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I’ll never forget how stunned I was when I learned something about what this really means. Let me back up… Matthew 16:18 says, “…I will build My church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” I realize there is much controversy about what hell is, and whether it is an after-life experience or whether it is here and now. Both may be true. But the point I am about to address is relevant in any case.

So what I learned several years ago was that gates are not marching toward us, attacking at every opportunity. No. Gates just sit there. They are not on the offensive, so we, the church, do not have to be so defensive. (There’s a lot to think about right there.) But somehow the church is trying to bust through the gates – or at least we should be. But why on earth would we want to do that? Gates should be there to protect us, right? They should keep us out, and we should be grateful for them!

But gates also keep things and people in, and that’s the point I want to make. That is what made my eyes fly open the other morning. What if behind those gates there is a prison camp? A concentraion camp? This is my new alarming thought. There are people behind those gates that we are here to rescue. There are people who are in need of immediate, substantial help. They may be victimized, they may live in poverty, they may be addicted to any number of substances or behaviors, they may be despondent, lonely, or confused. To one degree or another, they are living on the side of death more than on the side of life. And there is a gate that is keeping them in.

This rescue looks like love. It looks like acceptance and sacrifice and service. We cannot hold the attitude, as is humorously depicted in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, “I got to do for me and mine!” It’s about providing a meal or a room or transportation to one whose lifestyle is different from ours. It’s about welcoming foreigners and showing hospitality to one who cannot return the favor. It’s about encouraging one who is disappointed. It’s messy, it’s uncomfortable, and it’s inconvenient. But it’s about showing others what God really thinks of them, that they are especially thought of and loved without hesitation. Jesus did not deny anyone who needed help, no matter what that help looked like. May we go and do likewise, knowing the gates will open wide. May my my eyes be open to opportunities. May my heart be open to love.

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I went to the funeral today of a man whom I had not known long, but who was the kind of man you could know well in a short amount of time. That’s the way it is with relational people. They relate. You relate. And when there is love and joy and peace, it is good. I also returned a couple of days ago from seeing family whom I had not seen in a long time. That, also, was good. Very good. And I felt badly for all the time that had passed without relationship.

I have been looking at some biblical passages with new eyes lately. I am looking through the eyes of context, reading whole passages and not just a few isolated verses. It makes a difference. It is essential. I want to share with you a couple of insights.

Any of you who are Christian or who have spent any amount of time in church, especially on Communion Sundays, are familiar with the admonition to “judge the body rightly.” If you can’t, we are told, we should not partake, lest we risk sickness or death. (Have you ever seen that happen?) But let’s look at it again. I mean, right now. Turn to 1 Cor. 11:17-33. Yep. The whole thing.

The Apostle Paul starts off talking about division within the church, and how some folks are hogging all the food. They are not looking out for one another, and as a consequence, some go away hungry. He says in verse 22 that if you have homes of your own (stocked with food, is the implication), you should eat there before meeting together, so that those who do not have homes and food may find what they need in the gathering of fellow Christians. Then he reminds them of that first Communion, the Last Supper, where Jesus set the example of serving others first. So what is this “unworthy” bit in verse 27? Being selfish! The examination of self in vs. 28 is about whether you actually need this food or not. So by the time we get to vs. 29, that is what it is to “judge the body rightly.” If I do not regard others in the body, and consider their needs, I heap condemnation on myself. Seems like human relationships are important to the Lord, and He wants to meet our needs through others. Or should I say, He wants to meet others’ needs through us.

The other passage I want you to look at with me is James 4:2. “…You do not have because you do not ask.” Have you always thought of that in terms of prayer? Have you thought that if you just prayed you would have it? And when you didn’t have it still, did you go on to the next verse and figure that God didn’t answer your prayers because you were being selfish?

Back up a bit. What has been going on since chapter 2? Favoritism, partiality, lack of mercy, curses, jealousy, selfishness, arrogance, hypocrisy, quarreling, conflict, murder, envy… If you’re looking at the passage with me, I think you can see how I’ve come to the conclusion that the very next thought is about not having because you don’t ask one another. Rather than being envious of something someone else has, why not ask if they’ll share? And, according to verse 3, if you ask and still don’t get it, perhaps it’s because you were selfish in the asking. James goes on later in the chapter to address more human relationships, and the theme keeps recurring throughout the rest of the book. So why would he sandwich a verse about prayer in there, when the context seems to be about how to interact in a healthy way with others.

