the hungry, the thirsty.  He humbles the rich and powerful who make themselves fat from the bitter toiling and suffering of others.”  
Isn't that amazing?  God knows exactly what we need and when we need it, and He's demonstrated it over and over again.  But we still have a hard time trusting His methods and timing.  Well, I do anyway.

But then God reminds me through Isaiah, 
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10
What a blessing to know that God knows when I am afraid and He promises that He will make me strong again and help me.  You too.

I want you to read this (probably apocryphal) story that has made the rounds of e-mails asking you to forward it to your closest friends so that your wishes will all come true.  Because of that, I think I didn't really read it the first couple of times.  Maybe you didn't either, but I'm not asking you to forward this to anybody.  Just think about the amount of faith this one man had.

A pastor stood and walked to the pulpit and introduced a guest minister.  In the introduction, the pastor told the congregation that the guest minister was one of his dearest childhood friends.

An elderly man then stepped up to the pulpit and began to speak.  “A father, his son, and a friend of his son were sailing off the Pacific coast,” he began, “when a fast-approaching storm blocked any attempt to get back to the shore.  The waves were so high, that even though the father was an experienced sailor, he could not keep the boat upright and the three were swept into to ocean as the boat capsized.”

The old man hesitated for a moment, making eye contact with two teenagers who were, for the first time since the service began, looking somewhat interested in his story.  The aged minister continued with his story.  “Grabbing a rescue line, the father had to make the most excruciating decision of his life; to which boy would he throw the other end of the life line?  He only had seconds to make the decision.  The father knew that his son had given his heart to Jesus and he also knew that his son's friend had not.  The agony of his decision could not be matched by the torrent of the waves.

As the father yelled out, “I love you, son!” He threw the lifeline to his son's friend.  By the time the father had pulled the friend back to the capsized boat, his son had disappeared beneath the raging swells into the black of night.  His body was never recovered. 

By this time, the two teenagers were sitting up straight in the pew, anxiously waiting for the next words to come out of the old minister's mouth. 

“The father” he continued, “was confident that his son knew Jesus as his Savior and he could not bear the thought of his son's friend dying with out Jesus.  Therefore he sacrificed his son to save his son's friend.
“How great is the love of God that He should do the same for us.  Our Heavenly Father sacrificed his only-begotten Son that we could be saved.  I urge you to accept His offer to rescue you and take hold of the lifeline He is throwing out to you.”  
With that, the old man turned and sat back down as silenced filled the room.

As soon as the service ended, the two teenagers were at the old man's side.  “That was a nice story,” one said, “but I don't think it was very realistic for a father to give up his only son's life in hopes that the other boy would become a Christian.”

“Well, you've got a point there,” the old man replied glancing down at his worn Bible.  A big smile broadened his narrow face.  He looked up at the boys and said, “It sure isn't very realistic is it?  But I'm standing here today to tell you that that story gives me a glimpse of what it must have been like for God to give up His Son for me.  You see, I was that father and your pastor is my son's friend.”
“Do you not know?  Have you not heard?  The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.  He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.  Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall;  but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary,    they will walk and not be faint.  Isaiah 40:28-31

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Happy Accidents

Thoughts on the Sabbath School Lesson for 1.14.12

Has this ever happened to you?  You’re watching a wonderful nature program with fantastic film of some animal, all up close and personal.  The voice over is calming, resonant and sincere:
“Hummingbirds are the lightest birds in the sky. Of their roughly 240 species … the largest, an Andean ‘giant,’ is only eight inches long; the smallest, the bee hummingbird of Cuba, is just over two inches long and weighs a single gram.
“Delicacy is the trade-off that hummingbirds have made for their unrivaled powers of flight. Alone among birds, they can hover, fly backward, even fly upside down. For such small birds, their speed is astonishing: in his courtship display to impress a female, a male Allen's hummingbird, for instance, can dive out of the sky at sixty-one miles per hour … (Diving at 385 body-lengths per second, this hummer beats the peregrine falcon's dives … and even bests the space shuttle as it screams down through the atmosphere at 207 body lengths per second.)
“Hummingbirds' wings beat at a rate that makes them a blur to human eyes, more than sixty times a second …. They are little more than bubbles fringed with iridescent feathers—air wrapped in light …. In most birds, 15 to 25 percent of the body is given over to flying muscles. In a hummingbird's body, flight muscles account for 35 percent. An enormous heart constitutes up to 2.5 percent of its body weight—the largest per body weight of all vertebrates …. A person as active as a hummingbird would need 155,000 calories a day …. Each [hummingbird] is just a speck … yet each is an infinite mystery.”[1]
And then the voice says something like, “Millions of years of evolution have brought the hummingbird to where it is today.”  Essentially saying that this amazing and complex creature is nothing more than a happy biological accident. 

At that point I want to throw something at the television!  Don’t misunderstand, I believe the world is full of happy accidents:  hitting all green lights on the way to work, the elevator doors opening just as you get there,  and being able to get your phone out of your purse/pocket before it stops ringing.  Those could all be described as happy accidents, but a miraculous creature like the hummingbird?  I don’t think so.

