The Influence of One Life (Revisited)

“The honor of man is short-lived and fleeting. There’s so little difference between man and beast, for both will one day perish. Such is the path of foolish men and those who quote everything they say, for they are here today and gone tomorrow!” (Ps. 49:12-13, TPT)

Photo by Anna-Louise on Pexels.com

About ten years ago, my extended family gathered to bury my mother’s remains at the family cemetery plot in upstate New York. The little country graveyard was behind the church where my grandfather, a Presbyterian minister, had served as pastor many decades earlier. He and my grandmother were buried there, along with my mother’s brothers and their wives who had passed before her. 

As I stood with my siblings and cousins in the middle of that circle of grave markers, I was overwhelmed with a sense of how fleeting is a single life. We were honoring our ancestors, but after this brief gathering, who would tell the stories of these people?

I was burdened with the realization that if we did not intentionally share with our children and grandchildren who these people were, and what mark they made on this world, in only one generation no one on the planet would remember that they ever existed. Even if we did share the stories, would our children pass them on to their children and grandchildren? Not likely.

This was one of those moments of existential ache, knowing that my life and death would probably be much the same. There might be a crowd at my funeral (I’d like to think so), and I would be missed by some for a while. But unless I left something behind that continued to represent my time here, before long there would be very few who would say that their lives were impacted by my brief sojourn on the planet.

In a worldly sense, what can a person leave behind that continues to exert influence on future generations?

Of course, there are children and grandchildren. Who can say what they will do and what their lives might mean to those who come after? Some of the choices my husband and I have made were not what we would have chosen if we didn’t have children to consider. We would look at each other and say, “This really isn’t about us, it’s about them.”

Most of us experience a profound, wired-in longing to bring children into this world; we want our families and memories to maintain a legacy. We humbly acknowledge that we are merely one rock in a great stream rippling through the generations.

Then there are accomplishments—books written, songs composed, theories advanced, useful objects invented, paintings painted, buildings designed. These can outlive us and stretch our influence far beyond our lifetimes. Think of Aristotle and Einstein, Peter and Paul, Augustine and Aquinas, Bach and the Beatles, Da Vinci and Van Gogh. We know them through their works, some of which have endured for many centuries.  

Renowned physician and writer Oliver Sachs wrote this when he knew he had a very brief time left,

“My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate—the genetic and neural fate—of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.” *  

I agree with Sachs that each unique life is irreplaceable and inimitable, and carries its own worth, with or without an enduring influence. But Sachs was an ambitious and accomplished man. His philosophy may not have been quite so sanguine if he hadn’t made significant contributions to his field that would represent him when he was gone. He had hedged his bets.

I can appreciate to some extent the secular humanistic perspective Sachs represents, but in light of a biblical perspective, it seems rather limited. The Bible gives us “the rest of the story.” The story of how our individual stories connect with the overarching story of God.

The Psalm quoted above continues with this corollary to its ominous warning to the foolish and ungodly: “But I know the loving God will redeem my soul, raising me up from the dark power of death, taking me as his bridal partner” (Ps. 49:15, TPT). Where secular philosophers disdain any belief in a life beyond this one, the Bible declares the reality of eternal life on almost every page. It is a glorious life of covenant relationship with our Creator and King.

We want to make a difference. Having been given much, we feel a need to give back somehow. We keep believing that our efforts are not in vain, for today and after we’re gone.

So we should go ahead and have our babies, write the book, paint the painting, sing the song, teach the class, and above all, love people wherever and whenever we get the chance. Let’s bring joy, insight, comfort, and encouragement to those around us. Let us be fruitful in this strange land, like the Jewish exiles were instructed to do in Babylon.

We can be comforted knowing that the Lord knows we won’t do everything and finish everything perfectly. God accepts and cherishes us because of our trust in him as a Father. He is in the process. He celebrates our accomplishments and our good influence on others, but he loves us way, way beyond our works.

God loves us because it is his glory to love. In response, we acknowledge to all who will listen that God’s influence through the generations is more important than ours. Our highest, noblest contribution is to proclaim his goodness to all generations—

Let each generation tell its children of your mighty acts; let them proclaim your power…Everyone will share the story of your wonderful goodness; they will sing with joy about your righteousness…they will speak of the glory of your kingdom; they will give examples of  your power…for your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom. You rule throughout all generations” (Ps. 145:4,7,11,13).

He himself is our common thread in every era, worthy of praise and honor in every nation, in every generation of every family, in every soul.

Without end.

(revised from an essay previously published July 28, 2019)

Phenomenal Cosmic Power–Itty-bitty Living Space

You may recall this quote from the genie (voiced so brilliantly by Robin Williams) in the animated movie “Aladdin.” Genie was describing himself, empowered to fulfill any wish, yet trapped inside a tiny bottle until summoned by a wisher.

He could have been describing any one of us who have been filled with the Holy Spirit of God.

Human beings are made of dust. God formed a handful of dust, breathed on it, making it a living soul, and imparted to that soul the spirit-image of himself. An itty-bitty lump of dirt became infused with cosmic power.

