Grieving with the Head and with the Heart

I find the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead (in John 11) to be one of the most fascinating, exhilarating stories of the Gospels. Of course it is!

A beloved friend of Jesus is dead for four days, his body beginning to decompose, and Jesus calls him back to life. His friends remove his grave-clothes and he has another chance at life as a regenerated human being. This event foreshadows in Scripture the resurrection power that Jesus promises will call us back to him at the time the Father has appointed. Lazarus eventually died again but will rise again when Jesus returns. We will die once, and we who have trusted in Christ will rise with him when the trumpet sounds. These truths from the story are powerfully comforting and meaningful.

But there are other meanings to be applied from the story as well. One of these is found in the interactions of Jesus with the two sisters of Lazarus, Mary and Martha. They reveal much about the ministry of Jesus in both his divinity and his humanity. And they reveal much about how our minds and hearts respond when we encounter great loss.

When Jesus hears about Lazarus’ death two days earlier, he determines to go to Judea, but waits two more days. When the disciples remind him of the danger he faces from the Jews if he returns to Judea, Jesus talks to them about walking in the light. Walking in the light for him means carrying out his next mission—to raise his friend from the dead. The disciples are confused, but they journey on with him.

Jesus first encounters Martha, who rushes out alone to meet him on the road. She tells him, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus replies plainly, “Your brother will rise again.” This commences a dialog about resurrection. Martha in her grief attempts to wrap her mind around the only theology of death that she knows. She focuses on what she has learned and believed in her mind, that is, that there is a resurrection day, and her brother will rise on that day. Jesus tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life…and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” Jesus in his divinity responds to her theology with the gospel of the kingdom: he has come as God made flesh to bring resurrection life, today and forever. He reveals to her mind enough to help her make sense of things at her most painful moment.

This is the same Martha that we know from Luke’s gospel as a worker, a doer, a servant who can become distracted by her serving. She is a good woman who we might surmise functions predominantly from her head. She seeks understanding, and in his divinity, Jesus provides it. This is how he loves Martha.

Mary is a different story. Mary is still at the house, surrounded by Jews who had traveled to Bethany to console her. Mary, we know from Luke 10, is the one who chooses to sit at Jesus’ feet, gazing up adoringly at him, taking in every word. John tells us parenthetically that this is also the same Mary that will “waste” an entire flash of expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and wipe them with her hair.

Mary is a deeply emotional person. She leads from her heart, and not her head. When Mary hears that Jesus is coming, she runs to him, followed by the other mourners. She falls at his feet and says exactly what Martha had said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Jesus responds quite differently to Mary. He is “deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” He tells Mary to take him to the grave site. And then we come to the shortest sentence in the Bible—“Jesus wept.” Jesus does not engage in discussion with Mary. He doesn’t talk about resurrection. In his humanity, he simply joins with her in her grief. He empathizes, all the while knowing that soon all present will be amazed and rejoicing to see Lazarus alive again. This is how Jesus loves Mary, by weeping with her.

This story supports the view that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. All who have experienced deep grieving know that it can be a very messy process. Grief comes in waves, or according to Kubler-Ross, in stages. Sometimes we wrestle with our understanding, debating and bargaining with God in search of answers that we hope will bring comfort. Sometimes we are flooded in our emotions, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes we are Martha, and sometimes Mary.  Jesus, because he is both God and man, knows how to love us perfectly in either case.

Isn’t it wonderful that Jesus ministers to us in our grief, in our heads and in our hearts? Being well acquainted with sorrow, he accompanies us through it all, bringing understanding and consolation if we will allow him.

How I love this Jesus, and the way he loves you and me!

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Disciples are Merciful

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins  (Matt. 6:14-15).

This saying of Jesus, one embedded in the Sermon on the Mount, is one of the few instances in the Gospels where Jesus states an absolute condition for receiving mercy from the Father.

Jesus extended mercy quite frequently to sinners, even without a confession of sin or display of repentance. He healed people who didn’t realize who he was. In the case of the paralytic man, he forgave and restored him, responding to the faith of the man’s companions when they lowered him through the roof of the house (Mark 2:3-5). Grace, by definition, isn’t grace unless it’s freely given and received.

