November 30, 2007

I cannot pass the buck or fake it

Yesterday a woman talked about the irresponsibility so common in many people. She didn’t understand how someone who “wasn’t raised that way” could constantly blame-shift, even be blind to any personal responsibility for whatever was obviously her own doing.

I’m reading this morning in Genesis 4 and once again am taking back to the first sins committed after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. When He questioned him, Adam blamed Eve but also God when he said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” Even blamed “The serpent (who) deceived me.” Human irresponsibility began very early.

Adam and Eve were cast from the garden and no doubt learned important lessons from this harsh failure. However, the Bible teaches that sin passed from them to “all people” and it shows up in their sons.

Cain and Abel both knew to honor God by bringing Him a sacrifice. Verses 3-5a say:
“In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor.”
It’s been argued that the sacrifice Cain brought was not an animal and therefore unacceptable. However, this offering, called a “minkhāh” was later part of the Law and an offering of gratitude and dedication. It could be an animal or a basket of food, so this seems an unlikely reason for God’s displeasure with Cain’s offering.

Verses 5-7 continue and hint at a more plausible reason. They say:
“So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.’”
Cain’s reaction to God says a great deal about his heart. Instead of being God-focused and concerned that he did the right thing, Cain was pouting and took no responsibility for what he was doing. Yet, God saw into his heart and knew that no matter what he gave, Cain had a bad attitude. It wasn’t the offering that was at fault; it was the person. His heart was not in it.

A few weeks ago we heard a speaker at a lunch meeting related to my husband’s work. In the beginning his microphone was not what he’d asked for and it took a few minutes to get the right one and make it work properly. He then gave an excellent presentation. The next day he gave another one to the same group, but first he apologized. He said that his speech was correct but he wasn’t. He’d been angry about the microphone and asked the group to forgive him for having a bad attitude—an attitude that no one had discerned.

Even though I was incredible impressed with this man’s integrity, I’ve taught Sunday school that way, gave gifts that looked generous on the surface, smiled and been polite on the telephone, performed a host of so-called good deeds that seemed okay, but my heart was not in it. I may have been upset with something or someone, or just unthankful and out of sorts with God. Admitting it may have happened a few times, but that admission does not come easily. I’d far rather blame things like lack of sleep or others who annoy me.

Genesis 4 points out that I cannot get away with that particularly when I worship God. He looks at the heart, and any offering made to Him and for Him cannot be done with a superficial piousness. He sees right through it. He wants my heart to be fully engaged.

Jesus said that the greatest commandment is, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). If I am going to be a blessing to God and to others, I cannot fake it.

November 29, 2007

Called to be like Jesus

A couple days ago the Lord reminded me that when someone mistreats me, He is first interested in how I will respond. When I’m able to be like Jesus in those circumstances, He may then deal with my ‘enemy’—whenever and however—according to His plan for them.

I’ve learned that my attitude has a great deal of bearing on my responses to people who are harsh, insulting, mean or thoughtless toward me. If retaliation is the first thing that comes to mind, whatever I do is going to be inappropriate and cause more harm than good.

However, if I am trusting in the Lord “who judges righteously,” then my words and actions cause no harm. Sometimes God even uses them to change the situation.

I’m reading 1 Peter 3 which continues the theme from chapter two about having a submissive spirit. Most people don’t like that word submissive for it implies ‘doormat’ but the biblical definition is more like: ‘being free from the tyranny of always needing to have my own way.’ Selfishness is a tyrant and the only way to be free from it is in trusting the Lord to take care of me. When I do, He will.
Verses 8-12 make this a promise. God says,
“Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. For, ‘Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech. He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.’”
Obviously God gives profound attention to the lives of His children. If I slip into disharmony, or unkind and unloving actions and attitudes, He is going to deal with me. He wants me to be a blessing, regardless of how other people act or how they treat me.

However, when I obey Him, He affirms that I will “inherit a blessing” and suggests that keeping my mouth and heart from evil will result in “good days.” When I seek and pursue peace, He gives it to me. Further, He hears my prayers and acts on my behalf.

So how do I pray for my enemies? From these verses, I know that He is “against” them for any evil actions they take toward me, but I cannot retaliate or talk back. What is left? Jesus shows me. When His enemies nailed Him to the cross, He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Sometimes those who do evil seem to know exactly what they are doing, but maybe they don’t. Maybe they don’t realize they are pitting themselves against a child of Almighty God. Maybe they don’t know that if He decided, they would not draw another breath. Maybe they don’t know that every one of us lives by the grace of God, and apart from His kindness and mercy, we would perish.

Putting aside personal reasons for wanting someone to stop being a jerk is easier when I start to look at them as God does. He sees a rebellious and lost soul, a person in darkness without knowledge of Him or how much they matter to Him. He sees someone who really doesn’t know what they are doing, someone He can forgive because His Son died for every sin they commit.

This is the Gospel, the good news. When my mind stays on this wonder of wonders, I cannot begin to think of getting even or returning insult for insult. I’m a sinner too, and just as much in need of His grace and forgiveness.

Besides, God offers both to everyone—even if not everyone wants it, accepts His offer, or is changed by His power. He wants me to have that same gracious spirit, that attitude of longing for people to turn from their sin and embrace His mercy.

Being like Jesus doesn’t mean I should accept evil, but it does mean that I leave it up to Him to do something about it. If He does not change my enemies, the only thing left for me is to keep my own heart at peace, be free from sin and always ready to do whatever He asks of me.

November 28, 2007

Choosing the True God

The book I’m reading, “Recalling the Hope of Glory,” is describing the similarities and vast differences between ancient pagan worship practices and Israel’s worship rituals. At first I thought this would not have any practical value for me, but I’m beginning to see that it does.

Author Allen P. Ross points out that many scholars argue that Israel simply borrowed ideas for worship from their pagan neighbors, cleaned up the rituals, then tried to conceal what they did by claiming direct revelation from God.

Interesting theory, but as Ross says, after they began worshiping one God, every time the Israelites tried to borrow anything from the pagans around them they fell into idolatry and corruption. The greatest difference between their worship and that of the pagans is the concept of holiness.

Ross says (and I agree) that the similarities are more likely because both Jews and pagans had a common source. In other words, God reveals Himself to all, but what people do with that revelation makes the difference. Each event described in the Bible, from creation on, had a counterpart in the world of pagan rites and rituals, but in those events the Bible calls sin a departure from God’s will, whereas the pagans use sin as part of their rituals.

There are far more explanations and descriptions in the book, but for me, Romans 1:21-25 sum up what Ross is saying:
“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised.”
The Lord God makes Himself known through creation, through revelation recorded in His Word, and through His Son, Jesus Christ. My choice is to acknowledge and glorify Him, and be thankful. The other option is refusing His revelation which leads to futility and darkness, and even into the worship of other stuff. That eventually falls into degrading sexual impurity—so it is no surprise that the ancient pagan religions elevated sex in temple prostitution.

At the very least, failure to glorify God (by choosing to glorify me) and refusing to be thankful are warning signs. If either begin to happen to me, my spiritual life is in danger. I need to watch out that I do not slide into those things.

Beyond that, God has shown me who He is. I dare not turn away and begin inventing my own version. Those gods of the pagans were far more human than the God of the Bible. They sinned, fought with one another, did lewd things, and constantly changed in character. All of that is a reflection of the people who invented them. I could never have invented the God that I worship. He is holy and above all that I am. He does not tolerate sin, never mind commit it. I cannot suppose He is like me in any aspect.

In a conversation about God’s desire to deal with the sin in our lives, a young woman who claimed to be a Christian said to me, “Oh, my God is not like that.” She had invented her own God. Sadly, her decision to reject the true God resulted in her losing all moral control. Her husband left her, her young children found other people to live with, and she took up with one man after another, her life in shambles.