I’ve often reflected with gratitude that “God remembers we are dust” (Ps. 103:14). This assures his compassion when we fail. We may try our best, and still fail, because of the limitations of our tiny-ness and dustiness. And God remembers.

Yet…Jesus told his disciples that those who believe in him (and that means us), would do the same works he did and even greater works! (John 14:12). Apparently, the Lord who remembers that we are dust also remembers that we have phenomenal cosmic power within. And he expects us to use it.

How are we to use the power he has placed within these soulish clods of dust? The way he did. With compassion, with love, with faith like a tiny grain of mustard seed. Isn’t it interesting that even our faith can be tiny relative to God’s power, and still accomplish mighty deeds!

Loving people is how we display our phenomenal cosmic power. Healing. Speaking words of life. Freeing people from the oppressive power of the devil. Delivering the captives.

We may think that only Jesus and the prophets of old could walk in the miraculous, because we don’t directly witness a lot of the supernatural these days. Or, more accurately, we don’t ascribe very much of what happens to the realm of the miraculous.

But we aren’t biblically correct to hold that belief. Scripture attests to the reality of the miraculous throughout. Much of what is happening today is miraculous; perhaps we haven’t trained our senses to perceive it that way. And if you believe, as many do, that we are in the last days, we should be seeing God’s beneficent power being increasingly unleashed by “ordinary” people:

“And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days”
(Joel 2:28-29).

Well, you might say, what if I minister to someone in the Spirit and they don’t get better? Or what if I prophesy and I’m not sure I’m speaking accurately? Or what if the vision I see is only the result of stress or indigestion?

That is not to be our concern. When Jesus heard two blind men calling out to him for help, he asked his disciples what was going on. The crowd told the two to shut up, but they would not. They knew Jesus, the Son of David, could heal them.

Jesus, a bit like the genie, asks them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And of course, when they said they wanted to see, that is exactly the wish that was granted (Matt. 20:29-34). If Jesus had walked by these two, hardening his heart like the crowd wanted him to, they probably would have been blind for the rest of their lives. Would anyone benefit from that?

When we know we have the ability to minister grace, provision, sight, healing, encouragement, deliverance, or hope to another hurting human and refuse to do so, I believe we are sinfully missing the purpose of our being in that place and moment.

Genie’s power was not for himself. It was for the one who rubbed the lamp. He was to wait until the wisher came along, and then grant the wisher’s requests.

What Genie wanted was freedom. That is how that story went. Up until meeting Aladdin, after Genie had granted a person’s wishes, he had to shrink back into the bottle again.

So he asks Aladdin to use one of his wishes to ask for his own freedom, and Aladdin eventually does so. Isn’t that a beautiful analogy to our salvation? Once we are freed from the confinements of our sin and mortal flesh, we don’t ever have to be trapped again. And we are able to walk in power to free others. This is God’s wish.

Pretty good deal for some clods of dirt.

Seed Stories

The parables Jesus tells in Matthew 13 are some of the best known in Scripture. They form a set of seed stories, metaphors for how, where and when the seed of the word of God is planted in our lives, and the level of fruitfulness or barrenness that results. After telling these parables, Jesus cries out to us from 2000 years ago, “Let anyone who has ears listen” (Matt. 13:9). I have ears, do you?

I’ve heard preachers hold forth on these seed stories over the years, and have thought, “I’m always going to be one of the ‘good ground’ people.” At this point in my life, with a bit more humility, I see that I have been all types of ground when it comes to receiving seed. I’ve been hard, shallow, thorny, weedy, and yes, sometimes good ground that produces good fruit. It depends on what day or season you look at in my life story. I believe that this variability is experienced by most of us.

Jesus told the parable of the sower and the seed from a boat, pushed offshore so the massive crowd could hear him better because of the natural amplification produced by the water. His audience was a mixture of men, women, and children, religious and unreligious, rich and poor, healthy and sick.

Jesus constantly had these very mixed crowds of seekers following him around at this point in his ministry. Some wanted his help and encouragement, some were curious, and some wanted to find fault with him.

With his closest disciples, Jesus spoke plainly about the kingdom. But when in the presence of crowds that included people with ignorance or unbelief, he used stories. He provided word pictures that required hearers to work a bit harder to discern and apply their meaning. Jesus quotes Isaiah in the passage to press the point that the secrets of the kingdom are not available to everyone; they are available to those whose hearts diligently seek and crave after the source of the secrets.

When a sower throws seed on a stony path, Jesus says that it never gets planted because the birds come and carry it away. This applies to those who hear the word, but they don’t understand it. They are innocent, or ignorant, or both. It bounces off. Their gullibility makes them victim to the thievery of the enemy, and they miss their opportunity to become living, growing organisms. Maybe this corresponds to the people we know who just aren’t yet ready to receive truth.

