Monday, April 29, 2013


“I hate, I despise your feast days, and I do not savor your sacred assemblies. Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, Nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs, for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments.” Amos 5:21-23

Prophets have a hard job. God tells them what to say, and then they have to stand up in front of people and say it. And the message that God gives them is rarely, “Great job, folks! Keep it up!”

Even so, these particular verses from Amos seem harsh. Imagine if your preacher stood up in the pulpit and said, “This is what God has told me to say to you: ‘I hate, I despise your potlucks and your worship services. Even though you offer Me your tithe and your offering, I will not accept them. Take away from Me the noise your praise songs and hymns, for I will not hear the melody of your pianos, organs, guitars or drums.”

It sure sounds like God hates church! Why would He hate church? What God hates is hollow worship – where people just go through the motions. I think we’ve probably all done that from time to time. Maybe we’ve had a really rough week, so we come to church and we stand when the congregation stands, kneel when everybody kneels, we may even talk to people we know. We sit through the whole service but we leave without ever being mentally or spiritually touched by anything that went on. If anybody asked us what the message was, we probably couldn’t tell them.

Imagine though, if that went on for so long, that we accept that as how things should be. We’re just going through the motions – we look like Christians, we act like Christians, we even think we are Christians, but we have so relationship with God at all. And that’s what God hates – hollow Christians.

Amos was talking to the Jews of his time. Jesus said pretty much the same things to the Jews of His time.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” Matthew 23:23-28
The scribes and the Pharisees were hollow just like their worship. They made sure they did all the right things, wore the right clothes, and ate all the right foods, but it was all for show. In their hearts they were terrible people who took advantage of people who sincerely were seeking God.

John Boykin explains in his column, “The Gospel of Coincidence.”
“What was so bad about [the Pharisees'] hypocrisy? If we think of it as consisting merely in their teaching or pretending one thing while in fact practicing something contradictory, we will miss Jesus' main point. What He nailed them for was that they were using God and the things of God as a means to some other end. That's what was insidious about the Pharisees' example. ‘They do all their deeds to be noticed by men’ (Matthew 23:5). ... Theirs was a problem of priorities: their first priority was social status, to which end God was but a means. What greater affront to God could there be? Better to ignore Him altogether than to exploit Him as a means to something else you value more highly.”[1]
Why are we Christians? Why do we go to the church we do? Is coming to church mainly our social event of the week? Are we more concerned about what we wear than what we hear from the pulpit? Do we worry more about the form of worship than actually worshipping? And what difference does it make, anyway? Isn’t it more important that we’re there than not being involved at all?
“Jesus spoke as one having knowledge and authority. The denunciation he uttered against the Jews condemned their formalism and hypocrisy. His scathing rebukes and denunciation of formalism have the same force today as they had in the days of the scribes and Pharisees, and apply to those who have a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof. The God of infinite holiness cannot accept external service as spiritual worship. Those who worship God must worship him in spirit and truth, or their service is vain. There must be reality in the religious ceremonies, or they are simply pretensions, hollow abominations. But though Jesus rebuked the priests and religious teachers for their formalism and hypocrisy, yet how forbearing and tender were his lessons to the poor, the oppressed, the afflicted, and discouraged. The priests and rulers, the scribes and Pharisees, destroyed the living pastures, and defiled the well-springs of the water of life. By their false precepts they confused the understanding, and clouded that which was clear. They misrepresented God by their hardness of heart, by their impurity, pride, and selfishness. They made God altogether such a one as themselves. Their imagination was darkened and polluted by their wicked works. Because of their religious degeneracy they could discern nothing that pertained to the spiritual kingdom of Christ. Through rejecting the messages of mercy brought to them by the Lord of light and glory, they became, in their stubborn resistance, past feeling. They had evidence in abundance of the divine character and mission of Christ, and increased evidence would only have increased their guilt. Thinking themselves to be wise, they became fools. As men do today, so they did then, and used the very intellect that God had given them to brand with falsehood his eternal truth.” (E.G. White, Sabbath School Worker, December 1, 1894)
So, what’s it going to be for us? Are we going to take our lead from the Pharisees or from Jesus? Will we allow the vessel to become more important to us than the contents? Are we going to worry more about how people are dressed at church than that they’re at church at all? Are we going to come to church to meet our friends or to meet with God? Are we going to let the formality of our church service get between God and a searching heart?

