Saturday, December 31, 2016

Contemplation at the End of the Year

I plan to take some time to get quiet and contemplate at the end of this year and the beginning of the new one. To that end, here is a puritan prayer to direct hearts and minds to what really matters.

"Year's End" from The Valley of Vision

O Love Beyond Compare,
Thou art good when thou givest,
when thou takest away,
when the sun shines upon me,
when night gathers over me.

Thou hast loved me before the foundation of the world,
and in love didst redeem my soul;
Thou dost love me still,
in spite of my hard heart, ingratitude, distrust.

Thy goodness has been with me another year,
leading me through a twisting wilderness,
in retreat helping me to advance,
when beaten back making sure headway.

Thy goodness will be with me in the year ahead;
I hoist sail and draw up anchor,
With thee as the blessed pilot of my future as of my past.
I bless thee that thou hast veiled my eyes to the waters ahead.

If thou hast appointed storms of tribulation,
thou wilt be with me in them;
If I have to pass through tempests of persecution and temptation,
I shall not drown;
If I am to die,
I shall see thy face the sooner;
If a painful end is to be my lot,
grant me grace that my faith fail not;
If I am to be cast aside from the service I love,
I can make no stipulation;
Only glorify thyself in me whether in comfort or trial,
as a chosen vessel meet always for thy use.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Praise and Thanksgiving: Increase My Love

Thou fairest, greatest, first of all objects,
      my heart admires, adores, loves thee,
  for my little vessel is as full as it can be,
  and I would pour out all that fullness before thee
    in ceaseless flow.
When I think upon and converse with thee
  ten thousand delightful thoughts spring up,
  ten thousand sources of pleasure are unsealed,
  ten thousand refreshing joys spread over my heart,
  crowding into every moment of happiness.
I bless thee for the soul thou hast created,
  for adorning it, sanctifying it,
    though it is fixed in barren soil;
  for the body thou hast given me,
  for preserving its strength and vigour,
  for providing senses to enjoy delights,
  for the ease and freedom of my limbs,
  for hands, eyes, ears that do thy bidding;
  for thy royal bounty providing my daily support,
  for a full table and overflowing cup,
  for appetite, taste, sweetness,
  for social joys of relatives and friends,
  for ability to serve others,
  for a heart that feels sorrows and necessities,
  for a mind to care for my fellow-men,
  for opportunities of spreading happiness around,
  for loved ones in the joys of heaven,
  for my own expectation of seeing thee clearly.
I love thee above the powers of language
    to express,
  for what thou art to thy creatures.

Increase my love, O my God, through time
    and eternity."

--From The Valley of Vision

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Christians ARE Pro-Life

I wish secular bloggers and posters, not to mention some Christian ones, would stop listening solely to the mainstream media's version of reality. Mainstream media reports on a small slice of reality pie and it tends to like its slice juicy and messy. Juicy and messy sells. Juicy and messy racks up likes and shares. Juicy and messy riles up and keeps people returning for more. But juicy and messy isn't the whole pie.

It's not uncommon for me to read a comment or post or blog that chastises Christians for "only being pro-life when babies are in the womb." We don't care about people when they aren't in the womb, I'm told. We don't care about unwed mothers. We don't care about the poor. We don't care about the marginalized. Is this true?

Here's the thing. People who claim the Christian faith (some of them probably really are of the faith, some of them probably aren't) and who do or say awful things, they are the juicy and messy slice the media loves. They are encouraged to spout and rage to bring in the masses to a journalist's news source. We humans tend to love bad news. We love gossip. We love hate. We love grumbling. We love pain. And we especially love pointing fingers at others so we can forget about our own failings.

I have never been interviewed by the media. No one puts a mic to my lips when I donate boxes of baby clothes to a crisis pregnancy center. No one walks beside me to ask why I am on a Hike for Life raising money for women with unplanned pregnancies. No one stands outside the food bank I stepped into to deliver toothbrushes, shampoo, canned goods, ready meals, and asks for an interview when I emerge. And no one gives me a pat on the back and a "let me report this" when I give my life to the two little souls in my personal care who need me pretty much every hour of the day. The media doesn't get juicy from little, insignificant me.

Most Christians are like me. Everyone I know serves others in some capacity. Some work at crisis pregnancy centers. Some adopt orphans. Some raise money for organizations and resources to help unwed moms. Some have put their heart and souls into ministries who help the marginalized, refugees, sex trafficked women and girls. Some go overseas, short term or long term, aiding the poor and needy around the world. Some serve in the local community, taking meals to the elderly, helping children who need school supplies and after school care. Some use their skills as doctors or carpenters or electricians to care and build and aid. Some look for those that need help around them and lend their hearts and hands. And some like me who have their hands and lives full to the brim with the children in their care find ways to help the wider world as best they can and long for a time they'll have more margin to do even more.