Some of the sower’s seed falls on rocky, shallow ground. It grows up quickly, like a weed. But as soon as conditions get hot and dry, it withers up, because it has no root system. Do you know some people like this? They’ll show up for a show, but their commitment is shallow, so they are not faithful to the word once they get home. They may stay alive for a while, but if they don’t dig down a bit deeper and let some roots hold them in place, they will not produce fruit.

In the third instance, the seed falls on arable soil, and begins to grow. But just when it might become fruitful, thorny plants sprout up and choke the life out of the soil. This corresponds to the folks who focus on temporal things—worries and riches–or worry about riches—and how to acquire them or hold onto them. We have lots of people like this all around. Worriers, schemers, covetous, or simply lost in labyrinths of secularism.

Last in the parable is the good ground. What happens to the seed that lands there?

This is ground that has been prepared, fertilized, and enriched with consistent care. Weeds and thorns are not allowed to take root. Roots grow strong and reach down deep. The birds can’t get to the seed because the seed has become a flourishing plant.  The plant, in fact, is producing more seed to scatter.

I believe this parable speaks to us in the autumn of this strange and difficult year. Maybe we were “running well” as Paul says, but the difficulties and heartaches we’ve been facing have discouraged, confused, or sidetracked us.

Remember that the heart and purpose of the disciple must not become defiled or distorted because of the circumstances and people around us. We can remain good ground. We mustn’t get lost, or compromised, or shallow, or covetous, or worldly.

Especially now, God’s people must bear fruit for the kingdom. We confound the enemies of God by remaining joyful and abundantly alive. This will be recognizable by unbelievers and by believers. It will reveal our confidence in God, and our certain hope for a future in him. We are seed bearers who produce fruit, and reproduce disciples for Jesus Christ. We daily sow seed in all directions, expecting to sometimes encounter really good ground.  

Identity Politics Revisited

(previously published January 19, 2019)

I haven’t been watching a lot of news lately. I find it necessary and infinitely more beneficial to keep my focus on Scripture, worship, work, and what I sense the Spirit is saying each day.

Even so, none of us can escape the reality that the political and social landscape is not pretty. That’s an understatement. Referring to our eternal, reliable source of knowledge and wisdom leads us to understand how the cultural climate ought to affect us within our own spheres of influence.

There is a prevailing hostility and divisiveness in our culture. People are defining and aligning themselves with others according to some aspect of their identity—skin color, ethnicity, language, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, or some combination of the above. Their specialness is purported to entitle them to some distinct, ordained audience or influence upon social policy, without regard for how this impacts society as a whole.

I believe the pundits call this “identity politics.” It is “us-and-them-ism,” to coin a phrase. The Bible speaks of this social phenomenon in many places.

In his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul lists the markers of his identity, his special-ness. He was:

circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless” (Phil 3: 5-6).

For a Jew of his day, he had an outstanding pedigree. It set him apart from others who were not like him. But instead of boasting about or standing upon these markers of his status, Paul remarkably calls it all a big pile of dung, or garbage, or manure, or worthless trash, depending on what translation one is reading.

How can Paul proclaim this? For the answer, we can look at some turning points found in the Acts of the Apostles.

Before his conversion, Paul was called Saul. He was a zealous Pharisee, a self-righteous defender of the Law of Moses and rabbinic tradition, ruthlessly pursuing followers of the Way. He was determined to do his part to put a stop to a gospel message that seemed to be spreading like a virus throughout the Roman Empire.  Saul saw Christians as a threat to his own beliefs and way of living (sound familiar?), so he sought to snuff them out.

But something happened along the way. He encountered the risen Christ himself.

Saul heard the voice of Jesus calling to him. He was knocked off his horse and struck blind for three days. God sent a humble disciple to lay hands on Saul, restore his sight, and communicate his calling as an apostle of Christ.  After this, he got a new name and a new assignment.

Paul tore up his old resume. His Jewishness and religiosity didn’t count for a thing anymore. His training with the rabbis only mattered to the extent that he could cite Scriptures proving that Jesus Christ was the Messiah they had been waiting for.

As a missionary, Paul went first to the Jews because they were his people. When in a new town on his missionary journeys, he started his preaching in the synagogues. But he soon realized that God had commissioned him to bring the good news to the Gentiles. In Antioch of Pisidia he rebuked the unbelieving Jews, saying,

We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46).

Before encountering Jesus, he wouldn’t have considered defiling himself by keeping company with Gentiles!

At around the same time, Peter was experiencing his own turning point. While lost in prayer on a rooftop, the Lord showed him a vision of all sorts of creatures considered unclean for Jews to eat.  He commanded Peter to kill and eat them.

Peter protested, defending his religious purity. (This seems a strange way to communicate, but the Lord can be as strange toward us as he likes). The revelation to Peter was, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15).

The application of the revelation was soon understood when messengers knocked on the door, summoning Peter to minister to a Gentile centurion and his household. When they readily received the word and the Spirit, Peter reported to his friends, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism” (Acts 10:34).

There it is.  God does not show favoritism, or as the King James has it, he is “not a respecter of persons.