So I’ve come to think that perhaps the Bible is a bit simpler than we’ve thought. Perhaps writers then were as writers now, and their thoughts really do flow together. And I’ve come to believe that human relationships are very, very important to God.

 

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I’ve been reading the Old Testament for a few months now. Today, after reading yet another genocide account and brutal murders ordained by God, I had a talk with Him. I told Him that the biggest challenge to my faith is the Old Testament.

I told Him that what troubled me was not just what happened, what He ordered to happen and what pleased Him, but that I’ve come to believe that all of Scripture teaches us something about His nature and character, and I don’t like what that says about Him.

Or maybe I just don’t understand.

Then the conversation continued. He told me that the Bible not only tells us about His nature, but about ours. And about His holiness. And about the awfulness of sin.

Yes, sin. We tend to downplay that and don’t think of it as being as bad as it really is. For that matter, we don’t think of God’s holiness as being all that much, either. We call Him good, but we have no idea the magnitude. And put that up alongside our sin and, well, the contrast is more than we like to think.

So the question which naturally follows is, if God is still holy and we are still sinful, why don’t those things Old Testament things continue to happen today? No one thinks of God as all that vengeful now, and He is not directing people to kill other people. He’s just not. And here’s why: Jesus.

Jesus was the pivotal point in history. His death was so awful because our sin was so awful. That is what He took on. If it weren’t for that, He could have died in His sleep. But He had to suffer, just like we saw in “The Passion of the Christ.” It was brutal. And it is past.

So we are no less sinful, and God is no less holy. But Jesus made the difference. Our sin died with Him, and God’s consequences were taken care of.

I don’t usually talk to Him like that, but today I’m glad I did, because He answered me.

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It’s a fair question.  We hear the statement all the time, and sometimes don’t even stop to think about it.  “Sure, sure,” we think to ourselves and quickly move on to the next thought.  And maybe those thoughts lead to a consideration of all the evil in the world, or our own suffering or injustice.  If our minds are still aimed at God, well, now what do we do?

I was sitting around a dining table last night and found myself in such a discussion.  At first I was just listening, but I was so drawn into the conversation that I soon began asking questions myself – and being asked more in return.  It was very challenging, to say the least, and time well spent.  I now feel I have a clearer understand of why I personally believe God is good.

There are a couple of answers we typically hear.  It’s very disconcerting to not have an answer for something, so we try our very hardest to make sense of something that just doesn’t.  The problem is, neither is comforting to the hearer.  If you’ve just lost your child or your job or your home, or if you’ve just been unfairly accused, it is of little value to hear that God caused it and will bring good out of it.  I don’t even believe that’s true.  Neither is it helpful to think that He merely allowed it.  That, in my way of thinking, makes Him out to be either impotent or uncaring or He just wasn’t paying attention.

And yet we say He’s good.

So what’s the answer?  I don’t pretend to know it, but here’s what I do believe:  God is good, and there is evil and injustice and pain and heartache in the world.  Both are true.

Of course this begs the question, why do I believe God is good?  For me, it is not just a matter of faith, or because the Bible says so or because anyone else says so.  I think human beings inherently know what good is, and we have found it to be the way the world should be.  I don’t see that to be the case with evil.  We don’t see that as right.  In fact, we try to fix it, or if we can’t we despair because we see no hope of the world or our circumstances being made right.  So we believe evil to be a perversion of good — never the other way around.  We don’t believe good is a perversion of evil, and that evil is the norm.

In my last post I tried to make the point that God is the Creator, the Originator of all that is.  Believing that to be the case, I have to look at Him as good, because we believe life to be good.  Our experience of it is not always good, and I don’t mean to minimize the pain we all feel or gloss over the problems in the world with a flippant platitude.  But because we know what it should be, we know that is what it was created to be.  And a good creation comes from a good creator.

I hope I have made my point.  These thoughts are new to me and I am not confident in my communication of them.  But I am absolutely convinced of their truth.