Why then does Jesus issue such a strong declaration that forgiving others is mandatory if we want to receive his mercy for ourselves?

Jesus use a parable to emphasize this essential behavior and attitude.  After Jesus explains to his disciples the right response to a brother who has offended them, Peter asks him how often they should forgive those who have wronged them. Jesus spontaneously spins a tale of a king and two of his servants.

The king, in a gesture of great forbearance and compassion, forgives an insurmountable debt owed by the first servant. This servant finds his fellow servant and hounds him to pay the relatively small amount owed to him, not recognizing the incredible irony and hypocrisy of his demand. When the fellow servant cannot pay the debt, the first servant sends him to debtor’s prison. This is reported to the king, who becomes enraged, saying, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you? (Mt 18:21-33).

This goes straight to the heart of the gospel. Disciples forgive others, knowing how much they have been forgiven by the Lord. New Covenant believers are those who live in the knowledge that the Lord has not only forgiven all iniquity but chooses not to remember it (Jer. 31:34). The prayer the Lord taught his disciples includes the admonition to “forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Mt 6:12). Receiving and extending forgiveness are inseparable elements of Kingdom living.

Even prayer and worship hinge on freeing the heart from offenses and unforgiveness; we are not released from our indebtedness until we release others from their indebtedness to us (Mk 11:25-26), leaving our gifts of worship on the altar until we have done so.

Some of us are really good at this. Others find this teaching of Jesus extremely challenging. But either way, no one is exempted.

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Lord, would you work in us the willingness to obey your command to forgive?

Broken Cisterns or Living Water?

I’ve heard Tim Keller describe prayer as “intimacy with the infinite.” This idea intrigues me—the majestic, infinite God stoops down to hear the cries of his creatures. He comes near. In fact, he comes inside. Intimacy: Into me you see, O Lord.

We are connected in Christ to the mystery of the infinite and the eternal. This is something we just cannot fully grasp while in these mortal bodies. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes exclaimed,

“I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race.  He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (3:10-11).

No one can fathom. Throughout history, humans have denied this because of pride. Because Adam and Eve ate of the wrong tree, they thought they had become like God, and we still pay the price. One way that we pay the price is in our tendency to try to make the infinite finite, and the eternal temporal. The prophet Jeremiah lamented over this in the name of the Lord,

“My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn themselves cisterns—broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 15:16).

Instead of going to the infinite source of all life, truth, and righteousness, we choose religion, idolatry, or human wisdom over simple trust and obedience. We think we can tame, explain, capture the living Lord of the Universe and find peace and satisfaction in this. We can figure out the mysteries of God. This is likened to making cisterns. Cisterns can be useful if they are intact. But the Lord tells us that these cisterns we make are not. They are useless in the end, because they leak.

Jesus uses similar imagery twice in the Gospel of John. To the Samaritan woman at the well, who starts to debate with him about religion, Jesus answers, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (4:10).  Dear woman, if you knew the God of infinite supply, you wouldn’t be asking me for a little bucketful!

“Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (4:14).

man wearing blue shorts holding vehicle tire facing waterfalls

In the second account, Jesus cries out to the people at the feast in Jerusalem,

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” John 7:38).

Jesus speaks the language of rivers and fountains. He isn’t interested in cisterns. He is the Lord of the infinite supply. He is the God of eternity. He is clothed in everlasting light, and his ways are past finding out (Job 36:26).

One day we will understand more fully what it means to become one with the infinite, and to enjoy eternal communion with him. We will see beyond the blurriness of the looking glass. We won’t try to satisfy ourselves with little sips out of our broken cisterns. And yet we will still be overwhelmed and overcome by the beauty and mystery of our holy God.

 “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ All the angels stood around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures, and fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying:

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom,
Thanksgiving and honor and power and might,
Be to our God forever and ever.
Amen.”