Learning about the pagans has a practical application: No one can make up their own god without consequences. Whether I like what I read or not, I must stick to what the Bible says about Him and rejoice and be thankful that He has revealed Himself to me.

November 27, 2007

But I don’t want to be first . . .

In a passage that tells servants to obey their masters, even those who treat them harshly, God answers a problem I’m having—two thousand years later.

While I don’t have a master, I often feel like a slave. This isn’t all the time—but this week my attitude shifted from that of a servant motivated by love who does good for others to a doormat motivated by ‘what about my rights’ who sees others taking advantage of me.

Whoa! I know that people think the difference between these two positions has more to do with the treatment of other people, not my attitude toward that treatment, but I am learning that is not so. The person that I serve has not changed one iota during the entire time. No matter what I do, she is behaving and thinking the same today as she always has.

Maybe that is the problem. I want change. I’ve hoped that my kindness toward her produces change. It isn’t happening.

Instead, God is again telling me to change. This is what I read this morning from 1 Peter 2:19-23:
“For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: ‘Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth’; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously.”
His words jump out at me, specifically these words: endures, patiently, do good, commit it to Him who judges righteously.

I feel like arguing with God, but that never gets me anywhere. He knows what is going on. He sees her heart and mine. He is quite capable of changing her to be more thankful, less thoughtless, more inclined to do something good in return. I know that, but I also know that He has His reasons for not changing her. Could it be that He wants to use her contrary spirit to take a whack at mine?

Jesus never fought back when people treated Him badly or unfairly. Instead, He did good things and trusted the results to His Father, even when those results were not very pleasant or even seemed terribly contrary to the will of God.

I’ve been through this ‘exam’ before, even with the same person. I know that it is not right to allow someone to sin against me. If I were being physically abused or something like that, genuine love for others would stop the other person from doing such a thing, not so much for my sake but for theirs. However, genuine love has to be free from all self-centered motives. God is concerned that I learn how to love that way, that I be like Jesus and be free from selfish reasons for what I do.

I’d like His priority to be that person. I’d like Him to ‘fix’ what seems to be extreme selfishness. She seems to take advantage of the good way she is treated, and I have started to resent her for it.

But God has another priority, at least for now. He is asking me to change my attitude, to ride it out, to go back to being patient, and just commit myself to Him. He knows. He will take care of that other person as soon as He is done taking care of me.

November 26, 2007

For the joy set before me . . .

A young mother in our church had a long first labor. Her baby, as small as it seems, was nearly nine pounds. She told me that giving birth was painful, but she would do it again. The joy of being a mother and of having this new life in her arms made the painful part a thing of the past.

I remember that same thing. When my children were born, the ouch of it was quickly replaced by delight. Pain, as soon as it is gone, is forgotten. I can remember that it hurt, but I cannot remember exactly what that hurt felt like.

The psalmist says, “We are fearfully and wonderfully made” and that is so true. God knew when He wired us that bringing pain back to our memories would not be a good thing. We have enough stress in our lives without that added to it.

I’m reading 1 Peter this morning and stopped at verses six and seven. Peter writes about the “living hope” we have “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” and about our “inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away” that is “reserved in heaven for you who are kept by the power of God through faith.” Peter affirms that one day I will see the full salvation God has promised me.

Then he says, “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

Yesterday, one of the women in my Bible class said how much we want to protect ourselves and our loved ones from suffering. The class reluctantly discussed suffering for a few minutes. We agreed that we learn through it, but no one likes it or wants it, or even wants to talk about the purposes God might have in allowing it.

Thoughts from that class come back to me as I read these verses. Peter says that I may have to suffer and experience trials. Not everyone does, at least not all the time, but God has a purpose; He can use them to test and refine my faith. How would anyone, God, me or others, know that I trust Him if my faith was never put to the test?

But I’m learning something else that is hinted at in these verses. One of my commentaries says that in Greek, the part about suffering grief is past tense, whereas “you greatly rejoice” is present tense. This is significant because the grief is current and the joy is future. What does he mean by using these verb tenses?

Then I’m remembering that whole thing about forgetting pain after having a baby. Because this joy Peter talks about is based on God’s promise of a full deliverance and salvation, he seems to suggest that the present trial or affliction that gives me grief now can seem like a thing of the past, but God doesn’t wait to remove the grief and give the joy after the trial is over—He gives a joy that is so intense that it makes the trial seem like it is over even while it is still happening.

At the first shock of any affliction I am grieved, but God says by anticipation in what is coming, I can rejoice even in my sorrow. I’m thinking of a present grief; my husband’s medical condition. He is experiencing problems from a heart-related medication. It is doing its job, but the side-effects of this prescription are damaging his immune system. This has a negative effect on his CLL, so he is now off that medication. What is next? We are not sure.

I’m anxious for him, yet at the same time both of us know that this life is not all there is. Some day we will be with Jesus—no more pain or suffering, nothing to be anxious about forever.

Those joyful thoughts run alongside the stressful concerns. I can’t say that I’m quite there yet as far as what Peter hints at. I’m not seeing current events as a thing of the past, but I am given a well of calm that bubbles up inside me, a deep joy that has no other explanation than God is its source. I can sob in sorrow and feel joy even as I do it, a strange combination that has no explanation other than God is doing exactly what Peter said He would, and for that I am grateful.

November 25, 2007

A converted Messie?

My sister once called me a “converted messie.” She was referring to a book she’d read about people who are naturally untidy opposed to people who find it easier to be neat. The book was for ‘messies’ who couldn’t seem to pull their act together, and in her mind I was the exception: a messie with self-discipline.

Years later I’m beginning to understand her assessment, but the term ‘messie’ isn’t my problem. I’m somewhat attention deficit, and because of it, I’m easily sidetracked, distracted, and prone to disorder.

All my life I’ve fought this mind-set, not realizing until lately what I was fighting. As a result, I’m highly organized in some areas, but not in others. My house is mostly tidy, but not my studio—the place where I write, read, work on the family tree, sew, quilt, do graphic art—and that is the short list. As my husband says, there is a lot happening in this room.

My time management suffers too. I used to make a schedule, stick to it, and woe to anyone or anything that interrupted me. Then God convicted me that I needed to be open to His leading, and that His leading might include interruptions. So my life became more freewheeling. The problem with that is I tend to go whatever way the wind blows, distracted from one task to another, going with what interests me rather than sticking to the more boring responsibilities.

To counter this, I began making lists again, prioritizing them and being ultra-determined to get things done whether I felt like it or not, but this hasn’t been working either.

A question comes to mind—why is it so important that I be organized? Only someone with ADD tendencies can relate to my answer. With a mind that goes every which direction without a great ability to focus, I find that if I can control my space and my schedule, then my mind settles down a bit. I seldom feel ‘normal’ which is a relief from ‘scattered’ but being organized helps.

In the past few weeks God has been nudging me about this, not so much the mess or how I manage my time, but that I need to let Him into this. He is saying that instead of making huge efforts to set things in order, I need to listen to Him and moment-by-moment do what He says. Oh, that is hard!

I read James 4:13-17 this morning. It says, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit’; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.’ But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.

The gist of this is that my planning runs the danger of being independent from God’s will. If I don’t pray about it and consider what I do in light of the leading of His Spirit, then I’m vainly presuming that I know how to run my own life.

According to Isaiah 53:6, this is the very essence of sin. It says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” It is having my own way in opposition to God’s way is the essence of sin and therefore making my own plans apart from His input is evil.

The hardest thing for any sinner, never mind one with ADD, is to focus continually on the Lord, seeking His input on everything. In my old self, I resist. I may want to, but my sin nature fights with the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t take much of that battle to get me confused and unsure of what to do next, so I just pick what interests me the most (a trait of ADD) and later wind up frustrated and angry with myself because the important things are neglected.

It makes perfect sense to let God govern my daily activities. He knows what is vital and what has no value. He knows when interruptions are important or just another distraction. He will help me say no to the temptation of the trivial and yes to His Spirit. James suggests that He will also help me know what is good and do it.

