Friday, March 23, 2018

Talking about God, and Talking to God (Psalm 19)

It’s not wrong to talk about God. In fact, it is essential. Also, it’s not wrong to talk about prayer. But there is the danger that in all of our talking, we often don’t get around to praying. Sometimes, we sit around and talk about God, but forget to talk to God.

Psalm 19 illustrates this for us, with an appropriate and happy ending. It is a beautiful psalm made up of two large parts. The first part (vv. 1-6) rejoices in the grandeur of God in creation. Here we see God bursting forth in His creative energy and power, and the psalmist is bursting right back in his enjoyment and praise. The second half (vv. 7-11) is a tender reflection on the value of “the law of the Lord.” It’s tone is much more restorative - “restoring the soul;” enlightening the eyes;” “making wise the simple.” The psalm confesses that we are a people with damaged souls, limited perception, and sometimes downright stupid. But God steps in and gives us a revelation of Himself and His character that can identify our sins and provide direction for recovery. (Remember, the Law does not save, only Jesus does. The power of salvation is in Christ, but the Law points us in that direction).

All of these verses (1-11) are talking about God. But in the end (vv. 12-14), the psalmist is compelled to talk to God. He prays.

There are four requests (commands) from the mouth of the psalmist in light of God’s grandeur and tenderness:
        a) Acquit me of hidden faults. 
        b) Keep back Your servant from presumptuous sins; 
        c) Let them not rule over me; 
        d) Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight,  

In light of God’s creative and restorative powers, both His grandeur and His tenderness, the psalmist acknowledges his smallness and inability; his dirtiness and unworthiness.  Reading the psalm over and over will not cure the problem. In fact, it will indeed exacerbate it. But it leads him to prayer. And God, in grand and tender fashion, provides the solution.

The mechanism for redemption, - for a) acquittal, and  b) changing the heart’s desires, and c) breaking the yoke of sin, d) so fashioning our words and thoughts that they are actually welcome in the courts of heaven - this is all possible because of the Gospel - that God sent His Son Jesus to die for our sins and be raised as the Lord of glory; to then send His Spirit from heaven to inhabit the hearts of those who believe, so that, we can not only talk about God, but talk to God.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Staying Power (Psalm 15)

When David wrote the opening words to Psalm 15, “O LORD, who may abide in Your tent? Who may dwell on Your holy hill?” - most people would assume that his question amounts to this: “Lord, how can I get in?” “What is the rite of passage?” Or, as we find in the New Testament, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

The question could indeed have to do with permission of entry. But I don’t think so. I think the question has more to do with ability to remain. How can I stay there? Or, as its reads, “who may abide..?” 

David had found fellowship with God. He had experienced what he says in Psalm 32:1,2 “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity.” He had not earned his way in, or worked himself into position. He was blessed with the gift of a right relationship with God through faith in His promises.

But now, having visited this fellowship, how does he remain there, since the temptations of life and flesh constantly tempt us to wander away? David now lays out 6 couplets which provide safeguards for abiding, for dwelling in fellowship with God.
  1. walk and work (v. 2). The one precedes the other. Practice walking with God, and only then let the proper works of love and service flow from that walk.
  2. watch your language (vv. 2b,3a). Do not indulge yourself in telling your own self lies. Self-deception is a huge problem. And then, don’t talk bad about others.
  3. Be the good neighbor that Jesus himself has been to us (3b), and then be the kind of friend that defends in public and tells the truth in private (3c).
  4. Know the difference between good and evil (4ab), and don’t allow those lines to become blurry. Make sure that the influential persons in your life are “those who fear the Lord,” and understand that “a reprobate,” though perhaps prosperous or popular, will only cause you trouble.
  5. Keep your promises (4c), even when it’s not convenient. Our promises are heard by humans, but witnessed by God.
  6. Don’t let money run your life (vv. 5ab), either by using it to leverage others, or allowing it to leverage you. You cannot dwell with God and serve and be mastered by money.
Finally, in the last phrase (5c), the psalm ends with the promise that, by observing these things, we will avoid the paths that lead us away from continued fellowship with God. We will not be shaken.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

A Less-Familiar God (Psalm 5)

I said that I would come back to this psalm, so here goes. I have shared in a devotion how, at the edges of this psalm, the psalmist shows us something about who God is (vv. 2,3 - my King; my God; LORD), and who we need to be before this God (vv. 11-12 - we take refuge in You; we love Your name; we are righteous). 1) We find refuge in the Shepherd-King; 2) we love the one, true God over against all other would-be gods; 3) we find our righteousness, not in ourselves, but in the covenant-keeping LORD who provides us with real righteousness through faith in Jesus. There’s that part.

But let’s not go on to a less-familiar aspect of who God is, found in vv. 4-6. Because we have heard over and over about how God is a God of love. And we do not want to take anything away from that. Except we cannot really understand the wonder of God’s love if we do not appreciate the tension that exists with God’s hate. Yes, that is what the text says. God hates.
Verses 4 and 5 seem to use an ABBA form, that is, the 1st line matches with the last, and the 2 middle lines correspond. 
A - you are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness;
B - No evil dwells with You
B’ - The boastful shall not stand before Your eyes
A’ - You hate all who do iniquity.

There are certain things that God takes no pleasure in, so much so that Scripture says, “God hates.” Further, the old saying that God hates the sin and loves the sinner … - this phrase seems to contradict that notion. “You hate all who do iniquity.” As we move into verse 6, we add the ideas that God, in this hate, is willing to “destroy," because he “abhors.”

Now just as we have said that we cannot fully understand God’s love without appreciating His hatred, neither can we understand this hatred if we neglect His purpose and nature to love. His love is such that it works through and past that which He abhors. He dives deeply into that in which He takes no pleasure. To put it plainly, He purposes to love what He hates. One thing that we simply cannot say about this God is that He doesn’t care. He cares so much, that He is moved to both hate, and love.

And this is born out in v. 7, where the psalmist testifies that, what he does, he does so “by Your abundant lovingkindness.” This sinner-psalmist, who himself, like us all, has “done iniquity,” is still the beneficiary of God’s lovingkindness, because that is what God does.


Friday, March 02, 2018

O LORD, our Lord (Psalm 8)

The psalmist is here speaking to God, not speaking merely for himself, but for a number of people: “O LORD, our Lord.” It is a psalm of praise. He is leading a number of people in the praise of their God, and, stretching across continents and centuries, he leads us as well.

But what do we mean by the phrase, “O LORD, our Lord,” a phrase which begins the psalm, and which ends the psalm. What are we saying? Careful observation will tell us that it is not mere repetition. First, we have the word LORD (all caps), which is a code word for the covenantal and revered name for God. In fact, over time, it was so revered by the Jewish people that they would no longer pronounce it aloud as written in the Hebrew text, in honor (or safekeeping) of the 3rd commandment, “Though shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.” When reading the Old Testament text aloud, they would substitute the second name in our verse (Lord, with only the first letter capitalized), which translates Adonai. That is a term of honor, and denotes God’s authority and sovereignty. But the other term speaks of God in covenantal relationship with His people. It’s the name that covers both His mercy and His judgment; His holiness and His compassion. Older translations cover it as Jehovah. More modern translations go ahead and blurt it out: Yahweh. Our verse here renders it “LORD.”

