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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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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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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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We seem to be a people very skilled in arithmetic.  Oh, we would not see it that way, and we might even say we are not good in math.  But I beg to differ.

Let’s start with addition.  Don’t you find that we’re always adding to our list of essentials, making more and more things seem necessary all the time?  What was once enough no longer is.  The term “less is more” is a recognition of that and a call to return to something simpler.

And boy, are we ever good at taking away.  If the truth doesn’t quite suit our needs, we just overlook a fact or two and we’re looking good once again.

Mulitiplication?  Well, that’s just glorified addition.  It’s cipherin’ on a grand scale!  But division, now that’s not just taking away many times over.  It draws lines.  It separates and categorizes and causes all sorts of trouble.  It creates everything from minor squabbles to world wars.

So this got me to thinking about laws, specifically God’s laws.  He started out just saying one thing, but when people couldn’t handle that, He had Moses write down 10 more.  Then there were a few books written to explain how to live out those 10 essential things.  This was not overkill.  This was necessary.  But here’s the thing:  Some folks got all tangled up in the particulars of the law and they forgot why the laws were written in the first place.  Then, instead of thinking for themselves and applying a few principles to their lives, they became more concerned with the fine points.

Enter Jesus.  He has such a beautiful way of boiling it down.  You know what He said?  He said the most important thing we can do is to love the Lord our God with everything we’ve got.  That’s it.  And when we do that, we will love other people just as much as we love ourselves, which is really quite a bit.

That is the sum total of what God wants of us.  It’s all about love.  We must not take away from what He said, nor should we add to it.  If we do things because of love, it’s love.  If we do things without love, it’s meaningless.  And when we love Him, the rest comes naturally.

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There are a few who would argue with my position that everyone loves life.  I hear them say, “I hate my life,” or, “Life sucks.”  That doesn’t sound like a love of life, does it?

But we all have a survival instinct.  We want to live.  And the fact that we know our circumstances are not good indicates that we know there is something better.  That something better is life.  And that’s what we’re after.  Real life.

So I suppose it’s really a question of evil and pain and where it all comes from.  The big answer is that we live in a spoiled universe, and that things are not as God intended.  They will be again someday, but we live in the here and now.  I heard of a question that a grieving mother posed to God in the height of her pain after the death of her young son.  She asked what any of us would ask:  “God, where were you when my son died?”  She believed God could have prevented it, and she was right.  But instead she was dealt the loss of one dear to her.  Then, in her heart of hearts, she heard an inaudible voice answer, “Right where I was when My Son died.”

You see, God doesn’t change, He doesn’t move, and His love and power don’t fluctuate.  He grieves with us.  He offers solace.  He offers a better life.  He challenges us, encourages us, and partners with us.

Sometimes the thing we aim for is not the thing we achieve.  Sometimes our target is wrong.  “I just want to be happy.”  So I try this or that, and strive to get people to do what I want to make me happy.  There!  That should do it.  Right?  Oh, wait.  That wasn’t it.    So I try something else.  It lasts for awhile…

But what if I forget about myself and aim for something entirely different?  What if I try to make someone else happy instead?  It’s kind of a “cast your bread upon the waters” thing.  Maybe that’s where I find life.  Perhaps I was looking in the wrong place.  (If you voted for this answer, you passed the course.  Well done!)

But back to the “He offers a better life” part.  If her son is still dead, how is that better?  The answer, I believe, is in the hope.  Not in the hope of his return to this earth, but in the hope that comes from trusting the One who holds all things, despite the rottenness that we live in.  We hope for better and it will happen, some of it later, but some of it now.

The Bible talks about the whole creation “groaning” for the restoration of all things.  All things.  That’s not just people, but this whole planet, at least.  God’s going to make it all better.  He’s going to return it to its original condition as when He first made it, the way it was before death and ugliness entered in.  And for now, the place where we live today, He really does walk through it with us.  That’s my hope, and it’s been my life.

 

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There’s this verse in the book of Amos in the Old Testament which scares me no end.  I mean, it really makes me sad.  It says that there could come a time when people could no longer hear the words of God.

Notice that it doesn’t say word of God, because that would make no sense.  We have the Bible all written out for us and translated into more languages every day, read my millions, memorized by many, transmitted over radio and television and the Internet, and quoted and practiced individually and culturally, whether we’re aware or not.  (You’ve got to admit, it’s a huge influence in the world.)  But Amos used the word words. That, to me, speaks of the everyday utterances that “those who have an ear to hear” might perceive.

Now that may not be what Amos meant exactly, but this is what scares me – to think that I might not hear from the Lord.  Now, I don’t expect it to happen, but it’s a scary thought, just the same.

So I am remembering all the times I’ve heard His voice, and appreciating them all the more.  I’d say cherishing is a better word.  Mostly I’ve heard message of correction, but sometimes He’s given instruction, direction, and always encouragement.  Never have they been thoughts I’ve been apt to think on my own, and never were they forgettable.  I never had to wonder, “Was that God I just heard?”

Here’s an example:  One day 11 years ago, I was taking communion.  I had cancer at the time, and was not at all happy about it.  I looked at the elements in my hand, and though I wasn’t angry, I said to Him, “I know my suffering is not anything compared to Yours, but at least Yours had purpose.”  His response was simple:  “Yours does, too.  I will be glorified.”  I didn’t know what it meant, but that was enough.  I didn’t know if He meant that He would make me better or not, but in a sense He just did.  And like I said, that was 11 years ago.

So for me, to think He may be silent is just awful.  It makes me feel empty and abandoned and without purpose.  And to have this reminder that He does still speak, well, I think I’ll be listening a little more closely today.

