God or gods?

The book of Jonah is one of my favorites. It’s got everything a great story needs: a complex, flawed protagonist, a contest of good and evil, an action-adventure, calamity, rescue, victory. Like the best of stories, it reaches a redemptive ending without tying everything up perfectly.

Jonah, was supposedly God’s man of the day, a prophet called to speak for him. Yet he was unwilling to accept God’s assignment of rescuing the idolatrous Ninevites from the consequence of their great wickedness. God told him to go and speak to them, and Jonah skedaddled in the other direction.

How absurd that a prophet of God would think he could run away from the LORD and not be found!

As you Bible fans know, he winds up on a ship to Tarshish and the trouble begins. A fierce storm comes. The ship’s crew cry out to their gods for deliverance, and when that doesn’t work, they tell the man of God to ask his God to help.

Jonah, to his credit, ‘fesses up” to his disobedience to the God he says he worships. The crew is terrified, but they heed Jonah’s advice to go ahead and toss him overboard. The storm immediately subsides. At this point, these men are now trembling before Jonah’s God—with a capital “G”—and have forgotten their own illusory gods (small “g”).

Meanwhile, Jonah finds himself in the belly of a great fish. He cries out in prayer,

“As my life was slipping away, I remembered the Lord. And my earnest prayer went out to you in your holy Temple. Those who worship false gods turn their backs on all God’s mercies. But I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise, and I will fulfill all my vows. For my salvation comes from the Lord alone.” (Jonah 2:7-9).

Isn’t it interesting that he prays, while still in peril, as though he is already delivered by the Lord? He remembered the faithfulness of the God he was supposed to be serving.

After the fish spits him out on dry land, Jonah heads to Ninevah to speak God’s word of warning to the people.

God is always faithful to be God. He might change his plans, as he does when he chooses mercy over judgment toward Ninevah after they repent–even the livestock—in sackcloth and ashes. But he himself doesn’t change. The Apostle Paul cites for Timothy this “trustworthy saying” about the Lord:

“If we die with him, we will also live with him.If we endure hardship, we will reign with him. If we deny him, he will deny us. If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny who he is” (2 Tim. 2:11-13).

This is the way with God’s children. When we obey, he is our defender and keeper. He energizes and blesses us as we carry out his callings year after year. And when we disobey, like Jonah, he remains faithful.

So, the Ninevites are spared and Jonah goes into a sulk; he didn’t want them to be spared. He insists that he has the right take on righteousness and justice. This is religious bitterness and hardness of heart.

There’s so much to be learned from Jonah and his God. It is always better to go right into God’s assignments, even when we don’t like them. Or maybe, especially when we don’t like them. He is a rewarder of those who “diligently seek him” (Heb. 11:6), those who turn away from the lure of small gods and toward this God- with a capital “G.”

The Clothing of Heaven

In the midst of a grand transition of my life, it has proven difficult to focus and find the right moment to write. But as I sit in this lovely bakery coffee shop and turn my attention to God’s truth, I’m right back in the Holy Spirit’s glory-filled revelation of mysteries.

Today it is Colossians Chapter 3, which I’m reading in the New Living Translation. I find myself immediately arrested by some phrases, from the first verse onward.

This chapter is a deep one, the Apostle Paul admonishing Christ’s followers to become conscious of the “realities of heaven, where Christ sits at God’s right hand in the place of honor and power” (3:1).  The realities of heaven!

In these realities, there is a prescribed set of clothing to wear that is very different from the clothing of earth. This is metaphorical of course. The clothing of heaven Paul describes is like this:

Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patienceforgive anyone who offends you…Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony…And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts…And always be thankful(v12-15).

Those are some pretty nice garments.

In order to put on a new set of clothing, we have to be ready and willing to remove the old set. The old clothing is the earthly, unredeemed stuff: sexual sin, impurity, lust, shameful desires, greed, idolatry, anger, rage, malicious behavior, slander, dirty language, lying (3:5-8). Paul states that these are the things that the believers used to practice when their lives were still rooted in worldly values. But now they are stripping those things away to put on the gorgeous clothing that represents heaven.

It’s a horrific shame that so many people think negatively about Christ and his gospel. It is usually because they’ve seen awful misrepresentations of Christ and have been hurt by Christians. Christians have the unfortunate reputation of being intolerant and arrogant toward those who follow a different type of life.