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There is probably a perfectly reasonable for everything that seems miraculous.  I mean, we may look at a sunrise in sheer awe at its splendor, maybe even congratulating God on a job well done, while another may consider the science that went into it and dismiss any attributes of faith altogether.  Or, in seeming answer to prayer, a cancer patient may be declared cancer-free while God’s people proclaim His faithfulness, and all the while we know that chemo therapy can do wonders.  And when the wandering child returns home after months or years of rebellion and familial aloofness, we say God is good and credit Him with the reunion.  Did the child just grow up and gain a new, adult perspective?

Are we naive?  Are we gullible?  Have we been so indoctrinated in the church that we have lost our senses?  Come on.  Think!

When I go to a movie, and I’m talking about a really well-done movie, the kind that takes you to another place and causes you to forget where you are and who you are…  When I go to that kind of movie, I come away thinking of all the creativity that went into it.  Writers, actors, directors, cinematographers, make-up artists, set decorators, costumers, foley artists – everyone executing their craft with excellence.  Where did that come from?  I come away thinking about that.  It’s amazing — the talent, the teamwork, the human capacity.

When a teacher is able to reach a child, to get her to understand a principle, to gain her trust and build confidence; when a businessman takes an unpopular stand, one that will cost his business and his colleagues profit, but one that will take care of their employees and customers; when a friend is able to forgive; when a father provides for his family despite the long hours and hard labor required, these are noteworthy.

All of these things, from the sunrise to the sacrificial life – all of these things are what God has put into creation, into humanity.  There are explanations.  There is chemo therapy, there is education, there is human decency.  But dig deeper.  Don’t stop there.  Look behind it all.  Where did it come from?  Who is behind it?

I think, by the very fact that things can be explained, that what some would attribute to God others would call natural phenomena – (how can I say this?) – to me, that is just another demonstration that God is in it.  He is so involved in all of life that we are accustomed to things as they are, things as He made them to be.  The very fact that some deny Him is the reason I believe.  He is behind everything, and we are so used to seeing Him that we no longer recognize Him.

May our eyes be opened.  May we all have eyes to see.

 

 

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I’ve been thinking a lot about peace lately.  I suppose that’s because it’s been in short supply.  At least in my own heart.  So I’d like to share my thoughts with you. They are a result of conversations with wise and trusted friends.  And time has proven them to be true.

God really has very little to say about our happiness.  It would seem that it’s not a big concern of His.  Now that may seem a bit harsh, but when you think about it, it’s really peace we’re after.  We are a pretty tough people, and I think if we just have peace, we can handle just about anything.

Here’s the good news:  God has a lot to say about peace. He offers it repeatedly.  This topic was even among Jesus’ last words:  ”My peace I leave with you.”

Well, that’s all fine and good.  And I believe it.  But how do I get from here to there, from a place of unrest to rest?  I think it lies somewhere in the principle of “not thinking our way into a new way of acting (feeling) but acting our way into a new way of feeling.”.  In other words, imagine how you would act if you were at peace. In the doing of it, the feelings will follow.

This is not pretending.  It’s not denying truth or wearing a mask.  Instead, it’s putting on the truth, as putting on a jacket when you’re cold.  You are not denying that you’re cold; you are doing something about it.   The Bible says that we are to “strive to enter into His peace.”  Now there’s a contradiction in terms. But I think this may be what the writer is talking about. There is an element of choice and determination involved.

But there’s more.  I don’t believe peace is possible because it’s a nice thought or wishful thinking.  I believe what God said about it.  So as I live my day-to-day life as if it’s true, it’s really God that I’m actively trusting.  And I can truthfully (and happily) report that, so far, it’s working.  And here’s something else:  I’ve found myself smiling a lot lately.  Yeah.  It seems that once I was at peace, happiness naturally followed.

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Reasons for Hope

I’ve never posted a sermon before.  What I’ve always written were my own words, thoughts that were delivered to you through my keyboard to your screen, hoping to convey some of the ponderings of my heart to yours.  But as I sat in church two weeks ago and listened to this message being delivered, I thought of you.  This touched a very deep place in my soul, and I hope it may do the same for you.  (Thank you, Doug Bullock, for your skill, care, and honesty.)

I don’t mean to suggest that the music is not worth listening to, or even singing with, but if you want to scroll straight to the message, you can find it around the 37-minute mark.

I would love to hear your thoughts.  Please click on the link above, take your time, and enjoy!

