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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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Is that all God does?  I mean, from some folks, like insurance agents or news anchors or legal people, it’s all we hear about.  There is an earthquake, a huge flood or fire, a drought, and we call it “an act of God.”  Some who attribute the Almighty with these catastrophes would not even acknowledge His existence any other time.

I was sitting in class this week when I heard this term again, and I welled up.  Really, I did.  Our world is not as it was originally intended to be, and we see disaster all around, on a global level as well as a personal one.  But to point the finger at God, well, I think He deserves better.

OK.  In the Bible we read that He caused famine and pestilence and all kinds of horrors on Egypt.  Why?  Because He wanted them to be good to His people.  Egypt had enslaved Israel and HE WANTED GOOD.  That’s what He always wants.  He said, essentially, “Don’t make Me do this.”

That’s all I’m saying.  When these things happened in the Bible, there was purpose.  They weren’t random acts of meanness from a celestial killjoy.  God was not displaying His power and killing people and causing grief “just because.”  He always had a point.

Which is exactly the point.  There was a warning, a prophet, a forerunner to tell people what would happen if… whatever.  It is unfair, unkind, and unbiblical for us, today, to say, for example (and this angers and saddens me greatly), that God is judging a particular region or people when they experience natural disaster.  Where was the warning?  Who predicted this in the name of God?  This is an afterthought said, mistakenly, in God’s name, in hate and disgust and fear.  He is not party to it.

Does God not do good?  YES!  YES!  I see it all the time, and so do you. Why is there goodness and beauty in the world?  Why do we understand justice and liberty?  Where did we get our standards?  Where do creativity and diversity come from?

I want to acknowledge His acts and thank Him.  And know that He is good!

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Did you ever wonder how it works that Jesus came to set us free, yet He seemed to add even more to what God had already said in the Law of the Old Testament?  Come on!

God says, “Thou shalt not murder,” and Jesus said that even if we hate someone we have already committed murder in our heart.  We’re all doomed!  And how about this one:  God says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” but Jesus said that if we even look at another with lustful thoughts, we have already violated this commandment.  Does this sound like freedom?

I find two principles in this idea which are very encouraging to me.  The first is that Jesus, though He did not come to negate even one letter of the law, is more interested in our motives than the fine legal points.  This is true of the positive stuff as well as these “shalt nots.”  Look at what He did on many Sabbath days:  He healed people, much to the horror of the religious folks of His day, and to His own demise.  This seemed to be a violation of God’s law, but He was, and is, more concerned with the intent of the law, and with compassion, than with keeping law for law’s sake.  The law is good, after all.

The other thing is that Jesus did not come to bring more law, but more grace.  I get chills when I think of this one!  Whereas it looks at first glance like He is telling us that no matter what we do or don’t do, we can never measure up (and yes, He is saying that), He’s saying that He offers forgiveness for not only the actions we commit or withhold, but also the intentions of our heart.  His ability to deal with our shortcomings and moral guilt are even greater than the scope of our offenses.

I can live with that.

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We’ve all seen the slogans on bumper stickers, billboards, t-shirts, and even from the lips of its advocates:  “Prayer Works,” or “Prayer Changes Things,” or any number of other catchy phrases designed to get our attention and prompt us toward this spiritual, contemplative lifestyle.

But does it really?  I mean, is it really prayer that works?

What I’m wondering is, shouldn’t it make a difference whether we pray to one god or another, or whether we “keep good thoughts” or chant a mantra or wait for karma to kick in?

I was reading this passage in the Book of John about Mary & Martha’s brother Lazarus dying.  They had gotten word to their friend Jesus while Lazarus was still just ill, asking Him to come take care of things.  Jesus decided to tarry awhile and didn’t arrive until four days after his death.  Not a big faith builder there.  Not the kind of thing you’d expect a friend to do.

Jesus intentionally delayed His arrival so there could be an object lesson for them.  (And by this time, some Jews from a neighboring city had arrived, too, to console the sisters, so there was an even larger crowd of disappointed people.)  Everyone said to Him, “If You’d been here, this would not have happened.”

Jesus talked to them about who He is and asked if they believed it.  They did.  So He commanded Lazarus to come out of the tomb, which he did, and he told some of the people standing around to unwrap him and let him go free, which they did.  After that, many of the Jews believed in Him and some told the Pharisees, which fueled their resolve to kill Him, which always happened.

