June 30, 2013

In harmony with His world

Near our home is a wildlife sanctuary. It isn’t famous nor does anyone charge admission. Instead, it is a deep coulee, heavily treed that runs from a highway on the south toward a main avenue on the north. This subdivision was purchased and built from a man who insisted these several acres be left in their natural state. Some have seen moose in this wild and tangled place, but it is inhabited mostly by birds and smaller animals.

The park has two paved trails going in opposite directions from the entrance across the street. I often ride my bike on these trails and am amazed that I can go from city traffic into a forest containing no motors and little noise. The most delightful treasures are the smells. I detect the perfume of clover, wild roses, tree leaves, mushrooms, mown grass (from homes on the park’s perimeter), and wild flowers. These will change as summer progresses, but return in every spring in May and June.

These stressful days under the discipline of God and the pressures of life, I am blessed when I get outside under blue skies and bright sun. His care seems nearer, easier to experience when the leaves rustle and birds sing. Today’s devotional reminds me of the power of wandering in a park even as God is working to change my life…

Behold, blessed is the one whom God reproves; therefore despise not the discipline of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he binds up; he shatters, but his hands heal. He will deliver you from six troubles; in seven no evil shall touch you. In famine he will redeem you from death, and in war from the power of the sword. You shall be hidden from the lash of the tongue, and shall not fear destruction when it comes. At destruction and famine you shall laugh, and shall not fear the beasts of the earth. For you shall be in league with the stones of the field, and the beasts of the field shall be at peace with you. (Job 5:17–23)

God’s blessings, even in His discipline are genius. He works to change my life, but in the working, He also brings great joy and peace. I can count on Him to bring June every year, with these aromas, the sights and sounds of renewing growth and nature’s pleasures, yet in Him they never become ordinary. These simple pleasures delight every heart that gives them attention. It is God hugging me with His great love. Is that what it means to “have a covenant with the stones of the field”?

The speaker in these verses is talking of those who trust in God, who are at peace with Him and entered into a covenant with Him. He is saying that if I am in league with heaven, then I will also be in league with the very stones of the earth.

I know that is true. Peace with God changes my relationship to the birds, beasts and flowers around me. Just as those in love say the sky is a brighter blue, being in a personal love relationship with Jesus Christ changes the attitude I have toward the world around me, even changes the way nature blesses me.

Those whose spiritual and moral state is base and in defiance of God tend to mock His laws and His person. They see no reason why they should not toss their garbage on the earth. While some of them hug trees and defend seals, they do it because they worship those created things rather than the One who created them. Godlessness puts the human heart out of harmony with tree and flower and summer delights. When I am at odds with the Lord, I am the same and do not even notice sunsets and gentle breezes.

Being at peace with God, even when God is reproving and wounding me, means having a comradeship with the created world. It means reading sermons in the trees of the forest, the grass of the plains, the stones of the field. This is not about the beauty of an artistic scene, but the morality and rightness of God’s handiwork that becomes a ministry to my heart, that blesses me and restores a deeper sense of His love for me.

Sadly, to be out of touch with God puts me out of touch with God’s ideal in all that He has made. Yet to be in tune with Him joyfully puts me in league with even the stones of the field.

June 29, 2013

He is the Savior, I am not

Most Christians fall into the trap of trying to deliver themselves from sin of some kind, perhaps a bad habit or a nasty attitude or giving in to a recurring temptation. After days or weeks or even years of struggle, we recognize that we cannot do it. At that point, some give up, make excuses such as, “It isn’t really that bad” and let that besetting sin get the best of them.

This struggle usually happens over impurities that others might not give much attention to, such as fussiness with food or clothing, being stubborn over the way to do my ministry, or having an irritated impatience when someone sits in “my place” at the table. While these seem fairly inconsequential, the Lord knows there are deeper problems beneath the surface, deep-seated stuff that must be brought to awareness, confessed and cleansed.

Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” And he cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. There the Lord made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them, saying, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, your healer.” (Exodus 15:22–26)

In the case of the Israelites, they grumbled because they were thirsty and the only water they found was not fit to drink. This seems a “normal” response, something like I might have if I took a gulp of milk and realized it was sour. However, God sees deeper. Their grumbling always flowed from a heart filled with selfish unbelief. They blamed Moses, but he was God’s servant. They were actually angry with God for the “hardships” He was putting them through, as if He didn’t know what He was doing and as if He did not care about them.

The professor for the current course I am taking says that next to idolatry, grumbling is likely the worst sin in the Old Testament. To have a complaint against Almighty God who is holy, knows all, loves beyond what we can comprehend, and is wise, is equivalent to blasphemy.

When I grumble, I am declaring that in my mind God is not any of those things. I am saying that God isn’t doing what I want Him to do, as if I know better than He does. When I wish things were different than they are, or want something denied to me, then I am expressing that I do not really trust God as I claim.