All of this may seem like nothing to most people. I know my daughter was not able to understand how I think so I gave her Scattered Minds by Gabor Maté, a book about ADD. After reading it she said she could not relate to anything it said, even though I found it so helpful—finally, someone else described the inside of my head!

Certainly the whole idea of listening to and obeying God is important. Some might have trouble because they are rebellious, or they are dull, or they don’t care, or they are proud and vain, or they just think God hasn’t a clue about their needs. I am not much of the above, yet struggle with trusting Him anyway. Sadly, it is usually because I get distracted and forget that He is willing and waiting to help me.

November 24, 2007

True vs. False Worship

The author of Recalling the Hope of Glory makes what seems at first an odd statement. He says, “. . . the people of God must be able to distinguish true worship from the worship of the world. And this is not always easy to do because so many of the religious acts in pagan religions seem similar to, if not identical with, biblical acts of worship.”

I guess I don’t know much about what the pagans do because this comparison surprises me. How can the activity of idol worshiping ceremonies be anything close to what I do as I worship God?

As I think about it though, I realize my view comes from the perspective of my own heart. I know what is going on inside of me. How about if I evaluate what I do from the perspective of someone who cannot see my motives? Someone who cannot perceive why these actions are part of my life? How would my zeal for Jesus Christ be measured by someone who measures the value of a person’s religion by their zeal and sincerity rather than by the object of their worship? Or how would my actions be measured by someone who evaluates religiosity by actions alone?

For instance, if a person gets up early in the morning to bow before an idol in a shrine, how is that different from me getting up in the morning to read the Bible and worship the God who wrote it? Isn’t the greatest difference in the object of our worship?

Romans 1:21-25 come to mind. “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

While not all idolatry falls into the sexual perversion described here, the principle is clear: God made us with the desire and capacity to worship and if I don’t worship Him, I will worship something else. Obviously, that something else will be something less.

Clearly, worship is not about method or actions; it is about the object of our worship. I could absolutely adore a small stone statue and trust it for good weather and the control of my life. Would the God of the universe call that true worship? I don’t think so!

I’m not sure where this book will go with this idea, but it takes my thoughts to a distinction that I have observed first-hand. There are denominations that would call themselves Christian who have deteriorated in the way described in this passage and described by the author of my book regarding pagan worship. These denominations have “abandoned the truth” even though they claim to serve the living and true God. They are serving their own ideas because their salvation is not based on what the Bible says—“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works lest anyone should boast.

Instead, theirs is a salvation based on their goodness, good deeds, acts of kindness, having a charitable attitude, and so on. Because these things are the results of believing in Jesus Christ, and the evidence of a changed life, onlookers could easily assume that there is no difference between those who worship by doing good and those who worship by realizing “that in me there is no good thing.” In fact, the do-gooders might look much more appealing than those whose lives belong to Jesus and are in the process of change.

Those who are being transformed tend to be transparent. God has a way of making the life of a true worshiper an open book with flaws exposed rather than hidden. We may even appear to the world as false because of that exposure, while those who major on their own goodness may appear to be true.

All of this dismays me. The reality of being misread and misunderstood is sad, yet it happened also to Jesus. People called Him names and even said He was “of the devil” because they could not see beyond their own ideas of what they expected in a Messiah. It is no wonder that those who follow Him suffer the same ridicule.

What can I do about this? My book says, “While there are a number of ways that worship will be a proclamation to the world, the most immediate and effective way is through the spoken word.”

God’s people include those gifted in speaking and conveying the truth. These must call the rest of us again and again to think about sin and about God—exactly as the Bible tells us to think. If the preacher in my church stopped talking about those unwelcome but basic and necessary aspects of true worship, repentance and confession, then it would be time to call him to do that very thing himself. If that didn’t work, then I would have to find another preacher whose heart is more concerned about true worship than being popular and looking good to those who think they are already good and don’t need a Savior.

But I am also responsible to make sure that I am worshiping God, nothing and no one else. I’m to “keep the faith” by diligent study so I know what God says, and by “rightly dividing the Word of truth” rather than twisting it to suit myself. Then I must obey it, whether others misunderstand me or not, for obedience is the test of true worship.

November 23, 2007

Guilty . . . again.

In my thinking I was never guilty of prejudice, at least not until after my mother and I went to Superstore. On the way home she said, “There were sure a lot of foreigners in that store.”

I’d not noticed that distinction, but my mom lived on a farm and scarcely ever saw anyone with colored skin. However, rather than adding to my claim that I was not prejudiced, I began thinking about it. Mom did have problems, not huge, but I could remember a few other things she said in years past and realized that I’d grown up with that “these people are foreign” example. In me, noticing skin color didn’t take, but something else in me needs fixing.

It popped out as I was reading James 2 this morning. The chapter begins with: “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

We went to a fancy dinner this week at a posh hotel. As we drove into the parkade, the man ahead of us displayed a parking pass that looked like the one we were given for this dinner. However, this man was in dirty jeans, a baggy sweatshirt, and had not combed his hair for a while. I said, “I hope he isn’t coming to our dinner.”

Usually when I see someone who is visibly destitute, my first thoughts are negative, such as, They must have made some bad choices, or It is their own fault that they are in that predicament. I’m instantly aware that I’ve no compassion and try to muster it, but it isn’t flowing out of me naturally. I could make excuses, say I’m not gifted with compassion, or at least I’m not putting them down verbally, or I’m not noticing the color of their skin, but excuses do not impress God.

As I read on in James, verses 14-17 rebuke me: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

This definition of what it means to trust the Lord means I need to dig deeper regarding my attitude and excuses. If faith will act when it sees poverty-stricken people, what is wrong with me? Could it be that I am afraid to do anything, afraid that my help won’t be enough, or appreciated, or that I don’t have what it takes? Or is it just stinky, old pride? Most likely. I have that “I’ve got it together (I hope)” attitude that looks down on those who by comparison make me feel good about myself. Regardless of my excuses, all of them are horrible and sinful.

Wishing someone well is a bit better than sticking my nose up, or looking the other way, but by God’s standards, both are evidence of dead faith. I can argue that my faith is real, that I do good things of a different sort and that proves that I trust Him, but I cannot argue with James’ example of what God looks for as proof. Faith is about all of life, not just the parts where trusting God is easier.

The Lord is my source; I can be generous and not worry that I will have enough. The Lord is merciful to me when I make stupid decisions; I can be merciful to others who do the same. In the Lord’s eyes, my sins are just as bad as the sins that land a person in poverty; I’ve no right to lift myself above anyone else. The Lord is sovereign; He controls who has prosperity and who does not.

All of this is logical, but I need more than logic—I need Him to forgive me, cleanse this foolishness from my heart, and produce in me a new way, His way, of thinking.

November 22, 2007

Fears . . .

I’m noticing more and more how many people live in fear over things that to me seem not worthy of the emotional energy spent.

For example, last night a neighbor told us of a middle-of-the-night phone call. It was definitely odd and seemed to be a threat to their son. However, no names were mentioned and my first thought was that this was a wrong number. The mother who answered the phone couldn’t sleep all night. She was wide-eyed and emotional even in retelling the story. She used the word “fear” over and over and felt helpless against this supposed threat.

Years ago I went to visit a relative who lived in a quiet neighborhood of a small city. It was after supper but by no means late. She was so anxious when I got to her door. “Aren’t you afraid to go out at night? You could be assaulted or robbed. There are so many dangerous people around.” Her fear baffled me.

I have another relative deeply involved in a religious cult (although he would not call it that) and who is terribly afraid of dying. His eyes and words say that he is not sure of what will happen to him after death, and even though he hates the injustices and wrongs of this life, he’d rather stay alive than face that great unknown beyond it.