The problem, for me, isn’t creationist or evolutionist, it’s who you believe came first – God or man? 
“[In his talks, author Phillip Johnson quotes] the Gospel of John, which states: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.’
“After reading this, Johnson asks: ‘Is that true or false?’
“Then he turns this Scripture inside out and creates a credo for use in sanctuaries aligned with the National Center for Science Education. It sounds like this: ‘In the beginning were the particles and the particles somehow became complex, living stuff. And the stuff imagined God.’
“After reading this, Johnson again asks: ‘Is that true or false?’
“Johnson argues that today's debates over science, creation and morality are, literally, clashes between people who believe there is scientific evidence that God created man and those who believe there is scientific evidence that man created God.
“‘If there is no Creator who has a purpose for your life, then there is no such thing as sin,’ he said. ‘Sin would mean that you are in a wrong relationship to your Creator. Well, you can't be in the wrong relationship with the particles. They don't care. So you don't need a Savior to save you from the consequences of your wrong relationship with the particles. …
“‘When you give away creation, you have given away everything.’”[2]
I’ve never heard the creation/evolution debate brought down to such a clear line before, but I believe he’s right.  If you give up the Creator, you also give up the Redeemer.  You also end up losing a clear cut reason for being here, and if you have no reason for being, no purpose, what’s left? 

But if God put us here because He has something for us to accomplish, that puts a whole new slant on things.
“Man is allotted a part in this great struggle for everlasting life; he must respond to the working of the Holy Spirit. It will require a struggle to break through the powers of darkness, but the Spirit that works in him can and will accomplish this. But man is no passive instrument to be saved in indolence. He is called upon to strain every muscle in the struggle for immortality, yet it is God that supplies the efficiency.”[3]
What would you rather believe, that you and I are the result of biological mutations that happily mutated their way into human beings or that a God who wanted companionship placed us on a planet made just for us?
“Dr. Seth Shostak, an astronomer with the SETI Institute, points out in his course ‘The Search for Intelligent Life in Space’ what conditions favor the development of life in the universe:  The system's star ("sun") must not be a giant star, because these burn out too quickly before life can fully develop.  The system's star must not be a dwarf star, because such a star locks in the close planets, meaning ‘one side of the planet forever faces its sun, resulting in horrific weather and unlikely venues for life.’  The system's star cannot be a double star, because the unusual gravitational forces created by a double-star sun might not allow stable planetary systems.  The system's star must not be a young star, because stars less than 1 billion years old have not had enough time, so astronomers think, for life to develop.
“Ideally, the planet would have a large moon, which creates active tides.
“The planet should have tectonic activity, which causes metals to be pushed up to the surface, since metals are valuable to technological civilization.
“The planet should have a large planet farther out in its solar system, which by its great gravitational pull cleans the inner solar system of deadly asteroids and comets.
“The planet should not have a highly elliptical orbit, which is unsuitable for incubating life.
“For life to live on the surface, the planet must have an atmosphere. ‘Very small planets lose their air, and very large planets tend to sport poisonous atmosphere. Earth-sized planets are ideal.’
“And it just so happens that all these conditions fit our earth!”[4]
Hmmmm, the creation of a loving God or a happy accident…I choose God; what about you?

[1] Sy Montgomery, Birdology (Free Press, 2010), pp. 78-103
[2] Terry Mattingly, senior fellow for journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, from his column “Phillip E.”
[3] E.G.White, Our High Calling (1961), page 91.
[4] From "The Search for Intelligent Life in Space" course outline (The Teaching Company Limited Partnership, 1999); submitted by Kevin A. Miller, Vice President, Christianity Today International

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Is that Faith?

“Into the experience of all there come times of keen disappointment and utter discouragement—days when sorrow is the portion, and it is hard to believe that God is still the kind benefactor of His earthborn children; days when troubles harass the soul, till death seems preferable to life.  It is then that many lose their hold on God and are brought into the slavery of doubt, the bondage of unbelief.  Could we at such times discern with spiritual insight the meaning of God’s providences we should see angels seeking to save us from ourselves, striving to plant our feet upon a foundation more firm than the everlasting hills, and new faith, new life, would spring into being.”  E.G.White, Prophets and Kings, p. 162.
Looking at the troubles that come into the lives of Christians and the Christian response to those trials, I started to wonder about the line between faith and fatalism.  What got me thinking about this was a radio preacher who was talking about King David toward the end of his reign.  The story is in 2 Samuel 15 and 16.  Absalom has staged a coup and has forced David to retreat from Jerusalem.  As he’s moving out with his loyal soldiers the steward of Mephibosheth (Saul’s grandson, who has been being supported by David all these years) meets him with donkeys and food for the journey.  That’s the only bright spot in David’s day though because he finds out from the steward that Mephibosheth is back in Jerusalem in the hopes that Saul’s kingdom will be taken away from David and restored to him.  And then, David comes up to the next town, only to meet a guy named, Shimei who starts throwing rocks at David and his posse.  And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, Shimei starts shouting curses at David: 
“’Get out, get out, you man of blood, you scoundrel! The LORD has repaid you for all the blood you shed in the household of Saul, in whose place you have reigned. The LORD has handed the kingdom over to your son Absalom. You have come to ruin because you are a man of blood!’" 2 Samuel 16:7-8 
At that point, Abishai, one of King David’s men, offers to go over and lop off Shimei’s head. 
“But the king said, ‘What do you and I have in common, you sons of Zeruiah? If he is cursing because the LORD said to him, “Curse David,'” who can ask, “Why do you do this?”’
“David then said to Abishai and all his officials, ‘My son, who is of my own flesh, is trying to take my life. How much more, then, this Benjamite! Leave him alone; let him curse, for the LORD has told him to.  It may be that the LORD will see my distress and repay me with good for the cursing I am receiving today.’
 “So David and his men continued along the road while Shimei was going along the hillside opposite him, cursing as he went and throwing stones at him and showering him with dirt.” 2 Samuel 16:10-13
When I first heard that, I thought, “That sounds like a man who has completely given up—who just doesn’t care anymore.  And who could blame him?  He had definitely reached a low point.