God is longing to meet us and inhabit our worship. Let’s not let our worship be hollow anymore. Let’s not wait to hear, “Woe unto you!” Let’s fill our hearts and minds with the spirit of praise.

[1] John Boykin, The Gospel of Coincidence, Christianity Today, Vol. 39, no. 5

Monday, April 22, 2013

Double-Edged Sword

My father was a sculptor. His medium of choice was wood. He was also one of the most patient men in the world. Anybody who asked for a lesson would immediately find themselves situated behind a fresh piece of wood, holding a chisel. The very first thing my father would tell everyone is, “Always cut away from yourself.” And everyone would smile, nod and think to themselves, “Well of course, everybody knows that.”
The lesson would begin and somewhere along the thirty minute mark, my father would be carefully bandaging his newest student’s hand because they had forgotten the first rule of sculpting – “Always cut away from yourself.”

I wish I could say that, since I heard the rule so often, that I learned the lesson best … Sadly, no. I can’t count how many times the sharpened piece of metal I am using to cut something has turned itself on me – even when I could swear I have been cutting away from myself. It’s almost like the tool I’m using has two sharp edges, one facing toward me as well as the one facing away.

Hm. That makes me think of something I was just reading in the first and second chapters of the book of Amos. Through the prophet Amos, God told the Israelites that He was going to punish all the “heathen” nations that surrounded Israel and Judah – Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab. I can imagine the Israelites cheering because these people who they had been fighting with for centuries were finally going to “get what they deserved!”

Have you ever felt that way – glad when someone who was doing bad things finally got caught and punished? Especially if some of those bad things have been directed at you, right? But even when it’s not about us, most of us hate to see someone or something (like an animal) victimized. The news is full of stories that cause us to become angry and demand justice. We want the bully to get his comeuppance and we’re glad when we see it happens.

There’s a problem with that whole, “yeah, they got what they deserved,” attitude. If we keep reading in Amos, when we get to Amos 2:4, the knife of justice turns back toward the Jew’s themselves.
“This is what the Lord says: ‘For three sins of Judah, even for four, I will not relent. Because they have rejected the law of the Lord and have not kept his decrees, because they have been led astray by false gods, the gods their ancestors followed, I will send fire on Judah that will consume the fortresses of Jerusalem.’
“This is what the Lord says: ‘For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver,     and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. Father and son use the same girl     and so profane my holy name. They lie down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge. In the house of their god     they drink wine taken as fines.’” Amos 2:4-8
Oh, bummer. Can you imagine? Here the Israelites are feeling all superior because God was taking care of their enemies, but then He lets them know that they’re in trouble too.

Those other nations were condemned, it looks like in Amos, for committing atrocities in war. Terrible? Yes, Judah and Israel were guilty because they seemed to be using their status as God’s people to take advantage of people who couldn’t defend themselves.
“Hear this word, people of Israel, the word the Lord has spoken against you—against the whole family I brought up out of Egypt: ‘You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins.’” Amos 3:1-2
What is it that Spiderman says? “With great power, comes great responsibility.” I think the same thing could be said for “great privilege,” don’t you?

God gave the Children of Israel privilege and power as His chosen people. Their role was to have pointed the people who saw them to the One True God and to portray Him accurately. They didn’t do that, in fact, the Jewish nation repeatedly rejected God altogether while still claiming the privilege. They subjugated their own poor and defenseless and rejected any who could not increase the nation’s worldly status.

Are we, as Christians, able to stand up to the same scrutiny that God gave to the Jewish nation? How are we using our great privilege? Are we carrying God’s message of love and redemption to the people who need it most?

Yes, we send missionaries to all parts of the world to share the gospel, but are we doing anything for the people nearest us who also need to be touched by the grace of God?