What's the truth? The truth is most Christians are pro-life. We're not going to be lauded. We're not going to be interviewed by the media. We're the part of the pie they don't have much interest in. Once in a blue moon, they might care. But most of the time, this just won't be the case. So bloggers and posters and commenters, please stop saying Christians aren't pro-life unless you are in a womb. It just isn't true. And Christian, you keep doing what you are doing. Be God's hands in a needy world. Fix your eyes on your Savior. Remember that even though your part of the pie isn't lauded, you are seen and known by the one who truly matters.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

It's Either All About Grace or It Isn't

Much of the church these days proclaims that God is a God of grace, that the church should be about grace, that grace is a message needed in a dying world. I've heard a lot of sermons and read a lot of articles about accepting the downtrodden, opening our church buildings to anyone, being the hands of Jesus to the sinner, showing people a God who hasn't written them off. Trouble is, I don't think we really believe this. At least, we often don't act like it.

We are human and our sinful humanity unfortunately means that the concept of mercy and grace run right up against our sin. We easily expect mercy and grace for ourselves, but we have a hard time giving it to people who have hurt us, people who are against us, people we don't like. We often operate under a double standard where I get grace, but you don't.

I think the reason grace is hard for us is because we think giving people grace is excusing sin. But that's not true. Grace doesn't excuse sin. Let me say that again: Grace doesn't excuse sin. Grace takes care of sin. "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). Christ died to get rid of sin. His grace wipes sin away. To give grace is not to say that someone's sin didn't matter. It mattered a whole lot--our Savior died to take care of it.

God's grace does not excuse sin, but a lot of people we meet haven't been saved. They aren't under God's grace as far as Jesus' sacrifice. Does grace apply to them? "[God] wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). All throughout the Bible there is a focus on God's desire for people to be saved and God draws his people into this desire by commissioning us to speak his truth about grace. Verse after verse speaks of Christians denying themselves for the good of the unsaved. Jesus modeled his love for the unsaved, eating with those despised. Think of the worst person you can, then think of Jesus sitting and eating with this person. Through this image we get a sense of what it truly means to be the hands of Jesus in a fallen world.

The truth is, there are a bunch of people we personally know and even those we have never met that we despise and we don't want love or grace extended to them ever. And we certainly don't want to be the conduit of love and the mouth that speaks grace. There's an entire book written about a man just like this. His name was Jonah and he was called to go to a people he hated and had no desire for their salvation. He tried to flee and got swallowed by a fish, then spit out. He agreed to go. He proclaimed the need for repentance and the people he despised repented. And Jonah got mad. He grumbled and complained. He was more concerned about a plant to shade him than a people's destruction: "Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live" (Jonah 4:2-3). But God responded: "You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?" (Jonah 4:10).

People on this earth face consequences for sin. Sometimes they are spared those consequences, sometimes not. Regardless, Christians are called to be people of love and grace and truth. We speak truth about sin, but we also extend grace. We show people that God hasn't written them off. We aren't called to go around making sure people repay their debts to us and God (Matthew 18:21-35). We are called to extend the same forgiveness that has been given us to others (Matthew 6:12, 14-15).

Grace is hard. Mercy is hard. Ultimate mercy and grace took the death of a sinless God-man. They don't excuse sin; they acknowledge it and take care of it. They reach a hand down to sinful man and whisper, "God is still here. God sees you in all your ugliness and he still opens his arms. Come, let him enter in." If people are to hear this message from us, then we must guard our hearts and minds and mouths. We must remember what God was willing to give those we consider the most despicable, indeed, even us in our most despicable. If it's all about grace, we have no other option.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Bullied Into Disobedience

I was listening to Wayne Braudrick, a local pastor, on the radio the other day. He recounted several stories of Mexican Christians who have been tormented, kidnapped, even murdered, for not bowing down to drug cartels. He quoted one Mexican Christian who is quite vocal and was questioned about his boldness. His response was "I will not be bullied into disobeying God." As Wayne talked on, my mind stayed on that quote and its truth: bullied into disobeying God. Isn't that much of what we face these days?

Let's face it, Christian, we aren't loved by a lot of people. And as much as we like to blame Christians for this (we're an easy scapegoat--you'll always find unhealthy people in a place designed for those who need a doctor), a lot of the anger and hate directed at us comes from people who want to force us to think and believe and act like they do.

If the way to death is wide and the road to life is narrow, it really shouldn't surprise us that a majority of people these days want to make us be like them. They despise the narrow road and they despise its travelers more. And many of them are not content with scorn from afar. They have a mission to force those on the narrow road over to the wide road. And this leads them to become if not physical, verbal bullies.