This morning I’m reading again in Recalling the Hope of Glory. The author writes about pure worship that celebrates a covenant made with the sovereign God of history and the anticipation of His worshipers for the fulfillment of all His promises at the end of this age. I’m thinking that all of that will all be mine at the end of this life—wow!

My book reminds me that I worship the one true and living God and that He will gain ultimate victory over all spiritual and physical forces—another wow!

Then the book says, “This aspect of the faith clearly trumpets the temporary nature of false worship, which from antiquity has been so preoccupied with securing the recurring cycle of life that it has provided no solution to the greater problems of life. It provided no way out of the struggle of life and death or of good and evil, only a continuation of these endless problems in the next life.”

That makes me sad. I’ve called this blog “Practical Faith” for a reason. I’ve hundreds of reasons for following Jesus, and this whole fear thing is near the top of the list. While I still have fear now and then, the wonderful promises of God are doing something amazing to my fears. For one thing, I can hardly relate to those who are scared of everything from dark streets after supper to late night phone calls. Even as a new Christian, I knew that God protected me. I know that He surrounds me with armies of His angels and will never let anything happen to me unless it is part of His purpose for my life.

I’ve had moments of fearing death though. We are all ‘terminal’ and everyone has to grapple with that reality. According to the Bible, “we are appointed once to die and after that the judgment.

Some are more afraid of judgment than death itself, but I don’t fear judgment. Jesus’ death on the cross paid my penalty, so that is not an issue. He says that through His death “He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” I know that release.

But I also know that fear of dying and death drives the human race to spend billions of dollars on ways to stay young, look young, and avoid aging. When I am afraid of death, it could be my vanity; I don’t want to be old, infirm, unable to do things. Yet perhaps it is more the process of dying, not death itself, that sometimes makes me cringe.

But not always. Most of the time I celebrate the wonder of a God who makes all stages of life simply a delight. Up and down, easy and difficult; He is in all of it and brings comfort and joy to every part. Trusting in Jesus is highly practical; He chases away all those foolish fears and brings the reasonable ones into control by His power and presence.

As for those who don’t trust him, they are stuck with their lesser gods and their fears. Scripture defines these false religions in Scripture in many ways and some of the differences are easy to spot, others not. The main difference is in that quote from my book.

If a person’s religion offers them no hope, either in this life or the next, then they are not worshiping the great God of hope who offers grace, mercy and peace both here and now, and afterwards, forever.

November 21, 2007

No Hypocrisy

I’ve wondered at times how my “religion” appears to family members and friends who do not share my faith. Do they think I’m a religious nut, or a fanatic? I hope they don’t, and certainly hope they never think of me as a hypocrite.

Hypocrisy happens when my mouth and my life do not match. If I talk about honesty, I’d better be honest. If I talk about anything that I should do, I’d better be doing it.

Yea, but . . . doesn’t everyone want to look good? Make a good impression? Not everyone can see me in action, so isn’t it okay if I talk about it? Can’t I tell people that I know this and am an expert in that? Or that I’m doing this and that as I serve God?

My own questions make me think hard. Sometimes God does ask me to share what I know and what He has me do, but oddly it is at times when I would rather be quiet. In the realm of religion (and I think this word ‘religion’ simply refers to the externals, the way my faith appears to others), James 1:26 offers this: “If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless.

Paraphrase: If I think I have great external expression of my Christian faith, but cannot control the way I talk, then I am deceiving myself because without that control, all those external trappings have no value at all.

My husband often quotes someone who said something like, “Be quick to share the gospel with everyone, sometimes using words.” In other words, my life is to be an example of who Christ is and what He has done. If it doesn’t show without words, then my words are in vain. In fact they could do more damage than good.

These are harsh thoughts for someone who likes to talk and write. I love words. How can I express my faith without them, or at least in ways that even those without faith will see and understand? I know this is possible because Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

The next verse in James gives a partial answer: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.

God isn’t interested in my perfect church attendance, or that I teach a Bible class, or any other outward expression of my faith that might (or might not) impress anyone. He is interested in a heart that can be charitable toward those who cannot pay me back, and a heart that is not sucked into the world’s value system (whatever feels good, looks good, builds my ego, etc.). He wants me to be free from any desire to impress others, whether they have faith or not.

As I read these verses this morning, I am thinking how familiar they are, yet they jump out at me today. They are ‘rhema’ words, rhema being a Greek term for ‘a word for the moment’ or something said by God that has particular relevance for my life today. It is the term Jesus used when He said, “Man (including women) shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Today, I’m to live by this. I will be out running errands and tonight attending an awards dinner related to my husband’s work. God is clearly telling me that at no time I’m to be yakking about myself or what I think are my virtues. Just be loving, generous, and ready to help anyone, particularly those who cannot return the favor. Be totally free from selfish ambition or any desire to impress others.

In my curious mind, I’d like to know why today, why are You speaking about this, God? But He isn’t about to show me the significance of obedience. He simply asks that my heart is ready to do whatever He says and that my mouth is under control so I will not talk about it.

November 20, 2007

Praying in God’s will

Every year I read through the Bible, but this year I decided to skip the Old Testament and spend more time in the New. As I read, I’m amazed at how much they are connected. For those who say the Old Testament is passe or not necessary for Christians, I say they are simply unaware of the richness of God’s Word.

This morning I read two verses from Hebrews 13. The commentaries say this is “the most beautiful benediction in Scripture” and I agree. It is also a good outline to help me pray for others.

Verses 20-21 say, “Now may the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

Hebrews was written to believers from that group, people who knew their Old Testament and had believed and followed it according to tradition and what they knew. When Jesus Christ came, they believed in Him, yet some were in danger of falling back or being pulled back by Judaizers, a group that pushed to include Old Testament works as a requirement for salvation.

Obviously, this (as any other false teaching) caused confusion, discord and division. The author of Hebrews (likely Paul who uses this phrase in many of his other letters), begins this concluding prayer by saying God is the God of peace.

I think of another verse that says, “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace.” This verse, like the one in Hebrews, reminds me that discord is never from God. God will never prod me to be disobedient to my leaders (Hebrews 13:17) or alienated from other Christians. He unites His people, never divides us. Asking Him to produce this peace is a good prayer request.

The next phrase is about His power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead. All through this epistle (or letter), Christ is exalted as the final and perfect sacrifice. The old system pointed to Him as this New Testament book points out, but it also says that the blood of animals could never deal with their guilt. They had to make those sacrifices continually, until now. Now, Jesus did it once and for all. He died for all my sins, for all the sins of every person who ever lived. Then, proving that His sacrifice was accepted by God, He rose from the dead.

Jesus is also the great Shepherd of the sheep. The Hebrew readers who knew their Old Testament would recognize that this phrase applies to their LORD and God. The picture it puts in my mind is that of a flock of sheep who move in unison at the leading of their shepherd. Those who stray in confusion or bolt away in fear are gently but firmly restored to the safety of the flock and the sheepfold. Certainly this gives me a foundation as I am praying for other Christians. I can ask God to shepherd His people, and to reach out to those not yet in the fold.

Jesus is the perfect provision from God—a Shepherd who will bring us, His sheep, home to Him. He does it through His shed blood and the power of the Holy Spirit. It is not through anything I do or don’t do; salvation is all about Jesus Christ and that new covenant written in His blood.

When I pray, I need to remember that lest my prayers become human-centered. It is so easy to ask God that ______ will do this or that, but it is God who needs to work, to “make ____ complete.” When I pray with this in mind, I am honoring God who is the author and finisher of my faith and is the same for the faith of those on my prayer list.

The everlasting covenant reminds me that I am in this forever, and that God’s goals are eternal, not only for me but for all who belong to Him. I can pray that they are filled with that knowledge and that this assurance will give them hope and encouragement as they allow Him to work in their lives. I know that as God works in me to make me complete and to do His will, I can resist. Being changed to the image of Christ is sometimes horribly uncomfortable, even stressful. Others need prayer support and grace to persevere.