 

Servants Rejoice

In the famous parable of the prodigal son, after a time of riotous living, the prodigal comes to himself in the pigpen. He recalls how well his father provided for the needs of his servants, and determines to return home and beg to be hired as one of them. As the young man approaches, the father runs out to greet him joyously. His household servants are part of the welcoming committee; it is they who put the robe on his back and the ring on his finger, who kill the fattened calf and host the celebration. To these servants the father exclaims, “This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Lk. 15:24). All is forgiven, restored, reconciled. The presence of the servants amplifies the grace, love and joy of the father.

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But this is not the end of the story, nor the end of the servants’ role. The older brother, hearing sounds of celebration, asks the servants to explain what the noise is about. One replies, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound” (15:27). The self-righteous brother is disgruntled about the fuss being made over the return of this errant brother, when he has remained at his father’s side all along.  Interestingly, it is the servants who directly confront his hard heart, reminding him of the love and goodness of the father toward all. The servants here extol the merciful heart of the father.

This parable beautifully reveals the honor given to God’s servants to deal with two categories of sinners, those who have strayed and are returning home, and those within the fold who are bound by the sin of self-righteous, religious snobbery.

Servants rejoice with their Father and the angels of God when those in the former category repent, come to their senses and return home to the household of God, the church. Simultaneously, when those in the latter category discourage the church from rejoicing at the redemption of souls, servants are ready to declare the Father’s delight in both those who have stayed close to home and those who have departed and returned. Servants thus bring unity within the household, by representing well the merciful heart of the Father to one and all. Servants intercede for the lost and for the found.

Servants rejoice!

Sitting in the Ashes

Most people, even those who know little of the Bible, have heard of Job, and connect his name to great loss and suffering. He’s the poster child for the apologetic question of why God allows bad things to happen to good people. But that is not my focus here.

My focus is how Job’s three friends attended to him when they heard of his overwhelming losses.  Job’s friends are famous in the story for being “miserable comforters” (16:2), but they didn’t start out that way.

These friends are given a bad rap. I want to give them credit for what they did well and encourage us to follow that example. Then of course, there needs to be a word of caution about how and when they stopped being helpful.

Job lost everything but his wife and his life. He suddenly lost all ten of his children, all of his servants, all of his livestock, all of his assets, and even his health. He began to curse the day he was born.

Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, heard of the calamity that had befallen him. These men “made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him” (2:11).  

This is the first thing they did right. They came. They traveled some distance, leaving their own families and businesses to bring love and comfort to their friend. It appears their intentions were right and good.

When they saw him from far off, they didn’t even recognize him. That’s how devastated he was, sitting in the ashes and scraping with a shard of pottery the “loathsome sores” (2:7) covering his entire body.

Their response was the second right thing they did: “They raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven” (2:12).  Job’s friends didn’t just stand at a distance feeling sorry for him. They joined him in his grief. They took it upon themselves.

The third thing they did is the most beautiful and praiseworthy, in my opinion. “And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (2:13). They sat in the ashes with him.

How many of us have done that? I’ve never put all else aside, forsaking all other concerns, keeping silent for an entire week to be fully present with a grieving friend. Have you?

Contrast that with Job’s wife. Her counsel to her husband was to let go of his integrity, and to “curse God and die” (2:9). We must excuse her, because she lost everything too. She clearly was incapable of bringing any comfort. The text doesn’t say, but I hope some friends showed up for her as well.

As for Job, his friends stepped in, and with their silent presence, they waited and grieved together.

When did these friends start to go wrong? As soon as they started talking. They started explaining things. They lectured Job in theology. They impugned Job’s integrity. They condescended in self-righteous indignation. They rebuked him as he cried out to God, desperately trying make sense of things for himself.

Job’s friends accused him of presumption and arrogance. Worst of all, they made him feel alone and forsaken. These friends, with their many words, undid the beautiful ministry they had practiced sacrificially for those seven days and seven nights.

The lesson is obvious. When we have friends who are experiencing great grief and loss, we are called and commanded in Scripture to go to them, to suffer with them, to uphold them and help them carry their heavy burdens (Gal 6:2; Rom 12:15).  We quietly pray and cry out to God with them.  We simply stay present.