This prayer addresses God in the wonder and breadth of His names, and proclaims His majesty, His splendor, and His strength. These are not just found in isolated spots on earth, but throughout all the earth, and indeed, over and above the earth. He is, in His Persons, majestic, and splendid, and exceedingly strong. Machen says, “a stupendous view of God.” And we, if following our psalmist/leader, are impressed.
This God is so great, He makes us feel small. That is, until we find out how much care and attention He showers on us as He calls us to Himself, and as we walk in restored relationship with Him. “What is man, that You take thought of him?” As David says earlier, “Who am I, …?” To think He shares His majesty with us.
But then, once more, we find that this psalm that includes us, is not all about us. This reference to “the son of man,” “that you care for him,” leads us, - no, forces us to think of Jesus, who indeed rules as God in creation, and under whose feet His and our enemies are being placed. It almost leads us to - praise. 

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Turning Inside Out: Psalm 6

Just a note: I did a “quick” read-through of the Bible, marking all references to men and women talking to God. I’ve written about a few of these, all from Genesis so far. Now I’m attempting to do more of a “deep dive” in the Psalms, which, of course, are full of prayers to the Lord. My goal is to have Biblical prayers shape our prayers.

I’ll come back to Psalm 5 in another post, but in Psalm 6, we find a person overcome by the grief or adversity, so much so that he is turning inside out. It’s a sickness, and an unpleasant illustration would be a person who has the stomach flu, when what is inside just cannot stay there, and bursts out. Sometimes, sadly, people’s grief and anxiety does likewise.

In the good old days, people were better at bottling this stuff up. Keep the sickness in. Now, I’m not serious about that. Bottling up is not good. But you also know the pendulum effect. We go from keeping too many secrets to keeping none. And so today we have people gushing on Facebook about all kinds of drivel, actually manufacturing crises so they have something to post. That’s not what is happening in this psalm. This is real pain, and it reveals itself in real prayer.

Wouldn’t it be better if our soul-sicknesses were published to God in prayer rather than on Facebook? 1 Peter 5:8 doesn’t say, “Casting all my cares on social media, because all these so-called “friends” care so much.” They don’t. But God does. The text actually says, “Casting all your anxieties (burdens, griefs) on Him (God), because He cares for you. The verses before says, “Humbling yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that, at the proper time, He may exalt you.” This kind of prayer to God is actually part of the process by which God brings grace into our lives.

I don’t know that there are any redemptive qualities to the stomach flu. But I know that there are from cares, anxieties and grief. These events in our lives are not the product of “dumb luck.” God, in His wisdom and providence, so orders that we are improved through this experience of tragedy. Now some tragedies are clearly the product of evil, but even there, God can use these for our good.

If nothing else (and I believe there are many other benefits), grief and despair drive us to prayer. And that seems to be something of what prayer is, a person turning inside out to God.

Friday, February 16, 2018

To be a G-man: Psalm 4

Psalms 3 and 4 are bedtime psalms, or songs in the night. They are the interactions of people with God in the throes of sleeplessness. And this sleeplessness, rather than being a curse, has turned out to be a blessing. Thoughts were straightened out. Fears laid to rest. Perspective restored. In simple manner, I’ve circled four “G”-words in my Bible: “Be gracious to me” (v.1); the LORD has set apart the godly man for Himself (v.3); “Many are saying, “Who will show us any good?”” (v.6); and, “You have put gladness in my heart” (v.7). Let’s think about these in turn.

This non-sleeper finds that he doesn’t fit well into the world in which he lives. He’s struck by his lack of acceptance, and finds himself offended at the behaviors of his neighbors. It’s a lonely life, and one often finds oneself questioning whether we have it right after all. The world seems so sure of itself. And we listen to them way too much.

But God is present, and kind. He pays attention to us. He knows our frame, that we are but dust, and he comes to the aid of the children who are His, who are down and doubting. He is gracious.

When God “sets apart” the godly for Himself, we find a word that is used back in the exodus account. As Moses brought plagues to bear upon the stubbornness of Pharaoh, God would often “make a distinction” between the Egyptians and the descendants of Abraham, between one’s cattle over against the other’s. God was able to carefully direct His punishments, as well as his protections. And so God has special distinctions for those who seeks a view of life shaped not by the world but by God and His Word and will.

The godly man who is the beneficiary of God’s graciousness knows that “good” is defined not merely by what makes me feel good at the moment, or what is popular by today’s notions, but by that which is in concert with God’s character and mission. What seems good for the world is not the good that I choose!

Just before he drops off the sleep, this journeyman of little faith, but nighttime prayer, is made glad by the assurances of God. Whether or not one has the blessings that go along with worldly favor, he is graced with the blessings that belong to the godly. “You have put gladness in my heart.” And that comes as we seek God’s graciousness; as we seek to embrace the life of the godly as opposed to the worldly; as we let God define what is good. Then we have gladness. And then, we can sleep. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Loyal and Truthful

Fear can be a wonderful tonic. And Jacob was now afraid. After years or daring, risking, scheming - in situations where ought to have been afraid, now he anticipates meeting his big brother, Esau, whom he had tricked and cheated years before. He is afraid for his personal safety and that of his family. And so, he prays.
I’ve been marking man’s verbal engagements with God recorded in the Bible - Biblical prayers. What is remarkable about Jacob, son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, is that the many chapters recording his activities reveal no prayers until this late point in his life. Now we know that the Bible does not reveal every detail. But I find it remarkable, and wonder if the record were to reveal the patterns of our own lives, how prevalent prayer would be.

In this late-season prayer, Jacob is amazed at God’s loyalty and truth. Let’s take the latter quality first. To be sure, Jacob should be amazed at God’s tightness with the truth, given Jacob’s looseness with it. God keeps his promises, and Jacob has been the recipient of those promises, at least to this point. But whoever has dealt with Jacob has no assurance what he can count on after Jacob has spoken. Again, simple application, do we play fast and loose with the truth? Do we shade the truth, or leave out key details in order to be deceptive? It does not make sense that a person who truly values the God of Truth would de-value truth in his/her own life.
And then with regard to loyalty, we find Jacob again surprised. Jacob has lived a me-first type of life. That kind of person has a loyalty chiefly to himself, which is not really what the term means. True loyalty is a faithfulness to something or someone other than yourself - to wife and family; to a job or task; to a cause or mission; to God. Jacob has failed in all of these areas out of self-centeredness. But God, amazingly, has not given up on Jacob. He has not discarded him into the trash heap of history, though one would think it justified. But God’s Word determines His loyalty, and His loyalty directs His Word.

Jacob is at a crossroads. Will he cling to his loyal God, or will he continue in the path of a deceitful denier? And what about you?

