December 31, 2007

Gazing into His face

In his fascinating book, Scattered Minds, Gabor Maté tells of experiments that show how important eye contact with their mother is to the developing brains of small children. He says that when mom and babe are gazing at each other, the baby becomes very excited and at times must look away. After a moment of relief from this overjoyed state during such intense eye contact, the baby then can look back into mother’s eyes.

This is a common phenomenon that is easily observed. However, there is more to it. In this situation, if the mother looks away first, the baby becomes troubled and enters a state of distress. Maté goes on to illustrate that when this attachment to mother is constantly hindered, the baby’s right frontal brain lobe does not develop as it should. The result is attention deficit disorders or ADD. He adds that those who experience brain injuries in that same lobe will exhibit symptoms like those of ADD.

I’ve written about this before, but today while reading the Psalms, I noticed again some verses that mention eye-contact. One in particular seems to connect the missing of this attachment on that mother-baby level to experiencing it with God.

In Psalm 27:10, David says, “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take care of me.

I used to think this verse applied to abused or abandoned children and often showed it to those in such situations. I’d not applied it to myself because my parents had not ever forsaken their care and support for me. However, after reading Maté’s book and seeing myself described on almost every page, I also realized that I could not remember ever experiencing eye contact with my mother. I’m not sure why. Perhaps she had problems unknown to me, or had ADD herself. I’ve no resentment about it. Mom loved me and sacrificed herself for me, but for some reason, this connection was missing.

Before verse 10, the psalmist says to God, “My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, I will seek. Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger; You have been my helper. Do not reject me or forsake me, O God my Savior.

The psalmist knew the value of intimate connection to God. Again in Psalm 143:7 he says, “Answer me speedily, O Lord; my spirit fails! Do not hide Your face from me, lest I be like those who go down into the pit.” Perhaps he also missed this connection with his parents and therefore wrote Psalm 27:10 for those of us who feel that same sense of loss.

Yesterday, a dear friend talked about missing this in her own life. She described it as that mothering she didn’t have, that face-to-face link that eludes us. I mentioned verse 10, yet as my friend says, we want that connection to “have skin on,” to be from someone visible.

Later I thought how each promise God makes can take time to realize or experience, so much so that His solution can seem incomplete, ethereal, not concrete enough in this world that we experience with our five senses. Yet as I read Psalm 27, this promise of verse 10 stands.

Today, on this last day of 2007 as I’m prone to reflect on all that has happened in the past 365 days, I am deeply aware that God has made this a reality for me. Somehow, in the last few months, He has made looking into His face enough. That empty space is filled and I am so grateful that I can hardly express it.

Certainly He allows me to look away, for like a babe, I cannot bear the delight of that continual gaze. However, if I look away to sin, like the psalmist I find that He hides His face, at least for a moment, and I am deeply troubled. Yet like the psalmist also, when I seek His face He hears and responds to my cries.

In great mercy, God has clarified to me, finally, that His face is enough. Jesus—God with skin on—is sufficient. My inner ache is gone and I simply praise Him for His grace and goodness in giving me this as a grand finale for another year in His care.

December 30, 2007

Celebrating God

Author Allen P. Ross ends a chapter in Recalling the Hope of Glory about seasonal celebrations in the Old Testament with this: “When worship becomes a celebration in every sense of the word, then people might actually be glad when it is time to go to the house of the Lord.”

I don’t know what this man’s experience has been, but it sounds like he knows far too many Christians who consider church attendance a duty, and not a happy one. He is correct in saying that Christian worship has lost much by abandoning the development of special celebrations that remind us of our heritage, yet I can only examine my own heart in this matter. Even though some seem less than joyful, I’ve no idea what goes on in the hearts of those in the pew next to me.

Since this year is almost over, I’m already reflecting on my own pattern of worship. On the negative end, I remember some days when I could hardly wait for church to be over. My class may have been a source of joy and my heart was filled with praise, but something happened to me on the way from the classroom to the sanctuary. It may have been the enemy trying to destroy my happy response to the work the Lord was doing that morning, yet I must take responsibility for letting that happen.

Most of the time, particularly after starting to read this great book on worship, I’ve been glad in the house of the Lord. The church worship service has been exactly that for me, so when I read Psalm 27:4-6, I can wholeheartedly say Amen!
“One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek Him in his temple. For in the day of trouble He will keep me safe in His dwelling; He will hide me in the shelter of His tabernacle and set me high upon a rock. Then my head will be exalted above the enemies who surround me; at His tabernacle will I sacrifice with shouts of joy; I will sing and make music to the Lord.”
Using Ross’ phrase, how does worship become a celebration? According to those who write about such things, both words describe exercises or habits called spiritual disciplines, things that Christians are supposed to do. These disciplines do not make us more spiritual or more godly, but I call them “places of grace” for in the doing, I am put into a place where God can bless me and change my life.

For instance, reading Scripture every day puts me in a place where I can hear God speak. Prayer is the same. Repentance opens my heart for change, and confession clarifies that my mind is in tune with His. As for worship, the Bible says that God inhabits the praises of His people and when I praise God, He almost always gives me a deeper sense of His presence.

Yet worship is sometimes a sacrifice. In other words, I have to give up something in order to worship God. This is usually my unworthy and self-centered thoughts, but if I don’t worship and adore Him, there is nothing to celebrate. Oh, in a worldly sense there might be. I could celebrate the completion of a quilt or a special person’s birthday or the sale of something written, but the spiritual discipline of celebration is about having a party because of the greatness of God.

I agree with Ross in that Christians don’t often have such parties. We rejoice in new babies, marriages, happy events in people’s lives, and so we should, but I cannot think of one time where I’ve attended a special celebration (other than our weekly worship service) that was focused only on the wonder and glory of our Lord.

We’ve been invited to a neighborhood party on New Year’s Eve. It will be far from that celebration I’ve just described. The neighbors don’t know the wonder and glory of God. They may celebrate the good things of the past year, even their hopes for next year, but without realizing that all of those good things came from the hand of God who “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

My heart is unsure about attending this party. They know we are ‘different’ and that we go to church. Some know more, that our faith is not merely about church attendance. None of them know the deep desire in my heart to celebrate God most of the time, not just at the end of the year. This might be an opportunity to express that, but God could ask that we simply say no to their party and celebrate instead with only Him.

December 29, 2007

“Soft Hearts”

Twice a month we join with other couples in praying for our adult children. Our group is called “Soft Hearts.” Some of these young adults on our long prayer list profess to know Christ, but most are not walking with Him. We have been praying for many years without seeing huge results.

Discouragement doesn’t come as easily as it used to, probably because God is refining our motives as we pray. We’ve learned much about ourselves and about prayer. We know that we cannot tell God what to do, and we realize that we approach Him on the basis of who He is and what Christ has done, not for any other reason.

This morning I read about the Lord and two angels dropping by Abraham’s tent for a visit (Genesis 18). While they talked, they decided to let Abraham in on what they were going to do. Because “the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grave” these cities and the people in them were about to be destroyed. But Abraham’s nephew, Lot lived in Sodom.

Abraham began to speak to the Lord about this impeding judgment. He used words like, “Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked” and “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” and “I who am but dust and ashes have taken it upon myself to speak to the Lord” and “Let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. . . .”

Abraham had no assumptions that God should do whatever he asked. His approach was tentative and deeply respectful. Nevertheless, he did intercede for Lot.

Later, “It came to pass, when God destroyed the cities of the plain, that God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when He overthrew the cities in which Lot had dwelt” (Genesis 19:29).

This verse encourages me. I’m not sure about the spiritual state of some of these young adults for whom we intercede, but God hears our prayers and He is able to rescue them from the judgment to come. (This is that eternal judgment that everyone deserves, and the only escape is faith in Jesus Christ, the kind of faith that results in obedience!)

This verse also reminds me of one in James 5. It says, “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” The context is healing and the necessity of confessing our sins before we ask God for anything. Righteous people are those with an open connection to God that is unclouded by unforgiven sin.