We wait to speak until we know we have a word from God that will speak truth in the right way and at the right time. We are exceedingly gentle and patient. We put their needs ahead of our own.

This may mean that we have to keep our mouths shut and our opinions to ourselves for a very long time. There is a time for theological arguments, but this is not it.

Grieving friends need our loving presence.  They need for us to be willing to sit in the ashes with them,  so they know they are not alone.

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The Seal of God

Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most         vehement flame.                           (Song of Solomon 8:6)

Occasionally I will buy or be given a product that is ensconced in seemingly impenetrable plastic and cardboard packaging. I’ll wrestle with it a little bit, but I have a low frustration tolerance for this sort of thing. Thankfully, my husband or daughter will notice, and being individuals with stronger mechanical skills, they will rescue me and extricate the object from its hard shell.

Whoever decided to package it that way wanted to insure it got to the designated recipient clean, whole, without signs of tampering. I find this analogous to the way in which Christ-followers have been sealed by God–authenticated, protected, and marked with no expiration date.

When the Bible was written, it was customary to use a seal, made of clay or wax, to close a letter or official document. It would often be marked with an insignia of the sender pressed into the wax by a ring or stamp. References to a seal are found in Deuteronomy, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Song of Solomon, and all the Major Prophets. Usually a sealed document contained an official order by an important ruler, or a written covenant between two parties. If a document was sealed in this way, it indicated authenticity and the full authority of the sender and signatory. The seal protected the document from being violated by someone other than the intended recipient.

In the New Testament, the concept and imagery of the seal is used quite a few times. Jesus proclaimed that those who belong to him have been sealed by God. The seal indicates that the believer has the unconditional guarantee of eternal life (Jn 6:27). The seal tells the world that an individual has received the testimony of God and believes it to be true (Jn 3:33). The seal marks those who belong to him.

Paul refers to the sign of circumcision given to Abraham as a “seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all them that believe…” (Rom 4:11). Circumcision was the outward sign, the seal with God’s insignia, signifying that God had already rewarded the inward faith of Abraham.

A similar idea is conveyed in 2 Corinthians and Ephesians. But rather than an outward sign on the body, the seal is the “holy Spirit of promise” (Eph 1:13), an “earnest of the Spirit” in the heart (2 Cor 1:22). The Spirit given to the believer serves as a down-payment on the promise of eternal life. What an amazing truth!

This is a better sign of our covenant with God than any engagement ring or physical mark could be. The Spirit that seals also imparts and infuses the believer with holy fire and supernatural power!  He anoints us for ministry, strengthens us in our trials, inspires us in our praise and worship, leads us to his truth, and protects us from our enemies.

What a privilege it is to carry this seal of God upon our hearts! The Holy Spirit within testifies that we have been bought and paid for by the perfect blood of Jesus Christ. We are his beloved, authentically and eternally joined to him by covenant.

No one can break in and wreck us without our permission. We are enclosed and surrounded by heaven’s perfect packaging.

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The Exemplary Prayer Life

As I was reading through the book of Nehemiah recently, my attention went toward Nehemiah’s habit of praying through every circumstance he faced. Amidst the fascinating story of the return of Jewish exiles to rebuild the ravaged city of Jerusalem, there is this portrait of a leader who constantly relies upon God’s strength, protection and favor. He is a true man of prayer.

The first instance is when Nehemiah learns of the suffering and devastation overcoming the Jewish people in their homeland. He “sat down and wept and mourned for days… fasting and praying before the God of heaven” (1:4).  He spoke to Yahweh as though they had a longstanding and intimate connection. And yet, Nehemiah’s tone was one of awe, reverence and the right kind of fear of God. He interceded, confessing the sins of Israel, pleading for God’s mercy, and asking for favor with the Persian king to permit him to undertake a mission trip to Jerusalem. During his audience with the king, he prayed silently again, and the LORD answered. Lo and behold, “it pleased the king to send me” (2:6).