This ties to my struggles with besetting sin. In the battle, God finally gets through my thick skull that at the root of all sin is a heart of unbelief. I either want something He denies, or don’t want something He permits. Either way, I’m open to whatever bait is dangled in front of me and open to the enemy’s suggestion that the bait will give me what I want or fix what I don’t want.
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:13–15)
While God does not cause temptation, He may allow it to bring out the fact of that inner desire, the one that says He doesn’t know what He is doing, that I know better or that I am a better judge of what is best for me. While the desire may not be sinful (it is okay to be thirsty), taking the bait is. It begins a journey down a winding garden path that leads into a patch of entangling thorns, and even to a dark and bottomless well.

God is the healer. He can change bitter water to sweet, fussiness to contentment, stubbornness to yieldedness, impatience to calm trust, hard hearts to soft. Instead of insisting on “I want what I want right now” I can trust Him to supply all that I need, even the grace to be satisfied — content with whatever state I am in or how long He takes to change things, or even how long it takes me to learn these lessons!

June 28, 2013

Set free to do my work

My Old Testament studies are showing me ways that these ancient Scriptures point to Jesus Christ, the Messiah who was promised by God as early as Genesis. However, before He came, the people of God must learn that their ways were sinful, their own efforts to be good were futile, and that they must obey God all the time. He graciously made and confirmed His covenant with them, but like us, they kept turning away from Him.

Their lives after the Exodus provide many examples. They had been delivered from slavery in Egypt, but instead of being thankful that they were free from bondage, they started griping about everything.

When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” And he cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. There the Lord made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them, saying, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, your healer.” (Exodus 15:23–26)

This story is a mini-picture of the work of Christ. First, they discovered the bitterness of the water, just as sinners must realize the bitterness of sin. Then they grumbled against Moses. Moses represents the Law that God handed down to them, the Law they could not keep and that was too hard for them. They didn’t like the high standards of God nor the hardships of the life God gave them.

Since they were not praying for themselves, Moses, as their leader and God’s prophet, interceded for them. God immediately showed him a log. Could this fallen tree be a symbol of the tree upon which Christ died? It reminds me of it, for only the Cross of Christ can change my situations of grumbling into blessing. Their story then ends with a rescue, but also a command and a promise from God if they obey.

In this story, God speaks to me about the importance of Moses’ prayer. For many years, I have known that prayer is my main ministry, and that most of my struggles are against the enemy’s efforts to stop me from praying. Some think it useless to pray because they feel sure of having His blessing, but I know that taking God’s blessings for granted is a dangerous assumption. I also know that just as these people needed a cry for their deliverance, so does everyone else caught in the bondage of sin, Christians and those who do not yet know Christ. I also must daily seek the Lord for His blessing in my own life.

The bitter water was made sweet by the introduction of a tree. Surely it is the tree of Calvary that changes the bitterness of life. This week, my sister talks of God’s grace as she and her family experience a devastating flood. She knows the power of that tree. Her voice is sweet, not bitter.
Only the Cross can so powerfully sweeten our thoughts and even our desires. It is the tree that makes us realize what would be our portion had God not sent His Son to die for our sin. That “log” is a great symbol of the life-giving power of God.

Today’s devotional says that healing does not come because of a prayerless faith. God wants me to pour out my heart before Him so He can pour blessing into my soul. In this story, the people did not pray. I wonder what would have happened to them if Moses had not prayed on their behalf?

The Scriptures describe other situations like this one where if Moses not interceded, God may have destroyed them. This is also true for those in my life who are bitter and complaining. They need the grace of God to change their hearts and bring healing to their lives, not destruction.

I am convinced that being inclined to pray is also the work of that tree. Otherwise, I would not do it. The Cross and the death of Christ is my death also. His resurrection is my new life. He changed me so I do not have to be in bondage to sin and bitter toward God. In Christ, He gives me a sweet life, filled  with His virtue and faith, pure and refreshing.

No matter what is tossed into my life to keep me from doing what He wants me to do and to keep me from praying as Moses did, I am released from the clutches of the one who would stop me. Because of that tree, and because of Christ, instead of being angry at my sin God can say to me, “I am the LORD, your healer.” 

June 27, 2013

Level ground at the Cross

Yesterday, my sister drove from where they are staying into Calgary, twice driving past High River. She could hardly look. The northeast part of the city is still under water, with only the tops of the trees visible. There is no place for that water to go. If pumped out, it will just flow into the basements in other parts of the town.

A few days earlier, a facebook video shows people stranded on the roof of a downtown business. There were men, women, people in business suits and in coveralls. The video showed everyone climbing into the muddy bucket of a front-end loader and riding to safety. This disaster and the rescue efforts level all distinctions.

Today’s devotional links that with the Cross. When Jesus died there, He also leveled all distinctions. The Cross, like that flood and rescue effort, disregards our human-raised barriers of nationality, gender and occupation. The Cross considers neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but makes all one in Christ. The wildest savage can come to the cross pleading for mercy, as can the proudest Jew who is a child of Abraham.

