Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Filling the Empty Chair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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