Many people have felt excluded and judged by Christians. Secular media and many social institutions now reinforce the idea that all Christians are this way. The outcome is that Christianity is now the one worldview and faith position that is not tolerated in many circles.

Believe me, I know this to be true, experientially. I am working for a fantastic secular company that provides substance abuse counseling for people desiring recovery from addictions. I was speaking with a client who happens to be a Christian pastor, and he shared with me the immediate tension that permeates the Zoom group room when he makes any reference to his faith.

As a counselor in this context, I have learned over many years how to stay true to myself and my love for Christ without bringing offense or triggering the people around me. But it wears on me. Always having to be so careful not to provoke anger and defensiveness as I care for others.

I want Christ to be recognized and honored in me, not hidden away like some sort of dangerous secret. Having to be so subtle and sensitive about my faith all the time keeps me boxed in so that I’m not able to fully enjoy the freedom Christ has provided me. It’s a dilemma many of us face as Christians these days.

So, this morning I’m encouraged and emboldened by Paul’s words. He exhorts me to keep wearing my heavenly clothing and stay clear of the other kind that no longer fits anyway.

I feel strongly that if people think that Christians are other than how Paul describes them in Colossians 3, it means that the Christians being observed have gotten it all wrong. They’ve got on the wrong set of clothing. They signal that they haven’t taken on the value system of heaven.  

Throughout his letters, Paul conveys the idea that whatever our state, status, or circumstance in life, Christ is really all that matters. We ought to be on the path of becoming more like him, and this is how it can look:

Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts. And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father” (Col. 3:16-17).

The new nature, our new set of clothing, should be fitting and beautiful. It should attract people toward us and not repel them in fear or disgust. It should make people hungry for heaven, covetous of the beauty we have found there.

The kingdom and its wardrobe are open to whosoever wishes to enter and find love to wear.

angel statue under white string lights

Confession and the Pure in Heart

Here is a post from two years ago that is appropriate for any time. I was reading Lamentations this morning and came across this exhortation: “Let us test and examine our ways. Let us turn again in repentance to the LORD.” Repentance is a beautiful gift that allows us to be restored to a pure heart and clean conscience before God and man.

Ruth E. Stitt

I’m so grateful that God gave us a way to stay forgiven, clean, pure, and righteous. It’s called confession. It’s ironic that what often causes the most trouble in our lives and relationships also serves as the mechanism for healing and release. It is the words we speak, our confession to God and to those we have offended or sinned against.

The wise founders of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous recognized the importance of this when they included Step 5: We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”  James exhorted believers to “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5-16). Without confession there is no path to forgiveness and restoration.

David wrote, “When I refused to confess my sin, I was weak and miserable, and I groaned all day long…Finally…

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Strangely Warmed, Terribly Frightened, Overwhelmed by Joy

Yesterday I finished my latest reading through the gospel of Luke, this time in the New Living Translation. I enjoy this translation very much. The word choices often arrest me with new revelation and inspiration.

Such was the case with Luke’s last chapter, the one that merges into Chapter 1 of the Book of Acts. This wonderful account takes us from the empty tomb to a road stretching toward Emmaus, and then to Jerusalem, where Jesus reveals to his disciples that he has indeed been raised from the dead!

As I read this chapter with an open heart, the emotions are palpable. I look for feeling words, and there are plenty. I am quite sure this was purposeful in the Spirit’s inspiration through Luke. This is no dry history of a day in the life of some disciples. This was a time of extreme anguish and terror followed by unspeakable joy and amazement.

First, there are the women who devotedly arrived at Joseph’s tomb. Jesus had been laid there hastily, wrapped in linen cloths, but not yet anointed or prepared for burial. We know, of course, that by the time the women arrived he was not there! As they stood gaping at the stone that had been miraculously rolled away from the tomb’s opening,

white Good News Is Coming paper on wall

two men suddenly appeared to them, clothed in dazzling robes.The women were terrified and bowed with their faces to the ground. Then the men asked, “Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive? He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead! (Luke 24:4-6).

These wonderful lovers of Jesus of course ran back to the disciples waiting in Jerusalem to tell them what they had seen and heard. Peter and John were perplexed, but ran to see for themselves.

Next there is a scene shift to the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, where a couple of disciples encounter the risen Lord, but don’t recognize him. They were greatly troubled on their walk, their hopes of the Messiah’s deliverance of Israel seemingly dashed after witnessing his brutal murder. Jesus, incognito, asks them,

What are you discussing so intently as you walk along?” They stopped short, sadness written across their faces (24:17).” One of them, named Cleopas, tries to bring this “stranger” up to speed on current events.