Lest I fear this means I must be super-spiritual, the next verses say, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit.

Elijah was not ordinary in some ways, but he was a human being like me. His story reveals that he had fears, doubts, and times of despair when he felt as if God was not listening. That happens to me and the others in “Soft Hearts.” Yet in obedience, Elijah prayed energetically and passionately. He trusted God even when God was silent. We want to be like Elijah and trust God as we pray, no matter what happens.

Abraham and Elijah both saw the answers to their prayers. We who pray for our children would like that, but we realize we could depart for glory before God produces visible results in the lives of our children. Ten years ago the idea of not seeing answers was a horrible thought, but after praying daily for this group of young men and women, we are more content. It is now easier to say that no matter what God does (or does not) do, and no matter when, He is the Judge of all the earth and He will do what is right.

December 28, 2007

Seasonal Festivals

When I was about six, I was struck down with an illness that put me in the hospital for months. After recovery, this bug came back a second time and two of my three doctors gave up, supposing that I would die. They put me in the last room at the end of the hallway, a single room with no view of other people across the way or anyone walking past on their way elsewhere.

As a result, and perhaps because of natural temperament, I like being by myself and do my best work alone. While I don’t mind having people around, and enjoy working with others, I am seldom lonely.

However, I’ve learned that it’s impossible to maintain my spiritual life in a vacuum. If I practice the personal spiritual disciplines of Bible reading, prayer, confession, even praise, I’ll be okay for a little while, but something inside me starts to wither unless I am involved in corporate worship. I need the Body of Christ. Like a finger or toe cut from my physical body, I cannot maintain a robust spiritual health without other Christians.

This day I’m reading about the seasonal festivals practiced by God’s people in the Old Testament. They were occasions to praise the LORD for His provision in their lives and to remember all He had done for them throughout their history. These festivals pointed ahead to God’s plan of redemption fulfilled in the promised Messiah, and then to that final gathering of the righteous at the end of the age. On all these occasions, the people celebrated together.

In the spring, they celebrated their deliverance from bondage in Egypt with Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, then the Feast of Firstfruits. In these celebrations, they remembered the meal of unleavened bread after they escaped, and the blood sprinkled on their doorways so the angel of death would pass over their homes. They also rejoiced over the bounty of God, thanking Him for the first harvest in spring, and anticipating the harvest to come. These were dramatic rituals, rich in meaning and glorious, particularly when the nation had a revival and were turning back to God in faith and repentance.

Today Christians celebrate our deliverance from the bondage of sin in Holy Communion, an ordinance established by Jesus Christ which He also connected to Passover. Together we eat unleavened bread to remind us of His Body broken for us, and together drink wine or red juice to remind us of His blood spilled at the cross to cover our sin.

This celebration also reminds us that we must come with clean hearts, our sins confessed. 1 Corinthians 5:7-8 says, “. . . For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

The Firstfruits part of the celebration is fulfilled also in Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:20 says, “But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

Jesus rose from the dead, but there is a greater harvest to come in the final resurrection. Verses 21-23 say, “For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming.

We celebrate this reality both at Communion and Easter Sunday, but today my focus is on that word, communion. This cannot happen in a solitary fashion. I could commune with the Lord by myself, yet the pronouns of the Bible are seldom singular. Almost every command and instruction, including these about celebrating what the Lord has done, are plural.

For those who are outgoing and more gregarious than I, likely this is a given. For me, it is another spiritual discipline. Yet it does not carry with it the connotations ‘discipline’ suggests. My natural being may like being alone, but when it comes to praising God and remembering what He has done, there is no celebration like rejoicing with others over what the Lord has done, is doing, and has promised to do.

December 27, 2007

He is the Lord of my life

On Christmas day our family chatted about the hassles of renovations after I complained about the week hardwood was installed in our bedroom. They told me about a family whose house was upside-down for weeks due to contractor delays and other problems. This family had to set up home in the basement without normal conveniences, and live that way for a long time.

My family chided me for complaining. While I could have used the “I’m ADD” excuse, I realized I better be quiet. After pondering this, I can see that a scattered mind is not my only reason for the extreme stress I felt for my week of renovations. I have a spiritual problem.

As my family talked, I wondered if those people enjoyed their ‘camping out in the basement’ experience. Some would. Life is simpler when the basics are all that is available and all that is on their to-do list. Life is more fun too when lived much like a pilot who flies ‘by the seat of his pants.’ That is, everything is an adventure and planning rarely happens.

After that conversation, I began to realize that I like order and planning because I want to be in control. I want to know what is happening next and have my check list handy so that I am prepared for it. Surprises are okay, but not too many. Also, if my space has to be messy, I can handle it, as long as I don’t try to carry on as normal with everything else. That is, I don’t take a gourmet recipe book, or my laptop, or my sewing machine on a camping trip.

This might make sense to only a few people, but my habit has been to make notes (using a program called “Life Balance”) that remind me of everything I need to do, or want to do. Lately though, these lists have felt more like pressure than helpful reminders. I started to simplify them, but as I was doing that, I sensed the Lord talking to me about His control, His right to rule my life. When was I going to let Him guide me in all things?

Proverbs 3:5-6 says, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.

From this verse and the conversation with my family, I can see that I have been leaning on my own understanding. That is, in many daily activities I decide what needs to be done—as if the God of the universe doesn’t know—and I also decide when it should be done and how to do it. But this verse says to trust Him in “all your ways” not just in the preparation of Bible study material, or when tackling something that is difficult, or when I feel needy—but in everything on my to-do list, and even about those things that should be put on that list.

In a few days we will leave our home in the care of a family member and go on holidays for a couple of weeks. I stewed about having no control over our home and even wanted to leave it empty. God spoke to those emotions with 2 Timothy 1:7, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.

As soon as I confessed my sinful fear, it was gone, totally. Only God can do that, and the freedom of no longer worrying about this issue has amazed and delighted me. It is making me rethink this whole to-do list, planning and control thing.

God is using life’s experiences to show me that I am trying to avoid the fear of having no control over what happens by trying to control what happens. In other words, I am not trusting Him with all my heart. I am leaning on my own understanding. I am not acknowledging Him in all my ways, and I am, at least in some areas of my life, missing the delight of being directed by the great and powerful God who knows everything.

Even Proverbs 16:9 puts my so-called ‘control’ in perspective. It says, “A man’s heart plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps.

I might think I am controlling things, but when God has other ideas, He can turn my plans any way He wants them. That being said (and understood, and believed), it seems far more logical to cooperate with Him in the first place. It is also far more humbling. I’ve assumed that I am in charge of my life, but must admit that I really don’t have any control.

Instead, I must honor God and confess my fears, but also confess that I’ve not been totally yielded to Him nor taken His role as Lord of my life as seriously as He does.

December 26, 2007

Reasons for Worship

Worship is sometimes defined as a spontaneous response from the heart to the Person and work of our Lord and God. That begs the question of why then schedule ‘worship’ services? How can a clock work with the idea of spontaneous?

I know people who refuse to attend ‘worship’ services or church because they claim they don’t get much out of it. This is sad, but it also demonstrates that we live in a me-generation that has forgotten or perhaps never realized that worship is not about me, nor is it even about how I feel. Maybe this is where that definition came from; it is based on how I feel.

A better definition for worship might substitute the word ‘obedient’ or ‘loving’ because if responding to God depends on spontaneity, then worship will simply not happen on those days when I feel blue, discouraged or upset because of some negative situation.

God knows we have those days. One of His provisions is a schedule for corporate worship where His people gather together to praise and honor Him. This is a dominant feature in the Old Testament that carries over into the New Testament. Christians are encouraged to meet with one another often.

The author of Recalling the Hope of Glory lists six benefits of scheduled worship. As I read his words, I’m helped by rewriting them according to my own experience. Therefore, I submit to and rejoice in scheduled times of worship for the following reasons . . .