In the cultures of this world, all the things that make us appear different to one another are used to justify our hostility and defensiveness. But these attitudes are invalid in the kingdom of our Lord. God doesn’t play the game of identity politics. God is high above in his perfection, and as the preachers say, we all stand on the same level ground at the foot of the Cross.

To be imitators of our Lord and God, we mustn’t play favorites either. We must love without partiality, without hypocrisy (James 2:1-9; Rom. 12:9, 18) those who are like us, and those who are unlike us. It is only our love for our God that sets us apart as one family from every tongue, tribe and nation.

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

(Gal 3:26-28).

arms bonding closeness daylight

Why are You Afraid?

This week my readings have led me to think a lot about fear. Rational fear, and irrational fear, and where Jesus is when we experience either kind.

The phrase “Do not be afraid” appears 81 times in the Bible, 63 times in the Old Testament, and 18 times in the New Testament.

The first occurrence is in Genesis 15:1, when God appears to Abram and says, “Do not be afraid, Abram, for I will protect you, and your reward will be great.” This is one of several passages in Genesis that spells out God’s everlasting covenant with Abraham and his descendants. The message here, and throughout Scripture, is that God’s children should never fear, because he is always with us.

One of the most dramatic examples is the story of Jesus’ disciples struggling to keep their boat afloat while Jesus slept soundly in the back of the boat. The text includes these details: “Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat” (Matt. 8:24). They were about to get swamped, either to capsize or sink.

Pretend for a minute that you don’t know the end of the story, that Jesus “got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.” Don’t you think that the fear of the disciples was rational? They believed in that moment that they were going to die. They cried out, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” (v. 25). Jesus, his nap interrupted, asked them, “You of little faith, why, are you so afraid?” (v. 26).

Why are they afraid? Because drowning is a scary thing to think about. Most unpleasant. But this story tells us that even when to be afraid makes all the sense in the world, Jesus says not to, because he’s right there with us. He says, “Why are you afraid, I’m right here!”

Imagine a little kid who can’t swim jumping into the pool, into his father’s arms. That kid has learned to be afraid of the water, that on his own he sinks and drowns. Sensing his limitations in a dangerous environment, and making a choice based on the fear of harm or death is a sign of the emergence of rational thought.  

But all of that becomes moot as long as Dad is standing right there ready to catch him.

We can’t swim. We can’t survive the storm if the boat dumps us out. But Jesus can swim. Or rather, he doesn’t have to swim. He can rebuke the elements of fear in his presence. As long as he’s with us we are safe.

Sometimes our rational fear tells us that things are not OK. And we are quite right. But as I’ve heard John Eldredge say, and have quoted many times, “Everything is going to be OK in the end. If things are not OK, then it’s not the end.”

With Abram, the rational fear was leaving his home and making a long journey into the unknown. With Joshua, it was crossing over the Jordan into a Promised Land full of enemies. With Jacob, it was escaping famine to continue building his family in Egypt.

With Solomon, it was embarking on the gargantuan project to build a temple for the Lord. With Israel, it was exile to a foreign land. With Joseph, it was taking Mary to be his wife, in spite of the potential appearance of scandal. With the women at the empty tomb, it was understanding the possible implications of the absence of their Lord’s body.

No one would claim that these kinds of fears are not rational. But Jesus would claim that whether they are rational or irrational is irrelevant. He simply says, “Do not be afraid. I am right here, and will be with you always, even to the end of the world. I will never leave you or forsake you” (Matt. 28:20; Heb. 13:5).

So, whether it is traveling to an unknown land, or starting a project so big we can’t imagine finishing it,   or facing our enemies, or subjecting ourselves to persecution for obeying the gospel, we must incline our ear to the one who asks, “Why are you afraid?” His rhetorical question requires no answer, only the choice to trust him, even with our hearts still trembling and the boat still rocking.

What Measure Will You Use?

It never ceases to amaze me how the Holy Spirit leads me to supernatural convergences of biblical principles that turn into truth bombs in my brain. This week, as I pondered Proverbs 6 and Matthew 7 in my daily readings, one such bomb exploded.

Many of the admonishments of the book of Proverbs, including the verses that arrested my attention, have a parental tone. In fact, the author attributes them to mothers and fathers who give good instruction to their sons and daughters. The passage at hand goes further, attributing to the Lord, the ultimate parent, an inventory of things very displeasing to him:

There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him:
 haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood,
 a heart that devises wicked schemes,
 feet that are quick to rush into evil,
 a false witness who pours out lies
 and a person who stirs up conflict in the community
. (Prov. 6:16-19)

New atheists like to argue that while the New Testament God is a pretty reasonable guy, the God of the Old Testament is a mean, immoral bully. I believe this passage from Proverbs reveals this God of Israel (the exact same God, by the way, who is worshiped by Christians), to be more than fair. Unlike the gods of the pagans, whom worshipers could never be certain they’d appeased, our God is quite clear about what pleases him. He is also abundantly clear about human attitudes and actions that bring judgment.