Instead, Jesus corrects their faulty perception of reality by presenting the entire story of redemption, starting with Moses, “explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (27).

Naturally, when they get near their destination, they want more of this well-informed Bible teacher’s company, still not knowing his identity. Only when they get home and convince Jesus to join them for dinner do they discover who he is.

Suddenly their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And at that moment he disappeared! They said to each other, ‘Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he talked with us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?’ And within the hour they were on their way back to Jerusalem” (31-33).

I never noticed it before, but the two disciples turn right around and head back to Jerusalem. Like the women at the tomb, they have to find the guys who knew Jesus best and let them know they’d seen him.

“There they found the eleven disciples and the others who had gathered with them, who said, “The Lord has really risen! He appeared to Peter” (34).

Jesus had beat them to it. He’d been able to appear to all of them in different places, no longer bound by the constraints of time and space.

Their mutual excitement makes me smile so big. I wish I’d been there at that meeting! To top everything off, as they are sharing their stories,

Jesus himself was suddenly standing there among them. “Peace be with you,” he said. But the whole group was startled and frightened, thinking they were seeing a ghost!“Why are you frightened?” he asked. “Why are your hearts filled with doubt? (36-38).

Jesus shows them his hands and feet, with nail holes in them. They stand staring in disbelief, but reality hits, and they are “filled with joy and wonder(41).

If we were there, what would we want to do next? Ask him questions? Give him a big hug? Fall on our faces in worship?

Jesus asks, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish.”

After all of the praying and sweating blood, being flogged and tormented, trudging to Calvary and hanging suspended in excruciating pain, dying and rising, it turns out Jesus was a tad hungry.

Maybe that isn’t the only reason he asked them for something to eat. I think he wanted to give his followers who weren’t there in person the assurance that immortal humans can still eat. That means that when our bodies take on immortality, we can eat too! I’m happy about that. I like eating–broiled fish and a thousand other things.

I can’t improve on the end of Luke’s account, so I’ll end my reflection here. After they had eaten and spent some more time together, he blessed them and was taken up to heaven.

So they worshiped him and then returned to Jerusalem filled with great joy. And they spent all of their time in the Temple, praising God” (52-53).

Home Again

As some of you may know, my husband Rick and I are moving after 6 years in the Houston area to a new home in the beautiful hill country of central Texas. We are thrilled about this change and new start.

But if you’ve ever moved—and I assume if you are an adult, you’ve moved at least a time or two—you know how physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging it is to empty one home and think through what to do with all the stuff. What to bring, what to sell, what to give away, what to throw away? If this is to be our new home, how do we make it feel like home when we’ve never lived there before?

As I’m going through this sorting, planning, and envisioning, I’m also continuing through the book of Jeremiah (it’s a long one!) The words of this embattled prophet remind me that the Bible throughout is all about coming home. Sometimes coming home again after being in a far country.

Think about it. Beginning with Abraham, who traveled at God’s command “to the place I will show you,” the Bible speaks of God’s people often not being in the place where they belong, and eventually journeying there. And in a sense, we who are part of God’s story still long to go home to God’s ordained place.

Moses led the Israelites back home. It was a long, perilous ordeal getting them there, but that was always the vision and the goal. After Joshua took the baton of leadership from Moses, they finally got there. The patriarchs were buried there because you bury your ancestors close to home.

After many generations of disobedience, idolatry, treachery, and rebellion in their homeland against the God who rescued them, the people of Israel were driven into exile in Babylon by foreign invaders.

The psalmist depicts that strange place:

 “Beside the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept as we thought of Jerusalem.We put away our harps, hanging them on the branches of poplar trees.For our captors demanded a song from us.
 Our tormentors insisted on a joyful hymn: ‘Sing us one of those songs of Jerusalem!’ But how can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a pagan land?”
(Psalm 137: 1-4)

Do you hear the grief and longing for home, especially for worshippers of the one true God?

Eventually the people of Israel were allowed to return and restore their homeland, as portrayed in the books of Nehemiah and Ezra, and by the prophets of the exile.

Jeremiah’s contribution to this narrative is fascinating. He resided in Jerusalem before, during, and after the invasion by Nebuchadnezzar. He was treated horribly by the cowardly kings and the people allowed to stay behind. Ironically, the invaders treated him with more kindness than his own people did.