The words “through Jesus Christ” remind me that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” and that no one can come to God except through Him (John 14:6). I dare not pray anything that suggests God should act because _____ is a good person. He knows, and I know too, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We cannot do the will of God. It is God who works in us, changing the way we think and giving us the ability to please Him (Philippians 2:13). Again, my praying must reflect that.

The reason for all this is that Jesus Christ is glorified. That is the purpose of God as He works in me, and in His people. He changes us so we reflect Him, reflect His glory, showing the world what He is like that others may be drawn to Him.

My praying can become too temporal, too focused on the here and now. I pray for sick people to get well, or unemployed to find a job, or travelers to arrive safely. There is nothing wrong with that, but I’m convicted that my prayers need to include and be founded on the purposes of God. I can pray that the sick are drawn to Him in hope as they lie there, that the unemployed realize He is their source and able to care for them. I should pray that His will be done and that Jesus Christ is glorified in sickness or health, adversity and well-being, safety or calamity.

Why is this important? The Bible tells me that praying in His will guarantees answers. If I pray using Scripture as my model, I am praying God’s will back to Him, and I can expect that He will respond. I cannot guess how, but I know from Ephesians 3:20 that it will be “exceedingly abundantly above all that I can ask or imagine”!

November 19, 2007

Taking off my chains

It is not that long ago that I could keep up with my vast to-do list, but lately I’ve groaned at the length and breadth of it. My father used to explain things with the phrase “too many birthdays” and that is likely part of it, but there is more.

I read an amazing book about Attention Deficit Disorder and realized that I’ve been fighting ADD most of my life. My symptoms are not as severe as some, but I definitely recognize myself in that book. However, instead of distressing me, reading it produced an odd reaction; I feel set free. I understand myself and my desires to do, do, do. These come from a deep sense of something missing, an approval or connection that I cannot go back in time and secure. Instead, I’ve been an achiever hoping to get it by notches in my belt.

This isn’t about pleasing God. I know that I “fall short of the glory of God” and that my relationship with Him is based solely on Christ and His righteousness, not any goodness or good that I can do. I am spiritually at rest knowing that Jesus did it all for me, but somehow I’ve not been able to rest in a practical sense. As I read Scattered Minds by Gabor Maté, God opened my eyes and started me seriously examining all that I put on that infamous to-do list. Is it His will? Or do I add it simply to fill in the blanks in my ADD thinking?

Again, this is not a spiritual issue in that I’m not doing “good works” in a vain or prideful sense that I can earn my own salvation. Yet there are some parallels. People do try that. I read about it again in Hebrews 12 this morning.

The author of Hebrews (some think it was the Apostle Paul) wrote, “For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. (For they could not endure what was commanded . . . ) But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God . . . to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant. . . .

He is comparing the actual mountain where God appeared to Moses and gave the Law, to that spiritual and heavenly mountain where God appears in human flesh and offers salvation by grace. I’m thinking, if I could be saved by law-keeping, I would be bound by hundreds of rules and regulations, my life strictly controlled and in constant judgment. However, keeping the Law is a burden that no one can bear, and isn’t that just like my impossible to-do list?

The New Testament says that the Law was never intended to save me, but to bring me to my knees asking for mercy and grace. Jesus, who is the Lawgiver on the throne, moved into my life and became the Law-Keeper in my heart. I rest in Him, trust Him, and He enables me to live in the will of God. I supply the muscle and shoe leather, but He supplies the motivation, the strength, and all the leading and guiding so I can live as He wants me to live.

When I start adding stuff to that, I am putting a burden on myself, one He does not intend that I carry. I’m also essentially inserting earplugs. Hearing God’s instruction becomes difficult when my mind is full of all the stuff I need to get done today.

Over the years, my way of fighting these conflicting ‘voices’ has been extreme self-discipline and time-management. I can do it all, or at least I thought I could, but not anymore.

God has not called me to ridiculous multitasking. He asks that I love and obey Him, not take on a whole bunch of stuff. The author of Scattered Minds is not a Christian, but his diagnosis is amazingly accurate. From reading his book, I realize that taking on a bunch of stuff will not fill the empty space created by things that happened when I was a small child. From reading the Bible, I realize that this space is already filled. I just need to live in that fullness and quit trying to fill it myself.

Reading this may not make a whole lot of sense to most people, but I need to put it down in black and white. I also need to listen intently (difficult for me) and stay focused on the direction God gives me. If He doesn’t clearly tell me what to do, then I need to wait, not add another thing that ‘looks good’ or that even ‘looks easy’ to my list.

Jesus said, “If the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.” This is about sin, but today I realize that it is also about the bondage of my ADD ambitions that show up on my impossible and enslaving to-do list.

November 18, 2007

When “I can’t” becomes “I won’t”

When someone says, “I can’t do that” my inner question is often, “Can’t? Or Won’t?” depending on what the person is answering. I remember sometimes asking my children to do certain chores and getting a response something like, “I can’t do that right now.”

When that happened, my inner question was usually expressed because I sensed they were merely procrastinating rather than telling me they felt unable. In other words, “can’t” really meant “won’t.”

After being a Christian for a long time, I’ve recognized that in my own self, there is a sense that saying “I can’t do it” is a sin, but there is also a sense that saying “I can’t do it” is totally what God wants me to say. What a paradox!

As I learn to sort this out, I realize that when God asks me to do something and I refuse, saying “I cannot” as if it were beyond me, denies God the opportunity to fill me with His grace and power so I can obey Him. It is a rebel response, an excuse for disobedience. “I can’t” is a sinful response.

But sometimes my heart is willing to obey, but my mind knows that I do not have any resources and the task at hand is beyond my human capacity. However, I want to obey God, therefore telling Him that “I can’t” becomes a prayer that He will give me what I need to get the job done. Saying “I can’t” is an admission of need coming from a humble heart.

This is the meaning behind 2 Corinthians 12:9. Paul struggled with what he called a “thorn in the flesh.” The Bible doesn’t explain what this thorn was so no one knows for sure what he meant. The only elaboration is that it was “a messenger of Satan to buffet” Paul. He had experienced supernatural revelations from God and was given this, whatever it was, “lest I be exalted above measure.

Paul pleaded with God to remove the thorn, but after asking three times, God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” In God’s mind, Paul would be overcome with pride, so this weakness was necessary to his obedience. It is in this sense that I’ve learned it is okay to say “I can’t.”

Every Sunday, after years of experience teaching and leading a Bible class, and after hours during the week of preparation and prayer, I almost always have a huge sense of “I can’t do this.” It used to bother me because I fully believed that feeling so unable would automatically mean the class would turn into a disaster. In other words, if my confidence was lagging, so also would my teaching, and the response of the others in class.

However, God has changed my thinking. I realize this is how He wants me to feel; willing to go anyway, but needy enough that in the doing of it I will be relying on His grace and strength, not my own resources. In fact, I’ve discovered that if I don’t have that horrid sense of “I can’t” then I should worry.

This is a faith issue. I know I am unable on one hand, and I feel that inadequacy. On the other hand, I know God is able and even have that deep bubbling up from inside me that says “I can do all things through Christ.” Yet these conflicting thoughts must coexist. God has even shown me that although I feel a deep sense of my own weakness, at the same time others see in me His power.

This is the oddest thing. It makes sense only to those who have experienced it. The trouble is that feeling weak does not match our culture’s idea of moving ahead. We are told that confidence and assurance are an important part of doing things well. So when “I can’t” begins to pop up along with a new challenge from the Lord, that sense of being unable to do it in my own power can easily turn into “I won’t.”

This is why it is a faith issue. When everything in me is screaming ‘impossible’ I have to trust God who says His power will be perfected in me—even in that weakness—and it does not matter that this has been happening to me every week for years and years. Even though I know the principle, and know that God will come through for me, and know that weakness is part of a successful ministry from God, I still feel weak and unable, and sometimes am really close to jumping from “I can’t” to “I won’t.”