God’s judgment is aroused by falsehood, pride, murder, malicious conspiracies, and the sowing of strife. But how does the judgment come? And how do we make things right?

A few verses later, Proverbs states,

“For a command is a lamp, teaching is a light, and corrective discipline is the way to life.”

God’s teachings are a lamp that is never extinguished. Ongoing teaching should always accompany salvation because this brings us consistently into the light that the lamp of God radiates. This is called discipleship, and it never ends until we breathe our last.

Along the way, at whatever points God’s teaching brings conviction, discipline, and correction, we are assured that we are progressively gaining the way of life God prescribes. What is detestable to God becomes detestable to us as well.

This is not legalism. It is the kind of judgment we ought to welcome, because it comes from the Father heart of God via the Holy Spirit, and it is sent to restore us.

In Matthew 7, we find Jesus teaching about judgment in a different context. (*sound of pages turning*). The first verse is,

               Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged.”

This verse is thrown around completely out of context these days by believers and unbelievers alike. It comes out of the box when someone is perceived to be questioning or condemning a particular attitude or behavior in another. The verse is a handy tool to shore up moral relativism and shoot an accusation. The accusation is, “Doesn’t the Bible say that you’re not supposed to judge? How dare you sit in judgment of how I live my life?”

Let’s look at what comes next, shall we?

“For you will be judged by the same standard with which you judge others, and you will be measured by the same measure you use.Why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the beam of wood in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a beam of wood in your own eye? Hypocrite! First take the beam of wood out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye.

One understanding of this is that we are not to judge others without examining ourselves first. If we are caught up in our own unacknowledged, unconfessed, unrepented sin, we bring judgment upon ourselves when we judge others. We all know that old lesson about the one finger pointed out at someone while the other three fingers point back at ourselves.

There are many illustrations of this. People involved in adultery or perversion dare not judge homosexuals for their lifestyle. People who predominately use race as their way of classifying and identifying people as a means to their own political ends dare not go around accusing others of racism.

Those who routinely lie to hide their faults and weaknesses ought not call other people liars. Those who have no objection to the deaths of many millions of pre-born babies lose all credibility when they stridently claim that each human life matters, whatever amount of melanin in the skin of that human.

It is not hypocrisy to judge sin and injustice when we see it. Sometimes we must, because to represent God’s righteousness it means that we hate sin. But it is hypocrisy to call out the sin of others when we ourselves are engaging in the same sin, or a similar sin called by a different name.

Nothing is hidden from the light and judgment of God. He cares about “integrity in the inner self” (Psalm 51: 6), and he can see right through the outer shell. Because we are all works in progress, and fallible, most of the time we need to check ourselves carefully and hold our tongues.

Another understanding of Jesus’ teaching brings us back to Proverbs. The same measure we use to judge others will be used by others—and God—to judge us. For those of us who humbly love and fear God, the only proper, righteous, accurate measure of right and wrong is the commandments he has given us.

Coming into the light of his righteous, eternal command puts us back together again, and renews our fellowship with him. This brings life and peace. Denial or ignorance of God’s will is not going to be a valid excuse when we stand before the throne.

We need to examine ourselves and remove our logs before we go around scrutinizing someone else’s splinters. Jesus said this, so as his disciples, we can take it as a command. The command is our lamp. His teaching has brought it to the light. Every time we stumble into this potential error, we have the opportunity to turn and conform more closely to a Jesus way of life.

 What is the measure of judgment? Obedience to God and walking in his grace and righteousness. Jesus did this perfectly, so he is entitled to use this measure to judge those whose lives demonstrate contempt for God after he has offered them his grace.

We don’t use an unreliable, changeable, temporal measuring stick provided by a debased culture. The measure we use is Scripture. When we witness in ourselves or others something God detests, we must judge it by that measure. Otherwise we quench the light of God’s truth in our own lives. But let’s make sure that we deal first deal with those logs in our own eyes.

Wholehearted

Recently one of our guilty pleasures at my house has been watching America’s Got Talent. The production design of the show is criminally noisy and garish, a great example of sensory overload for the viewer.

But we enjoy watching people who have invested tremendous time and effort pursuing their talents. Any one of them could be a poster child for wholehearted pursuit of big goals. Their stories are inspiring.

Whether it is dance, song, sport, magic, or danger, each person really wants to be recognized for having achieved a level of excellence by working very hard at their given talent. I really enjoy watching people aim for their best and get rewarded for it.

Wholeheartedness goes beyond physical effort. It occupies the entire soul. It drives us beyond normalcy, mediocrity, or acceptance of limitations. Wholehearted people aren’t apt to make excuses. They take responsibility for their own path, whether it leads to success or failure.

Wholeheartedness goes way beyond the performing arts. Wholehearted people are found in business, education, ministry, and even politics (sometimes). Everywhere.

Please don’t misunderstand me, especially you Brené Brown fans—I’m a fan too. I’m not talking about perfectionism, or obsession, or a lack of self-worth that drives people to seek significance based only on their performance in life.