Mark Buchanan, author of “Messy, Costly, Dirty Ministry” describes an evening that changed his perspective.
“The Tuesday night prayer meeting at Brooklyn Tabernacle felt like skydiving into a tornado, exhausting and exhilarating all at once. I'd read about the meeting in Pastor Jim Cymbala's book Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, but nothing prepared me for the event itself: 3,500 God-hungry people storming heaven for two hours.
“Afterward, my friend and I went out to dinner with the Cymbalas. In the course of the meal, Jim turned to me and said, ‘Mark, do you know what the number one sin of the church in America is?’ I wasn't sure, and the question was rhetorical anyhow. ‘It's not the plague of internet pornography that is consuming our men. It's not that the divorce rate in the church is roughly the same as society at large.’
“Jim named two or three other candidates for the worst sin, all of which he dismissed. ‘The number one sin of the church in America,’ he said, ‘is that its pastors and leaders are not on their knees crying out to God, “Bring us the drug-addicted, bring us the prostitutes, bring us the destitute, bring us the gang leaders, bring us those with AIDS, bring us the people nobody else wants, whom only you can heal, and let us love them in your name until they are whole.”’
“I had no response. I was undone. He had laid me bare, found me out, and exposed my fraudulence. I was the chief of sinners. I had never prayed, not once, for God to bring such people to my church. So I went home and repented. I stopped sinning. I began to cry out for ‘those nobody wants.’”[1]
When we see the bullies of the world, whether they are individuals or nations, we cry out for justice. But we have to remember that God’s justice cuts both ways. We who have been privileged to be called His children, have a huge responsibility to bring God’s love to as many people as possible. How many of us have prayed that our church will be filled with the unchurched?
“Then he told his servants, ‘We have a wedding banquet all prepared but no guests. The ones I invited weren’t up to it. Go out into the busiest intersections in town and invite anyone you find to the banquet.’ The servants went out on the streets and rounded up everyone they laid eyes on, good and bad, regardless. And so the banquet was on—every place filled.” Matthew 22:8-10

[1] Mark Buchanan, "Messy, Costly, Dirty Ministry," (5-15-09)

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Waiting for the Big One

The truth is, almost every single one of us knows that we need to change at least one specific behavior because it is harmful. Maybe it’s smoking, drinking, over-eating, or maybe it’s not exercising. Whatever the behavior is, we know, usually without any doubt, where that behavior will lead, and yet, we continue along our current path.

It’s not because we don’t know the consequences, right? Can any of us say that we don’t know where smoking will probably lead? Since the ‘60s we have been hearing that smoking causes cancer. Yet people continue to pick up their first cigarettes and begin smoking every single day. No amount of warning, it seems, will stop them.

Someone donated to my stash of teaching supplies this week, some empty cigarette packages from Mexico. Of each individual package, at least two thirds of the outside of the package is covered with warnings about the health risks of smoking, including horrifying photographs of cancerous lesions in someone’s mouth on one and a premature and underweight baby on another.

The packages are empty, though. Someone picked up one of those packages however many times it took to smoke every cigarette in the box, probably looked at the picture, absent-mindedly read the statistics listed on the side and lit another cigarette.

Smoking is kind of the easiest to pick on, but certainly not the only habit that leads to serious health problems. I know of several of my own behaviors that are equally dangerous, that I have not managed to quit. Knowledge alone does not change behavior.

Author David Brooks summarizes this concept nicely.
“Both reason and will are obviously important in making moral decisions and exercising self-control. But neither of these character models has proven very effective. You can tell people not to eat the French fry. You can give pamphlets about the risks of obesity. You can deliver sermons urging them to exercise self-control and not eat the fry. And in their nonhungry state, most people will vow not to eat it. But when their hungry self arises, their well-intentioned self fades, and they eat the French fry. Most diets fail because the conscious forces of reason and will are simply not powerful enough to consistently subdue unconscious urges.
“The evidence suggests reason and will are like muscles, and not particularly powerful muscles. In some cases and in the right circumstances, they can resist temptation and control the impulses. But in many cases they are too weak to impose self-discipline by themselves. In many cases self-delusion takes control.”[1]
What needs to happen before we will change our behavior? What if the smoker thought he had cancer? What if the over-eater was told he was about to cross into diabetes? What if the impaired/distracted driver has a close call? Well, sometimes those close calls will help the person change the behavior, and sometimes not.