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Psalm 3: More Impressed with God's Works than with My Enemies

In Psalm 3, David is overwhelmed by his enemies, and prays to God out of assurance and support. He cries aloud to the LORD (v. 4), and God answers, but there are no specific requests mentioned until near the end of the psalm, where we find two appeals: “Arise, O LORD! Save me, O my God!" 

Most of the psalm, though, is a record of David’s engagement with God in prayer marked by assurance. He is shaken by the number of his enemies, but steadfastly assured of God’s support. It seems to me that he then prays “Arise” and “Save” not so much out of desperation but out of confidence that this is exactly what God intends to do. It is fitting that David would have this confidence, because he has seen God do this so many times before. This psalm, if the heading is correct, occurs later in life, with the usurpation of his son, Absalom, to the throne, and his fleeing of Jerusalem. But God has delivered David so many times before, especially with regard to the years of fleeing from Saul.

I only found one other verse in the OT that begins with the same Hebrew “How many.” 
Psa. 104:24 “How many are Your works!  In wisdom You have made them all; The earth is full of Your possessions.”
David is more deeply impressed with the magnitude of God’s works than he is with the multitude of his enemies.

And that’s where we will leave it today. How can we be more impressed with the magnitude of God’s works than with the multitude of our enemies? Read that verse, Ps 104:24, again. 

Saturday, February 03, 2018

The War Within

Isaac relates personally with God as he prays for his barren wife, having been married 20 years with no children, and she conceives. We will come again to these prayers for offspring. But we consider today Rebekah’s question of Isaac/God, “What is going on in there?”

I’m not sure at the time if she could have known that she was carrying twins. What she knew is that there was a war within. We could read the phrase, “they jostled one another,” though that would be mild. The word is used in other contexts to say that she experienced a “pulverizing,” two bulls in a china shop. Esau was delivered first, but the brothers were still hard at it, with Jacob emerging holding firmly to Esau’s heel.

The battle within Rebekah during the days of her pregnancy was a microcosm of other battles soon to follow. Isaac and Rebekah were not of the same mind, with Isaac determined to bless his older son, and Rebekah scheming to younger Jacob take his place, in accordance with God’s word, but probably not out of desire to do His will. She wanted what she wanted. Don’t we all.

And then of course, there would be the ongoing struggle between the cheated Esau and the opportunistic Jacob - death threats included. And there was the tug-of-war between Jacob and Laban, with one taking his daughters, but the other stealing his years.

But perhaps the most important war within was Jacob’s, and, by the way, your’s. Like Isaac, we are often weak-willed where we should be strong. Like Rebekah, we are strong-willed where we ought to be submissive. Like Laban, we take all that we can get, even if it means bending the truth. Like Esau, we are driven by our appetites, and like Jacob, we find ourselves skilled at deceit and manipulation. We all struggle at some level with the war within, helpless to solve it until we are delivered.

When the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek, the Jewish scholars chose to use the word skirtaō, used only by Luke in the New Testament, a situation like Rebekah’s, except opposite. Elizabeth was carrying John the Baptist in her womb when Mary appeared, pregnant with Jesus. And Elizabeth felt John leap (skirtaō) as a calf in its stall, not in striving, but in gladness. And that’s what Jesus does, freeing us from our jostling desires, and replacing them with inexpressible joy. The war within will be replaced by peace within, and we look forward to that delivery date.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Make Something Good Happen for me Today

Abraham’s un-named servant had been given a difficult task. He was to go far away to who-knows-where in order to select and bring back a wife for Abraham’s son. It seems to be one of those tasks in which there are 1000 chances of failure, and little chance of success.

But this servant teaches us something important. When we don’t know what we are doing, it is best to pray. As we continue our reflection on Bible passages in which men and women engage with God, Genesis 24 is one of the best. This humble servant asks God for amazing help. While most translations read quite literally, “grant me success today, and show lovingkindness to my master Abraham,” CEB has this rather winsome rendering: “Lord, God of my master Abraham, make something good happen for me today and be loyal to my master Abraham.” I like that - make something good happen for me today. We could all pray that prayer often.

You’ll notice that the servant’s “good day” really wasn’t all about the servant. I’m not sure what would make a good day for you. Getting to do whatever you want? Going all day without anyone making you mad? Avoiding a certain person? Avoiding people in general? Most of these cases revolve right around our own selves. Not so with the servant. His “good day” or “success” has to do with fulfilling his mission for the sake of Abraham, his master.

As followers of Jesus, we are his servants, and He is our master. We are to do his bidding. And so, as with this Old Testament servant, our good days and successes are defined not so much by our individualistic sense of sell-being, but by our proper involvement in carrying out our designated aspect of His mission, not primarily for the sake of ourselves, but for the sake of Him.

Our mission may involve mundane service to family, to employer, and engaged in pursuits that seem on the surface to have little to do with God and church. The servant’s mission involved traveling on a dusty road and getting water from a well and negotiating a difficult proposal. But he never lost sight of the honor of his master. Nor should we.

And so even as you serve your employer or children, it is not primarily for their sake, but for the Lord’s honor. And if you don’t know quite how to do that - well, then our passage becomes ever more applicable. Pray, “Lord, God of my master Jesus, make something good happen for me today.”

Saturday, January 20, 2018


Twelve is a strange age. Are you a teen? Or not quite? When I was in school, you were in 6th grade, kings of the elementary school. But now, 12 year olds are the little fish in the big pond of Middle School. At Lake Ann, we run a special camp for 6th graders, for 12 year olds, called Jump Start, as though we understand that they need it. Or maybe it’s just to protect them from the 8th graders.

Luke makes generous use of the number 12. Jesus is 12 when he goes to Jerusalem and stays behind to engage with the teachers and “to be about my Father’s business.” He’s old enough and developed enough to function in an adult world. And yet back-to-back miracles in Luke 8 tragically reveal a woman who receives no help after 12 years of treatment from doctors, and a girl who is dying, and is not likely to make it past twelve. On the one hand it seems like a lot; but on the other, not nearly enough.

And so Jesus assembles a key group of disciples, and they are known as “the Twelve.” Who are these guys? The best and the brightest? The few and the proud? Well, not exactly.  Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “The Christ of God.” Way to go Peter. But you know that Peter and the others often follow their best performances with failures. And so Peter soon categorizes Jesus alongside Moses and Elijah, great men to be sure, but not by any means “This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to Him.” And the others start a nice little discussion about which one of them would be the greatest. It would have been more helpful if they could have ferreted out the weakest (Judas Iscariot) just a little bit sooner.

Maybe that’s why it worked out (or, Jesus worked it out) that after the feeding of the 5000, the disciples - those disciples who had earlier complained bitterly to Jesus that there was no way all these people could be fed, and that the resources were simply not available - yes, those twelve disciples were instructed by Jesus to go around and collect all the leftovers. How many baskets filled with extra food? Twelve.