The next example occurs when Nehemiah and his construction crews encounter extreme hostility and opposition from some of the local leaders in Jerusalem. Sanballat and Tobiah were the ringleaders, taunting and threatening the Jewish builders. Nehemiah’s response? “And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night” (4:9). The answer of God was to “frustrate” the plan of their enemies, and “we all returned to the wall, each to his work” (4:15). Nehemiah implements the strategy of providing the workers with a tool in one hand and a weapon in the other, with a sword strapped to their sides.

In the next chapter, the text cites Nehemiah’s godly, wise leadership when conflict arises within the Jewish population. Because of his habit of seeking the Lord’s counsel at every turn, he is able to quickly and effectively arbitrate these conflicts. In response to his judiciousness, “all the assembly said ‘Amen” and praised the LORD” and “did as they had promised” (5:5).

The local troublemakers continue to plot against Nehemiah and his team, seeking not only to stop the work, but to destroy Nehemiah’s reputation and fill him with fear. In prayer, Nehemiah expresses his trust in the LORD to administer justice and protect him from every form of harm. And thus, the work was completed “with the help of our God” (6:16).

Then another amazing God-thing happens! Ezra the priest shows up with the book of the Law; the priests and Levites begin preaching and teaching “both men and women and all who could understand what they heard” (8:2).  Nehemiah recognizes when the Spirit of God begins to move powerfully among the people. He is a mature believer, having trained his senses through prayer. He knows how to steward and shepherd people in the revival that breaks out in response to the hearing of the word of God. It is a glorious time!

As is often true during revival, celebration and deep repentance occur simultaneously amidst the Israelites. Nehemiah recounts for the people the history of God’s goodness and forbearance with them. In his public prayer, he reminds God, “You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (9:17). The conviction that comes to the people leads them to return in their hearts to their ancient covenant with Yahweh. They agree to separate themselves from pagan nations and their idolatrous practices. They pledged “to walk in God’s Law that was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord and his rules and his statutes” (11:29). The priests and Levites were also transformed, promising, “We will not neglect the house of our God” (11:39).

Having restored order and beauty to the city and temple, Nehemiah next presides over the establishment of worship in the manner of David’s tabernacle. Sacrifices, dedications, and purification rituals are instituted with the background music of two grand choirs, and “the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away” (13:43). This is a picture of complete restoration of a place and a people. It could not have happened without the leadership and authentic prayerfulness of this extraordinary man, Nehemiah.

In summary, Nehemiah demonstrated many types of prayer on many occasions. He prayed intercessory prayers, prayers of repentance, prayers for favor and protection, prayers of trust and submission, prayers for wisdom, prayers for revival, prayers of remembrance, prayers of dedication, and prayers of consecration. How wonderful. His story teaches us that prayer is always necessary, and always appropriate. There is no time when crying out to God is a bad idea.  It is prayer to God that sends, upholds, strengthens, and ultimately rewards God’s people. Because God delights to hear our prayers.

Lord, please make us people of constant prayer, like Nehemiah. Train us in your ways. Remind us, O Lord, to seek your face in every circumstance. Amen.

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Motives in Ministry

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Ministry in the kingdom of God can be tremendously fulfilling and joyful. We live to feel the Lord’s smile upon us. We long to know that he is blessing our work with fruitfulness for his glory. It’s  one of the best feelings in the world.

But Christian ministry is also fraught with many hazards, as any experienced pastor or minister can tell you. Ministers who are not careful of their boundaries can very easily find themselves overworked, overwhelmed, or overcome by temptation and moral failure. Even those who are good at setting boundaries are not immune from intense pressure, hurt, and disappointment.  This can lead to ethical compromise and impure motives.

People in the body of Christ assume much about their leaders, often unconsciously. There are unspoken expectations that in the kingdom of God, people—and leaders especially– should be more just, kind, honest, and fair than those who are lost in the world’s ways. But people are people everywhere, inside and outside the church. And where you have people, you have problems. The best of us are imperfect, and are bound to disappoint others, despite our finest, most noble efforts.