I understand how the Cross obliterated national distinctions and social barriers of worth and created angst in Jewish hearts. They were set apart, a chosen nation. The covenants and promises of God came to them. The knowledge of the one true God was theirs. It seems logical that pride would arise in their minds, but along with it came contempt for all other nations. They envied none for the others were mere Gentiles.

For a Jew to turn to Christ would be a further insult to those who rejected Him. No wonder these early Christians were persecuted. By embracing the Cross, they were heaping a grave insult on their national pride. Therefore, when some came and told these believers that they must keep the Law and be circumcised, hold on to at least something of their old religious ways, they were tempted.

Paul told them they had it wrong. The Cross was supposed to be offensive, not watered down by mixing in the rules that they had left behind. They were supposed to feel insulted and defenseless because the Cross did level distinctions. To turn back to rites and rituals was terribly wrong.

But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. (Galatians 5:11)

This leveling of differences does not mean that God disregards our personal distinctions. Those who come to Christ do not get the same treatment. He is strikingly original in the way He deals with each person who believes in Him. He has an individual understanding of our hearts and specific needs, skills and abilities. Yet in spite of all that, there is a “scandal” in the Cross because every distinction is also obliterated.

That flooding river put everyone in the same situation, and while God is caring for each one in different ways, they are all victims of the same disaster. The Cross puts everyone in the same situation too. While God cares for each one in different ways, we are all guilty of sin. The Cross declares that everyone is either saved as a lost sinner or not saved at all. The brightest heart needs pardon and peace with God as much as the wildest sinner; there are no distinctions at His feet. There are also no distinctions in His offer.
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. (Revelation 22:17)
Jesus freely bids everyone to come to His Cross. Just as “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” so also does He declare that “whosoever will may come” and participate freely in the water of life, for “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 3:23; 10:13) 

June 26, 2013

Offended by God?

The realities of these Alberta floods is a struggle. Our family is safe, yet not certain of the days ahead. My brother-in-law escaped the rising waters with the clothes he was wearing and his vital medical equipment. His son’s family had to leave their pets to their fate. They were not able to take their cars, vital papers, or anything of value. Yet in all this, there is good news.

My sister tells of the farm where they stayed a few days after evacuation. The week before, people kept bringing food to that farm, unaware of the need that would come. This was a God-thing, an advance preparation that enabled their hosts to care for several families.

I’ve retold this story several times. Christians respond by praising God, yet those who do not know Christ seem oddly annoyed, even offended. Some look at me as if I am lying. Why not be glad for God’s provision?

In New Testament Galatia, being a Christian wasn’t easy. Some were thinking of going back to their religious rituals because that would be easier than obeying the Gospel. Paul contrasted their choice between rites and rituals with suffering for believing in Jesus Christ. Was the Cross beginning to offend some of them too?

But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. (Galatians 5:11)

The cross was an offense to the Jews because it swept away their pride. They believed they were the people of God, not because of His grace and mercy, but because they performed their religious duties and did things that made them special. The Cross says otherwise, that no one is special. All are sinners and this death of Christ is the judgment sinners deserve.

The death of Jesus is our death. He died because we deserve to die. The Cross represents our folly, our inability to save ourselves. It says, “All are sinners” and offends human pride, striking a fatal blow at human efforts to be religious, to please God by our own doing.

For the Jews whose faith had deteriorated into works-righteousness, the Cross proclaimed their ceremonial law useless, their sacrifices, feasts and festivals mere motions. The temple was a sign of their hope and symbol of their unity, but the Cross swept that away too.

We might think that pride in worthy things is okay. That is, it is better to be proud of laws and temples than to be proud of guns or money, yet Paul said, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14)

The Cross was an offense then and still is today. It cuts at our pride and says what we don’t want to hear. But the Bible is clear — on that Cross hangs the Redeemer who says, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

For some, everything else that Jesus does is also offensive. I’ve told family about the healing that happened in my husband’s body while he was praying for healing in others. Some were offended. I’ve shared the story of the extra food before the flood and some are offended.

Before I condemn others, I must admit the same pride. Often, I run into a problem and without even thinking to pray for wisdom and help, I tackle it. I don’t hear my pride saying, “I will do this by myself” until I find out the hard way that I cannot and need God.

The offense of the Cross is that we must go to God with empty hands. We prefer a little toil and sweat, measuring the value of many things by what it cost us to get them. But Calvary costs us nothing — yet it cost God everything. He paid our price, took our penalty, then freely offers eternal life to us without price. As today’s devotional says, in this commercial age there is something suspicious and offensive about that.

If anyone preaches salvation by good works (and almost everyone does), it appeals to many eager hearts. Yet God says no matter how hard we try, we fall short of His glory. This is why —

The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18)

I’m now hesitating before sharing that food story to some people, yet must not let possible rejection hold me back. Everyone should know that our God is an awesome God and totally able to anticipate our needs. This is good news, regardless of the reaction!