The point of this, then, is that as we follow the Twelve into mission, we must realize that the success of mission did not, and does not depend on us. Our words many times are unclear, and our conduct inconsistent. But God’s mission depends primarily, not on the Twelve - those who have just about arrived, but not really - nor on saints who are at the same time sinners. God’s mission depends primarily on … God.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Right Where I Need to Be

When God comes to give you and me instructions, where do we need to be? Front and center, available and attentive. That’s what we find in Abraham’s next interaction with God. The text tells us God’s purpose, to test Abraham. So God calls his name, “Abraham!” Abraham’s interaction - his prayer to God - “Here I am,” right where I need to be. 

In order to arrive at the desired end of a journey, there are many things that must happen first. If it is a road trip as we’ve grown accustomed to road trips, there needs to be a destination and a route planned; a path chosen, and a vehicle prepared. You estimate the time and the costs. God in His wisdom has planned out our lives, and He had a critical, distinctive purpose laid out for Abraham’s life. In fact, success in the fulfillment of Abraham’s journey has much to do with the coming of a Savior and our faith in Him! This testing, or proving of Abraham was an essential part of that journey. It’s a good thing Abraham was right where he needed to be.

Abraham’s journey included a test. Not a test that would provide God with more information. But a test that would actually develop Abraham in ways that could only be accomplished through the test. And it is excruciating. “Abraham, take your son, your only son, - you know, that son that you love so much - and sacrifice him to me.” Ethical dilemmas abound, but Abraham was to leave it up to God to solve the ethical dilemmas, and prove that he did not place love for son above love for God, that he had not exchanged the worship of the Giver for worship of the gift; that he was not in fact idolizing his son at the expense of properly worshipping the one, true God.

If Abraham had known what God was about to demand, would he still have responded “Here I am”? Would you? Which is why we decide the issue ahead to time - that we will be front and center, available and attentive, at all times, starting now, independent of whether the instruction is comfortable, or impossible.

But the more striking prayer is not the “Here I am” of the hearing (Genesis 22:1). It is rather the “Here I am” of the doing (Genesis 22:11). By this time, Abraham has saddled his donkey, gathered the firewood, taken his son and travelled to Mt. Moriah, built the altar, bound his son, and raised the knife. It is then that God once again calls “Abraham!” He says, “Here I am,” taking his son in his arms, with God firmly fixed in his heart, right where He needs to be.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Clean Sweep

We are looking at Biblical accounts of man’s verbal interactions with God. We are thinking about prayer, and how to pray. And in Genesis 18, we see Abraham engaged in active negotiation with God.

In a recent visit with Abraham, we found him thinking that perhaps his servant would be his heir. God said “No, your own son will be your heir.” Ten years passed, and nothing happened, so Sarah suggested that Abe take handmaid Hagar and produce a son. By the time we get to today’s passage, Ishmael, Abe’s son by Hagar, is about 14 years old. Abraham is 99. Sarah is 89. And, God makes the promise again, with more specificity. “At this time next year, Sarah will have a son!” 

Due to the depth of the relationship between God and Abraham, the Lord decides to share what He will do next, in visiting the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah with the intent of destroying them. It is here that Abraham begs for God’s restraint. “Will you destroy it if you find 50 righteous people there? or 45? or 40? How about 30? or 20? Even 10?” God says that He will withhold judgment even if there are 10 righteous people. But there are not.

Abraham pleads for a division of mankind, between those who are proclaimed righteous, and those who are not; between those covered by the blood of the covenant and those who are not. Abraham, based on God’s revelation of Himself, sees all of humanity in this light. There are only two kinds of people: righteous, and unrighteous, not measured in human standards or by human appearances, but by faith in the promises of God.

Will God “sweep away” the righteous with the unrighteous? Will God treat the wheat as though it is chaff? No, He will not, and He does not. And even though He did not find even ten righteous people in Sodom, he still arranged the rescue of “righteous Lot,” his wife (partially), and his two daughters. He made a clean sweep of Sodom and Gomorrah, but not before rescuing the righteous.

God has promised to make a clean sweep of this world in which we live as well. It’s a mess, and God is at odds with sin. We look forward to a new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells. Will He sweep away the righteous with the unrighteous? No, He will make a clean sweep of this world, even as He reaches out and saves those who are in right relationship with Him through faith in the covenant formed by Him for the sake of His people, sealed with the blood of Jesus. And this should guide how we pray.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

For What would One Die?

For what would you die? Perhaps for the protection of family and home. Perhaps for freedom and country. Would you die for your faith, for the honor of your Savior? These are all difficult questions. Let’s discover a truth that underlies the commitment of the Christian as we think about Abraham’s prayer/question.

Abraham says to God, “How can I know that I will possess the land You have promised?” As we have previously written, the path forward seemed sketchy at best. “Lord, how do I know I can count on you?”

God then gives some rather strange instructions. Slaughter some animals: a cow, a goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon. Cut them in half, and lay those halves parallel with a path in between. What is God doing? He is “cutting” a covenant. He is making a solemn promise in which He communicates to the beneficiary, Abraham, (and by the faith of Abraham, us) something like this: "May what has happened to these animals happen to me if I do not keep My promises to you.” God is saying, I stake my Life on it - the very existence of God. And it’s not mere words, because were God to violate His character - well - it’s impossible. If He did, then God would not be God. 

We can count on God, because God stakes His life on His promise. And we know that He would, because He did. In order to fulfill His promises Abraham and to us, He in fact sent His Son, Jesus, to die for us, bearing the curse of sin for us, that we might receive the righteousness of God. God was “cut in half” for us.

And so, the question in the title is a bit mis-leading. It is a bit of a trick, because we always read ourselves first into every question, into every situation. It’s ingrained in us. For what would I be willing to die? But the foundational truth is that we as Christians may be better prepared to sacrifice our lives because One has already given Himself for us. It’s not so much what we do, as what God has already done. Or, what we do is based on what God done. We love, because God first loved us. We forgive because we have been forgiven. We serve, because we have been served.

This passage, Genesis 15, includes this phrase quoted in three places in the New Testament: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Yes, God, having witnessed Your word and action, that “you would really rather die than live without us,” I believe, and I know I can count on You.

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Lack of Vision

My wife looks at an old house and sees possibilities. I see lath and plaster and the prospects of lung cancer. She spots an old couch by the side of the road, and, along with Jackie, says, “it’s got good bones.” I say, “Who are we to question the good judgment of the people who ditched it?” She can see it. I can’t. A marriage made in .. heaven?

Abraham, following last post’s story, could not see a way forward. God is making plenty of grand promises about descendants and peoples - that all nations would actually be blessed through his. And yet there was no son, not a single one. A huge roadblock in the road forward. So Abraham now, and Sarah later, begin to rationalize and strategize, both from non-visionary points of view. Abraham thought that perhaps he could pretend that his servant was really his son. God said “no.” Sarah thought a substitute wife might solve the problem. It instead created many more. When there is no human way forward, our prayers should be humble, asking, “Lord, what do you have in mind? I’m willing to wait and see.”

Of course, for Abraham and Sarah, time was a problem. They were already past time for child-bearing, and more time wasn’t going to improve the odds, humanly speaking. They could not conceive of a path forward. They could not imagine a divinely-devised solution. They dared not envision a hopeful future. They failed to see beneath the surface, to the “good bones.”