If you don't believe what they do, they will call you ignorant, intolerant, radical. If you don't act like they do, they will call you bigoted, unfeeling, cold. If you don't jump on their bandwagons, they will call you anti-progress, anti-modernism, antiquated. If you dare to say you believe in the Bible, they will call you stupid, dumb, naive. They will berate and berate and berate. And they hope, if they keep it up long enough, they'll knock you flat and you'll drag your sorry self over to the wide road.

Many do fall down and crawl penitently over to the wide road. When they get there, they are so praised and loved, they feel good about it. They make up reasons they really didn't disobey God, reasons why the wide road is actually the right one. They figure if the majority is on the wide road, it's got to be the right one. And they look back at the narrow road and point fingers at the bigoted, ignorant rabble they used to walk with.

Yes, Christian, you will be bullied. If not in person, certainly by media, especially social media. You'll be lambasted for taking certain stands and speaking certain truths. You'll be chastised by those who are sure they are right and you are the problem with the world today. They will harangue because they want you to stop doing what you're doing and believing what you believe.

But you know what? I have decided that like the Mexican Christian, I will not be bullied into disobeying God. Those on the wide road can stomp their feet and point their fingers and shout angrily. They can rant on social media, roll their eyes, and call me whatever they want. I will not be bullied into disobeying God. I will not be bullied into compromising Biblical truth. I will not be bullied into changing my life to make myself more comfortable. No. My God is my God and His truth is truth and I will not be moved.

Friday, September 2, 2016

I Admire Job, But Don't Make Me Be Him

You know what the worst part of growing up is? Facing the demolishing of your expectations. When you're in your twenties, the world seems pretty much all for the taking. Young love feels like it will last forever. Opportunities look like they will always come your way. The future is a bright place waiting for you to make your mark. I well remember that time.

But then the years pass and suddenly dark things start to happen. Friends you didn't expect to die so soon, do. Young love transforms, now commonplace and banal. Perfect children don't materialize (or if you face infertility, don't exist at all). The career so open for the taking becomes drudgery. A disease drains energy and finances. Oh, there are good days, days you smile and enjoy life, but there is dark and it is so very dark. The life you expected has disappeared. And perhaps you resent those whose lives seem to have turned out exactly as they wanted.

The truth is, for some of your fellow humans, life threw curve balls (maybe even for you personally). And as much as we Christians like to tell each other we trust God and his will for our lives, we don't like that he let the curve balls get to us. As much as we say we don't believe in legalistic tit for tat, we do. We've unconsciously determined we deserve smooth sailing: a perfect marriage, maybe a little arguing here and there, but an inexhaustible supply of forgiveness and thus abolished hurt. Children who are easily obedient, sweet cherubs, because we'd parent the right way. Careers that fulfill us, our contributions valued and lauded. And faith? Well, God makes that easy, after all, he's a perfect being so I can't help but love Him.

I recently read an article about a couple thrown a curve ball: their oldest daughter died of a sudden asthma attack. It was gut wrenching for them. The author noted that everyone at some point faces the confrontation of fears or the abandoning of destinies. That part gave me pause. Abandoning destiny? Then it hit me. He and his wife can't go back. They can't get their daughter back. They never wanted to face life without her. They never wanted to confront her death. They never wanted this. This was not the expectation of what life held.

Christians laud heroes of the faith and pretty much all those heroes stand up under suffering. Joseph sold into slavery. David hounded by Saul. Esther married off to spend her life in a harem. Jeremiah preaching and enduring hate to speak God's truth. Saul thrown in prison for releasing a woman from Satan. These heroes inspire us. "Yes, yes! They are faithful. Yes!" We love to see Job declare, "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord." "Yes, Job! Don't listen to your wife who wants you to curse God and die." But then our own dark hits and we find we admire Job, but we don't want to be him.

We don't want to be Hosea, faithful to a faithless spouse. We don't want to be Hagar, mistreated and sent away with our child. We don't want to be Elijah, standing up for faith and taking a hit for doing so. We don't want to be David, facing the disasters of a rebellious child. We don't want to be Job, our home destroyed, our wealth gone, our children dead. Not only do we not want it, we never thought God would make us go through it in the first place.

When expectations are dashed, when this smooth life turns out not to be so smooth, it can kill spirit and soul. The worst is when things happen that you cannot fix. When the miscarriage happens, when the child dies, when the child strays, when the spouse changes, when you stop being loved. Where is our faith in the midst of the deepest dark, the abandoning of our destinies?

The author of the article I read faced his pain head on. As much as it hurt, he didn't shove it away; he lived in it. It hurt, it stabbed, it crushed, but in he went. My life verse is Hebrews 11:13: "All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth." Most of the heroes of faith didn't see what God promised. Abraham didn't see his descendants as numerous as the stars. Moses didn't see the Hebrews take the Promised Land. Jeremiah didn't see Israel return after 70 years of exile. Isaiah didn't see Jesus born and die and save. And yet, these and more were living by faith when they died.