I agree with Brené when she defines wholeheartedness as cultivating courage, compassion, and connection, and in our vulnerability and imperfection, “daring greatly.”

Wholeheartedness, or having a whole heart, is also recognized in Scripture as a way of being and living that is commendable and honorable. It most often refers to a courageous commitment to following the righteous paths marked out by God, whatever the risks or costs.

The first people in God’s story described as wholehearted were Caleb and Joshua, two of the ten spies sent by Moses on a reconnaissance mission into the Promised Land. It was called the Promised Land because the land was promised to Abraham’s descendants as part of God’s covenant with him. Joshua and Caleb were the only spies whose hearts were allied with the God who made that promise. All of the rest trembled in fear and cowardice.

Joshua and Caleb were the only members of their generation who lived to experience the first steps into that land forty years later. Both were granted this moment of victory because they had “followed the Lord wholeheartedly” (Deut. 1:36, Josh. 14:8). God had given them a mission, and they were wholehearted enough to take it on.

Joshua became the leader of Israel after the death of Moses. Caleb, a mighty warrior into his old age, was granted a large parcel of land in Judea after the land was conquered.

Here’s another illustration. When David was planning and providing for his son Solomon to build a temple to the Lord in Jerusalem, the people of Israel responded so generously that David had to tell them to stop giving! There was no more room to store the riches coming in, “for they had given freely and wholeheartedly to the Lord” (1 Chron. 29:9). David rejoiced. What leader wouldn’t rejoice at that kind of response to a building fund drive? These worshipers were all in on creating a sacred space to honor God.

Before his death, this was part of David’s instruction to Solomon:

“And you, my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches every heart and understands every desire and every thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will reject you forever. Consider now, for the Lord has chosen you to build a house as the sanctuary. Be strong and do the work” (1 Chron. 28:8-10).

Later, at the dedication of the completed temple, Solomon cried out,

Lord, the God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below—you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way.(1 Kings 8:23).

Solomon knew that the key to the kingdom is wholehearted devotion to the God who makes impossible things possible.

 What is true of kings is also true of servants. And who are we? I can’t answer for you, but I am pleased to see myself as a servant. And “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15).

Interestingly, in Ephesians 6, Paul refers to wholeheartedness when addressing those who serve earthly masters. He exhorted them to serve with “respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” Then, to amplify this idea, he pleaded,

Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do…” (Eph. 6:5-8).

Everything we do, we dedicate to him. We don’t do it only to receive a reward, but it helps to know that we will be rewarded for our efforts if we do not quit.

It seems that wholeheartedness has everything to do with work! But it is not limited to certain types of work. It is applicable to:

Building…cleaning…designing…caring…feeding…managing…leading…painting…sweeping…selling…giving…counseling…writing…studying…teaching…mentoring…praying…

Other___________________________ What do you write here?

These thoughts and Scriptures about wholehearted living challenge me with the questions,

Are you willing to do your work until the end? Will you put your hand to the plow and not look back? (Luke 9:62)

This is not about salvation. Salvation is a redemptive work of God’s grace in the heart of anyone who puts faith and trust in the Savior. It is about allowing the Lord to inspire wholehearted feats of strength, courage, and sacrifice in his name.

It is about reaching for the prize, like those contestants on AGT. But our prize is so much better than a million dollars and the applause of people. It is union with the fiery, passionate heart of the God of the universe, and hearing the applause of heaven.

Consider now, for the Lord has chosen you…Be strong and do the work” (1 Chron. 28:10).

Servant Intercessors

The wise preacher Oswald Chambers understood the place that intercession plays in the life of the church and the individual believer. He claimed that it is one of the purest acts of service that believers can exercise, not prone to contamination by pride or selfishness.

 When we intercede with God for others, we are “brought into contact with his mind about the ones for whom we pray.” But it is more than prayer, it is a “sustained spiritual sympathy with God” in behalf of others.”[1] This kind of pure sympathy with God is much needed in the church and in the world.

There are also times when we speak for God, interceding with people on his behalf. Paul points to this when he refers to the ministry of reconciliation. We beseech people who are still separated from God, “Be reconciled!” (2 Cor. 5:20)

This type of intercession is beautifully illustrated by the servants in the familiar parable of the return of the prodigal son.The parable, found in Luke 15, was created by Jesus and told to a very mixed audience of tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, and scribes. The supposedly unrighteous mixed in with the supposedly righteous.

Jesus tells of a son who demands his inheritance early and leaves his father and brother to pursue a season of “riotous living.” We can imagine the types of activities he engaged in to waste his inheritance; they are undoubtedly some form of the same activities that entangle people today—sexual perversion, drug and alcohol abuse, gambling.

Eventually the son “hits bottom” and comes to his senses while feeding pigs in a strange land. This was a new low for a Hebrew man from a good family.

This desperate son recalls how well his father always provided for his needs and the needs of his servants. He determines to return home and beg to be hired as a servant, no longer worthy to be called a son.