Jeremiah gave the people lots of bad news—as prophets typically do. But there was some really good news mixed in, too. A favorite Old Testament verse for many Christians is Jeremiah 29:11:

“’ For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”

We love to claim this verse for ourselves, hanging it on a plaque in our homes, or embossed on our Bible covers or coffee mugs. It accurately expresses God’s devotion to those who love him, and gives us much hope, especially at times when life doesn’t seem to make sense.

We use Jeremiah 29:11 to encourage our children that whatever happens, God is looking out for them and has a plan in mind. All they need to do is stay connected to him and they will receive this promised future and hope.

But I don’t often hear people consider the context in Jeremiah where this Scripture is found. I believe it adds even greater richness and encouragement to the verse when we remember that these words were written by God’s prophet to the Israelites in exile. The folks with their harps hanging in the trees.

They had been wayward and idolatrous. They were in their predicament for a reason. God had pleaded with them over and over to come to their senses and be faithful to him. They couldn’t, or wouldn’t, and eventually, God allowed foreigners to bring some heavy consequences.

But let us not forget that while God was their judge and is our judge, he is infinitely merciful! He says to Israel, as her true Father, “I will not be angry with you forever” (Jer. 3:13).

For seventy years they would stay in exile. While in Babylon, they were to seek the good of Babylon. They were to plant crops, have babies, and invest themselves in their new land. They could do this, knowing that they were held within the loving embrace of Jehovah. He had plans to bless them, even in their captivity, and then—

“I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again…I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes. I will gather you out of the nations where I sent you and will bring you home again to your own land…I will bring them home to this land that I gave to their ancestors, and they will possess it again. I, the Lord, have spoken!” (Jer. 29:10, 14; Jer. 30:3)

Home again.

We resonate with this, don’t we? We often feel like strangers in a strange land these days. As the writer of Hebrews states about those who died in faith, without yet receiving what God had promised,

“…They saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. Obviously, people who say such things are looking forward to a country they can call their own” (Heb. 11:13-14). 

No matter how good we have it in this life, we all know we are not quite home yet. This place and these circumstances are not where the story ends.

Perhaps the best way to sum it up is with Jesus’ parable of the prodigal coming home to his forgiving father and unforgiving brother. After wasting all of his resources and languishing in a foreign land,

“when he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’ (Lk. 15:17-19).

Even the most lost, intransigent soul can head towards home, and find the Father watching longingly for his appearing around the bend in the road. Most of us have been that person at some point.

Beyond the comfort of knowing that in this life we can always run to the safety and fellowship of the Father, is knowing that Jesus is preparing an incredibly special place we haven’t visited yet, unless in a dream or near-death experience.

We are waiting to go home. Home again.

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Denial is Undeniable

Since early March I have been serving as a substance use counselor, speaking with individuals and leading recovery groups online. This is a new specialization for me, after nearly 30 years of general practice. It has me so far outside my comfort zone, personally and professionally.

I embrace the opportunity to be stretched so much and to grow in knowledge, insight, and compassion. I can’t tell you it is lots of fun, but I believe the Lord wants me here for a time.

As I’ve interacted with my clients, I’ve become acutely aware of the level of denial that has afflicted them in their addictions, and still exists in their various manifestations of resistance to treatment.

In the process, I turn the mirror on myself. I can see more clearly my own tendency to deny my own flaws, weaknesses, unhealthy habits, and disordered thought processes. We are all blind to what it is we are blind to until light breaks through to remove the veil.

Photo by Paula on Pexels.com

Scripture comes to life on this topic in hundreds of places! I happen to be reading Jeremiah right now in my daily devotions, so I’ll focus on the insights of this strange and courageous weeping prophet.

Jeremiah spoke to Israel and Judah in the midst of their diaspora and impending destruction. Because of their relentless attraction to idolatry, especially Baal worship, God’s people faced judgment from within and from without. Their cultural bonds were crumbling, and their land would become unfruitful. They were surrounded by enemies whom the LORD would allow to overtake them.  

God had warned them repeatedly with the voices of countless prophets, but the people of God were stuck in denial. The LORD asks,

“When people fall down, don’t they get up again? When they start down the wrong road and discover their mistake, don’t they turn back? Then why do these people keep going along their self-destructive path, refusing to turn back, even though I have warned them?” (Jer. 8:4-5).

