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I just watched a movie called Bobby about the assassination of Robert Kennedy.  I was in eighth grade when this tragedy occurred.  I remember that awful era in our nation’s history – the Viet Nam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the rise of drug use, campus unrest, the Cold War.  Hatred was being flung in all directions while free love was the mantra of flower children and hippies.  Authority was questioned.  Materialism was rejected.  Altered reality was embraced.

I especially remember the racial bigotry.  I lived in an all-white neighborhood.  It was in the County of Los Angeles, but our little burg was sheltered from those “others.”  I didn’t see a lot of the hatred in my town because there was really no one to hate.  We were all the same.  You gotta love that.  But we could see the Watts Riots on our local TV stations, and we knew they were just a few miles away.  Fear set in.  They were close.  Too close.

I take comfort in knowing that our nation has come a long way in our racial sophistication.  We embrace multi-culturalism, and if we don’t, we know enough to act the part.  At least in polite company.  Am I right?  We are not driven by that fear anymore, no sir-ee.  We know better.  We are an evolved society.  Bravo!

That was 40 years ago.  But I wonder:  what will characterize our present age?  40 years from now, how will folks remember us?  Are we tolerant and peaceful?  Do we love our neighbor?  Here’s what I think, and I’d welcome your thoughts:  We’re still a nation motivated by fear and disgust, only now we play in the arena of ideals.  We don’t hate because of race but because of creed, be it political, religious, or moral.  At best, we are suspicious of other religions (or no religion) , intolerant of Democrats (and Republicans), and are well-equipped for name-calling when it comes to social issues like abortion, homosexuality, or welfare recipients.

I’m not advocating that we set aside our beliefs and settle for an anything-goes society.  I hope that we can be passionate in our convictions and express them freely.  What I’m calling for is respect.  I want to listen and be listened to.  I don’t want to hear haughtiness or ridicule.  We’re better than that.  We who lived through the 60’s never thought it would get any better, and it did.  But we’re not done.  There’s still work to do.

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I was in a play recently.  I’d been wanting to do it for a  number of years, always with an eye out for a venue that would have me.  I saw a play listed in a local calendar of events, and the fine print indicated that it was community theater.  I sent off an email, and I was on my way.

I confess to more stress than was appropriate.  I let it overtake my life for the five weeks of rehearsal.  What if I mess up my lines?  What if I miss my cues?  What if I’m paralyzed by stage fright?  I’m quite sure it shortened my life.  There was not a thing I could do to get my heart to calm down.

The production went quite well.   None of my fears came to fruition.  And by closing night, I was actually a bit too relaxed.  I felt like each audience member was a guest in my house, and I wanted them to feel welcome and taken care of.  I sat on stage and looked out into each face, just enjoying the moment.  I didn’t miss any of my cues – but almost!  So there’s a lesson in this.  I could have believed what the director said all along, that as we knew our part, the whole thing would come together.  Just like life.

Since then, I’ve seen a DVD of the whole production.  My first thought was, “Why couldn’t we have seen this before we went on stage?  It would have helped to know better what we should have been doing.”  Then I thought of the director.  It was his job to see the whole picture.  It was my job to follow his direction.  Simple.  All I had to do was trust that the director knew what he was doing, that he was mindful of the finished product, that he was skilled in his ability to bring the story to life.  I didn’t need to see how I looked or hear how I sounded, I just needed to believe what he said.  It involved listening and following directions.

You see my point, don’t you?  If we could listen to God like that, we could stop worrying, stop wondering how we’re doing, and relax.  He’ll tell us when we’re off script, when we’re out of character, when we’re upstaging others in the cast.  He’s got the big picture in mind, and we’re part of it.

But there is the matter of the script.  Sometimes we want to write our own, or change the one He has given us.  Sometimes we even want to be in a different play.  But there is no other play, and there is no other director.  So I will play my part as best I can, under His skillful direction.  And in this play, my heart can be at peace.

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I was reading in the book of James in the Bible this week and came across something very curious.  I was in the first chapter, and he was going on about how we are to be good people, and not just say we believe in God and think that is enough.  There are rules we need to follow, but he talked about more than that.  He was also addressing issues of the heart, things that cannot be anticipated and made into law.  Then he called this whole thing “the law of liberty” (verse 25).

Does that sound right?  Does it make sense that we can be expected to go beyond even what the law dictates and consider ourselves “free”?

It took some pondering, but it was time well spent.  You see, there is this biblical principle of not aiming directly at the target, or perhaps it should be better described as redefining the target.  Here’s an example:  “Seek God and His righteousness and all these things [food, clothing, general provision] will be added to your life” (Matthew 5:33).   Oftentimes we aim directly at those things and are frustrated that we never quite have enough.  He is telling us to aim at Him and let Him take care of it.