As the young man approaches, the father runs out to greet him joyously. What is often ignored is that his household servants are part of the welcoming committee.

It is the servants who put the robe on his back and the ring on his finger, who kill the fattened calf and host the homecoming 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.

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 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 his errant brother. He is angry that he has gotten no recognition for remaining faithfully at his father’s side. He hardens his heart.

It is the servants who directly confront his hard heart, reminding him of the love and goodness of his father.

Why am I calling the servants in the story intercessors? Because they were given the honor of representing the father with two types of sinners, one repentant and returning to the safety of the household, and one soured by self-righteousness and unforgiveness.

Servants rejoice with their Father and the angels of God when those, like the prodigal, come to their senses and return home to the embrace of God and his people. Simultaneously, when those like the older brother refuse to rejoice at the rescuing, redeeming grace of God, servants remind them of God’s abundant mercy.

The Father cherishes both those who have stayed close to home and those who have departed and returned. He also cherishes those called as servants in his household, those who bring unity and clarity, proclaiming the tender heart of the Father to one and all. Servants intercede for the lost and for the found.

When we come to the end of the parable, Jesus does not tell us what happens to either brother. The servants have intervened with each in the father’s behalf, but we don’t know what happens next. We don’t know if the prodigal stays home and maintains a godly life, or heads back out onto his prodigal road. We don’t know if the older brother changes his attitude and becomes more gracious or continues to stew in his arrogance.

These characters are so real to us that we forget that it’s merely a parable Jesus utilized to teach some lessons about the Father’s love and kindness. Don’t you wonder how the sinners and the religious folks felt as they each began to recognize themselves in the story?

We all know a family in which a child who has strayed comes back into the fold, only to relapse into addiction and rebellion. And don’t we also know someone who struggles, like the older brother, with legalism, resentment, and unforgiveness? Maybe it is we ourselves who strongly identify with one or both of these brothers.

If we take on the role of servant-intercessors, we will follow and support the will of the Master we serve. We pursue his just and merciful purposes. We are to continually watch with him for those children who are turning toward home, and continually encourage kindheartedness in those who have remained safely in his care.


[1] Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest

Sobriety

“Sobriety” is a word so beautiful when spoken by recovering alcoholics or addicts celebrating freedom from controlling addictions. My big brother is one of them. He calls me now and then and reports to me, “I’m still sober,” and I give joyful thanks and praise to God every time I hear it.

If you ask those who have gotten sober, they will tell you that there is a lot more to it than merely abstaining from a particular mind-and-body-altering substance or behavior. Sobriety encompasses a comprehensive life change–in thinking, behavior, emotional regulation, relationship, purpose, and value system.

The founders of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous understood this well. Though AA has been adapted to be applicable to a diversity of worldviews, its founders were Christians, and the Steps started and ended with God, their “higher power.”

The program starts with confessing helplessness to manage our own lives and surrendering our unmanageable lives to God. We ask him to restore us to sanity. We accept conviction over our harmful behavior, seek to make amends, and commit to following a more honest, morally clean life. The pièce de ré​sis​tance is Step 12:

Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

Sobriety turns out to be a spiritual awakening, to be shared with others who long to be awakened. It sounds a lot like repentance to me, and receiving one of the fruits of repentance, a sober mind. A sober mind allows us to live a principled, righteous life. A sober mind gives us a capacity to overcome self-obsession and begin serving others.

Did you know that the Bible speaks in many places about the need to be sober, or sober-minded? It is one of the benefits of the new birth, as well as a characteristic of a maturing disciple. One of the most familiar passages is this:

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).

Sobriety means we aren’t asleep at the switch, or under the influence of any worldly power. If we are to avoid the plans the enemy has for us, we must be sober and watchful.

 The same writer, Peter, also tells us that when our minds are “alert and fully sober,” they become more hopeful also, joyfully watching for the return of Jesus Christ. We are empowered not to conform to our former desires, but to live in obedience to God, continual prayer, and a love for others that “covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 1:13-14; 4:7-8). Don’t we want to grab onto that way of living and not let go?

The Apostle Paul, after exhorting disciples to become living sacrifices, as their “reasonable service,” admonishes them,

“Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you” (Rom. 12:1-3).

This expresses another important aspect of having a sober, sound mind–that we have a realistic, honest appraisal of our own strengths and weaknesses. In my encounters with recovering addicts, this is one of the most refreshing aspects of their awakening. They are able to admit their faults, and at the same time, discover the ways that God has gifted them with strengths and talents. They—and all of us—need to understand how God wants to use us, even in our weaknesses, as he has uniquely fashioned us.

Some passages in the New Testament are more literal in their use of the two Greek words translated “sober.” In the Pastoral Epistles to Timothy and Titus, sober mindedness is a way of life expected of elders, deacons, older men, older women, young men, and young women. No one is left out. We are all responsible for the way we represent the name of Christ in the world.