Why do God’s beloved people do this, generation after generation after generation? Why do we think that the consequences of sin and rebellion will be deferred indefinitely? Is there any biblical basis to believe that we are entitled to disregard the commandments of God, grieving his heart and forsaking his ways, and never reap a bitter harvest? Do we have the right to trample on the grace and mercy of God?

This is what addiction does. It clouds judgment of reality. It numbs our sensitivity to God’s Spirit and his voice.

But don’t think that we have to be in active addiction to experience numbness toward God. We can all become sloppy and complacent and slip into denial. We need friends—and sometimes wise counselors—to tell us the truth. We need prophets like Jeremiah (and the New Testament and modern-day prophets and apostles) to remind us of who we are, and what God intends for us to become. Jeremiah cries out,

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, ‘We will not walk in it’” (6:16).

Having been warned and chastened, they still refused to hearken to his word and forsake their idols.

Most addicts and alcoholics know, in some hidden recess of their brains, that they are on a path of destroyed relationships, chronic illness, premature death, and complete loss of self-respect. But it might take years for them to break through their denial and see this reality.

It’s not easy to hear the truth, especially when we’re enjoying the delusion that negative consequences only come to other people.  When we think we can postpone addressing our own sin addictions, because they’re not as bad as another person’s sin addictions.

Even Jeremiah, who was as surrendered to the LORD as a person can be, saw his need for correction, his need for the LORD to break through to him. He writes,

I know, LORD, that a person’s life is not his own. No one is able to plan his own course. So correct me, LORD, but please be gentle. Do not correct me in anger, for I would die.”

I believe the Lord is gentle with us. But he won’t compromise the truth, and he doesn’t condone sin and rebellion. He wants us to be free to pursue him and his “good, perfect, and acceptable” (Rom. 12:2) purposes for us. Not in denial or under the influence of the wrong spirit, but alive to “the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2).

I join Jeremiah in his prayer. Lord, correct me gently. I’m listening.

The Assumption of Good Will

Hello Dear Reader,
This is one of my earliest blogs from back in 2018. It came to mind as I am dealing with some minor misunderstandings with a colleague. I was reminded of my very human tendency to make negative judgments about myself or the other person when there is conflict. And I know I’m not the only one who is subject to this. The remedy is often simply to assume the best instead of the worst and see what follows. I hope you enjoy this revisiting of a favorite topic.

Ruth E. Stitt

Sometimes the people in our lives behave in confusing or offensive ways.

Over the lifespan, each of us develops explanatory models to assist us in understanding our own and others’ behavior. These models are highly subject to error.

One of these is what social psychologists label “fundamental attribution error.” This means that when someone behaves in a way we don’t like—another driver cuts us off in traffic, or cuts in line at the market, for example—we tend to believe that this is because they have some sort of internal character defect of laziness, carelessness, or selfishness.

In contrast, when we are explaining our own similar behavior, we attribute it to external forces and circumstances. When I am the one in the wrong, I quickly rationalize that I had a good excuse based on my circumstances. I had a very important meeting to get to, perhaps. But when you commit a…

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The Glorious Tabernacle

I finished reading the book of Exodus this morning. There are so many things I am inspired to write about this book of the Bible that I hardly know what to pick as I sit here at Panera, fingers poised on keyboard.

What I choose to focus on today is the story of the Tabernacle built while the Israelites were wandering through the wilderness. There are enough fascinating aspects of this part of the Exodus story alone to keep me going for days. But I will attempt to hit some high points where Scripture comes to life.

First, I acknowledge Moses, the servant of God, who was faithful to follow the Lord’s instructions to the letter, doing all things “according to the pattern” shown to him on the mountain (Ex. 25:40). Forty times (in the NIV) the text refers to Moses conducting his ministry “just as the Lord had commanded him.”

 Beyond the miraculous power of God displayed by Moses throughout the ordeal of escaping from Egyptian slavery, Moses was entrusted with the law and covenant, from God’s lips to his ears. He was to impart and enforce God’s commandments so that God’s favor would extend to the entire nation of Israel.

As if this were not enough responsibility, God then made him general superintendent over the construction of an elaborate Tabernacle structured to represent the Lord’s presence with them as they traveled.