Our prayers are not purposed to tell God what He can’t do. The impossibilities may flood our minds, but our task is not to inform God of His limitations. As we ponder, we must place God’s promise right before our eyes, so that what we see is colored by what we read and believe. As we pray, we must hold the promise firmly on our tongues, so that the words of our prayers must pass over them, flavoring the doubtings of our own words with heavenly hope.

Abraham prays a very small prayer to God when he says, “What can you possibly give me, since I have no son?” But when he finds himself properly married to the promise of God, he will find himself trusting and obeying, full of faith, and living in expectation rather than dread. He will soon have the experience of being surprised by the magnanimous wonder of a God “who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think,” (Ephesians 3:20 NAS95), something like a marriage made in heaven.

Friday, December 15, 2017

A Prayer for Second-Best

If you follow these posts consecutively, you might be picking up that I have begun following Biblical accounts of man’s interactions with God. It might be good to make a couple points before we proceed.

We can only examine what the Bible records. Adam, Cain, and now Abram perhaps had many conversations with God. We must stick to the ones God chose to include in the written revelation. Also, Adam’s “really bad prayer” and Cain’s “really sad prayer” perhaps were not consciously prayers with God - perhaps more excuses, or arguments. But it seems to me, whenever we talk to God, whether reverent or not, we are in fact praying, though we may be doing it very badly. We also find that there are big gaps in recorded prayers. We have none from Enoch, though he walked with God. We have none from Noah, though a righteous man. I’m sure they prayed. But we can only go by the book. “Nothing more.” And we will be accountable unless we also adopt the route “nothing less."

So now we come to the Genesis giant, no, the Biblical giant, Abraham. God has already spoken to Abram on, by my count, four occasions, though we have no recorded replies. Here in Genesis 15, God says “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.” (Genesis 15:1 NAS95) Perhaps we could say that God is promising to be both Abram’a protection and his provision. The protection part has already been proven (Gen 14). But the provision part - and the part of that part that really matters - the provision of a son, Abram can’t see how that’s going to happen.

Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” Abraham is here praying according to the facts on the ground, the ones that he can see. He has looked in the mirror and seen the reflection of a very old man. He has looked across the dinner table at a wife of similar condition. The days of hope are over. So what is left? A second-best solution. Just Eliezer, whose name means “my God is a help.” Yet Abraham at this point seems to have embraced that old line, “God helps those who help themselves.” 

Abraham is having a crisis of imagination - specifically, the ability to conceive and fathom possibilities that are only open to God. That is the very point here. Abraham cannot help himself. Only God can. And his prayer, and ours, begins to open our eyes to that truth, and to the experience of something that is better than second-best. 

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Really Sad Prayer

We will follow Genesis 3’s “Really Bad Prayer” with Genesis 4’s “Really Sad Prayer.” Cain, fresh off the killing of Abel, is asked by God, “Where is Abel, your brother?” Cain answers, “I don’t know.” I suppose his answer is somewhat true. He’s dead. His blood has drained out. There is a little bit of him here, a little there. His body is somewhere on or under the ground. His spirit/soul is with the Lord. There’s really no easy answer to his whereabouts. Not so easy as if God had asked him, “Where are you?”

Cain’s next reply sounds insolent: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He assumes the answer is “no,” but we realize that it really is “yes.” God had put Adam in the middle of His creation in order to “cultivate and keep” it. We would assume that if you are to be a keeper of creation, then you would also, necessarily be your brother’s keeper, his guardian, his defender. Cain proved to be the opposite.

So we find that Cain, in his prayer/argument with God, actually uses God’s word, “keep,” in his attempt to relieve himself of responsibility. He has rejected his role in God’s creation, and he throws God’s word back in God’s face (and this is the 2nd recorded interaction between God and man!). So let’s have had enough of the notion that the Christian message is to affirm the innate goodness of man. These two prayers, Genesis 3 and 4, argue the opposite. And further, we ought to be somewhat fearful in our prayers, lest we sink to this level, in which we pray as though the only person on God’s green earth that matters is me, and I can make any vapid excuse I want and expect that God should honor it. God punishes Cain, taking away his ability to do that other thing that God had commended to mankind, not only to “keep,” but to “cultivate.” You violate the one; you lose the other.

But we are not done with Cain (and, neither is God). Cain responds to God’s pronouncement: “The punishment is greater than I can bear.” This is the really sad aspect of this prayer, and it is the cry of humankind ever since, to the degree that we actually understand the predicament of our broken relationship with God. This word “punishment” is also translated “iniquity,” and may include both the offense and the punishment that the offense deserves. Both will crush us, drive us into the dirt, so that we will “surely die,” separated forever from God. But it is exactly this prayer, this bad news, that drives us to be ready for the arrival of promised good news. 

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Really Bad Prayer

The Garden of Eden, so beautiful in Genesis 2, looks like a crime scene in Genesis 3. There, over in the shadows are two victims, or are they in fact perpetrators. And while it looks like they may be huddling against each other in fear, it also appears that they may have their backs turned toward one another.

If prayer is man talking with God, then the second recorded interaction between God and Adam is really bad prayer. It is the case of dis-eased expression from a sin-sick soul. God says, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the forbidden tree?” Adam’s (prayer) answer reads like this: “The woman you gave me - she gave to me, and I ate."

In crossing the boundary of disobedience, Adam passed from innocence to enlightenment. But this enlightenment was not progress. It was rather “the knowledge of good and evil,” or, the experience of evil at a physical, sensual level. And having experienced it, he could not un-experience it. His perceptions were forever changed. His partner was now also his rival;  his Friend now invoked servile fear. He had lost something innocent in his humanity, and had sadly become a different kind of creature.
Far from confessing, Adam blames the woman - “she gave it to me.” And he blames God as well: “The woman you gave me,”. As if to say, “God, you are ultimately responsible for this mess. It’s on you.” And far from interceding for his wife, he accuses her (a most devilish activity). Admittedly, it is pretty tough to intercede for someone who has sinned when we have already followed their lead. True intercession requires a connection, but also a distance. Adam blew it on all counts.

When we find ourselves in our own crime scene, and find that we ourselves are the criminals, our prayers need to be clear and accountable. Answer God’s questions. If you honestly don’t know the answer, admit it. Don’t blame. Allow your soul to be dissected. Don’t evade. Be humble and accept responsibility. Don’t make excuses. Admit what you did, take responsibility, and ask for mercy. 

Prayer is a high privilege, and should not be made a mockery. It is an invitation to speak with the Almighty, and we might do well to speak the truth. It is an opportunity to give glory to God, which we steal when we seek to establish our own righteousness. It is a chance to display our intended humanity, as we think, and speak, and ask, and believe - something lesser creatures cannot do.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

"Where Are You?"

I’m blind on the inside of my mouth. My tongue is clumsy and can’t see. So when I broke a tooth, and the phone-person was trying to have me do a little self-diagnosis, I wasn’t much help. I’ve heard the hygienist label and describe, but the correspondence is lost on me.

