He is Here

Some days I just need to know that God is near. That he is here. That he sees, and hears, and knows.

Like Hagar, desolate and alone one moment, and in the next moment comforted with this revelation: “You are the God who sees me” (Gen 16:13).

Or like Jacob, dreaming of angels climbing up and down the ladder to heaven. He woke and declared, rubbing sleep from his eyes, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I wasn’t even aware of it!” (Gen. 28:16).

Or the Israelites journeying on endlessly around the same mountain, led by the pillar of cloud, and the pillar of fire. What mercy, to reveal his presence so constantly and his leadership so faithfully (Ex. 13:21-22).

The Apostle John went to great lengths to express the doctrinal truth that Jesus was a real man, one with hands and feet, and a voice, and eyes and ears, and thoughts and feelings. Jesus was very much as we are, except without the sin part (Hebrews 4:15).

He could be experienced:

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete” (1 John 1:1-4).

The completion of our joy is tied to the belief that our Savior is absolutely real. Not WAS real, IS real. Because if only the apostles who knew him in the flesh could have this fellowship experience, how could John invite others into it after he’d left the earth?

Because of the resurrection. He still is here. He is still near. He is still here, in the Holy Spirit he sent to live within and among us (John 16:7).

There were some in John’s day who were teaching a philosophy called Docetism. This philosophy asserted that Jesus Christ did not have a physical body, but only an “apparent and phantom one” (Encycl. Brit.)  

No, John demands! He is real! I touched him. I rested against his chest and heard his heartbeat. I ate fish with him on the beach. He washed my feet.

John reports that Jesus said he had to go away, but that he would send an Advocate, a Comforter, a Spirit that would lead us into all truth. This friend would teach us his word, and strengthen us from within, and empower us to do great things in his name.

And once we encountered him we would never, ever be alone or apart from him. And life would never be the same, thankfully.

This is what I need to remember on days like today. He is closer than my breath.

Thank you Lord that you are near, that you are here, and that you see, and hear, and know all about it.

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Keep Standing

Often we are told in the Word and by the Spirit to simply stay put. To stand firm in the spot where God has planted us.

There are seasons for breaking new ground and moving forward with kingdom assignments. There are other seasons to continue in the instruction we have already received until new revelation comes. Either way, we are to stand steadfast in our faith, not allowing circumstances to destabilize or distract us.

There are plenty of temptations right now to lose our grip on hope and give into despair. The political-social-moral-cultural landscape is about as messy and discordant as it has ever been in my lifetime.

Because of or in spite of this reality, we need to commit even more to our stand, maintaining a posture of moral and spiritual courage.

One biblical example of this posture is the prophet Daniel. Daniel, desperately in need of a word from the Lord said, “I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes” (Dan 9:3). He did this for 21 days, after which the angel came and assured him, “Fear not, Daniel: for from the first day that thou didst set thine heart to understand, and to chasten thyself before thy God, thy words were heard, and I am come for thy words” (10:12). Daniel set the dial of his heart on 10. Nothing was going to move him. He stayed put in a posture of prayer, fasting, and full submission, and the answer came because of his readiness for it.

Jesus taught that his disciples are to abide in him. He is the vine; we are the branches (John 15). Branches don’t strive to grow, but they stay in their place, connected to a growing organism, which in Jesus’ metaphor is himself and his church. We stay put, allowing the vinedresser to do his work of tending and pruning. This is not passivity; it is obedience and persevering faith. This is how we remain fruitful and give glory to God, whatever the circumstances swirling around us.

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Paul attests in several epistles to the importance of simply standingand continuing in a stance of steadfast faith. In Ephesians, he instructs the believers that once they have put on the whole armor of God, they are to “stand against the devil’s schemes” (6:11), ready to use all spiritual equipment to fight their battles and defend the territory God has given them. His people are not instructed to go out and find enemies and shoot them down. But when the enemy invades, we are directed to be ready to stand boldly and “extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (6:16).

Another metaphor in Ephesians recalls Psalm 1, that of being “rooted and established in love” (3:17).  Paul addresses the need for stability. God’s people are not “tossed back and forth by the waves and blown here and there” (4:14). We are to model solid, steadfast, courageous confidence in God–our Father, Savior, and eternal Champion.