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Our final words, when we know they are such, are the most profound, the ones we want to be remembered by, the things we want our loved ones to always know and hold on to.  No one ever reminds someone to brush their teeth or add something to the shopping list when they’re on their death bed.  “Oh, by the way, we’re out of bread.”  Doesn’t happen.

There are a few chapters devoted to Jesus’ last words to His disciples.  Among them is a curious little passage about the possibility of them falling away, of not continuing their life of faith and devotion to God.  Come on!  They had just witnessed miracles, heard Jesus’ revolutionary teachings, seen the unlovable loved, the hopeless satisfied.  Their world was rocked, and they were part of it.  Fall away?  Never!  Never.  Never?

Here’s the thing.  Jesus knew they had expectations of what God should do, of how the world should look now that Jesus had come and changed everything.  And He knew of the confusion and disappointment that was about to ensue when their expectations would be unmet.  And who could blame them?  The Man who came to save the world would be killed and things would go back to how they once were, or worse.  Where’s the sense and hope in that?  And so He told them to hang on, the story was not over.

I see this even today.  “If I pray hard enough God will do what I think He should.”  Or, “I will devote all my time/money/energy to charity and God will provide for my family.”  Oh, really?  Here’s how I see it:  He put a lot in His book about wisdom.  Yes, faith is involved, most definitely.  But faith is reliance and trust in Him, not our methods.  And if we trust Him, we will trust in what He says.  If He says we are to use wisdom, then that becomes an act of faith.

Back to the falling away.  Too many have expectations of God that are simply unfounded.  And so it’s no wonder there is a disconnect between their belief and their reality.  When they finally are willing to admit it, a decision must be made:  either continue in the frustration of unmet expectations, walk away from God altogether (wondering if there even is a God), or come to an understanding of who He really is and what living out our faith is really all about.  But let’s stop pretending.  Oh, and don’t forget wisdom.  Then see what God does.

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I wrote these little vignettes many years back, as an assignment for a drama group I was in.  We were preparing for Good Friday and were to approach the Cross as some of the more obscure characters mentioned in the Gospel accounts. Our backs were to the audience as we faced the Crucifixion together.  I hope you will find some value in them as we, today, approach Good Friday as well.

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“This is the Man who encouraged me that day when I had given up all hope and put my very last coin into the offering. My life has certainly been much better, for some reason, since then.  They say He has blasphemed.  Well, I’ve been going to temple all my life.  I’ve been devoted to God all my life, and I sure never heard Him say anything of the sort.  He’s only spoken of loving your neighbor and helping those who are hurting or poor or sick.  These Pharisees could use a little of that compassion, if you ask me.  This is a terrible thing that is happening here today.  He said I gave everying I had, but I really didn’t.  I gave the last of my money, but He’s the one who is really giving everything.

“Is that His mother over there?  (pointing to Mary).  I must go and speak with her.  I know the pain of losing someone you love.”

~ The widow who gave her last coin

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“He seemed to be able to see everything.  He even found me, a man of small stature, sitting in a tree trying to get a better glimpse of Him.  My height — or lack of it — had always been an asset to me. As a tax-gatherer, one who was not welcome in the sight of many, I could slip quickly into a crowd and escape unniticed.  But I did not escape Jesus’ glance.

“Now He’s gone.  How could it be that He who sees all didn’t see this coming?  He healed blind Bartimaeus.  Was He Himslef blind to this?”

~ Zaccheus

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“He told me I had to be born again.  I didn’t understand at first, but He said He spoke of spiritual things.  I had been a teacher of the Jews, but He spoke of new things.  He said He must be ‘lifted up,’ that whoever believes in Him may have everlasting life.  Again, I don’t understand.  How can any good come of this tragedy?  I once protested the unfairness of His trial before the Sanhedrin, and they let Him go.  This time, I can’t help Him.”

~ Nicodemus

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“I am accustomed to watching the signs in the sky.  This practice led my colleagues and me to Bethlehem to see the baby born King of the Jews, some 30 years ago.

“Again, today, I have seen signs in the sky.  At noon, all  became dark until 3:00, when this one called King of the Jews cried out to His God and died.  There was even an earthquake and rocks were splititng.  What does this all mean?

“Being a seeker of signs, I have turned to the ancient writings of Jeremiah and Isaiah for answers:  These are the signs which are to accomplany the Messiah!  Can it be that He who hung on that thief’s cross today is indeed the Son of God?”

~ One of the Maggi

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“As a member of the Council, I have to guard my asociations.  Jesus’ words intrigued me, and I would follow him when I could, if I felt I could remain unnoticed.  I did not want to bring shame to my fellow citizens of Arimathea by publicly ascribing to the teachings of one deemed blasphemous by the Jewish leaders.

“I’m ashamed now of my secrecy.  Jesus displayed such courage on that cross, a punishment so undeserved.  How can I ever redeem what I’ve done?  Perhaps Pilate will grant me His body, that I might at least give Him a proper burial.”

~ Joseph of Arimathea

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“I’ve heard His voice many times.  He used to come to my sisters’ house for dinner, and I loved to hear Him teach us the holy Scriptures.  Then one day I heard His voice in a new way — very powerful, and with authority.  ”Come forth!”  It was as if I had been in a deep, deep sleep for days, yet I was dressed in burial clothes.  The voice was unmistakable, and what could I do but heed His command?

“Now He’s gone.  He’s wrapped in burial clothes and lying in His tomb.  And yet I know there will be One to call forth His Name, too.  Not even death can silence Him.  Death means nothing to Him.  I will hear His voice again.  But how long must I wait?”

~ Lazarus

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