In all of these appointments, God extended extraordinary personal favor toward Moses, promising,

 “I will personally go with you, Moses, and I will give you rest—everything will be fine for you…I will indeed do what you have asked, for I look favorably on you, and I know you by name.” (33:14,17)

Isn’t it amazing to know that like Moses, we too can live in the full assurance that we have found favor with God? He promises us that he will personally accompany us on every journey, and knows each of us intimately. This is exactly the truth of the gospel for those to come to him in faith!  

“God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’So we say with confidence,’The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?’” (Heb. 13:5-6).

Next, I can’t help but try to imagine how the building project was undertaken by a people who were on a long meandering journey toward a home they had never seen. They didn’t have standing workshops for metalwork, weaving, embroidery, woodcarving, tanning hides, mixing incense, processing oils, or the many other skilled crafts necessary to complete this massive, movable worship center. How on earth did they organize it all, store the supplies, coordinate crews of craftsmen and women, doing everything exactly as the Lord had commanded? It boggles the mind.

This brings me to Bezalel, identified as the most worthy, skillful craftsman among the hordes of the tribes of Israel. He was the chief project manager. The LORD declared about him,

“Look, I have specifically chosen Bezalel son of Uri, grandson of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have filled him with the Spirit of God, giving him great wisdom, ability, and expertise in all kinds of crafts. He is a master craftsman, expert in working with gold, silver, and bronze. He is skilled in engraving and mounting gemstones and in carving wood. He is a master at every craft!” (31:1-4).

Bezalel was the whole package, exactly the right person to oversee the work. Notice that even though he must have exhibited his talents previous to this moment, it was the filling of the Spirit of God that qualified him to lead this huge project.

Isn’t it wonderful to know that, like Bezalel, we too can diligently pursue our natural and God-given abilities, and God will fill us with his Spirit so we can create beautiful displays of his glory? This is indeed what he has done.

Jesus promised,

“I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father. You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father” (John 14:12-13).

And Paul reminds us,

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago” (Eph. 2:10).

We have all we need to make and do beautiful things that honor God. Which brings us to the Tabernacle itself. My goodness, what an amazingly beautiful, God-honoring thing!

It required 2,200 pounds of gold, 7,545 pounds of silver, and 5,310 pounds of bronze! All of the sacred instruments, furniture, and utensils were made of pure gold. The walls and roof were woven from linen and goat hair and covered with tanned animal hides.

God emphasized 13 times that the ark, the tables for incense, the lampstand, the altar with its four horns were each to be made of “one continuous piece”. As I picture this, the ark, for instance, would be one molded piece of gold, including the top, with its golden cherubim crossing their wings over the mercy seat. No seams. These were no patchwork, thrown together works of craftsmanship.

Isn’t it wonderful to know that God can take the raw materials of our lives, even the broken, disjointed pieces, and melt them together to form a whole, integrated, worshipping work of art? Indeed, everything can be refined and restored perfectly, fit for worship in the heavenly tabernacle to come! 

In his Revelation, Jesus describes this place of perfection:

“God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.’And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!…It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life.All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children” (Rev. 21:3-7).

We also learn from the story in Exodus how is was that human were found worthy to serve as priests in God’s magnificent Tabernacle. The first ministers were Moses’ brother Aaron and his sons. They were to be set apart, anointed, and clothed in the most ornate, gem-encrusted costumes. They were to represent all of the tribes of Israel as they made sacrifices on the golden altar. They were sinful men like the rest, but God provided a means of sanctification so they could bear the words “HOLY TO THE LORD” inscribed upon the medallions attached to their turbans.

Isn’t it incredible to realize that by God’s grace, we can stand before God in worship, and he sees not our iniquities and failures, but our holy, righteous standing in him through Christ. We are sealed with his mark on our foreheads. Indeed, he has made us to be priests in his household, set apart as living sacrifices.

“You are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pet. 2:9). I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Rom. 12:1).

Finally, why did Yahweh give Moses such elaborate, detailed instruction regarding the Tabernacle? What was the significance of this structure that would that was moved from place to place, following the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night?

In all of its magnificent opulence, it turns out that the Tabernacle in the wilderness was just a “type and shadow” of the sanctuary in heaven. The author of Hebrews details how “the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary.A tabernacle was set up…” (Heb. 9:1-2). The priests entered regularly to bring animal sacrifices to atone for intentional and unintentional sins against God. Until…

Christ came as high priest…he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands…”

Christ went into the Most Holy Place of the Tabernacle and made atonement for all of us once for all time. The curtain was torn that separated us from our Most Holy God! This had to be done through supernatural power; it couldn’t be accomplished by human hands or human will.