So how can we tell the difference between “the faith of a child” and fatalism?  Have you met a person who, on the surface, seems to have that complete, unwavering faith in God’s leading, but who really has ceased to take any responsibility for his (or her) own life.  No matter what happens, it was God’s will.  There’s a leak in the roof or a traffic jam on the expressway, but this person is unperturbed.  He’ll say, in a voice like Eeyore’s (Winnie the Pooh’s donkey friend), “Everything happens for a reason.”

Now, I know it’s not my job to decipher where another person is spiritually; that is totally God’s job, and He can have it.  My concern is that I will fall into fatalism and believe that I am resting in faith.  So I’ve spent some time trying to learn the difference between faith and fatalism.

In an essay called “Passivity, the Flip Side of Passion”, pastor Paul Anderson supplies a list of excellent comparisons between faith and fatalism.
“Faith has lips and legs; it makes statements and it takes steps.  Fatalism keeps us from moving anywhere or doing anything-because nothing matters anyway.
"Faith directs us to a preferable future.  Fatalism resigns us to an inferior present.
"Faith says ‘yes’ to the promises of God.  Fatalism says ‘yes’ to whatever blows through.
"Faith lays hold on the future with confidence.  Fatalism embraces the status quo with resignation.
"Faith brings the future to the present.  Fatalism cannot see the future because of the present.
"Faith places us on top of our circumstances.  Fatalism puts us under the circumstances.
"Faith pleases God.  Fatalism offends Him.
"Faith makes obedience essential.  Fatalism makes obedience (or disobedience) inconsequential.
"Faith responds to the faithfulness of God.  Fatalism gives in to a god who is distant and unknowable.
"Faith overcomes in trials; fatalism accepts it condition.
"Faith looks to what can be; fatalism accepts what is.
"Faith moves mountains; fatalism means that we get moved.
"Faith believes the best.  Fatalism accepts one’s fate, even if it is the worst.”
Believe it or not, fatalism is a very comfortable place to be because in that state we have no hopes, no desires, and whatever happens, happens.  Another author talked about this giant, beautifully built dome that the Buddhists built, but they don’t maintain it.  It’s called the stupa and is meant to decay.  The Buddhists teach, “that existence is pain, and like the dome suffers pain and ruin through whatever comes against it.  Ultimately, the goal is to become nothing, which is nirvana.”  Fatalism could be described much the same way.

But that’s not what the Bible says in Romans 8:28-39…or anywhere else for that matter.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
 "What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:  ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered."  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
I don’t know what books you read growing up, but in the ones I read, conquerors were never passive.  They were out there making a difference.  They may not have won every battle, but they never gave up until they got to where they thought they belonged.

Satan would love for us to sit back and let life wash over us, eroding our lives, our spirits and, ultimately, our relationships with Christ, all the while believing that we’re accepting what God has chosen to give us. 
“Man is allotted a part in this great struggle for everlasting life; he must respond to the working of the Holy Spirit. It will require a struggle to break through the powers of darkness, but the Spirit that works in him can and will accomplish this. But man is no passive instrument to be saved in indolence. He is called upon to strain every muscle in the struggle for immortality, yet it is God that supplies the efficiency.” E.G.White, Our High Calling (1961), page 91.
As it turns out, David hadn’t given up at all.  He had at least three loyal spies in Jerusalem making sure he knew what Absalom was up to.  He had just learned over the years he spent commanding armies, that some battles are more important than others.  The battle for his throne was important; some guy throwing rocks and dirt at him was not.  Another thing that David had learned was that even though sometimes standing on the sidelines is a whole lot harder than being in the battle (just watch a basketball coach sometime), it’s important to know when to stand and when to fight.  He’d learned to let God tell him which was which.

Are you fighting any battles right now?  Are they the right ones or are you worried about satan throwing rocks and insults?  Are you fighting God and fighting your way closer to Him? 
“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.’"  Jeremiah 29:11-14
How can you argue with that?  He promises to bring us back from those difficult places and to hear us when we pray.  Amen!