It occurred to me that if I am blind on the inside of my mouth, then I am much more so on the inside of my soul. I am aware of good things, like peace, joy and gratefulness; and also of bad things, like anger, discouragement and bitterness. How these things are related, and where they are rooted, is lost on me.

When the Lord God approached Adam and Eve in the garden, He called out the question, “Where are you?” I do not assume for an instant that God did not know where Adam was. He knew exactly. It was for Adam to figure out the answer. And from the answer he gave, it is clear that Adam was lost in his own mouth, and lost in his own soul. 

This might be regarded as the first prayer in the Bible. God calls. Man answers. And, if this is a prototypical prayer from the prototypical man, then our prayers, like Adam’s, are marked by stuttering and stumbling. “I…I…I…I.” On the outside, “I heard” and “I hid,” but on the inside, how do I describe it, “I was afraid,” because “I was naked.” I don’t know how all these things are related, or where they are rooted, but there’s my answer, such as it is.

It seems that a prayer exercise that seeks to answer the question, “Where are you?” would be good for all of us. Not geographically, though the story might start there. But where are you in relation to God? Where are you in relation to God’s words, God’s commands? This was key for Adam. I suspect that it is for us as well. Where are you in relation to God’s provision, as yet unrevealed to Adam, since God had not yet killed in order to provide adequate covering? Adam was afraid and ashamed partly because of the flimsy, foolish covering that he had made for his own condition.

Here are some soul-searching questions: What have I heard from God that I have ignored? How have I hidden myself from His direction and inspection? What am I really afraid of? Of what am I ashamed? In what ways am I involving myself in a man-made cover-up? These are soul issues. And when we try to self-diagnose, we find that we have to go by feel, because we are mostly blind. But thankfully, Jesus is the surgeon of the soul, and he loves, and he presses in on us to push through our silly reasonings and excuses, “that he might bring us to God,” back where we belong. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

View from the Bottom of the Boat

This past Sunday, we studied the first of four miracles in Luke 8 that help prepare the disciples for mission. Jesus’ stilling of the storm reinforces the truth that Jesus is more than “just another guy,” in that “even the wind and waves obey him.” Also, the experience teaches disciples-like-us that we most need to remember who Jesus is, and of what he is capable, when we are in situations wherein we have lost control and are confronted by chaos.

2 Corinthians 5:17 says that, “in Christ, we are new creatures. Old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” That is, we begin now to see everything through Jesus’ eyes, even as God sees us through Jesus.

This change of perspective includes a great many things. We see ourselves as sinners differently. We now openly admit sin rather than deny and cover up, because only sinners can claim forgiveness of sins. If we deny our sin, we deny our need for Christ. We see Jesus as the eternal God who walked in human shoes. He is the center of all history, the only one through whom God can be known, and the only one who makes a right relationship with God possible. We see other people not so much as body-types or skin-colors, but we see that each one has an eternal soul - each one of great value; and each one at great risk. We see our temporal lives as but a vaporous moment in comparison to the glories of eternity, and we see the difficulties of this life as opportunities for the cultivation of spiritual virtue and strength. We are grateful and joyful; loving and forgiving. But not perfectly, because, as we said, we are indeed sinners.

One of our greatest sins is forgetting our faith, as did the disciples in this story. They cried out in panic to the sleeping Jesus, “Master, master, we are perishing.” Mark’s Gospel adds the rather impertinent, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” Panic, or discouragement, or bitterness, or worldliness - yours and mine - these also cause us to forget our faith, and to live as those who have not come to know and value Christ.

So what should the disciples have done? I suggested last Sunday that they might merely have laid down in the bottom of the boat next to Jesus and watch the whole scenario play out - the wonders of a sometimes-fightening God, and the tenders of a protective Savior. And then, if I could see today’s trials from that same perspective, or that difficult person, or that perceived injustice. Because Jesus has already been there, in the bottom of the boat. And he is there for us. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

My Life Bound Up with His

We can agree that a baby’s life is bound up with that of one’s mother’s. Yes, there are other helpers or, at times, stand-in’s. But the baby is a largely dependent creature, and in most cases, that weight on mom. So much so, that if something threatens the life of the mother, then the life of the baby is also imperiled. And otherwise, good health for the mom should generally redound to good health for the baby.

For the follower of Jesus, we can also say that the life of the disciple is bound up with the life of Christ. What happens to him happens to his followers, in at least a couple of ways.

This has application for our present lives. Jesus, having been raised from the dead, is ascended to heaven and is at the right hand of the Father, with all enemies placed under his feet. Now not all his (our) enemies have met their final defeat, but the resurrection and ascension show how this is going to go. Therefore, since my life is bound up with his, I need not fear evil. Enemies may not be currently completely vanquished, but they have no enduring power. And even if they are able to bring physical harm or death, my future is secured by the One who lives forevermore. 
But spiritually, our lives are bound up with Jesus’ life in another way. Romans 6 in particular shows that we are bound to Jesus in his death, so that our relationship with servitude to sin and evil is broken. And if we are bound to Jesus in his death, then we are also bound to him in his resurrection, so much so that we now live new kinds of lives, fueled by faith, lived out in love, helped along by hope, all energized by the Holy Spirit given from heaven.

If archeologists were able to find and conclusively prove that they had uncovered the body of the 1st century Jesus - if they were able to disprove the resurrection which is so clearly attested and substantiated in Scripture, then real Christianity would die. Sinners would have lost their Savior. There would be no deliverance, and no hope. Since archeologists and historians can prove little conclusively, my statement is not so helpful, other than to illustrate how literally this maxim is intended: my life is bound up with his. 

Or is it? If we can go from Sunday to Sunday with no thoughts of Jesus in between, is my life really bound up with his? If I face a trial or disappointment, and do not turn to Jesus for direction or help, is my life really bound up with his? Once again, what we say we believe needs to be put into practice.  

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Cover-Ups and Cover-Alls

Human history is full of cover-ups. Your personal history probably has a few as well. Cover-ups are those hiding tactics that we use to conceal the things of which we are ashamed. We do not want our failings to be made public. So we cover up.

We can conceal with bravado. We suppose that if we look good, people will think that everything is good. We can be experts at the fake smile, as if everything is ok, or with that little lie “fine” in response to “how are things?” They aren’t always “fine,” by the way, but you don’t want to say so, and you are dead sure you don’t want the other person to hear the whole story. We come across people concealing a cancer diagnosis who say, “fine,” or who are about to be foreclosed, and they say “fine.” It’s the human practice of cover-up.

1 John 1 confronts us with the contrast between the truth and cover-ups. In verses 6,8 and 10, John says, “if you say …” something that is not true, then you are a liar, and the truth is not in you, and you are actually making God a liar. But in 1 John 1:9, John offers us another word, But “if we confess …” To “confess” means to agree with God. It means to agree with God about what is right - like God’s perfections, including His righteousness and purity and goodness; and it also means to agree with God about what is wrong - those things that we have been lying about - the things you have been covering up. The verse goes on to say that “if we will confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” That brings us to cover-alls.