The Tabernacle in the wilderness (and later situated in Shiloh) was merely “an illustration” of what was to come, and what is now available to us! A glorious illustration, yes, but only an illustration of an infinitely more glorious reality.

Isn’t it exhilarating to realize that Jesus is preparing mansions in glory for us? He is preparing to receive us and usher us into the rewards of being with him forever?

Indeed, Jesus the Messiah, the only eternal High Priest, presides in his heavenly Tabernacle, awaiting the day when he can gather in his kingdom as one to share in the joy of his Father.

God is the Sorter

While ensconced in my current reading through the Gospel of Matthew, something that is popping out of the text is the idea that at the end of the age, God, with the assistance of some angels, is going to sort us out.

Skeptics or deniers of the validity of the Bible and the Christian message often point to its exclusivity claims as their primary objection. How can it be, they ask, that God will judge people according to their beliefs about this one man, Jesus Christ? How can we believe that trusting Jesus is the only path to eternal life—if there is such a thing as eternal life?

Others ask, what about the Buddhists, and the Muslims, and the people who’ve never heard of Jesus, and the little babies who die before reaching an age where they can understand such things, and those with intellectual disabilities who lack the cognitive skills to comprehend abstract ideas?

These are all valid questions, and there are some very grounded theological answers to them. It is not my aim in this little blog to present all of those biblical arguments. But I’ll point to a few: the fulfillment of thousands of years of prophecy, the resurrection, the teachings of Jesus, and his claims about who he was and what he came to do. These may not be satisfactory arguments for people who have no openness to the gospel. They would call them self-referential and circular arguments. They are somewhat correct on that count, so it requires more discussion if we are to convince these folks.

But my reflection today is not on the arguments for the exclusivity of Christ. Instead, my reflection is on a truth Jesus taught through several parables, that God does make a distinction somehow, between those fit for his kingdom and those who are not.

God is allowing human history to unfold until the time he has foreordained that he will bring it to a conclusion. In the meantime, he is building a new kingdom populated with a certain category of people and will remove all who don’t fit into this category. Before going any further, let me share three of the illustrations provided by Jesus, the master storyteller.

And he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats:And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand,’ Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’” (Matt. 25:32-34).

Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets but threw the bad away” (13:47-48).

Photo by Sirikul R on Pexels.com

The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared… “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?“‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time, I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’” (Matthew 13:24-26,28- 30).

The sheep mill around in the same pens and graze in the same fields as the goats, but only the sheep will remain after the sorting. The kingdom net takes in all kinds of fish, but only some will be kept, and the rest thrown away. In this kingdom, weeds grow up right along with the wheat. The wheat will be harvested, and the weeds burned in the fire.

I didn’t say these things, Jesus did. And he said them with authority, because he knew God had assigned him to be the chief sorter at the end of the age.

I don’t know everything about how Jesus and his Father and the Spirit and the angels will do this sorting. If they wanted me or anyone else to have a full picture of it, they would have given it to us. I know a few things, but only a few. This makes me very grateful that God is the sorter and I am not.

The criteria for sorting have nothing to do with ethnicity, or age, or intelligence, or skin color, or nationality—I’m certain of that.  I know it’s not just about good and bad works. It’s not about religiosity.

I argue (with good biblical support) that the criteria for the sorting process is whether people acknowledge and love the King. And this is tested and validated by how we love each other. Because these things are matters of the heart, God must be the one who sorts us out, because we don’t even truly know our own hearts.

This is the answer I give when I don’t have time for a lengthy theological discussion. I don’t have all the answers, but there is someone who does. And he does the sorting.

All I want is that I’m a sheep and not a goat, a stalk of wheat and not a weed, a healthy fish and not a stinker to be thrown on the compost pile. That’s enough.

Sobriety (revisited)

I originally wrote this post, “Sobriety” in August of 2020. Little did I know that less than a year later I would be working as a substance use disorder counselor. I’ve never specialized in the recovery field, and I’m learning much about what is clinically helpful for those in recovery and what is not. But as always, my chief calling and purpose in life is to keep my thinking and practice rooted in Scripture, and to share how Scripture comes to life in every experience, if we are awake to it. So I’m re-sharing some of the Bible’s teaching on this very timely topic.

“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 keep 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.