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There are many things that could be attributed to chance.  Or circumstance.  Or the generosity of others.  Or our own wits.  I don’t doubt that these things play a part in the events of our lives (though I’m still wondering about the chance bit).  But what if I attribute a good thing to God?  Am I being naïve?  Am I simple-minded to call something an act of God when there is a perfectly rational explanation?

The way I see it, He is the originator of everything.  Whether directly or indirectly, it all comes from His hand.  Makes sense if He’s the creator, don’t you think?  I see spring bloom again after a long winter, and I thank Him.  I see someone recover from an illness and trace the medical community’s knowledge back to God’s design.  I’m grateful for the things that we have, knowing God provided the skill to perform the job which pays the bills.

But why?  Why not just let it be, live life, and trust in the explanations that are so evident?  I could do that.  I could study how the planets came to be, how weather patterns change, how different personalities conflict or harmonize.  And I do find those things very interesting.  But, to me, magnificent as they are, they seem a bit shallow if they end there.

I want more.  I want to go further, to see where all that came from.  There is a song by Ceili Rain that says, “I know that You’re out there because I long for You.”  I know that’s circular reasoning, but there’s truth in that.  We’re not thirsty for no reason.  We thirst because we need water, and that water is available.  We hunger for the same reason.  Food is necessary to life.  So is hunger.

And so we hunger for God, each in our own way, some more aware of it than others.  But I believe it’s true.  It’s simple, it’s mysterious, and it’s satisfying.  Call me naïve, but I’m going to continue to live this way.

 

 

 

 

 

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How many times have you gritted your teeth and determined to stop doing that thing you want to stop (or start that thing you know is right)?  How many times have you faced the shopping mall and told yourself you’re not going to buy another overpriced outfit?  How many alcoholics have said NO just before downing that next drink?

The DARE program says this is all it takes.  They tell us that if we just Say NO to Drugs that is enough.  Is it?  For those already battling the addiction, it is not enough.  There has to be something more.

The word YES is beautiful.  It demonstrates a conscious choice to do something positive.  And when used to choose the negative, then at least it’s done with determination and not merely gravitation toward an old unwanted habit.  But we can say YES to something better.  We can choose the park over the mall, and we can choose sobriety over a life ruled by another.

But there’s a bigger picture.  What if we said yes to something that encompassed more than just the issues before us?  What if we said yes to a whole new way of thinking?  What if we had a change of heart?  Instead of living by mind-over-matter, what if we could live by a 180-degree turn of our very soul?

I wonder if this is not what Jesus meant when he told a very prominent ruler that he “must be born again.”  Paul told the Roman church that “to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”  I wonder if focusing on behavior is not “setting the mind on the flesh.”

I think life and peace sound much better.  I think if I let Jesus change my life and not just my behavior, it makes for a much more cohesive way of life.   A change of heart.  Consistency.  And I think that if I let Him change my heart, I can then choose not only better behaviors, but better attitudes, like forgiveness-over-bitterness, or contentment-over-jealousy.

I’ve seen it happen.

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I think there is more than one way to look at this tried and true marriage vow.  We all know the usual way, that we will continue to love and be faithful in spite of our spouse’s illness.  It’s commendable.  It’s decent.  It’s expected.

But what if I’m the one who’s sick?  I think I should be able to expect certain things of my spouse, if not practically everyone around me.  I’m sick, after all.  I deserve pity and pampering.  I should be able to be grouchy or feel sorry for myself and not have to think about anyone else.  My illness is about me, not them.

And here’s the point:  I – ME – I am to love, in sickness and in health, even if I’m the one who is sick!  This is revolutionary.  This changes everything.

I’m not advocating a life of pretending.  I’m not asking anyone to downplay their pain, or to hide their needs.  What I’m calling for is thoughtfulness of those around you.  Yes, I’m expanding this beyond marriage.  Why not extend this to our children, our parents, our friends and neighbors as well?

If I am sick (and I have been very sick), I can still bless others.  I can ask about their day, I can write notes of encouragement, I can pray for them, I can still be useful, and I can probably still be cheerful.

There’s something that happens when we do this:  we feel better.  There’s something about dwelling on our problems that makes them worse.  There’s something about focusing on others that helps us forget our woes for a bit.

Try it next time you find yourself “in sickness.”  After all, if you’re married, you promised!

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