So imagine how much more difficult it is for God to entice us to repent of our sinful behaviors? The consequences are infinitely worse, and yet somehow not as immediate as cancer or diabetes or an automobile accident.

In the book of Joel, we can read about how God used a plague of locusts to remind His people (past and present) that we need to make our decision to follow Him soon. God has Joel tell people of the terrible time that is coming and how they can survive that time. Then He sends the Holy Spirit to lead them into readiness.

Why do you think it is that we often need some kind of major catastrophe to remind us of our need for God in our lives? The Bible tells us over and over again that having a relationship with Jesus Christ is our only hope to spend eternity with Him and yet, we let that priority slide into the background – we quit listening for the still, small voice.

But then, our God is so gracious, He will send the Holy Spirit to nudge us back toward Jesus again. He often uses something that is happening in this sinful world to catch our attention: terrorists, hurricanes, shootings, earthquakes, and any other natural or man-made disaster.

Whatever He uses, He’s reminding us that a time is coming when our decision needs to be made, one way or the other, and that we need to be ready for that time.

So, why isn’t everybody ready right now? Well, I believe that Satan wants us to think that we’re not so bad, that we have plenty of time to make our decision, and that we are able to get ourselves ready. And with Satan’s lies humming happily in our ears, we don’t hear the call of the Holy Spirit telling us it’s almost too late.

Ellen White calls those delusions an “imaginary religion.”
“The tremendous issues of eternity demand of us something besides an imaginary religion, a religion of words and forms, where truth is kept in the outer court. God calls for a revival and a reformation. The words of the Bible, and the Bible alone, should be heard from the pulpit. But the Bible has been robbed of its power, and the result is seen in a lowering of the tone of spiritual life. In many sermons of today there is not that divine manifestation which awakens the conscience and brings life to the soul. The hearers cannot say, ‘Did not our heart burn within us, while He talked with us by the way, and while He opened to us the Scriptures?’ Luke 24:32. There are many who are crying out for the living God, longing for the divine presence. Let the word of God speak to the heart. Let those who have heard only tradition and human theories and maxims, hear the voice of Him who can renew the soul unto eternal life.” (Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 626.)
In the book of Joel, God is pleading with us to repent and come back to Him now so we will be ready when He comes to take us home.
 “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls.” Joel 2:28-32
Am I waiting for the next major catastrophe or health crisis to change my behavior and find God? Or am I listening for the still small Voice? What do I need to change in my life so that I can hear that Voice? I want Him to make me ready, don’t you?

[1] David Brooks, The Social Animal (Random House, 2011), pp. 126-128

Monday, April 8, 2013

Prodigal and Prostitute

“Forgiving the unforgivable is hard. So was the cross: hard words, hard wood, hard nails.”
William S. Stoddard
“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Romans 5:8
You probably remember a man named Ted Kaczynski – the Unabomber. He’s the man who used to send mail bombs to people he didn’t like. He’s been in jail now for many years, but this week I read something I hadn’t known before.

After Kaczynski was put in prison, his mother, Wanda was interviewed by someone associated with the Chicago Tribune. She told the reporter that she wrote letters to her son, Ted, every month. She shared her most recent letter at that time with the reporter.
"I want you to know, Ted, that when a child is born, the parents give them the gift of unconditional love for a lifetime. This is true of you. No matter what happens, my love for you will be there for a lifetime. Love, Mother."
It must have been heartbreaking for her to write those letters because Ted had testified during his trial that she was a horrible person. In fact, he refused to even look at her as she sat in the courtroom. In spite of that, Wanda Kaczynski, wrote a letter to him every month telling him that she loved him.  That story reminds me of a couple of other stories.

One of the stories is in the book of Hosea, God tells Hosea to marry a prostitute. God gives people of Israel a living object lesson that demonstrates how they are treating God. They repeatedly wander away from God, spiritually, to worship the idols and false gods of the people who live around them. But, like Hosea, God is not only willing to forgive and take His people back over and over again, He’s willing to go and find them and lead them back to their true beliefs over and over again.