First, it helps me bring all of life under God. Daily worship brings the day to Him. Weekly worship brings the week, and so on. Having a quiet time with Jesus, and going to church on Sunday remind me of His sovereignty in my life.

Second, believers worshiping with other believers preserves our heritage. We are reminded of God’s dealings with us and with those who have gone before. We retell the history of God’s people and are encouraged by His faithfulness to past generations. We remember all He has done for us and anticipate what He will continue to do as He keeps His promises.

Third, corporate worship each week makes Christians different from the rest of the world. Even though the world’s ways push and shove us in an effort to press us into its mold and blur all distinctions, we can resist Sunday shopping and things like Sunday morning sports as we maintain that weekly worship and celebrate all that God has done for us.

Forth, scheduling worship gives me opportunity to fulfil my duties toward the Lord and the church. For one thing, God calls me to tithe and share what He gives me. If I didn’t go to church, this would not happen. I’m also supposed to encourage other Christians, and if I didn’t see them, I could not obey. Hebrews 10:25 says it clearly, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Fifth, getting together with others each week (or more often) fosters unity. God gave us a oneness in His Son and through His Spirit, yet we need to cultivate that through common activities of worship. Being together brings us closer together. Scheduled worship brings relationships in our church family closer than would otherwise happen.

Last, when we get together, we can offer praise and worship that is greater and more glorious than I could ever offer on my own. While individual prayer and praise are important to my spiritual life, corporate worship rejuvenates my spirit and encourages me in a fuller, more lasting manner. God knew what He was doing when He had the church set aside the first day of the week to celebrate His power and grace toward us. As we rejoice together, each one is blessed in special ways.

I’ve also noticed this: some Sundays I leave the house for church and have little or no sense of worship in my heart. I feel dry and tired, even me-focused. Yet as we drive into the church parking lot, park and enter the sanctuary, the presence of the Lord begins His work on me. I become filled with joy and responsive to Him because I am more aware of His presence. Then worship becomes spontaneous as my heart overflows in praise for His goodness toward me. I know this would not happen if I stayed home or went shopping, so I am glad for God’s provision of regular, scheduled worship.

Perhaps a seventh reason is that when we get together like this each week, we are reminded of that day when we will be gathered together forever in His presence. There our worship will be completely unhindered, and I’ve a strong sense that we will not need a schedule.

December 25, 2007

God’s calendar

During our church “candles and carols” celebration last night, the pastor said, “This is a holy night because God put this date on His calendar a very long time ago.”

We know that Jesus may not have been born on a December night. It really doesn’t matter what day it was. What matters is the wonderful plan and purpose of God in bringing His Son into the world. Peter wrote about it like this: “He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you who through Him believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

I am in awe that the birth of the Christ child was in the mind of God before He made the world and all that is in it. He knew long before He made us that we would need Him. He planned the perfect solution that we might put our faith in Him and have eternal life.

Our sin and need for Him were not a surprise. In fact, Ephesians 1:4 says, “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him.

God not only planned Christ’s coming, but also planned the solution for sin—that I be His child, that I be holy and blameless before Him. As we give and receive gifts today, He reminds me that He gave this most incredible of all gifts.

To all who receive Him, to all who give back to Him their lives, may your Christmas be filled with awe over His great love and mercy. May you rejoice that long before He did anything else, Almighty God put Jesus birth—and our new birth—on His calendar.

Merry Christmas!

December 24, 2007

Who can be a priest?

Each denomination has terminology to designate their leaders. Included in this list are bishops, overseers, elders, pastors, ministers, priests, deacons and shepherds. While the New Testament pattern for the church does include leaders responsible for various duties, it also says that everyone who believes belongs to a priesthood.

This is found in 1 Peter 2:9. “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.

This designation of a royal priesthood is rooted in Exodus 19:3-6 where God told Moses, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.

The entire nation was supposed to serve God and the people of the world as priests. They were hit and miss, for the most part, so when Christ came, He created a new body of people who are to do the same thing. As I read through the list of duties or responsibilities for Old Testament priests in Recalling the Hope of Glory, I am asking myself if we are failing as Israel did, or if the church has taken seriously this vital role. I’m also using this as a checklist for myself.

Priestly duties are outlined in several places. Deuteronomy 33:9-10 says, “For they have observed Your word and kept Your covenant. They shall teach Jacob Your judgments, and Israel Your law. They shall put incense before You, and a whole burnt sacrifice on Your altar.

The first requirement was to practice what they preached. God’s wrath often fell on priests who abused their office. As a member of the New Testament “royal priesthood” I’m obviously to do the same. Those trapped in sin will not listen to me if my life is as messed up as theirs. How can I tell someone else to trust and obey God if I’m not doing it?

Priests are also supposed to instruct the people in godly living and holy service. Malachi 2:7 says, “For the lips of a priest should keep knowledge, and people should seek the law from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.

The New Testament says, “For whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:13-14)

People do not like being “preached” at, yet this is a legitimate term for anyone who is proclaiming what the Bible says. Verse 17 says, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” Without hearing it spoken, reading it, being exposed to it, the likelihood of anyone having saving faith is diminished. Preaching is a necessity, and priests are supposed to preach.

I’m a woman who understands the reasons for and am content with several New Testament gender restrictions. I am able to teach the Word of God to children and other women, and share it with anyone. That challenge is enough for me. I realize that as a member of a “royal priesthood” I can fulfill my role within those confines and have no ambition for the public preaching and leadership of a church. I’m happy to leave that responsibility with the men—I’m already too busy!

Another duty of priests is making intercessory prayer. A few weeks ago as I went to prayer, I was complaining in my mind about the time it took to pray, and that I wanted to get my work done. At that moment, the Holy Spirit spoke loud and clear, “This is your work.” Someday He will show me the results of my labor.

The Old Testament priests were also to provide access to God by keeping the fire going on the altar for the daily sacrifices. Through those offerings, the people were able to approach God at any time because their sins were covered. When Christ died for sin, this ritual became unnecessary, however, today’s priests are responsible for making known and explain what the Bible teaches about approaching and worshiping God through Jesus. Back then, the blood brought home the seriousness of sin and the necessity for a substitute that died for that sin. The death of Christ is the final fulfilment of that requirement, but because His blood is not shed before our eyes, we seem to easily forget the importance of what He has done for us. As priests we need to remind one another often—and keep that fire going.

This is part of the last duty listed for priests; we are to guard and care for holy things, protecting the sanctuary from misuse or defilement. Today, the church and each believer are the “temples of the Holy Spirit” and as priests, we are to give that same care to one another. The holiness of each believer is part of my responsibility to God as His priest.

In my church I have a teaching role involving a class of women, but that is a small part of what I am called to do. As I reread this list, it strikes me that no Christian should ever complain that they don’t have a part or a role to play in the church, nor should they back off and refuse to get involved. This business of being a “royal priesthood” has enough responsibility to keep anyone busy, and is so vital to the spiritual health and well-being of the Body of Christ that we need everyone actively on the job.

The book I’m reading suggests that church leaders often hand over responsibility for worship to those who can play a musical instrument without ensuring that they also are qualified in other areas of priestly responsibilities. I’m glad that qualification for belonging to the “royal priesthood” does not depend on seminary training, or any other human mandate. Instead, anyone who has faith in Christ and is obedient to Him can be, and is already, a priest.

December 23, 2007

Proper attire for pastors

During ‘show and tell’ at a recent gathering of quilters, one woman displayed a shawl (not sure if that is the proper term) that she made for her brother who is a priest. In that denomination, church leaders wear distinctive clothing that sets them apart, at least in appearance, from the rest of the congregation.

I’ve been to churches where the pastor (or pastors) dressed up or dressed down. One young church leader in California wore loose garments and sandals. With sun-bleached hair, he looked like he spent significant time on a surfboard as well as leading his flock. I’ve seen others in elaborate robes and head-coverings.