Or consider what Jesus said in Matthew 10:39: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”  He’s saying that if it’s life you want, let go of the one you’ve got and find the real thing in Him.

So in considering this law issue in James, I’ve come to realize that if we aim at keeping the law, the law becomes our focus.  We try and we try, and we may succeed at some things and fail at others, either intentionally or ignorantly, or because we’re just unable to for one reason or another.  But if we let love be our aim, as he goes on to detail in verse 27, then the law is naturally fulfilled.  It is not our focus, but it is the result.  We are free!  We have kept the law without being slaves to it.  And the intent of the law all along, as Jesus said, was summed up in these two commands:  1) Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and 2) Love your neighbor as yourself.

Legalism seeks to keep the law, the whole law, and nothing but the law. We carry out the law for law’s sake without understanding its intent.  In this newfound freedom, we gain an understanding of it and can apply that insight to our actions.  We then become entrusted with the law, not enslaved to it.  Turns out this “new” law is a law of liberty after all.  And it’s not until we give up our legalism that we have any hope of fulfilling it.

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If you’re like me, you try to make decisions, especially the big ones, according to what you think God would like.  That, we reason, is where the safety is.  After all, He loves us, has a wonderful plan for us, and everything will be OK in the end.

So we pray, we ask others we trust, and we do what seems right to us.  Of course, we’re sure wisdom is in there somewhere, because after all, we’re pretty smart and God wouldn’t let us make a mistake now, would He?

So we venture into this big decision.  Maybe it’s a new job, or a move, or school, or marriage.  These, after all, are the biggies.  Things are often rocky in the beginning because it’s new, there’s a learning curve, relational adjustments must be made, we’re living in the unfamiliar, and schedules are completely different.  Things get better after the initial transition settles down, and we feel at peace.  Yes, indeed, God is good.

But if our view of God is contingent upon the outcome of our situation, we are in serious trouble indeed.  Difficult times will come in anything, some temporary, some final.  People die.  Marriages end.  Careers end.  Regret can be crippling.

So where is God in all of this?  What does this say about faith?

Here’s what I want us to consider:  We were never meant to trust in the outcome; we are asked only to trust in the God who loves, leads, and sustains.  I may make the decision He had in mind, or I may not.  I may be following Him every step of the way, or I may get off course at some point.  But He is the one who deserves my trust, not my prayer.

Do we make mistakes?  You bet.  Do we choose wrongly?  Often times, yes.  Will God give up on us, accuse of not listening?  No.  He will make adjustments.  There is always a Plan B.  Don’t we see it all around us?  You can’t tell me this world or the people in it were as God originally intended.  But He loves us.  He is still working.  And following Him is something that we learn.  We get better with practice.

So put your faith in God alone.  That means to trust Him, to lean on Him, to rely on His good intentions.  No matter what, He’ll be there to catch you – or to cheer you on.

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There is a very romantic notion which says that there is one and only one life companion, spouse, soul mate, for each of us.  If we are people of faith, we might say there is one person God has in mind for us, and we ask Him to lead us to that one.  Granted, that places a very high value on that one we find, and we cherish that person, believing they were created especially for us and we for them.

What I want to do is disassemble this belief, and for very good reasons.  Please hear me out.

Let’s live in this scenario for just a moment.  I have married the man of my dreams, and believe he is all God has intended for him to be.  He believes the same of me.  Somewhere along the line, sooner or later, my vision will clear – probably about the time he regains his clarity as well.  At that point, and it most likely will progress slowly, we will begin to blame someone.  Usually it is the other spouse, because they did not measure up to what God certainly wanted for each of us.  After all, doesn’t He want the best for us, and isn’t He able to choose well?

Or let’s take it to the next level.  I think we will weary of blaming our spouse and believing he or she will improve with time.  Now it’s time to blame the One who brought us together:  God Himself.  What was He thinking?  Does He even care?  Is He even there?

I’m sure you’ll agree that neither of these scenarios is helpful.  I believe the only logical and healthy perspective is one that takes responsibility for one’s own choice.  This is the one I have chosen and I will love, no matter what.  I will be the best spouse I can be so that he will be satisfied with his choice in me as well.

And from the logical standpoint, all it takes is for one person in the history of humanity to make the wrong choice and the whole thing is off kilter.  From then on, the rest of us are having to settle for less than perfect.  It’s the old domino effect, once again.

My point is not to take the romance out of marriage, but to have a healthy perspective of who we are and who we married.  We are real people who married other real people.  We are capable of life-long love if we take the time to nurture and cherish that which we’ve chosen.  Soul-mates are more often made than found.

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I hear it from people of all faiths, from various worldviews and religious traditions.  We all seem to want God’s will, by whatever name we may call it.  Admittedly, some hold a more fatalistic outlook and say things like, “If it’s meant to be…”  (Do you ever wonder who it is that’s doing the “meaning?”)  Others see a more direct correlation between our actions, past or present, and what happens to us.  This is karma.