Nevertheless, leaders are accountable to God for their leadership, and for the ethics and motives that undergird it (Heb. 13:17).  Much of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is a defense of Paul’s leadership and a full disclosure of the motives of his heart. He argues fervently that his teaching and behavior towards them were the outworking of his inner motives. Because he worked so diligently to conform his heart to Christ’s, this was to be the basis for their evaluation of his apostleship.

To drive home the point, Paul repeatedly contrasts right and wrong motives. He exhorts disciples of Christ to carefully discern what defines authentic, honorable ministry of the gospel. We must understand well what authentic, Christ-centered ministry looks like, so we will recognize and avoid ministries driven by unholy motivations.

I’ll just give a summary and a few examples from Paul’s very heartfelt letter.

We’ll start with the idea that Paul and his team of leaders were not operating from a hidden agenda, but from a burning desire to present the truth, commending it to “every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (4:2). He didn’t ask the Corinthians for money, or praise, or recognition as someone great. He had brought his ego into submission to the word and will of God. He insists, “It is Christ’s love that fuels our passion and motivates us” (5:14, TPT).

From there, we see that Paul stood in “holy awe of God” (5:11). His fear of God prohibited him from ever handling the word of God with trickery or deceptiveness. There were no confusing mixed messages. He didn’t cover up or avoid confronting people with the truth, even when it stung. In the letter, he expresses his anguish at having appeared harsh at times in his presentation of the truth. Yet he celebrates the fruit that resulted. In one of my favorite New Testament passages, Paul expresses great satisfaction with the Corinthians:

“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves…” (7:10-11).

Paul demonstrates the heart that Jesus seeks in those who are making disciples.

What is most compelling and convincing about the authenticity of Paul’s ministry—one we should seek to emulate—is the high price he paid for the privilege. He presents “proof” of his legitimacy in Chapter 6, detailing his endurance amidst great hardships, stress, calamity, beatings, riots, hunger, sleepless nights. Throughout every season, even when at death’s door, he clung to truthful teaching, kindness, holiness, love, and full transparency.  This fearless apostle had a clear conscience, knowing that in his heart he had never betrayed the Lord or his people.

As I read and reflect on these things, I pray that I will be able to say the same thing at the end of my race. Whatever life and ministry throws at me, I want to be able to say that my heart was steadfast, true, and noble, motivated always by burning devotion to Jesus Christ, his word, and his church.

Messengers

“The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place” (2 Chron. 36:15)

When I lived in New York City in the 1980’s, it seemed that bicycle messengers were everywhere, weaving adroitly through multiple lanes of traffic, miraculously (it seemed) arriving in one piece at their destinations. This was before business transactions could be executed by computer or video conference. At each step in a business deal, executives would dispatch bicycle wizards with parcels holding important papers for their counterparts across town. When received, the documents would be examined, revised, and signed, and another messenger would return them to the original sender. The need for reliable couriers provided a rather risky livelihood to many fearless cyclists. This is still an image that comes to mind when I think of messengers.

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I realize it might be difficult for younger people who have never known life without computers to find an appropriate image to associate with the concept of “messenger.” In our day, messages can be delivered instantly and effortlessly. Therefore, when we consider the geographical and cultural distances between people groups during the centuries when the Bible was being written, it is mind-boggling to consider how information got transmitted. They didn’t even have bicycles!

Messengers had to walk, or ride on pack animals, or sail on ships. They were essential to the functioning of all civil, social, and governmental systems. They were sent to execute transactions, deliver peace treaties, warn neighboring leaders of impending war or invasion, and in general, to communicate essential information across geographic and cultural boundaries.

In his parables, Jesus often portrays servants who function as messengers for the Master. In the parable of the great banquet (Lk. 14:16-24), for instance, a servant was tasked by the master of the house with informing the invited guests that the banquet was ready. When the invitees made excuses and refused to come, the servant was then commanded to find “the poor and crippled and blind and lame” and bring them into the party. When that was done, there was still room, so the servant was to “go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in”.