In our church, the pastor dresses much like most of the people in the congregation. Some approve while others wish he would always wear a suit and tie. I’m sure suits and ties are cultural and certainly didn’t exist when the Bible was written, but wonder if there is good reason for church leaders to be distinctively dressed.

The book, Recalling the Hope of Glory traces worship practices from ancient times and connects them to the New Testament, making application for today. On this matter of what worship leaders should wear, author Allen P. Ross says, “The priests were clothed with beautifully prepared robes because they were to give dignity, honor, and beauty to the priesthood, which was to communicate the glory of the LORD.” He then points readers to Leviticus 8:7-8 and Exodus 28:2.
“Then Moses brought Aaron and his sons and washed them with water. And he put the tunic on him, girded him with the sash, clothed him with the robe, and put the ephod on him; and he girded him with the intricately woven band of the ephod, and with it tied the ephod on him. Then he put the breastplate on him, and he put the Urim and the Thummim in the breastplate. And he put the turban on his head. Also on the turban, on its front, he put the golden plate, the holy crown, as the Lord had commanded Moses” . . . “And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty.”
While there is nothing in the New Testament that tells church leaders to wear robes like those Old Testament priests, the imagery of clothing remains. However, this imagery is used for all Christians of whom God says are His priests. Each one of us represents others to God and God to others, so what we ‘put on’ applies to every believer.

Because we represent the Lord, we are to be properly ‘clothed’ as Romans 13:14 says, “Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” This is another way of saying we must let Jesus Christ rule our lives, not sin.

We are also to ‘wear’ good qualities and deeds. Colossians 3:12 says, “As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

When we reach heaven, there will be a great gathering of all believers, the ‘bride’ of Christ, and in that gathering, or marriage of the Lamb, the bride or the church will be ready and properly ‘clothed’ as Revelation 19:7-8 says. “And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.

From these verses it seems clear that what a pastor (or any other Christian) wears on his back is not nearly so important as his character. Anyone who majors on robes or suits and ties without the spiritual garb of a believing heart, a godly life, and the fullness of the Spirit has missed the point.

However, I remember something from my own experience in highschool. If I dressed up, I felt more like working, but if I was sloppy with my attire, it affected my attitude, even my posture in my desk. Does that hold true for everyone? It shouldn’t, but I suspect it might. Yet, a worship leader should be reverent and focused on God no matter what he or she is wearing.

Maybe the issue is not the leader. Maybe those who want robes or other distinctives in the clothing of their leaders are like I was in highschool. Without realizing it, they project this to their pastor and think he should ‘dress’ accordingly. They might admit that clothes don’t make the man, but they strongly feel that clothes affect his attitudes. It certainly seems to affect theirs.

In contrast, some are disgusted with robes and finery on worship leaders. They point out that these people are believers just the same as the rest of us, so why make themselves stand out?

I’m guessing on all of this, but the next time the topic comes up, this morning’s study makes me feel a bit more informed, and a lot less inclined to brush off those who have a problem with what someone wears (or does not wear) when worshiping the Lord. Instead, this could be the jumping off point of a great conversation.

December 22, 2007

Bypassing Death’s Door

In the biblical account of life before the great flood, people lived a long time, even hundreds of years. It had not rained up until this time and the earth was watered by a canopy of mist which would have also filtered the ultraviolet rays of the sun. This is one explanation for long life (and large reptiles, for even today they never stop growing as long as they are alive).

Yet with those advantages, people still died. Genesis 5 lists the family of Adam. After each person’s name and how long they lived, it says “and he died.

Except for one. Genesis 5:23-24 says, “So all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. And Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.

Reading this, I imagine God snatching Enoch from the earth much like He took Elijah (2 Kings 2). Hebrews 11:5 gives the explanation. “By faith Enoch was taken away so that he did not see death, ‘and was not found, because God had taken him’; for before he was taken he had this testimony, that he pleased God.

Going into eternity without dying is not a normal event. Aside from these two, the Bible says, “And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment . . . ” (Hebrews 9:27). Almost everyone knows death is inevitable, and most fear it. When my husband is asked how he is managing with CLL, he often replies that we are all terminal, and many don’t like to hear him say it.

In thinking about these two who were taken to heaven alive, I wonder at God’s rationale. He does not do anything without a purpose so why take these men alive? Or why take anyone alive? What is He trying to tell us?

Christians do not agree on the interpretation of a passage in the New Testament that talks about the last days and the return of Christ. While we do agree that He is coming back (He said so, and that’s good enough for me), the actual sequence of events is unclear. The passage in question is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
“But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.”
By this I understand that God used Enoch and Elijah to prefigure those believers who are alive when Jesus returns, showing us that some will be taken to Him without experiencing death. The Bible does not say how many will be in that number, nor does it say whether we will go from the clouds to heaven or will join Jesus there and then come back with Him as He comes to judge the earth.

For me, it is not worth a theological battle, mostly because we don’t have enough information to satisfy any of the various views on this. What we do have, apart from these verses from 1 Thessalonians, is the record of two, only two, who were taken up without dying.

Is that enough to convince me that God can do it? Of course. Did He have to give a couple of examples just to reassure me that what He had Paul write in 1 Thessalonians is doable? Maybe. Some need more evidence than others, and I don’t know if I need it or not. I do know that there will be a generation of Christians who will not see death, and of course it would be wonderful to be in that generation.

If that is not for me, Hebrews 9:28 covers all I need anyway. After saying “As it is appointed for men to die once, and after this the judgment,” He promises, “so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation.

When Jesus comes back, it will not be as a sin-bearer. Instead He will come to complete the salvation of those who wait for Him. Right now, I know forgiveness from the guilt of sin. I also experience freedom from its power, at least some of the time. However, when He comes back and takes me into eternity, I will be redeemed from even the presence of sin and be safe forever in His presence—and thankfully that is totally true, no matter if I get to bypass death, or I have to go through its doorway.

December 21, 2007

Holy or Folly?

The Bible says that those who follow Christ can expect to be misunderstood, criticized, ridiculed and persecuted. Our dedication to God does not make sense to those who don’t know Him, and those who live a holy life are an irritation and conviction to those who would rather not.

According to Jesus, this kind of antagonism is an honor. It says that we are living as He did, and we share the opposition He faced. He even said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10).

However, there is another type of response to Christians that is often called persecution, but it is not for righteousness’ sake. Rather it happens when Christians act foolishly, call their behavior ‘obedience to God’ and wind up being mocked.

As a writer and editor, I’ve experienced Christians who submit material that they say is “inspired by God” and cannot be altered in any way, yet the manuscript is full of spelling mistakes. Even if God gave them the idea and motivated their words, He is not known for errors, never mind easily corrected typos and grammar mistakes.

Another one is the immoral behavior of some Christian leaders. Although they rarely attribute their sinfulness to ‘obedience’, they dare not claim they are being persecuted when the press makes their story a headline. Godly people are not supposed to do such things, and any reaction to their folly is not about opposition to Christ but opposition to their sin.

This morning I watched a news item about a group of Christians who have taken part of a verse from Isaiah and applied it to their part of United States. The section they quote is 35:8, “A highway shall be there, and a road, and it shall be called the Highway of Holiness. . . .

While reading this verse, a pastor noted that it is verse 35 and that interstate highway 35 passes through their town. Immediately she decided that this verse was about their highway and started a campaign. Organized prayer groups meet along that highway and pray for those who travel it.

Praying for travelers is a good idea, even praying alongside a highway might be a good idea, but basing action on a poor exegesis of Scripture is pure foolishness. It reminded me of the man who opened his Bible every day for “instruction from God” and simply pointed his finger to the page, intending to follow the verse he touched. One day his finger landed on, “Judas went out and hung himself.” He thought that couldn’t be what God wanted, so he tried again. The next hit told him, “Go thou and do likewise.”

Pulling Scripture out of context is probable the biggest error made while attempting to interpret the Bible. Cults have been formed, churches split, families ruined, lives led astray from doing this, even in sincerity.