Cover-alls are used by painters and mechanics to keep the worker clean from paint and grease. Theoretically, you can work all day in all kinds of slop, and then peel off those coveralls at the end of the day, and you’re clean as a whistle. Yes, the illustration suffers from frequent failures.

But the cover-all that God provides in Christ is not a protection from the outside in, but rather a cleansing from the inside out. “He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Completely covered.

In the Old Testament, God would look down on us His people through the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant, the kphr, or covering. In the New Testament, God looks upon His people through the righteousness of Christ, as we place faith in Him. And according to His promise, we are completely “cover-all-ed” by Him, left with no need to cover-up.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Outward vs. Inner

“Then the commander of the officials assigned new names to them; and to Daniel he assigned the name Belteshazzar, to Hananiah Shadrach, to Mishael Meshach and to Azariah Abed-nego.” (Daniel 1:7 NAS95) 

These four young men from Judah had been taken as prisoners of war away from their homes and families in order to enrich the court of the Babylonian king. Nebuchadnezzar believed in the value of disparate cultures, and wanted to gain the best from them, even as he trained them in his own ways. One step in the process was to change their names. 

This is more significant than first appears. Each of these names communicates something about the faith of their people and of their parents. The Hebrew word for “God” is “El.” And so you can see that the name of God is part of both Daniel’s name (full meaning: God is my judge), and Mishael. God had revealed Himself to Moses and the nation of Israel by His personal name, Yahweh. In Hebrew names, this is often shortened to “Yah,” and so we can see that Hananiah includes this name (perhaps the full meaning is “Yahweh is kind”), and in the name of Azariah (perhaps the full meaning is “Yahweh is my help”). 

Once kidnapped, these young men could not control by what names they would be called. But outside authorities, no matter how prestigious and powerful, could change the commitment of their hearts. And that is the larger story of Daniel 1 - not that non- believing men could affect the outer elements of our persons (that goes without saying); but that they could not man-handle the internal souls of these committed believers. 

I would think that it would have been a distressing thing for these men to have their names changed in attempts to disassociate them with their godly past and to marry them to their pagan future. What we should notice in the text is that they did not whine and complain about this heavy-handed treatment. Rather, they chose to chart a course of faithfulness to their convictions from that internal center of their devotion: what they believed in their hearts and souls. 

I’m not sure we keep that distinction clear. We in America howl at any perceived affront to our Christian rights, even as our souls follow the ways of the world in the pursuit of prosperity, devotion to pleasure, and the care of our own over others. Daniel and his pals, or whatever their names, honored the distinction more clearly. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Dear ... ,

Letter-writing has been a large window into which we have come to understand a rather personal side of human history. There was, of course, a time when letters were not circulated. Engravings in stone tablets were slow and difficult. But with pen and paper, time and candlelight, men and women could pour out their heartfelt thoughts in compelling ways.

If there was a time before letters were widely written, I fear there will also be a time (perhaps soon) when they are written no more. Facebook posts do not count as letters and can hardly be regarded as the outpouring of hearts. Tweets and Snapchats are worse. The medium definitely affects the message.

There are things that we learn about a person through their letters that we do not grasp through their other communications. Former president Obama has just released letters written during his presidency. It is much more difficult to vilify a person when seen through such a personal lens. Martin Luther is known through his books, in which he is formidable, and through his essays, which contain verbal daggers. But when you read his letters, it is a man burdened to communicate with another, and the heart is revealed.

We are glad, then, to find so many letters in the Bible. Especially revealing are Paul’s letters written to individuals, to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. He writes about himself, and he writes about the recipient. He works to integrate faith with the challenges of life, and he puts his finger on the sore spots, the dangers and deficiencies, as though it is his heart wrestling with theirs. In Scripture, then, we find that we not only come close to the heart of Paul, but also to the heart of God, as God Himself strives to warm and woo our hearts.

And then Paul (and God) helps us take one more step. Paul tells us, in a letter, that we ourselves, whether individually or communally, are a letter of Christ himself, addressed, as it were, to the community around us, that they might know something of the heart of Christ through us. And I wonder, how are we doing at this? Can the heart of Christ, like tear drops on a page, be discerned in our lives? Is his grace and love made clear? Or are we more like a tweet, a post, or a bite. May those rightly related to God through Christ be so moved and motivated by His Spirit that we are actually able to communicate something of His heart and purpose, so that others are drawn, not to the letter, but to the Author.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Burden of Debt

At the time of this writing, the U.S. national debt is over 2 trillion dollars. If that were spread out to each citizen, we would each owe over $62,000 dollars, or, if spread out to each taxpayer, over $168,000. While the budget deficit may grow or shrink, the government is continually spending more than it receives, and thus the debt is growing.

I’m not sure how you and I experience the burden of that debt. Mostly, we do not think about it. Ignorance does not erase the debt. It just erases it from our consciousness. Likewise, if there is such a thing as a spiritual debt, ignorance does not erase it. It merely allows us not to think about it, so as not to feel the burden of debt.

Our problem of sin before a holy God is often pictured as a stain from which only the blood of Christ can cleanse. Also, we find the picture of debt. “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Jesus says of the master to the parabolic debtor, “And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.” In this Sunday’s text, Jesus illustrates his forgiveness of the sinful woman by saying in parable, “When (the two debtors) were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both.”

For well over a hundred years (1865) we have been singing “Jesus paid it all; all to him I owe.” More recently (1989), we have sung the chorus “He came from heaven to earth to show the way; from the cross to the grave, my debt to pay.”

The burden of debt is more keenly felt when it is personal - when it affects my home and my children and my reputation. That is why we can seem to distance ourselves from a national debt or divine debt. But the accountants are counting, and the Judge is judging. We don’t like that idea.

Yes, accountants count. But why should God judge? We frame the question in order to excuse ourselves. We actually put the onus on God when we consider (judge) that God owes us - it is His job to serve us and make us happy, as though He were in our debt. But if we are His creatures, as Scripture clearly teaches, and if we were created for His glory, then every time we live for our own glory, we are guilty to stealing His. That results in debt. Moreover, when we violate His moral will expressed in His laws, we offend His holiness, which is a moral debt that must be repaid. The debt is so great, we cannot, so the burden is crushing. Until we hear the Savior say, “Your sins have been forgiven.”

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

How Did It Come to This?

A fitting question upon hearing of the Las Vegas massacre might be, “How did it come to this?” I’ve been thinking about a phrase that might provide an answer: “inevitable, predictable, but strangely unexpected.”

This actually started with a Bible study in Lamentations, not one of the sunnier books for the Bible. 1:1 begins with “How lonely sits the city ..”, paralleled in Isaiah 1 :21 with “How the faithful city has become a harlot.” How did it come to this? Well, God had made promises - threatening promises - that if Israel did not faithfully follow Him, He would bring punishment. Since God does not lie, that result was to be regarded as inevitable. Then, examining Israel’s studious inattention to God’s Word and ways, and their stubborn habit of wandering off after every other false god, the result was also predictable. What is strange is that, when God does what he says, they acted as though it were totally unexpected.