This doesn’t just mean that we aren’t to be drunk and disorderly. Other words used in connection to this picture of sobriety are discipline, dignity, self-control, faith, love, patient endurance, solid faith, purity, love, devotion, hospitality, nobility, integrity, wholesomeness (Titus 2:1-7, TPT). As I said, comprehensive life transformation comes with a sound mind. It’s a whole package.

There is a sense in which every compulsive, sinful behavior can be characterized as lust—an inordinate, illicit craving for something to satisfy our fleshly desires. When we begin to live our lives in God, the flesh still lusts against the Spirit. But the good news is that the Spirit fights back. If we commit our time, energy, attention, and wills into the keeping of the Holy Spirit, he will help us. He will show us the way to keeping our hearts and minds pure.   

I’ll finish with Paul’s wonderful exhortation to the Thessalonians. It applies to all who put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, and want to please him in every way:

You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober.For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night.But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet (1 Thess. 5:5-8).

We don’t need alcohol, drugs, or any other life-controlling compulsion if we can embrace this joyful path of sobriety in the Lord. Let us put on the mighty armor he has provided and live as those who belong to the light.

What Cannot Be Shaken

Those acquainted with Bible prophecy can’t help wondering if we are coming into the fulfillment of “end time” events. Clearly there is a great shaking throughout the earth, in every domain—meteorology, tectonics, politics, economics, health care, religion, communication, international relations, social connection. You can fill in anything I may have left out.

Our world has changed dramatically in just a few short months. But what feels sudden to most of us is the result of pressure that has been building up gradually for a long time. Apply whatever metaphor suits you—the balloon has popped, the trigger was pulled, the iceberg was struck, the pin was pulled from the grenade.

We wonder if all the (relatively) small explosions will culminate in the scenario Jesus describes:

“There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:25-27).

Even the planets, the sun and the stars will be in uproar as we move toward Christ’s appearing. We are not given to know the timing of his return, but we recognize the signs that it is coming closer.

The writer to the Hebrews reminded the first century believers of God’s shaking Mount Sinai as he revealed his power and his Law to Moses. He declared, “This is the same God who now speaks from heaven.” There was no place to run and hide from his majestic and powerful voice on that mountain, “so what chance is there for us to escape if we turn our backs on God and refuse to hear his warnings as he speaks from heaven?” (Heb. 12:25).

The writer continues with this reference to the prophet Haggai, “Once and for all I will not only shake the systems of the world, but also the unseen powers in the heavenly realm!” (v. 26). It is clear that the Spirit is not just referring to nations, tectonic plates or hurricanes, but to every worldly, human-centered system and structure that demons employ to intimidate and manipulate people in opposition to the Lord.

His shaking will topple all of the spiritual principalities behind these systems. He will destroy both the puppets and the puppeteers.

The passage concludes with, “This phrase ‘once and for all’ clearly indicates the final removal of things that are shaking, that is, the old order, so only what is unshakable will remain” (Heb. 12:27).

Do you see that? Only what is unshakable will remain. There will be complete stability and strength. We should seek to understand what, in God’s view, are these unshakable things.

The best place to start is with the love of God, agape. His love is the greatest thing, the force that never fails when every other force is taken away (1 Cor. 13:8).

Vertically, God’s love for his people is absolutely solid. Recalling the days of Noah, when God promised never to allow the floodwaters to fill the earth, Isaiah writes,

“’Though the mountains be shaken, and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the Lord, who has compassion on you.” (Isaiah 54:10).

This promise relates to those who are in covenant with him, who will not be shaken from that bond, no matter what happens. It is for those who have put trust in his unfailing love, not for those who stubbornly resist him.

David said, “I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken” (Ps. 15:8). Another psalm compares those who trust in him to Mount Zion, “which cannot be shaken but endures forever” (Ps. 125:1). And still another, “Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken” (Ps. 62:6).

In other words, in response to his love, we trust in him completely, and have our house built upon a rock (Matt. 7:24). While all around us is shaking, we find peace, strength, and stability for our souls.

But God doesn’t want us to sit around on his promises. Instead, he says “having done all…stand”. We must use our life energy to promote God’s unshakable values and purposes. David, in Psalm 15, spells out the lifestyle of people God considers unshakable. They:

  • do what is righteous
  • speak the truth from their heart
  • utter no slander
  • do no wrong to a neighbor
  • cast no slurs on others
  • despise evil
  • honor those who fear the Lord
  • keep an oath even when it hurts
  • lend money to the poor without interest
  • do not accept a bribe 

That’s a challenging, comprehensive list of attitudes and behaviors that reinforce God’s firm foundation of love and trust in our lives. It is a sturdy set of moral absolutes that stabilize us–if we choose to apply them–in a relativistic culture that is toppling moral absolutes faster than it is toppling statues.

As anachronistic as it may seem, let’s choose to follow this way of living and being. Opening our hearts to receive God’s perfect love. Putting all our trust in the one who can hold us together when all is falling apart. Extending his faithful love to the other humans around us. Doing the right thing whether others are watching or not.

This is how we stay safe and sound, sheltered and grounded by our God, unshakable.

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