Another error is taking something written several hundred years ago and interpreting it as if God wrote it about twenty-first century America. While we need to apply its principles, and know that all of Scripture was written for our instruction, we must also remember that the Bible had an initial readership. To properly interpret and apply it, a person needs to figure out what God intended for those who first read it before we can do either.

A third way Scripture gets twisted is trying to apply it without first figuring out what it actually says. The words, the order of the words, their meaning in the original language, all play a part in interpretation. For instance, the word ‘highway’ in Hebrew is simply “a main direct road” while in North America, this word designates a specific kind of road, certainly not one that people travel by walking.

Had these rules been followed, the highway prayer group might have read the rest of that verse. It says that “the unclean shall not pass over it, but it shall be for others. Whoever walks the road, although a fool, shall not go astray.

The contest shows that this passage is about those redeemed from sin and who walk in holiness, returning to Zion (the city of God) with joy and singing. This road is first a metaphor for living a Holy life and walking with God.

Another fact that makes the interstate highway 35 interpretation downright foolish is that the chapter and verse designations were not in the original Scripture text. While who did it is not clear, it is known that they were not there before 1200 AD. Thinking God had this highway in mind based on the number of that verse is poor scholarship.

They could have thought that God was using Scripture out of context to remind them of their duty and motivate them to get at it. They might claim that He was putting praying for travelers on their hearts, but they were not following through, hence He allowed this exegesis, but that is shaky reasoning. God constantly warns Bible readers to be careful that Scripture is not added to or twisted. ‘Good sermon, wrong text’ is not an excuse for shoddy workmanship.

What do others think while watching these zealous people pray for a highway and its travelers? That’s hard to say, but the announcer pulled out a Bible and said that if they are going to use this verse, they should also read Isaiah 40:3. He then read it: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”

The inference was so strong in my mind that I can’t even remember if the announcer said it or not, but this verse is repeated in the New Testament in reference to the ministry of John the Baptist. He was the voice crying in the wilderness, preparing the people for the coming of Jesus Christ. John told them to get their lives straightened out by repenting of their sins in anticipation of the Savior who would change their lives.

These verses in Isaiah are more about how to get on and walk that way of Holiness that can be found only through faith in Jesus Christ. Isaiah 35:8 or 40:3 say nothing about automobiles, big trucks and motorcycles. They speak about us “fools” who follow Jesus and should not be led astray.

My take on this whole thing is that we should not invite mockery by allowing incorrect interpretations to put us on the morning news.

December 20, 2007

Offerings are not about just money

If a person chose to live by the laws in the Old Testament, they would soon find themselves needing to make heavy financial decisions. Until I read a summary on tithing and sacrificial giving, I had no idea that God’s law requires far more than the standard 10 percent tithe.

First the Israelites were required to give 10 or 2 percent to the priests. Then the standard tithe of 10 percent was paid to the Levites. A second tithe of 10 percent was expected at the three annual festivals in Jerusalem. In the third and sixth years of the seven-year cycle, a third tithe or poor tax, was due. This adds up to about 22-30 percent of income in some years.

There is more. Every seven years they were not supposed to plant the fields. That meant one-seventh of their income was forfeited. The same happened in the Year of Jubilee (every forty-nine years) when all debts also had to be canceled, all land returned to its original owner, and all slaves set free. This was also costly.

Add to this the cost of animal sacrifices made at least three times a year, more if necessary. Also, if a person defrauded someone else, they had to restore the amount plus give 20 percent to the sanctuary. Besides this, add vows and freewill offerings, another expectation.

Farmers were also to leave grain in the corners of the fields for the poor, and everyone was expected to take care of widows and orphans, help the poor, and be generous to foreigners. For instance, Deuteronomy 15:11 says, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.

In this socioeconomic system, the entire nation supported the Levites, so these rules of tithes and offerings cannot be transferred to the church which exists in a different economic system. Yet these laws reveal the will and heart of God. He expects generosity and a light hand on our possessions.

Not only that, the New Testament sets a higher standard. In other words, all of my time, talents and material goods belong to the Lord. He gave them to me and can take them back if He wishes. I simply have them on loan and am expected to be a good manager. Doing that means that I must listen to what He wants, be totally dedicated to Him, use all that I have for His glory, and be willing to yield to Him anything that He asks of me. As I said, all of it is His anyway.

What does this boil down to for everyday life? After thirty some years of following Christ, He is finally getting it through my head that I need to discuss my every move, every decision with Him. This includes all the details of each day, where I go, what I do, the money I spend (or not) what I eat (or not!), who I call, what I say. I’m supposed to be totally in tune with Him and His will for me, every minute of every day.

I’m not saying that I am doing it as I should. This is a tall order and I’ve said before that God is good at tall orders. However, I’ve had a taste. I’ve had days where this happened for at least part of the day. I’ve known the blessing of it, and the freedom. Instead of being tossed about with decision making, there is great freedom in listening to the Lord and following His leading.

Some might think that God doesn’t care if I brush my teeth now or make the bed, and maybe the sequence or the doing of some things is not vital, yet He knows what needs to be done and what is arbitrary. He knows the paths I will cross, the times He will ask greater things of me, and that my mind and heart need to be in “obedience” mode. If I listen for the little things, I will hear Him for the bigger things. Further, if I am willing to obey in those little things, I will be more apt to obey when He breaks my routine with a much larger request.

This isn’t about my money only, or about any other rules; it is about trust. Faith in my own self means I will run my own life, go my own way (which is the essence of sin, see Isaiah 53:6) and march to my own drum. Faith in the Lord means I will yield and obey His call on my life, walk in His way, and following the leading of His Spirit. I may not always understand why He leads in certain ways in the small things, but I do know that if I can do that, I’m far more apt to say Yes when something bigger comes along.

December 19, 2007

Offerings, His and Ours

Some might think that the descriptions of Israel’s sacrifices are boring, or old stuff that has nothing to do with now. As I read my Bible along with Recalling the Hope of Glory, my heart is thrilled at how much these rituals are relevant to worship, not only then but for me today.

Leviticus describes the major offerings. The first one required was the purification or sin offering. This was required for sins committed and involved a dramatic ritual with blood and fire. The blood represented the life that had been forfeited because of sin and points forward to the ultimate sacrifice of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. The fire demonstrated that God accepted the offering. This offering was brought with confession of sin and in genuine repentance as preparation for worship. Otherwise, sinners could not approach God.

However, sometimes the sins confessed were of such a nature that things had to be made right before the sin offering could be made. In other words, if the worshiper had harmed another or defrauded God in some way, they must make a trespass or reparation offering. This showed the need for reconciliation between sinners and those sinned against. Jesus said, “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

While some sins cannot be made right, I am to do my best. Neglecting this can hinder worship, never mind what it does to my relationships with other people.

Besides offerings for removing the guilt of sin, there was an important atoning sacrifice called the burnt offering. This one was completely burnt on the altar and signified that the worshiper had totally yielded their life to God, and God accepted them.

These three offerings were given by God to provide a way for worshipers to have and maintain a right relationship with Him. They signified that He removed the barriers of sin and guilt to those who genuinely repented of their sin and came to Him seeking mercy. This also involved faith that God would someday provide a Messiah who would give them total redemption.

In the church today, these sacrifices are fulfilled by the offering of Jesus Christ on our behalf. His shed blood has been accepted by God as our full atoning sacrifice. We are set apart or sanctified at salvation, and are continually set apart and sanctified because of His blood.

Of course no one earns or deserves His incredible mercy. In gratitude, Israel wanted to give something back—to repay God—but this is impossible. So God provided another offering, the dedication or grain offering. It involves food, not blood, and is called the “memorial” meaning “to remember.” This offering was the worshipers way of saying that all he has and does and is belongs to God.

In the New Testament, it is reflected by Paul’s call to Christians, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1) and other verses that speak of wholehearted commitment to Jesus Christ.