Can you imagine how difficulty that must have been for Hosea as he watched the woman he’d married destroying herself – not just once or twice either?

Have you ever know someone who repeatedly hurt themselves? Yes, most of us know someone who smokes or doesn’t exercise or overeats and those are self-destructive behaviors. But I’m talking about something more immediate.

Several of the folks I work with have a problem with picking at or pulling on their skin until they’ve made actual sores that hurt and bleed and potentially could become infected. One man has bitten his hands so many times that he wears braces to protect him from himself. One woman wears gloves all the time because without them she will pick at the skin around her fingernails until every finger is bleeding and sore. Even though these individuals know the pain that will come from their behavior, they continue to do it.

As staff, we often look at these individuals, shake our heads and ask, “Why don’t they just quit doing that? It must hurt. Why don’t they stop?” And then we clean, disinfect and bandage … and try to keep them from hurting themselves again.

When we read the Old Testament, we ask ourselves the same questions about the Israelites. “Why did they keep moving away from God and breaking His rules? Couldn’t they see that they were just going to end up being taken captive again?”

And yet, we very rarely ask those questions about our own behavior. “Why do I keep picking TV over reading my Bible? Why don’t I spend more time with God? Don’t I know that I’m damaging my relationship with God?”

Sin is self-destructive behavior that tears up our hearts and our spirits and separates us from God. But it doesn’t just hurt us. It hurts God, too. Even before we feel the pain of guilt and remorse, our behavior has broken God’s heart.

The other story I thought of was the parable that Jesus told about the prodigal son. Where Hosea chose someone who was already living a self-destructive lifestyle and, as an example of God’s redemption, loved her in spite of her behavior; in the story of the prodigal son, he was at least aware of his father’s love for him whether he chose to accept it or not.
 “… He did not know that the best place in the world is home; for the home atmosphere had become disagreeable to him, because he could not be as independent as he desired. Any place looked better to him than home. Evil companions helped to plunge him deeper and deeper into sin, and a false excitement was kept up, and he imagined that he was happy in being free from all restraint. He had no one now to say: ‘Do not do that; for you will do injury to yourself. Do this, because it is right.’ But when his means failed, and he was obliged to take time to consider, he found himself without the bare necessities of life; and, to make his situation more trying, a famine had come upon the land.
“Starvation stared him in the face, and he joined himself to a citizen of the place. He was sent to do the most menial of work,—to feed the swine. Although this to a Jew was the most disreputable of callings, yet he was willing to do anything, so great was his need. Miserable and suffering, he sat in the fields doing his task. Because he had been unwilling to submit to the restraint of home, he now had the place of the lowest of servants. He had left home for liberty, but his liberty had been turned into the lowest of drudgery. (E.G. White, Signs of the Times, January 29, 1894)
When the prodigal son finally decides he’s had enough and makes up his mind to go home, his father is there waiting for him and welcomes him back even though the son probably still smells like pigs. The father doesn’t care – his son has come home.

The question is, does God love anyone of us any less if we don’t come back to Him? The Israelites, as a nation, ultimately and finally rejected God…did He quit loving them?

In the final verses of Hosea, we read the promises of God through Hosea that confirm His love for not only the Jews, but all of humanity…no matter what.
I will be like the dew to Israel; He shall grow like the lily, And lengthen his roots like Lebanon. His branches shall spread; His beauty shall be like an olive tree, And his fragrance like Lebanon. Those who dwell under his shadow shall return; They shall be revived like grain, And grow like a vine. Their scent shall be like the wine of Lebanon.  “Ephraim shall say, ‘What have I to do anymore with idols?’ I have heard and observed him. I am like a green cypress tree; Your fruit is found in Me.
“Who is wise? Let him understand these things. Who is prudent? Let him know them. For the ways of the Lord are right; The righteous walk in them, But transgressors stumble in them.” Hosea 14:5-9 
“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.”
Romans 8:35-39