Let’s apply this to an ethical subject: spending and debt. If we spend more money than we take in, then we will inevitably go broke. But our spending patterns persist, so the end is predictable. Strangely, when we unexpectedly hit rock-bottom, we say something like, “How did it come to this?” It seems we are idiots. Inevitable, predictable, but strangely unexpected.

Now let’s go out on the limb. It seems to me that the number of unbalanced people in our society is increasing. I don’t know how to verify this, or even how to clarify the category so as not to be offensive. We are all bent by sin, some more than others. Some have lost touch with reality and are living in an alternate world of illegitimate values and bankrupt standards of decency. They cannot be trusted to live safely and responsibly among us.

Is it inevitable that such an unbalanced person will lose sense of the value of human life, and will act to destroy as many as possible? And if you place in his hands an army’s worth of weapons, is it inevitable that he will use them in ways similar to what we saw in Las Vegas a few days ago? I’m not sure. But we’ve seen this happen enough times now that it is certainly predictable.

And so, when it happens again, let’s not pretend that it is unexpected. Not unless something changes. I sincerely wish Mr. Las Vegas did not have the access to the cache of weapons that he assembled. But that is not the root of the problem. I also sincerely wish that there were not so many others like him, who are so .. (what’s the word?) .. so desperately lost.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Not Using, but Living

“Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, 
but living as servants of God.”(1 Peter 2:16 ESV)

From last week, we find that we often get that feeling of “being used.” Others are choosing to make use of us for their own ends. That may be acceptable if we agree, but many times, we don’t.

But now we go on and think about what the verse above is advocating. It says, “not using, .. but living.” It implies that we also are not to be “user’s,” taking advantage of others for our own purposes, but we ourselves are to be those who live in the service of God for the sake of others.
Think of the creation mandate. Adam and Eve, and their children, were to subdue creation and to rule over it. They were not to just “use” it in the sense of ransacking it and leaving behind desolation. Rather, they were to organize and creatively develop the good gifts of God’s creation so that it would reflect God’s glory more and more. Even as they “used” creation as their home and recreative space, they were to live as servants of God.

The author Wendell Berry has written about the stewardship of land, which also results in the respect of community. He decries those who sweep in to an area (in his case, Kentucky) to blast the tops off mountains, truck off the resources and leave behind piles of waste and polluted waterways. Both ecology and economy have been ruined. These intruders have not “live(d) as servants of God.
The New Testament, then, also talks about our role in the world, not as “user’s,” but “liver’s.” We can desecrate our homes and communities and the lives of those around us with greed, or we can serve as God’s stewards for the good of others, which often turns out for the good of ourselves. 

But the thrust of this activity in the New Testament is not so much creation care as it is a gospel ethic. This is not to say that creation care has expired, or that it is not a worthy endeavor. But for a Christian to pursue only creation care is to have missed the focus of the Gospel, that we are to do good to others (one of the key themes of the little letter of Paul’s to Titus. Read it and see.) Our “not using,.. but living” now has a redemptive focus - a kind of living that shows that we have ourselves been redeemed from selfishness and grabbing for ourselves, and that we are sincerely grateful for this life-changing redemption found in Christ and His sacrifice for us, that we are eager to take back our lives from those who would use us for their own purposes, give ourselves as servants of God, and pray that people around us would see Christ in us.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Using, and Being Used

“Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.”
(1 Peter 2:16 ESV)

This verse, about the freedom of the Christian, gives important advice on living as free people in an enslaving world. “Not using, but living.”
All of us have had the experience of that feeling of being “used.” Someone has chosen to co-opt my time, my ability, my connections, for their own purposes. They may have been up-front about their intentions, or more secretive or manipulative. But it is, after all, most often, a permitted relationship. That is, I let it happen. It’s what I chose, whether or not I knew the implications at the time. 

“Using” is a term found in connection to drugs and alcohol. I’m interested in thinking about the connection between the terms “using” and “being used.” The person with a substance abuse problem says the word “using” as though they are in control, when we also know that they may be addicted, and so they have switched from an active role to a passive, and they are “being used.” They used their own will to engage with this substance, but that substance has now enslaved them. And we can be enslaved by any number of things. 

God has created us with a large number of traits and gifts. Each of these are for our “use,” but we can also come under their control. So if we have been favored with prosperity, we can use that favor with enjoyment and generosity, or we can be mastered by our money so that it runs us, or ruins us. We can be blessed with children, and commit ourselves to the challenge of raising them to be mature and responsible. During that time, the burden of that commitment is huge. It’s what we agree to when we have kids. But they become enslaving when we do not let go at the proper time. And if we continue to hold on, we are being used, voluntarily submitting ourselves to a kind of slavery. 

This is only half the story, because our verse says, “not using, but living.” How do we give ourselves without being used? That’s for next week. Here, it’s time to examine how we have tacitly agreed to enslavements, and how are we guilty of taking good gifts and using them contrary to their intended purposes. 

In the verse above, the object is freedom. As Christians, we are free from a performance-based morality and from the judgment of mere men. But that precious freedom is not to be used by you and me for selfish purposes. Because if you don’t like that feeling of being used, we should assume that God doesn’t like it either. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

When God Pays a Visit

Just about every time a natural disaster happens, someone will attribute it to being a judgment of God. That “someone” will probably seem to know exactly who God is seeking to punish, and exactly what they ought to be punished for. I’m not so sure.

Visits can be good, or bad, depending on the state of our preparation for the visitor, and the disposition of the visitor. If the visitor is angry because he has to come and clean up our mess, then we may dread the visit. But if we have been earnestly preparing for the visitor, and have lived and prepared with his interests in mind  rather than living purely for our own interests - then we greet that visitation with joyous expectation.

So I believe that God “visits” His people and this world in various ways. Scripture speaks poetically of God being in the storm or in the whirlwind. Scripture also speaks of illnesses being allowed by God, or being from God, in order to get one’s attention. These “visitations” should also include, then, the surprising blessings that occur - periods of prosperity; instances of beauty; gracious providences that, too many times, we attribute to good luck, or good living, or human ingenuity. 

In our study of Luke’s Gospel, we read of the key visitation of God, Jesus’ earthly ministry, culminating in his death and resurrection. In this week’s miracle account - the raising of the widow’s son - people conclude that “God has visited His people.” And He has, and He did, when Jesus, God’s Son, came to do what no one else could do, whether it be to still the storm, or to heal diseases, cast out demons, to firmly and finally forgive sin, - or even to raise the dead.

In the lengthy introduction to Luke’s Gospel, there are two references to this visitation. Zecharias, at the birth of his son, John the Baptist, says “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, And has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David His servant —” (Luke 1:68–69 NAS95), referring not to John, but to Jesus. This visit means that we can be, not a rejected people, but a redeemed people. And later in that same speech, he says “To give to His people the knowledge of salvation By the forgiveness of their sins, Because of the tender mercy of our God, With which the Sunrise from on high will visit us,” (Luke 1:77–78 NAS95). Here we find that, when God visits, by faith in Him and in His Son, we can experience His visit not as the heat of judgment but as the warmth of Fatherly mercy.