It is evident that Jesus intended this parable to show that all types of people–but especially those whom the world considers despised and unworthy, will find a seat at the table in the great house of God. Others who seem secure in their own righteousness will forfeit the opportunity. But the parable also tells us that his trusted servants are charged with bringing people in, that the Master’s house may be filled. He could send angels to speak for him (and sometimes does!), but he sends us too.

God still speaks today. He looks for faithful servants who will carry his messages to the church and to the world. With the Great Commission of Jesus, God’s servants are sent to all nations, to make disciples everywhere, baptize them, bring them into the refuge of God’s family, and teach them to obey Jesus’ commandments (Mt 28:19-20). This could be construed as an exalted position, but it is a responsibility entrusted to all who are willing–whosoever believes!

When Jesus sent out his twelve disciples, their primary message was, “The kingdom of God has come near.” They ventured out into a Roman culture that was largely hostile to their message. They followed Jesus’ instructions, and returned joyfully reporting how God had used them to bring truth, healing, and deliverance throughout the Galilee.

This same message of the kingdom and its power and love is what the world needs to hear.  It is unpopular to say, but there are severe consequences for repeatedly rejecting the message of God and causing harm to his messengers (see the parable of the vineyard in Matthew 21:33-41).

But the God of the Bible is merciful. Over and over, he dispatches his messengers and gives human creatures opportunity to join their lives and destinies to him and his liberating truth.

Thank you for your patience with your people, Lord. Help us to be faithful messengers for you.

Trusting God and Loving People

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A few weeks ago, while on a trip, I heard in a radio interview the statement, “We are never commanded in Scripture to trust people, only to love them. We are commanded to trust God and to love people.”

This arrested my attention, and I have been chewing on it ever since. More than just pondering it intellectually, I have been seeking application, and finding plenty as I go about life and ministry.

Last week I became aware of an immediate need within my church family. A woman, I’ll just call her Jane, had begun attending recently. She had to be hospitalized for a few days, and when ready for release, had no transportation home. After various group texts between church leaders, it became clear that no one in that loop was available to help. But I was. I was just about to leave my office anyway. I didn’t have any place I needed to be right away. I even had a full tank of gas. So, I simply checked in with the Lord to ask whether he wanted to send me on this assignment of picking her up and getting her where she needed to go. I got a green light, so I headed in her direction.

The woman in question is quite a character. When meeting her, it doesn’t take long to understand that her body and mind have been ravaged by years of very hard living—drug addiction, prostitution, homelessness, trauma, disease. She is used to being neglected and neglecting herself. Now that she has been born again and is surrounded by Christians of good will, she is quick to ask for help, and she is persistent until she gets an answer.  This can be experienced in church world as intrusive and inappropriate.

I knew this about her. I knew that she has probably learned in her difficult life to use manipulation to get her needs met. I also suspected that the assignment would take me far out of my way, to not the greatest part of town. I knew there was a chance that she would need more than just a ride—some cash, or some food, or another side errand. I knew that this mission of mercy could quickly become very inconvenient indeed. This is not a person I trust. At least not yet.

As I was on my way, I recalled the statement I had heard about trust and love. I thanked the Lord that he was completely worthy of my trust, and I was trusting him with my safety and welfare. I confirmed my trust in him to help me to establish a boundary with Jane if necessary. I reminded myself that I can trust God to be my strong tower and refuge at all times.  Therefore, I was able to perform an act of love for Jane without concern about whether I trusted her or not. My duty was to trust God, and this would free me to love Jane.

It is possible to love people without trusting them. But it might be impossible to truly trust another human being without loving them. I trust my husband to a great extent, because he has demonstrated trustworthiness over almost 32 years of love and marriage. But I don’t trust him completely, because he is a human being. He has a very good track record with me, but not a perfect one.  On the human level, he is the person I trust the most. I could list some friends and family members I also trust a lot. But not completely.

Only God Almighty–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—can be trusted absolutely. To speak truth, to uphold righteousness and justice, to administer grace and mercy, in just the right way at just the right time. Always.

We must never allow broken trust with people to damage our trust in the LORD. If we maintain steadfast trust in him, we are free to risk extravagant acts of love for people, whether we trust them or not.

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Prov. 3:4-5, NIV).