But what I want to consider is not what lies behind us, but what we’re seeking on the path ahead.  Like I said, we all seem to want God’s will.  We believe that’s best, don’t we, because we really do believe God is good.  And who wouldn’t want what’s best for ourselves?  We want to know who to marry, where to live, and what career to choose.

I’ve asked God many, many times, in many situations.  Sometimes I’ve gotten clear answers.  Other times I’ve heard nothing and did what seemed best.  What I really want is a blueprint.  I want clear instructions so I can follow them.  Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it, Lord.  Lay out the plan for my life.

Lately I’ve been thinking, though, that God’s plan is not detected so much in the blueprint as in the footprints.  How often have I looked back and realized, “Oh, so that’s what You were doing!”  I was in His will all along and didn’t even know it.  But now, looking back, I can see where I’ve been, where He’s taken me.  And it makes sense.

Should I have known sooner?  Could I have?  I think faith realizes that.  After all, we’re not asked to believe in the plan; we’re asked to believe in Him.  If I trust that He loves me, even if the journey is unpleasant, I know He will bring about good things.  And that good includes me, but is not exclusive to my own interests.  That is better than good.

I like looking back every now and again.  It makes sense of the present, and I can see that God makes sense out of the senseless, and makes the pain worth it when we see its outcome.  And the best part?  It helps me trust Him for the future.

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We’ve heard all our lives, “It’s the thought that counts.”  When a child gives a bouquet of weeds to a grateful mother, that’s exactly right.  The gift is not valuable on the open market, but it’s priceless when it comes from the heart.  So it seems that the value of a gift is measured by the love of the one giving.

Then there are the gifts given which, if we did not love the one giving them, they would be mundane.  I could see the same sweater or book or picture frame in the mall and pass it by without another thought, but if someone I love gives it to me, it is treasured and given a place of prominence.

Other times I think the value of a gift is weighed by the sacrifice of the one from whom it came.  That doesn’t necessarily mean cost in dollars, but in time spent hunting for just the right thing, or in creating it, or maybe even letting go of one’s own prized possession.  When there is great sacrifice involved, it’s hard to even find the words to say in grateful response.

For me, this is true of Jesus’ sacrifice.  I want to say Thank You, and I often do, but it seems odd to thank Him for living here and dying for us.  It sounds like I’m glad He died, like maybe I don’t understand what it cost Him.  In this case, thanks is both necessary and insufficient.

I was reading about Jesus’ prayer just before He was arrested and executed, when He asked His Father if there was any other way this thing could be accomplished.  He was quite willing to do whatever it took to do it, but it was not going to be a pretty picture.  And then I realized something I never had before:  Jesus didn’t die because He loved us; He died because He loved His Father. He wanted to please and obey Him above all.  It’s the Father who loved us and sacrificed His Son for us.  And He loved His Son, too; that’s why the gift is so costly.

So that’s what the most famous verse in the Bible is all about:  God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son… This is God’s gift to us.  He is buying us back, you might say.  He wants to adopt us into His family and care for us as a parent cares for his dear children.  He is rescuing us from the mess we’re in.  Jesus is that gift, given to us by God.  I am grateful.

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It’s been said that we’re all in a war, we’re just not all fighting.  I think that’s true.  We’ve all got things we’re struggling with, and that’s not bad, as long as we’re continue to struggle and not give in.  We may realize that our speech is unpleasant, or food may have become more than “our daily bread” to us, or we may neglect to do good when it is in our power to do so.  If we know these things and try to do better, then we’re struggling.  Bravo!

But how often do we see others as our enemy?  “He makes me so mad!” Is that true?  Can another person really have that kind of power over us?  I suppose he can if we let him.  But then it seems to me it’s our choice and not really him that is the source of our anger.

But what would it look like if we recognized that we all have a common enemy?  I can say with confidence that we’d be more compassionate, less judgmental, and more reasonable.  If I am angry with you, but realize that there is another trying to come between us, I’m much more willing to seek reconciliation than if I see you as my enemy.  In that case, I want revenge – or at the very least, I want distance.

If we think of others as our enemy, then guess what – we become their enemy.  After all, the counterpart to any opponent is the opposition, the other team or player.  And what do people do when confronted with an enemy?  Well, we’ve got a fight on our hands.  And it’s a war neither can win, because the real enemy is allowed to triumph as he remains totally undetected.

I have a favorite Bible verse for marriage:  “We war not against flesh and blood…”  This perspective makes all the difference in a marriage, and the principle holds true for any human relationship.  When there is conflict, there is a tendency to let destructive things enter in:  ego, selfishness, jealousy, bitterness…  All these things are killers, and they are prime motivators, if we’re willing to admit the truth.