Paul instructs the Colossians, “…Continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel” (1:23). He says to continue diligently in the decision you made to follow Christ and were reconciled to God.  Again, this is not passivity, but it is solid, steady commitment to remain in the will of God, whatever comes our way.

Why This Waste?

Once upon a time the Son of God was invited to a snooty dinner party at a Pharisee’s home. Right into the middle of the festivities entered a woman of ill repute. She approached Jesus and started weeping at his feet.

Then she did the most astonishing thing.

She broke open an expensive alabaster box which contained an even more expensive vial of perfume. She began pouring the exquisite scented concoction all over this holy man who (somehow, she knew) was the answer to her need.

Others at the table were appalled—at the woman herself—sinful and unwelcome–and at this incredible act of hers. “Why this waste?” they cried! That perfume could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor.

How could Jesus, thought to be a prophet, allow this shameful display of emotion by a such a sinful woman?

But Jesus hushed them with a story about two debtors, one who owed a little and one who owed a lot. The creditor forgave them both. Jesus asked, who do you think was more thankful? Who loved and appreciated more the creditor’s forgiveness? Simon, the host, answered correctly. The one forgiven the most is the one who would love the most.

Imagine the scene:

Then he [Jesus] turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Look at this woman kneeling here. When I entered your home, you didn’t offer me water to wash the dust from my feet, but she has washed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair.You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but from the time I first came in, she has not stopped kissing my feet. You neglected the courtesy of olive oil to anoint my head, but she has anointed my feet with rare perfume.I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.”Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.” (Luke 7:44-48).

A couple of months ago I joined a team that is serving children and teen girls who have been caught up and then rescued from the evil net of sex trafficking. As a new program providing 24-hour supervision and care, our staff-to-resident ratio is currently 7:1. Add to this all of the other expenses to run such an enterprise; it is unbelievably costly. And there is much uncertainty of outcome because of the complexity of the girls’ trauma. Will they stay long enough and engage in the healing process?

Some might say, “Why this waste?” How can you justify using so much resource for only a few?

The answer is that each of these girls matters so much to the Lord that he would die for any one of them. He paid everything. The Lord always prioritizes quality over quantity.

Why does God care so much? I don’t know. I’m not God.

But we can seek to imitate this God of the “beautiful waste,” even if we can’t explain the economics of it all.  We can imitate this one who gives all of us second chances, third chances, hundredth chances!

In Jesus’ parable about an unfruitful fig tree, the gardener is fed up and tells the workers to cut it down. “Why should it even waste the soil?”

His worker pleaded with him, ‘Sir, give it one more chance. Leave it another year, and I’ll give it special attention and plenty of fertilizer. If we get figs next year, fine. If not, then you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9).

This is God’s patience with his creatures.

This is what motivates us to love these girls. Maybe if we bring them under special care, shelter, and enriching compassion, they can come alive again and produce fruit.

One more story about apparent waste.

King David was homesick and thirsty for water from his hometown, which had been overtaken by the Philistines. His three mightiest warriors broke through the enemy garrison and drew water from the well at Bethlehem.

Instead of gratefully drinking this precious water, he poured it on the ground, saying “God forbid that I should drink this!…This water is as precious as the blood of these men who risked their lives to bring it to me.” So David did not drink it” (1 Chron. 11:16-19).

Why this waste? Why did these men “waste” such time and effort and risk so much to fetch a cup of water? Because they loved much.

And why pour it out? As a worship offering in gratitude for the loyalty of his brave friends.

Whatever it looks like, wherever it comes from, no expression of sacrificial love in his name is ever wasted.

Let us lavish our love on the Lord by loving and serving others with all of the strength and courage he provides.

Pressure and Pain

You may be familiar with comic Brian Regan’s very funny sketch about pressure and pain. He observes that doctors don’t like to use the word “pain.”

“Doctors will tell you about ‘pressure’. If a doctor tells you you’re about to feel some pressure, buckle up…He could be swinging a two-by-four by your head and say, ‘In a moment you’re going to feel a bit of pressure.’” His sarcastic reply: “Hey, bring it on—I’m good under pressure!”

But seriously, there is a difference. It’s a difference that was illustrated to me in the most interesting way last week.

Part of our healing program for young women who have been trafficked or exploited is equine-assisted learning, with our two white horses, Ranger and Minnie, as our assistants. At one point the facilitator spoke about how the two concepts of pressure and pain register to the psyche of horses.