The fifth offering is the one that blessed me this morning. It is called the peace offering and was given not to make peace with God but celebrated because those who truly worship Him already have that peace. It is a communion with God, not to establish or renew it but simply to enjoy it. It is sitting down with God for a meal.

Some tried to do this without repentance and the other things involved in a true relationship with their God. They had sin that was not covered by blood, therefore, eating this offering was also a sin, and it resulted in being “cut off” from His people, even by death.

In the New Testament, this ritual is paralleled by Holy Communion. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul gives instruction that believers do this properly. The regulations are almost identical to those involving the peace offering.
“For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes. Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep (a biblical euphemism for death). For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.”
The peace offering was a sacrificial meal shared between God and His people. Anyone could participate as long as they had a right relationship with Him because that is what this meal signifies. Those who partake must first experience His forgiveness and redeeming power, but also be keeping short accounts, confessing their sin, making things right with others, and be wholly dedicated to Him. Otherwise participation is a sham and a mockery of all God has done.

Further, as Paul said, those who tried to participate in this wonderful and special meal would face judgment and possibly death.

Yesterday a few people described their struggles with the woes of this world and their inability to cope with life. I sit here in silence, overwhelmed at the grace of God. Yes, I’ve had my share of struggles and certainly know that inability to cope with any of it, yet at the same time, with God in the middle of everything, the cares and concerns of this life seem like nothing.

Paul said, “We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body . . . . Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (1 Corinthians 4).

During my own difficulties, God keeps giving me a vision of the eternal. In time and back then, His people celebrated with a peace offering. Today I can celebrate in Holy Communion, but there is more. Jesus said of that ritual, “For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.

This is what overwhelms me. He makes life rich, but someday, because of His great grace, I will be totally free of not only the penalty and power of sin, but also its presence. When that great day comes, we will sit down together, me and Jesus, at the marriage supper of the Lamb and celebrate all He has done as we eat together in eternity!

December 18, 2007

Confession comes first

When my children were small, I told them that the most important verse in the Bible is 1 John 1:9. I know without any doubt that verse is true, but I also know that if I do not do what it says, any fruitfulness or effectiveness in my Christian life grinds to a halt.

The verse says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

This simple concept was true even in the Old Testament. Whenever confession was made, God forgave the sinner who confessed. The ritual or purification offering was a sacrifice for sin, but also a symbol that showed how forgiveness is based on the shedding of blood. At that time, it was the blood of an animal. Now it is through the blood of Jesus Christ.

In Recalling the Hope of Glory, the author explains that Old Testament confession without the ritual was incomplete, but the ritual without the confession was worthless. Even now, Christians know that we have no foundation to ask God to forgive us other than Jesus died for our sins. We also know that taking part in communion (to remember what He has done), will not remove our sins. Neither will baptism nor any other rite or ritual. God forgives when I confess. Period.

This is also true for those who do not know Christ, but the basis for forgiveness needs to be clear. It is not because we confess that God forgives; it is because Jesus died. His shed blood represents His life that was sacrificed because of our sin.

In the Old Testament rituals, that blood was put on the horns of the altar, horns representing power and in this case, the powerful intercession of the offering. Then the sacrifice was burned on the altar. Scripture clearly shows that this indicated that God accepted the offering. Then the priests carried the remains outside the sanctuary, assuring the sinner that all sin had been cleansed and removed.

The problem with this ritual is explained in Hebrews 10:1-4. It says:
“The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”
The next verse starts out, “Therefore, when Christ came into the world . . .” and the passage later adds that God “takes away the first that He may establish the second” so that by that “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

This raises a question. If the often-repeated Old Testament offerings stopped, and Jesus Christ ended that continual ritual, why then 1 John 1:9? Do I need to keep on confessing sin?

The Bible describes two kinds of confession. One is from the mouth of a sinner who confesses that his entire life is filled with sin. He wants God’s forgiveness and salvation from sin’s penalty. When he comes to God with that confession on his lips, God forgives and cleanses him, making him a child of God who has eternal life, knowing that Christ paid his penalty for sin.

The other confession, the kind described in 1 John, is for Christians who have sinned and long to escape sin’s power. When I disobey God, I do not lose my relationship with Christ or my salvation. Instead sin controls me. I’m no longer obeying God. Sin has put a barrier in my relationship with Him, a lid on the power of the Holy Spirit, and makes me unable to serve and worship Him. I’ve turned the wrong direction, submitted to the wrong master. When I confess what I have done, God restores me, turns me around, even removes that defilement from me.

What I most love about this verse is that it works. As I see and confess my sin, I experience the peace of God and the reality of having that sin washed away. Even if I repeat the sin (I am such a stubborn child), God repeats His work in me and the power of that sin becomes less and less. His forgiveness and cleansing set me free from sin’s tyranny.

However, sin has a way of demanding control in an effort to usurp Jesus Christ. The challenge in my life (and in the lives of all who name the name of Christ) is to kick sin into the back seat and eventually right out, but I cannot do that unless I give top priority to keeping short accounts with God through confession.

December 17, 2007

Two neighbors—two ideologies

Yesterday at a Christmas gathering I chatted with two neighbors who both claim to be Christians. One shared stories of the work she does in community projects and through her church. The other person is a new Christian who freely talked about the Lord’s leading in her life. Both of them belong to mainline denominations that have been around for centuries, but in many ways these churches seem to have slipped from their biblical roots.

As mostly a listener and observer, I soon became aware that one of them has a personal relationship with the Lord, while the other one seems to have no idea of what that means.

My first clue was the emphasis on good works. The believer did talk about things she was doing, but she easily gave credit to the Lord who was “leading” her or telling her what to do. However, this line of conversation annoyed the other one. She emphasized the goodness of her priest who told her what to do, and the goodness of people in general. At one point she said, “I’m amazed at how many genuinely good people are immigrating to this country.”

At the time, I didn’t hear the Holy Spirit telling me to challenge that statement, but later thought that if He had, my response might have been, “Oh, that is interesting; yet the Bible says there are not any good people.”

I’m remembering one point in Jesus’ ministry when a rich young man came to Him and called Him ‘good.’ Jesus responded with, “There is no one good but God.” He wasn’t denying His own deity, but challenging this person because it soon became obvious that he thought of himself as good, even to the point that he was doing all that God wanted and didn’t need a Savior.

The woman in my conversation didn’t say that about herself, but she did say it about others. She mentioned a large influx of people from a certain part of the world who do not worship God or know the Lord. The other woman said, “It’s great that they can come here. Who knows, maybe we can have an influence to convert them.”

The other woman said, “Oh, they are good people. They don’t need converting.”

Today I’m reading Romans 3, a sharp contradiction to this view that people are basically good. It is not a popular part of the Bible!
“There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
No one likes this verdict. I can apply it comfortably to the tyrants of this world, warmongers and killers and other obviously evil people, but God applies it to everyone, including the ‘good’ people I know. Even worse, this also applies to me.

Our problem is that God’s standards are impossibly high and the only solution seems to be that they must be lowered. Then we can call ourselves good and happily continue with life rather than let any annoying conviction of sin move us to despair.

The Bible indicates that in our hearts we know better. We know that we don’t measure up, and that plunks us squarely in front of two options. We can try to prove our own righteousness and earn His favor by keeping His law, or we can admit our need for forgiveness and mercy and ask Him to save us.

Romans 3 goes on, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

All who believe are sinners who fall short—the same as those who don’t believe—yet through faith God gives believers the righteousness of Christ. The Lawgiver on the throne becomes the Law-keeper in our hearts. Through Him, we can stand before God, our sins covered and our eternity secured.

One neighbor chose to humble herself before God and ask for His mercy. She spoke of His goodness to her. The other chose to prove she could please Him and spoke of her ‘do-good’ list, presumably offered to Him. Unfortunately, no matter how much good she does, she still falls short. It is not my judgment; the Bible clearly says so.