November 17, 2007

What shall I wear today?

When Adam and Eve sinned, they made coverings for themselves out of fig leaves. While people joke about this, it was no laughing matter. They tried to cover their nakedness before God and while it might have done the job physically, their efforts didn’t remove away their sense of shame because fig leaves could not cover their sin. Instead, “Also for Adam and his wife the LORD God made tunics of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21). In this He revealed the cost of sin and the only thing that will cover it—shed blood and death.

While not every mention of clothing in the Bible is a symbol, clothing definitely became a symbol of God’s grace and what He does for us. Reading verses about it makes me look at what I’m wearing today in more ways than one.

In Exodus 28:40-41, God told Moses, “For Aaron’s sons you shall make tunics, and you shall make sashes for them. And you shall make headpieces for them, for glory and beauty. So you shall put them on Aaron your brother and on his sons with him. You shall anoint them, consecrate them, and sanctify them, that they may minister to Me as priests.

The clothing of the priests symbolized their righteousness and purity before the Lord. Psalm 132:16 adds, “I will also clothe her (Zion’s) priests with salvation.” In contrast, verse 18 says that He will “clothe His enemies with shame.

Clothing is used symbolically for more than the priests. In Isaiah 61:3, God says he will console those who are sorry for their sin by replacing their mourning with the oil of joy, and “the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.” That garment appeals to me!

Christians speak often of the white robes of righteousness that God gives His people. The use of clothing is often hinted in Scripture passages that tell us to “put off” our old life and behavior and “put on” the virtues that Christ has given us. When I get dressed each day, I need to remember to be spiritually clothed also.

As I read about this, I thought of another inclusion in my wardrobe—the armor of God. It is spoken of in Ephesians 6:10-20. Because I have an enemy that wants to pull me into sin and defeat me, God tells me to “take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.

This armor consists of the belt of truth, a breastplate of righteousness, shoes representing the gospel of peace, a shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. As I cover myself with these garments and use the protection and weapon God gives me, I can defeat the enemy’s lies and other tactics and stand firm in my faith. I am also promised that my prayers for others will be powerful.

The robes of righteousness represent all virtue given to me by Jesus Christ. One is mentioned in 1 Peter 5:5, “Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’”

I struggle with this battle. Not only do spiritual enemies try to sidetrack me, but my own old self would like to reign. Wearing pride comes more easily than putting on humility. However, I’m helped by knowing my destiny. Revelation 19:7-8 speaks of the church, the Bride of Christ; which includes me. It says, “Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready. 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.

One day all the struggle to obey God will end. He will take off everything that resisted Him and replace it with a pure and brilliant righteousness. That promise encourages me to do the best I can to keep my garments clean and white.

November 16, 2007

When I don’t feel like going to church . . .

In Recalling the Hope of Glory, author Allen P. Ross says that the presence of God in the Garden of Eden was a delight before Adam and Eve sinned, but afterwards His presence became a conviction. Not only that, this has been the pattern in the history of worship.

Leviticus 7:2-21 set that pattern for God’s people. It says, “But the person who eats the flesh of the sacrifice of the peace offering that belongs to the Lord, while he is unclean, that person shall be cut off from his people. Moreover the person who touches any unclean thing, such as human uncleanness, an unclean animal, or any abominable unclean thing, and who eats the flesh of the sacrifice of the peace offering that belongs to the Lord, that person shall be cut off from his people.

The sacrificial system was a pattern or representation of the new covenant yet to come. In this old system, the sacrifices pointed to the ultimate sacrifice who is the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. The “unclean” things and “uncleanness” in people represent sinful actions and sinful lives. Thus, those with sin in their lives could not freely participate in worship. Like Adam and Eve, their sin usually made them ashamed and they wanted to hide from God, not stand before Him.

David knew this too. He sinned by taking another man’s wife. When she became pregnant, he arranged that her husband is killed in battle. Then God convicted him of what he had done and David said, “For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise.

David knew that he could not worship God with unconfessed sin. He also knew that the only way back into that relationship was through acknowledging his need to be reconciled.

Today, there are people I know who have professed faith in Jesus Christ, but somewhere along the way, they stopped confessing sin—and stopped attending church. I’ve wondered how they could do that, how they could turn off their conscience and ignore their own sin. As I read this book, I realized that conviction of sin is most felt in the sanctuary of God, the place where His presence is collectively gathered in the people who love and worship Him.

It’s not that God is only in a church, not at all, but in a place of worship the human heart cannot completely ignore His reality or His claim on our lives. To do that, I’d have to run as far from Christians and from church as I could. (Even then, Psalm 139 makes it clear that no matter where I run, His right hand leads and holds me. I cannot completely flee from Him.)

Perhaps it is a good thing to invite my unsaved or back-slidden friends to church, but after thinking about these things, it would be appropriate to warn them that they may not feel comfortable. I’d have to suggest that they may feel guilty or at least awkward because they will sense the presence of God, and with that they may also sense Him speaking to them about getting their lives right with Him.

November 15, 2007

Scared of snakes?

When we were teens living on the family farm, my older brother and I spotted a garter snake in the very small creek that flowed between our house and barn. Jack said, “I wonder how hard it would be to catch one of these things?”

I replied, “It’s easy; just like this” as I made a swipe at the snake and caught it. Catching it so easily surprised me as much as him. I was also surprised that the snake was not slimy. (Where does that notion come from?) Instead, it was smooth and dry, even fresh out of the creek.

My third surprise was my brother’s reaction. I started toward him holding the snake and he began backing up. Realizing my new power, I chased him all over the yard with that 18" harmless snake. Now, fifty years later, he is still annoyed at me for exposing his fear of snakes.

It’s too bad that Eve in Eden had not shared his fear before she talked to a snake. (As creatures who had not yet sinned and who perfectly reflected the image of God, it is possible that Adam and Eve could communicate in some way with animals.)

Genesis 3:1 says, “Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, ‘Has God indeed said, “You shall not eat of every tree in the garden”?’”

Scripture later identifies this serpent as one of Satan’s disguises.

Satan was an angel created by God who decided he wanted to be “like the Most High” so rebelled and was cast out of heaven. He landed in Eden and offered Eve the same ambition. Forgetting that she was already made in His image, being like God made that tree look “good for food, pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise” so she took the bait along with Adam. By their disobedience, sin entered the world and was passed (some say through their blood) to all generations.

After they sinned, God spoke to Adam who shifted blame to Eve. God turned to Eve who said, “The serpent deceived me and I ate.

So the LORD God said to the serpent: ‘Because you have done this, you are cursed more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly you shall go, and you shall eat dust all the days of our life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and your shall bruise His heel.’”

Since that fateful day in Eden, the features of that simple story of the first temptation and sin surface as fertility themes in pagan myths—with a serpent as a common denominator. Some pagan groups worship snakes and even consider this biblical symbol of sin and death as their source of life, twisting and altering the biblical story and elevating serpents to gods.

Satan has another beast-like designations. He is called a ‘roaring lion’ who roams about seeking people to devour. He is also called Abaddon, accuser of our brethren, adversary, angel of the bottomless pit, Apollyon, Beelzebub, Belial, the devil, the enemy, the evil spirit, father of lies, the gates of hell, the great red dragon, the liar, a lying spirit, Lucifer, the murderer, that old serpent, the power of darkness, the prince of this world, prince of the power of the air, ruler of the darkness of this world, serpent, spirit that works in the children of disobedience, tempter, the god of this world, unclean spirit, and the wicked one.

Some would like to dismiss the notion of Satan as a real being, but the Bible does not allow that. This evil spirit disguised himself as a serpent who deceived, but he can also appear as someone good. 2 Corinthians 11:13-14 warns of false apostles and deceitful workers who “transform themselves into apostles of Christ.” Then it says, “And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light.