She shared that for a horse, pressure comes from being pestered, distracted, or provoked by a person or animal smaller than he. The mostly likely response to this non-lethal threat is for the horse to turn away from the pressure and walk away. If he can’t get away, he may wait nervously for the annoyance to go away. Pull back his ears, make some noise, swish his tail.

Pain is different. Pain for a horse comes from being threatened by a predator who can kill him—a grizzly, a mountain lion or a pack of wolves. Apparently, after millennia of surviving and adapting to many environmental threats, horses have learned the distinction between pressure and pain, using it to determine when to run away and when to move toward the source of potential pain and overpower it.

This was only one of several beautiful metaphors generated in our interactions with the horses. But it was the one that most brought Scripture to life for me.

The Apostle James discusses this theme in his letter. Here it is in the Message:

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way” (James 1:2-4).

Later in the same chapter, he continues:

Don’t let anyone under pressure to give in to evil say, “God is trying to trip me up.” God is impervious to evil and puts evil in no one’s way. The temptation to give in to evil comes from us and only us. We have no one to blame but the leering, seducing flare-up of our own lust. Lust gets pregnant, and has a baby: sin! Sin grows up to adulthood, and becomes a real killer (James 1:13-15).

According to James, writing by inspiration of the Spirit, pressure in the form of trials and temptations is guaranteed to come, but we have been given the grace and power to withstand it.

Paul commends the believers in the churches of Macedonia whose response to one kind of pressure—financial—was to become more generous (2 Cor. 8:1-4). They were like grapes that when crushed, gave forth the best, most fragrant juice. The psalmist observes, “As pressure and stress bear down on me, I find joy in your commands” (Ps. 119:142-144, NLT).

For us, taunts and temptations create pressure that requires us to take care, take cover, or take flight in a direction other than whence they came.

But pain is different, our horse lady continued to explain. Pain makes us rise up and confront it. We have to approach it, acknowledge its reality, and find a way through it. If we ignore or run away from this symptom, it may pursue us, find us, and eat us alive.

When we face pain head on, we may find a huge blessing on the other side. Jesus taught (again paraphrased in The Message),

“When a woman gives birth, she has a hard time, there’s no getting around it. But when the baby is born, there is joy in the birth. This new life in the world wipes out memory of the pain. The sadness you have right now is similar to that pain, but the coming joy is also similar. When I see you again, you’ll be full of joy, and it will be a joy no one can rob from you. You’ll no longer be so full of questions (Jn. 16:21-23, MSG).

This is the pain of labor, the perseverance of hope, the discipline of faith. All of these things must be endured in the waiting.

Sometimes the pain is of our own making, and so is its cure. Paul praised the Corinthians for the fact that after he had called out a corporate sin that brought shame, they went headlong into a pain called “godly sorrow” that produced the fruits of repentance. He concluded, “Those who let distress drive them away from God are full of regrets, end up on a deathbed of regrets…I am glad…because the pain caused you to repent and change your ways (1 Cor. 7:8-10, MSG).

How beautiful that in God, the things that are most painful are the things that are most fruitful afterwards.

Finally, the Bible warns us of the dangers of NOT allowing ourselves to feel pain. Avoidance distorts our thinking and deadens us to the voice of God. I’ve often observed that people who put lots of energy into avoiding pain get to the point where they can’t feel anything. Paul speaks of people who feel no pain over their own wrong behavior, and “let themselves go in sexual obsession, addicted to every sort of perversion” (Eph. 4:19, MSG). Those are hard words, but true.

Jesus set the example in this as in all good things.

He cried out in pain in the garden, asking at first that God would make another way to bring about the salvation of the world. But because ultimately he went toward the pain and endured the cross, he will receive his full reward in the end. He has been made our high priest, who shows us that the sacrifices of pain are worth it. (Heb. 5:7-10, 12:2, 11).

Peter sums it up well. “Since Christ suffered physical pain, you must arm yourselves with the same attitude he had, and be ready to suffer, too…” (1 Peter 4:1).

Thank you horse lady, and horses, for this lesson of moving away from the pressures that distract and torment, and toward the pains that propels us to growth and glory. This is how we imitate our Lord.


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)

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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.