So I think about prayer.  Was not their prayer, “Lord, please come heal our brother.  We know You can do it, and we know You love him”?  They were greatly disappointed that He had not done that.  Because they knew what Jesus could do, they had expectations about what He should do.

Here’s what I’m thinking:  Prayer has got to be about more than putting faith in our words, or in our noble desires, or even in God’s ability to answer.  Prayer has got to be about putting our trust in God’s character, His intentions, and His good purposes.  It’s never just about His power.

Too often we trust our prayers and not God Himself.

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I’ve been thinking about the second of the Ten Commandments about not taking the name of the Lord in vain.  Does it seem strange to you that this should be there among the Top Ten, one of the worst things we can do?  I mean, it’s right in there with murdering and thievery and adultery and not telling the truth.  But, OMG, what if it means something more than just thoughtlessly using His name to emphasize our extreme emotion?

I’ve heard it said that this commandment is talking about calling Him Lord and not living like He is.  That is hypocrisy, another thing that we agree with God is not OK.  I mean, hypocrisy is right up there with injustice.  It’s not right.  Things don’t match up.  It’s an imbalance between what we say and what we do, just as injustice is an inequality, an imbalance in what is right.

But let’s take it further.  I was reading in Ezekiel and noticed all the references God made to His people being to Him as a bride.  Jesus even refers to this in calling His followers His bride for whom He will return one day.  But in the book of Ezekiel, He calls His bride a whore.  Yes, He actually used that word, and many times over.  He went into detail about what that looked like, but the upshot was that she (His people) had entered into covenant with Him, like a marriage, but then went after other gods.  He became jealous, like any husband would, and would do anything to gain His bride’s affection and devotion once again.

Then I thought about how in marriage, a woman takes on her husband’s name.  And in that name is a reputation.  Everywhere she goes, she takes her husband, so to speak.  “Oh, you’re so-and-so’s wife.”  There are implications there.  His reputation is hers, and hers is his.  It’s quite the deal.  (This goes for children and parents, as well, and is vice-versa for husbands and wives, but let’s go with this analogy for the purpose of this article.)  So for me to “take the name of the Lord” is not just to speak it, but to take it for myself, like in matrimony.  It is my identity.  I have entered into covenant with Him, and that covenant holds promises on both sides.

Ezekiel goes on.  God actually told him to tell His people that if they are going to continue to act like a whore, He would rather they go after these other gods whole-heartedly.  That’s called integrity, living what you say.  He called what they were doing profanity, claiming to be His but giving themselves to other gods.  He wanted them to make a decision and stick to it.  Jesus said a similar thing in the first part of Revelation, when He told this one church to either be hot or cold and stop being just lukewarm.  I’m getting the idea that God really likes people who are real.

So I have a whole new take on what is in a name.  I carry mine, my family’s, and my Lord’s.  I will not use them lightly, nor live them unworthily.  And I do not say this in vain.

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I think what I really want to call this article is something like “A Call to Compassion.”  But first off, let me tell you my position on it, so there’s no confusion:  I am pro-life, and believe that in far too many cases, abortions are chosen when there may have been a better way and provided life for a child who was certainly wanted by somebody.

There.  The next thing I want to make clear is for whom I’m calling this compassion.  I think many on the pro-life side have been rightly calling for compassion for the pre-born.  I agree.  But what I want to do here is call for compassion for the opposing political/social side, no matter which side you find yourself on.

And I think I’m mainly going to have to address my side.  First of all, to say that I’m pro-life implies that the other side is not.  That is not true.  I use that term because it seems to be the title that has stuck.  I know that the pro-choice-ers are also pro-life.  They believe that abortions are necessary at times to maintain quality of life for the mother, or that by allowing the birth, the baby is at risk of a poor quality of life.  Neither would I call them pro-aborts.  It’s the pregnancy that is unwanted, not the abortion that is wanted.  They just see no other viable alternative.

Is there anything I should say to the pro-choice side?  Not much.  I’m not here to try to persuade you otherwise.  There are plenty of resources for that.  I think the difference between us is that we value the choice of the child, understanding that no child ever asked to be born, but also knowing that no child would ever choose otherwise.  Your position values the choice of the mother and her right to determine what is best.

So the way I see it, we’re all pro-life, and we’re all pro-choice.  I hope that we can have a little more understanding and respect for one another.

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