Satan is a great deceiver whose sole plan is to usurp God and His role in my lifes. He can twist Scripture, pervert my motives, and deceive me into thinking disobedience is not only the right thing but is actually the will of God. For that reason I am told to “know his devices” and to resist him and his lies.

Christians have the power to do it. We are given spiritual weapons, the Holy Spirit, and the Word of God as our sword. We also have the example of Jesus, who, when tempted by Satan to worship and obey him rather than God, thwarted him each time with Scripture.

James 4:7-10 offers me the best way to fight him: “Submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. . . . Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.

These verses have a sequence. When I’m submitted to God, I will be able to resist the devil. When I resist, he has to flee. When I am close to God, I never have to fight my own battles, and the way to stay close is by humbly confessing every sin, keeping short accounts with Him. I need Jesus. Because of Him, it is the serpent who must flee. Even though I know his power to ruin my life and that he is no harmless garter snake, I also know the power of Jesus Christ, who “through death has destroyed him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and released those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.”

Next time the subject of snakes comes up between my brother and me, I must remind him that he didn’t have to run from that garter snake, but he ought to be on his guard around that other one.

November 14, 2007

In His Image

I’ve often wondered if teaching the theory of evolution accounts for some of the behavior in the world today. If I fully believed that my ancestors swung from trees, grunted and screeched, and fought with one another over territory, would I act the same way?

Actually, I used to accept evolution because it seemed the logical thing. That was before Christ came into my life. At the time I didn’t think much about how the world began, mostly because I was so busy with the changes He was making in my world.

After a time, I began to notice the many references in the Bible about being made in God’s image. They began in Genesis 1:26-27: “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness. . . . So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

Soon I found myself believing the creation story, not because I found evolution theories faulty but because God said He created the world and I knew He was not a liar. I’ve done some research on the topic, but it really does boil down to believing and trusting His Word rather than understanding the minutia of how, when and so on.

This morning I’m reading again in Recalling the Hope of Glory and am struck by a short bit about images. Author Allen P. Ross says, “All ancient temples and sanctuaries had images of the deities that had dominion over them. Likewise the garden sanctuary of the LORD (Eden) had images, but they were very different from what the pagan world later developed. These images were made by God, not by people. . . .”

He then states the reality from the verses I quoted, that the images of God were living, breathing, thinking human beings, not carvings made of stone and wood, but created beings with whom God shared the “breath of life” and His own distinctive characteristics.

He didn’t give them everything. People do not have omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, infinity or sovereignty, but we do have the ability to think, make plans, create things, love others, show mercy, be compassionate, and even be wise.

The Genesis story tells that these first people were given commands to multiply and fill the earth, but also to tend and keep the garden (Ross goes into great detail to show that the language used in Genesis shows that this is about worship and serving God, not tillage). They were also told to stay away from one tree, but they disobeyed God, and in doing that, His image was muddied by sin.

Humanity today still has those God-given capacities, yet they are sullied by selfishness. We create to make ourselves renown, not to glorify God. We make plans to serve ourselves, to promote our own popularity, to make ourselves feel good, look good, gain in some way. Our lives are not dedicated to loving and serving God and reflecting His image does not happen, just as it is no longer true that we live in a perfect Eden where all our needs are met.

When I first met Jesus, He impressed me with a couple of verses from Romans 8. They say, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son. . . .”

I was astounded that God wants to restore me to what He began when He created Adam and Eve, even more astounded that He is able to use “all things” to do it. Since then, I’ve found the power of His Word and the work of His Spirit who lives in me to be ample tools in His hands. As He rids me of sin, He asks that I love and obey Him. As He does and I do, my life changes.

I look back and realize that when God told me I was made in His image and did not descend from an ape, my life took a different course. Part of that is my own efforts to obey God and purify myself, and part of that is simply gazing into His glory. 2 Corinthians 3:18 says when I look at Him, I become like Him. I look at Him through the spiritual disciplines of Bible study and intentional focus.

1 John 3:2-3 is His promise: “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.

That hope is not “hope so” thing, but a sure and certain thing based on the Word of Almighty God. Because He tells me this is His goal for me, I am glad to cooperate. I want to be like Jesus.

Ross startled me by comparing the images of deities in pagan temples to the living images God puts in His places of worship, but I like what he said. This exalts God and fills my heart with worship. As His ‘temple decor’ I’m also motivated to greater cooperation with Him as He carves away all the junk that does not look like Jesus and blesses me in the process.

November 13, 2007

Obedience through the Spirit

This weekend God showed me the clear difference between keeping the letter of the law and following the spirit of the law.

I’ve known it before, at least from reading about it. Isaiah 58 is a rebuke to God’s people of whom He says “seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.

However, in the next few verses He severely rebukes them for faking it. “On the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.” They kept the letter of the law by going through the motions, but the rest of their lives did not match.

Being a fake has never had much appeal to me, yet I’ve wondered how to keep God’s commands when they seem contradictory. One is from Ephesians 4:15, “speaking the truth in love.” At times the truth seems very unloving. At times love seems to fly in the face of truth. How can I obey this command in the spirit of obedience, not in the letter of its ambiguity?

God set me up. The scenario is a person who is constantly saying things that are sometimes immature, sometimes ignorant, and sometimes disrespectful. Most of the time I don’t respond, partly because I sense my own annoyance and know that I can’t say anything, truth or otherwise, with a loving attitude. During those times I’ve not felt God’s conviction that letting it pass was violating truth. Perhaps He has been teaching me self-control?

However, this weekend this person said something that was blatant rude and selfish toward someone else. It happened at a time when the Holy Spirit had His hand on my heart. I was filled with peace and joy. Responding by speaking the truth in love was easy. It just came out. I felt no anger, frustration, or even annoyance at this person. My sense of the Lord’s closeness was not interrupted or clouded as I said what had to be said, mostly aware of the Lord directing me, but also aware of the effects of this person’s attitude. Thinking and talking like that could bring a backlash of all kinds of trouble.

1 Timothy 1:5 is not necessarily talking about the command to speak the truth in love, but nonetheless it applies to what happened, “The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.

That day, by the grace of God, my heart was pure, rather than annoyed. My conscience was clean too, all known sin confessed, but also no sense of God saying “Wait” or “Don’t” or “Just leave it.” He gave me full freedom to open my mouth.

As I think about what I said, my words were based on what I’ve learned through faith, and because I thoroughly believe all that God is teaching me, my words were sincere. They could have been sharp, unkind, retaliatory and so on, but not this time.

I don’t know what the other person thought, but this was a huge learning experience for me. Over and over God teaches me things using life events that I could not foresee, make up, or orchestrate. They just happen, and in the happening I find out that He knows what He is doing. I can intellectually understand His commands, maybe muddle through in feeble attempts to obey, but when He puts me in a hot spot, fills me with His Spirit, and has me spontaneously obey Him, then I understand the reality of how He wants me to live.

November 12, 2007

Having Fun

“I’d never want to be a Christian. You people don’t know how to have fun.”

Sometimes I think that is right. I’ve known sour-faced people who claim to be believers, but their lives seem joyless and their attitude is definitely anti-fun. However, the majority of my Christian friends have a joyful countenance and laugh much. They know God and are filled with His Spirit. One of the fruits of the Spirit is joy, but is joy the same as fun?

Those who think Christians don’t have fun usually associate fun with activities that most Christians are not interested in doing such as, drinking, drugs perhaps, and a nightlife of, well, I don’t need to go there, but some of them make plain what they think is fun.

After yesterday, I’m thinking that being joyful and having fun are not quite the same thing. We celebrated the birthday of one of our sons by going to an IMAX movie about climbing in the Alps, then to a facility that has climbing walls and tried it ourselves. Actually, two out of the six of us had done it before, but as a first-time climber, I was terrified. Heights bother me, but for the sake of my son, I was determined to do it.