Yesterday I felt the temptation to get into a contest of who does the most and best good deeds. However, my Sunday morning class was about Christ’s temptations, so that one was easy to recognize and resist. The other believer didn’t fall into it either. We both listened and sadly noted the smugness, even the pompous superiority of the third woman, which included looks of disgust for the simplicity of our trust.

To an observer, we may have looked like churchgoers swapping stories. Had we got into a theological discussion about the way of salvation, we would have looked like ‘stupid Christians who can’t get along.’ For that situation and time, the first option, even though it isn’t exactly accurate, seemed better than pushing buttons.

I don’t know what God thought of our conversation, or if I could have made any difference yesterday, but I do know that He wants my prayers today for this one woman who does not know Him, and for the other who, because of His great mercy, enjoys just the opposite.

December 16, 2007

Let my little light shine...

Living in a northern city means that winter has days with very little light. It is still dark here at 8:00 a.m. and will be dark again before 5:00 p.m. When we lived in Alaska, the shortest days meant the sun came up at 9:30 and we were in the dark again at 3:30. Of course, summer is the opposite. In Alaska it was daylight for almost twenty-four hours, even if the sun dipped below the horizon for a few minutes. Here we have twilight and can easily see even after 11:00 p.m.

Light is a wonderful and powerful commodity. Focused, it can start fires or cut through metal. Filtered or diffused, it can make art out of ordinary objects. Everyone needs it, and the blind crave it. The older I get, the more lamps I want in my work area. Light is precious.

When God gave Moses instructions for the tabernacle or Place of Meeting, He included illumination. Dark desert nights were one thing, but this tent was covered with animal skins so it would be hard to see inside it, even in daylight.

God told Moses, “You shall also make a lampstand of pure gold; the lampstand shall be of hammered work. Its shaft, its branches, its bowls, its ornamental knobs, and flowers shall be of one piece. And six branches shall come out of its sides: three branches of the lampstand out of one side, and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side. . . .

This light was more than practical. It was formed like a tree, reminding them of the tree of life in the garden of Eden. It also spoke of God’s light. David wrote in Psalm 36:9: “For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light we see light.

The motif or symbolism of light fills both the Old and New Testament. In Isaiah 49:6, God uses it for the Messiah: “I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth” and in John 8:12, Jesus identifies Himself as that One: “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.

The Bible ends with a description of heaven’s glories and the new Jerusalem. Revelation 21:23 says, “The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light.

In the meantime, I’m supposed to reflect that light, the light of Christ who lives in me. Paul writes to the Philippians (and to me) saying, “Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain” (Philippians 2:14-16).

This is a tall order. Try living without complaining. Try never getting into a dispute. God gives tall orders, yet He says that living in this way makes me “blameless and harmless” in a world where most people are “crooked and perverse.” He also says it makes me shine like light.

Of course the opposite to light is darkness. In Scripture this is one description for the condition of those who do not know God or walk in the light of His truth. In Acts 26:18, God says to Paul that He is sending him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles “to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.

Other verses contrast light and darkness as two separate kingdoms. Colossians 1:13-14 says, “He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins.

Those without light cannot relate to those who have it, a big reason that makes this a tall order; we don’t live in the same place. However, another reason this is difficult is that should there be any darkness in me, anything that resists God and refuses the path of light He asks me to walk, then those in darkness will quickly spot it. Darkness is part of what they do know so my effectiveness to “shine like light” is diminished each time I grumble or get feisty. Worse yet, even though those sins belong to the way of darkness, those still in that kingdom will be quick to criticize or hold me accountable for my sin, and even blame me for their unwillingness to be drawn to the Light.

Darkness and their sin hold people away from God. Sadly, my sin can do it too. Yet darkness doesn’t have the power that light has. No matter how black a coal mine, or a photographer’s darkroom, or the inside of a tent, or any starless night may be, only one small candle can chase it away.

Making this practical is really simple—just quit complaining and shine.

December 15, 2007

Turning my back on the sun . . .

God spells out precise instructions to Moses for building the tabernacle in the wilderness. First the Bible describes how it is to be built, the repeats the same details as the tabernacle is under construction. For some, this is boring reading, yet Allen Ross’ book, Recalling the Hope of Glory, makes it fascinating.

One example is the position of the altar of burnt offering in relation to the directional orientation of the tabernacle. This structure was to be situated in such a way that the entrance faced the east. Right in front of the entrance was the Burnt Offering altar. No one could go inside or approach God without passing this, or without being reminded that coming near God was based on sacrifice. Each person’s sin required an atonement made through the shedding of blood.

God told Moses in Exodus 27:1-3, “You shall make an altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits wide—the altar shall be square—and its height shall be three cubits. You shall make its horns on its four corners; its horns shall be of one piece with it. And you shall overlay it with bronze. . . .

This altar was wood made fireproof with bronze, important because God also told Moses, “This is the law of the burnt offering: The burnt offering shall be on the hearth upon the altar all night until morning, and the fire of the altar shall be kept burning on it. . . . the priest shall burn wood on it every morning, and lay the burnt offering in order on it; and he shall burn on it the fat of the peace offerings. A fire shall always be burning on the altar; it shall never go out.

The priests were responsible to make sure an offering for sin was always burning on this altar, and that the sacrificial fire never went out. This was God’s way of reminding His people that even though access to Him required a sacrifice, this access was always available.

In the directions for the tabernacle, the Bible doesn’t spell out any significance in having the entrance facing east, but this significance can be inferred from a vision the prophet Ezekiel later had concerning Israel’s spiritual condition. This vision was in the temple, a permanent place of worship built in similar fashion to the mobile tabernacle or Tent of Meeting.

In this vision, Ezekiel saw idolatrous priests at the entrance to the temple. He describes it in 8:16: “So He brought me into the inner court of the Lord’s house; and there, at the door of the temple of the Lord, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men with their backs toward the temple of the Lord and their faces toward the east, and they were worshiping the sun toward the east.

A footnote in Ross’ book says that given the pervasiveness of sun worship, a practical reason for the eastern facing door is that worshipers must turn their back on the sun to approach the LORD in worship. Later in their history, as Ezekiel saw, their idolatry was depicted as just the opposite. They turned their back on God to face east.

This is practical for me. I cannot worship God without turning my back on everything else. Of course facing east or west is not the issue. I need to recognize the idols of this age and say ‘no’ to all of them, whether the sun is in my eyes or shining on my back.

However, I can think of many things that distract me from looking toward the Lord. The cares and deadlines of this life, mere daily duties, current projects and assignments, hobbies, even books and television have the power to turn me from that altar of sacrifice and the pure delight of fellowship with Him in that Most Holy Place. I know that when I approach Him now, through the sacrificial blood of His Son, I cannot at the same time have my eyes on the stuff of the world, my own ambitions, or anything else. He alone is worthy of all honor and glory.

My studio is on the east side of our home. Every morning when I meet with God, the windows are open to the rising sun. Just a simple physical turning from that bright glory of the sun could serve as a reminder of the greater glory of being in His presence!

December 14, 2007

The tabernacle fulfilled . . .

What I wrote yesterday shows how self-focused I am. I know that the entire Bible is a revelation of Jesus Christ, but I missed it. I didn’t realize how God used the tabernacle as part of His preparation for the full revelation of His Son. I was more interested in how I am also His dwelling place.

Today I’m reading Ross’ description in Recalling the Hope of Glory about the purpose of the tabernacle. He says it “was that the LORD might dwell among his people, thereby giving a reality to the truth of His presence with them.”

This means He wanted them to know He was near and approachable, but also that they could not jump into that Holy communion irreverently. The construction of this tent of meeting controlled their access to God. It had an outer court, a Holy Place, and a Most Holy Place. The Israelites could enter the first part, priests the second, but only the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place.

This tabernacle pictured our access to God through the Lord Jesus Christ. I see that in the original language of John 1:14. Most versions say something like, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” However, the word John used for “dwelt” means “tabernacled or pitched His tent.” Jesus came to make His home among us and give tangible reality to the truth of God’s presence with us.