Did you ever stop to think that every person who ever lived, every person you come into contact with, was made in the image of God?  If we really believed that, I think it would make a difference in how we treat people and what we want for them.  It’s true that we’ve fallen far from that original design, but He has a plan for restoring us.  It’s not going to happen by fighting with one another.  It happens when God rescues us, snatches us out of the mess we’re in, and we invite others to come along.  That’s what puts us all on the same team.

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I’ve heard Christianity maligned as being narrow-minded for saying that just because someone doesn’t believe like we do, that we Christians think they are going to hell.  I got to thinking about this and talking to other folks about it.  The question inevitably arose:  Why DOES hell exist?

It’s a complicated issue, and I don’t pretend to know it all or to be able to adequately explain even what I believe about it, but here’s what I’ve come up with:  Hell is a result of the wrong that we all do.  It’s a result of the undeniable human condition that some call sin, others call moral guilt, and that we all experience both as culprits and as victims.

So, here’s an eye-opener:  If it’s sin that sends us there, then it’s not any belief or denial of it that lands us in the place of doom.  I can’t say that anyone is going to hell because of unbelief in Jesus.  We were all going there already.

So now it sounds like that is to be the destination for all of us, doesn’t it.  Am I now denying the existence of heaven?  Not at all.  The reason we know evil is that we know good.  The reason we feel pain is that we know what it is like to be comfortable.  Ugliness is a perversion of beauty.  And so hell must also have its counterpart.

We tend to be a very polite society.  I’ve heard that we say please and thank-you and excuse me more than other cultures.  We also tend to downplay apologies by saying that’s OK, when perhaps I forgive you might be more appropriate.  After all, if it were “OK,” there would be no need for an apology, now would there.  Do you think we tend to project this attitude on God?  I mean, do we think He will also downplay our wrong-doing and overlook our sin?  And will He do it for the wrongs of our enemies as well as for ours?

What a dilemma!  He loves us dearly, and yet here we are in this mess.  He can’t forgive one without forgiving all, yet how can He just turn a blind eye to our guilt?  Or should He rate our sins?  Actually, I might think that the one who stole my wallet is worthy of judgment, while you might say the one who betrayed you is more guilty.  Where should the line be drawn?

So let’s say we’re all in the same boat.  We’re all guilty of something – many somethings.  We have to admit the boat is sinking!  We’re in trouble and we know it.  But on the horizon we see a Rescuer.  We hear a loudspeaker:  “Climb on board my rescue craft and let me help you.  It’s the only way you’ll escape the storm!”

Some will accept the offer, maybe a bit skeptically at first.  Others will scoff and look for another way out.  Still others may deny their fate, believing if they just row fast enough they’ll make it to safety.  It is not my intention to get into all the theological implications, explaining biblical covenants or the substitutionary death of Christ here.  It was just a huge awakening for me to realize that it’s not unbelief that leaves us in our sinking boat – it’s simply failure to accept the rescue.  And I wanted to share my thoughts with you.

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I wish I’d studied sociology in school.  Don’t you think the trends we see are fascinating?  I’ve been thinking lately about the T-shirts people wear, the bumper stickers we put on our cars, the mugs we carefully choose each morning, the flags in our gardens, the tattoos some folks decorate their bodies with…  But I didn’t study sociology, or much psychology, or anthropology for that matter.  I’m just an observer.  I could be wrong, but doesn’t it seem like we just want to be known?  (And why am I even blogging, you wonder!)

We live in a time when we’re very individualistic.  We seek to create or at least discover our own identity.  We want to be different.  We want to be noticed.  We choose our own style, our own hair color, our own lifestyle, our own college major.  We do it all in the name of freedom.

But wait.  No!  What was I thinking?  We don’t want to be different.  We want to fit in!  We want to be accepted for who we are, but who we are had better be something like who everyone else is.  I can only wear outdated clothes if the date happens to be back in vogue.  I can’t listen to country music if I’m within earshot of anyone who would not approve.  I must learn to like shushi.

So it seems to me, we want to be known, but we are careful about just how much we let others see.  I don’t mind if you know that I like Saturday Night Live, so I’ll drink my coffee from my More Cowbell mug.  But to let you know that I keep my freezer inventory on my laptop, well, that may be another story.

In light of this, I was thinking of how Jesus talked about how we can know Him and be known by Him.  Does that sound inviting to you?  Do you think He would still love you if He really knew you?  If we admit our faults to Him will He reject us?   It seems to me it’s all about trust.  When I said that we don’t let others know everything about us, it’s because we don’t trust them to love and respect us if they do.  We fear their ridicule and rejection.  But what about with God?

I want to invite you, encourage you, to let God know you.  I mean really know you.  Tell Him your fears, your dreams, your faults, your joys.  Even in your most solitude of times, you’ll never be alone.  And you’ll always be loved.

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