He watched me the first time I went up, laughing and saying that seeing this would be the highlight of his day. I climbed about 15 feet, made the mistake of looking down, and had to come down, but I did it. The second time wasn’t as successful, not because of fear but my upper arm strength is not there and my arm said, ‘you better stop now.’

But watching them climb and have fun was fun for me anyway. Normally our family birthday celebrations include food and something mild like board games, but this time they wanted to “do something different, mom.” So I prayed for an idea. When the film and rock climbing come to mind, I knew it was from the Lord; with my fear of heights, I’d never have come up with this one myself.

So the experience was fun, but knowing that God was behind the planning put great joy in my heart. The fun will fade, yet the joy comes back full force every time I think about God’s surprises and how He blessed our celebration with yet another great idea.

I’m thinking that those who think Christians do not have fun are looking at the activities that many Christians do or do not do, and they are right, some of us never have much fun. What they don’t know anything about is that joy that God provides through His Spirit. It is deep, lasting and hasn’t much to do with what we do. It is more about who He is.

In Hebrews 1:9, God is quoted and to the Son He says: “You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of gladness more than Your companions.

Notice the reason for the oil of gladness. It isn’t about birthday parties, festive occasions, sports, or any events, but is about a joy that Jesus has that is “more than” anyone else—and it comes from His love for goodness and His hatred for evil.

I think I enjoyed our day yesterday, not because the film was excellent and the rock climbing was fun, but because our activities were pure fun, no selfish, sinful stuff going on, just fun. The joy of Jesus was in it, and even if I couldn’t scale those walls like an ant on a pant leg, I enjoyed my puny efforts and the laughter of my family as they trustingly belayed one another up and down artificial mountainsides.

Those who think Christians have no fun are right—if fun is only doing stuff that mocks righteous living. However, fun for those who follow Jesus is more than that. When the Holy Spirit is involved, He gives two things: an increased capacity to enjoy life, plus His gladness about righteousness without lawlessness.

That made yesterday’s ‘fun’ intense and lasting. Sure, it did leave me with tired muscles, but I have no hangover or regrets, and nothing to apologize about before God.

November 11, 2007

The tree of life . . . and death . . . and life forever

As an artist and quilt maker, I’m drawn to the beauty of trees. I know others who use this motif exclusively in their art. There is no end to the various ways trees can be depicted. I’ve even a couple of books whose only topics are how to draw trees. Today I learn a bit of why they are so attractive.

In Recalling the Hope of Glory, author Allen P. Ross points out that the ‘tree of life’ in the garden of Eden was designed to be a source of life. After Adam and Eve sinned, God prevented them from eating from this tree lest they live forever as sinners.

Ross then describes how the religions of the ancient Near East and other areas picked up the idea that a ‘tree of life’ existed somewhere with great healing powers. They used images or representations of a tree as part of their idolatrous worship. The Asherah pole is one of these idols, forbidden to the people of God, yet they fell into worship of Asherah and this object anyway and were judged for it.

Yet the tree of life was also part of Israel’s sanctuary, not as an idol but a reminder and symbolized by a lampstand with branches and almond blossoms made of pure gold. This object was also a source of light, another necessity for life. We call this lampstand today a Menorah.

Trees still signify life in arid places. Wherever a clump of trees there is water, and in the desert, water is life. We also marvel at how trees can grow in the rocks on the upper sides of mountains, or sprout from cracks in city cement. Trees have a tenacious power to live.

In the age to come, John’s vision in Revelation includes a Tree of Life with “leaves for the healing of the nations.” He describes it with words that compel readers and stir a desire to be there. In that time, the people of God will again have access to all that the tree represents. Revelation 2:7 says, “To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.

In older Bible versions, verses about Jesus dying on the cross translate the word ‘cross’ in what seems an odd way. I’ve wondered why they did it as the word puts an odd image in my mind. After reading about the tree of life and its significance both in the Bible and in pagan worship, I am seeing a small glimpse of something that is both startling and awe-inspiring.

In Acts 5:29-30 Peter is speaking to those who put him and the other apostles in prison for teaching in the name of Jesus. He says, “We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree.

This term “tree” instead of “cross” is repeated in several places. My Bible always cross-references it to Deuteronomy 21:22-23: “If a man has committed a sin deserving of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God.

Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’”

That which was a symbol of life, even everlasting life, and became an object of pagan worship and then the place where the Author and Giver of Life died for our sins. Jesus was not guilty. He had committed no sin, never mind a sin that deserved death, but He willing became “accursed of God” for our sakes and allowed Himself to be hung on a tree.

People wear little crosses as jewelry, often thoughtlessly regarding its symbolism. Others recognize and remember that their cross on a chain represents the death (and if it is empty, the resurrection) of Jesus Christ. Some even come close to worshiping this symbol.

I’ve never seen anyone wear a tree on a chain, as much as most of us like trees. Now I am wondering if a tree is a stronger symbol than a cross. It points to that which was lost in the garden, regained at Golgotha, and is forever mine because the Son of God willingly did what He had to do to give me—and all people—access once again to eternal life.

November 10, 2007

A good reason for another tree

In my devotional book today’s focus is on trees, specifically those in the garden of Eden described in Genesis 2:9, “And out of the ground the LORD God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

My thoughts go to trees in general and their biblical significance to the life of God’s people. I did some digging and found several references that mentioned sitting under a tree.

One is from Micah 4:4. After a well-known prophecy that predicts a day when nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore,” the prophet Micah says, “But everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.

This saying became an expression of peace and prosperity. It is repeated in Zechariah 3:10, “In that day,” says the LORD of hosts, “Everyone will invite his neighbor under his vine and under his fig tree.

By the time of the New Testament, someone told me devout Jews were known to read the Old Testament Scriptures sitting under a fig tree. (I can’t find my source, even though it is vivid in my memory and I trust it.)

For that reason, as I read these verses from the prophets, I thought of the incident in John 1 when Jesus called His disciples. It says that Philip found Nathanael and told him they had found the Messiah. Nathanael was skeptical because Jesus came from a rival town, but went with Philip to check out what he said. As he approached Jesus, Jesus said, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!

Nathanael was obviously astonished and asked, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.

This says a great deal about Jesus; He was not there, but He knew what Nathanael was doing. However, it also says something about Nathanael. Was he studying the Scriptures under that tree? Was it, for him, a place of peace? We know the disciples were not necessarily prosperous financially, but was this man already rich in his relationship with the God of Israel?

I think he was. Jesus said Nathanael was without deceit, a person who was willing to examine for himself who Jesus was. He had an honest seeking heart, and according to what Jesus said, that was an exception. He was without the normal skepticism of his culture, a skepticism that easily slid later into total rejection of the Messiah.

Back under the tree Nathanael took time to learn about God. He no doubt knew the promises and prophecies. He said, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” but he wasn’t fooled into thinking the Messiah would be a mere king who came to conquer the Romans. He also realized Jesus could not be understood or described in human terms. This Man was God’s Son.

Nathanael was convinced by Jesus’ supernatural knowledge of him, but I’m convinced that his convictions were undergirded by what he was doing sitting under that tree.

How is this practical for me today? First, it made me question the exact nature of the first sin. Did they do wrong because they ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and therefore knowing good and evil is wrong? I don’t think so. They sinned because they took the fruit even though God told them not to. Their sin was disobedience to God; the tree was merely the test.

But not merely. All through Scripture God makes it clear that He wants me to recognize good and evil. The irony is that as a sinner, I’m unable to be totally clear about many issues. I want black and white when some things are grey and fuzzy. Only sitting under the tree with His Book sorts it out for me. As 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine (divine teaching), for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man (woman too) of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.

It is November and too cold to go out and sit under a tree, but I’ve been thinking about painting a mural of a bare-branched tree on a wall in my house. Now I’ve a good idea where I’d like to put it—right next to the place where I read my Bible!