John also wrote, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.

Jesus is the visible, touchable tabernacle, and as Ross says, “His flesh being like a tent that covered the glory inside.”

Jesus Himself said His body was a temple that would be destroyed. The book of Hebrews compares the temple curtain torn from top to bottom at His crucifixion to the very tearing apart of His body on the cross at that same moment. By this and because of this brokenness, we now have full and free access to God.

Hebrews 10:19-23 make it clear: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, His body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful.

Sometimes I wish I were Jewish. In Romans 9-11, Paul writes about his great burden for his fellow Jews. To them pertains “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises.” They have the rich heritage of an intimate knowledge of the tabernacle, and those who embrace Christ are able to declare with Paul “the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Romans 11:33) in far more meaningful ways than I can.

Yet I marvel how God reveals Himself in a myriad of ways. He, “who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets” also spoke through a tent made from ordinary things. He uses that tent to point to Jesus and as Hebrews 1:1-3 says, “has in these last days spoken to us by His Son.

Jesus has been “appointed heir of all things” and the One “through whom God also made the worlds.” He is “the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person.” He also “upholds all things by the word of His power” and “when He had by Himself purged our sins, (He) sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”

This truly is amazing, and directs my focus toward my Savior. Yet, I’m still awed and confounded by the fact that this same Jesus who is God in the flesh and who died to open the way to God, also chose to tabernacle or make His home in my heart.

December 13, 2007

His Tabernacle

After God’s people made it through the parted waters of the sea and were set free from their bondage in Egypt, God told them to make a tabernacle, a tent where He would meet with them. Even though God is everywhere and His presence cannot be limited to a place or a building, He chose to make Himself known at certain times and places, and this portable sanctuary was His choice at that time.

The instructions for the tabernacle cover more space in the Old Testament Scripture than anything else. The book I’m reading, Recalling the Hope of Glory, explains: “What exactly God showed Moses on the mountain is difficult to say. The book of Hebrews offers some help by addressing the relationship between the earthly tabernacle and the heavenly sanctuary. It identifies the heavenly counterpart as the ‘true tent’ that the Lord, not man, ‘pitched’ (8:2). It explains that the earthly sanctuary was a ‘shadow’ of heavenly things (8:5), the ‘greater’ tabernacle in heaven (9:11), and that the earthly things were ‘copies’ of the things in the heavens (9:23) and that the Israelite Holy Place was a figure ‘of the true one’ (9:24). Thus, there is a heavenly sanctuary of some nature that is behind the giving of the instructions for the earthly tabernacle in the wilderness” (pp. 18-189).

The instructions began with clear direction that this place of worship must be as God describes. He says, “Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you.”

Ross, the author of Recalling the Hope of Glory, is about to describe the symbolism of how this tent depicts the spiritual realities in heaven. I’m filled with excited anticipation at whatever might come next in this special book, however, my mind jumps to some verses in 1 Corinthians.
“Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).

“Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s”
(1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
The people of Corinth did not have the rich heritage of the Jews. They actually may not have known, or at least known the same way a Jewish believer would know, the fact that God living in them made them His Holy Place, His temple. Ignorant or not, their lives were in moral chaos and they needed to understand this truth. Because God lived in them, they were His sanctuary, His special place where He had chosen to make Himself known. They needed to conduct themselves accordingly.

I marvel at the beauty of God’s plan and how He made a ‘shadow’ to reflect His heavenly glory in a physical place on earth. I also must marvel that He chose to make those who believe in His Son another one of those places where He reflects His glory.

Even more amazing is how various details about the tabernacle bear a resemblance to the lives of those in whom He now dwells. In other words, this tent of meeting in the wilderness describes me too. It was covered in goats’ hair drapes, and ram and badger skins—and obviously wasn’t much to look at from the outside, but it had a beauty only seen by the priests who could enter. I marvel that my great High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ ignored the roughness of the coverings and decided to move in and make me His tabernacle. Because of Him, I am being changed from the inside out. I am confounded and deeply awed at this tremendous privilege.

I’m also aware of the responsibility. Nothing unclean or unholy was allowed in the tabernacle for this would defile it and ruin the image of God in the minds of those who worshiped in that place. It is the same for my life. God wants it clean, not just because onlookers might be confused about God if I ruin my temple, but because He wants nothing to come between us, Him and me.

God is using Ross’ book to bless me, to show me how great is the God that I worship. I’m only a third through and at this point my heart is bursting with the wonder and largeness of the Lord. While I feel much of the time like the ugly outer coverings of the tent of meeting, true worship is not about me. It is about recalling what God has done and glorifying Him.

December 12, 2007

When I get impatient . . .

Skeptics say that they only believe what they can see. They want a visible God. Christians sometimes fall into this too; if I’d lived during Bible times and seen all those miracles, believing in God would be easier.

This morning I’m reading Exodus 32. It begins, “Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, the people gathered together to Aaron, and said to him, ‘Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’”

These people had seen the plagues including deliverance from death through putting blood on their doorposts, deliverance from Pharaoh and his army by the parting of the sea, and more recently the fire of God’s presence on the mountain where Moses had gone to receive the Law. It was a time of great revelation, a time where not too long before they had fallen on their faces and swore allegiance to the LORD their God.

But as they waited for Moses, they became impatient or perhaps overcome by panic. Moses had been up on that mountain for what seemed like forever, and instead of trusting the Lord who had already led them this far, they wanted a god they could see.

Aaron went along with their request. He gathered their gold, which was supposed to be used for their tabernacle, and made them a calf. This image was a pagan religious symbol of virile power and by honoring it as their god, they fell into pagan idolatry and broke the first three commandments of the Law.

One of my commentaries says that whenever God’s people panic or become impatient, a slide into pagan practices can quickly follow. This is the way of our sinful human hearts. Instead of waiting for the Lord, we revert to what ‘everyone else’ is doing.

I’m thinking about the times that I panic or become impatient. What are the ‘pagan practices’ of today’s world? I suppose they include taking charge, forcing issues, getting even (if someone is being hurt), and all sorts of manipulations to assuage fears or to make things happen, to bring to pass whatever is desired.

The Bible tells me to wait on the Lord. If I am tired, He will renew my strength. If I am heavily burdened, He will share the yoke. If the trials are intended to perfect me, He will establish, strengthen and settle me in His time. He calls me to faithful endurance, trusting Him with my very life if need be.

As I think about all that God had done for His people in Exodus, I marvel at how quickly they fell. They could not wait a mere forty days to hear back from Moses before they reverted to idolatry. It seems so idiotic.

Then I think about myself and waiting. I know that patience is not just about spiritual things. It is a trait that shows up in every area of life, such as waiting in a checkout line this busy Christmas season. How patient am I? Am I pushy, or crabby? Do I try to hurry things, or at least make the clerks feel bad for not going faster? And what about the people who don’t know the Lord? How do they handle their impatience in long lineups, or on the freeway? Do I do the same things?

I also think about this idea of wanting a god that I can see. I may not build a golden calf, but how many times have I prayed and not seen or heard anything for forty minutes, or forty hours, or forty days? Some things I’ve prayed about are coming up forty years and my heart cries out, “I want to see You, Lord. I want to see You in action. Do something I can see.”

God wanted Aaron and the people to wait for Moses. Instead they forgot all about the past faithfulness of their God who had led them this far. They put their deliverance on Moses instead of glorifying the One who had delivered them, and when Moses didn’t show up as soon as they wanted him to appear, they made an idol they could put in front of themselves as their god. By being impatient and taking things into their own hands, they found out the hard way the folly of insisting on worshiping something they could see.

I need to be careful when I come before God. While I long to see Him, even see Him in action, if I insist on making it happen (‘it’ being whatever I want), then I’m apt to fall into the same error as the Israelites. Instead of trusting Almighty God who made and sovereignly rules the entire universe, I’ll wind up acting as if my god is only a calf made out of trinkets.