This is what gives me the courage to face the pain head on, to live in the death of expectations. I look to those I admire, who faced the dark and kept on trusting. I take comfort that I do not walk alone. I journey with a cloud of witnesses "fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2). I choose to see the joy on the other side of the dark.

Does this mean the dark is easy? No. The dark is dark, but there is a glimmer in a faithful heart. I hold to that glimmer. Some days the tears drench, the knees bruise as we fall, and our breath is taken from us, no words for the pain we endure. Sometimes all we can do is fix our eyes on Jesus ahead of us and Job, Hosea, Hagar, Jeremiah beside us. We cling to the promise that our victor will be victorious and some day the dark swallowed up in the city that has no need of the sun for the glory of God is its light and the Lamb is its lamp.

Friday, June 17, 2016

God Didn't Abandon Jesus and He Doesn't Abandon You

I posted the following as a comment on an article about how God "forsook" Jesus on the cross:

Not one of the gospels says God "turned his back" on Jesus. Not one. This is an idea that got passed around and most Christians just accept. In fact, there is no commentary of the gospel writers on what exactly Jesus meant when he spoke the question, a quote from Psalm 22. The only context that can even inform us here comes from this Psalm. David expresses a feeling of God forsaking him. But has he been forsaken? NO! That is the point. David reaffirms God is faithful and does not forsake him in verse 24: "For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help." If we hold this a Messianic Psalm then is all of it applicable? If so, then it matters that it states "he has not hidden his face from him."

The straightforward answer is we can't be certain exactly what Jesus meant when he used this phrase. The Bible never tells us anymore than that he said it. Did God "turn his back"? I hesitate to put an action on God that is NEVER stated in Scripture. The more complex answer is we can look to Psalm 22 for context. And in that context we can see that David felt abandoned. And we can also see that he was not abandoned. He asks the question, but the answer is not affirmative. We can say that Jesus felt abandoned. Was he abandoned? The Psalm reaffirms God's faithfulness and not hiding his face. Only Jesus can tell us exactly what he meant someday when we see him face to face.

There is nothing in the Bible to support that God abandoned Jesus on the cross. No author ever makes that assumption or says that. In our desire to figure out what Jesus meant we have made up this idea about God turning his back on Jesus. This is only speculation, and I would assert unsupportable speculation. Even worse, it hints at the fact that God abandons you, too.

The reason people usually give for God "turning his back" is he can't look on sin. This idea is also false. It gets pulled from one verse in Scripture from a book most Christians hardly ever read and probably haven't a clue what it's about: Habakkuk. Habakkuk 1:13a says, "You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong". Seems straightforward. Or is it? If God can't see evil or wrong, he's doing a pretty terrible job of being himself. God looked at sinful earth before the flood (Gen. 6:11-12). God looked at the sin when the tower of Babel was built (Gen. 11:5). He looked on David's sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:9). And on and on and on. God looks at sin all over the Bible.

Just as we have to look at the context of Psalm 22 to understand the point of the Psalm, we have to look at the context of the verse in Habakkuk to understand it. It can't mean God never looks on evil/sin because he does. Some people then say, "Well, of course, God doesn't really have eyes, so he can't look at sin. What this verse really means is he can't be in the presence of sin." But is this supported by Scripture? God was in the presence of sinful Adam and Eve (Gen. 3). Adam and Eve hid from God's presence, but God called out to them. In Job, Satan comes into God's presence (Job 1). Jesus was fully God and he came into contact with sin constantly. This idea doesn't hold weight either.

So what does Habakkuk mean when he says God's pure eyes can't see evil or look at wrong? In Habakkuk 1, Habakkuk is questioning why God is putting up with all the sin and evil he sees around him. The nation of Israel had become full of violence and strife and injustice (1:1-4). So God answers he is going to send the Chaldeans to punish Israel (1:5-11). Habakkuk takes issue with this. The Chaldeans are horribly violent people. How can God punish Israel with those who are so evil? This is the context of Habakkuk 1:13a.

"A"? You see, there is a whole second part of this verse that doesn't get quoted often in this discussion. As always, it provides our answer. Here is the whole verse: "You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?" Here is Habakkuk's question of how God can use the sinful Chaldeans to punish sinful Israel. The second part of the verse adds clarity to the first part. How does Habakkuk claim God is looking on sin/evil/wrong? Idly. He remains silent. In other words, Habakkuk is asking how God can look at this sin and be okay with it. Habakkuk knows God cannot look at sin in a positive light, so how can he be okay with the Chaldeans' sin? Habakkuk acknowledges in the second part that God is looking at sin!

The NASB translates this verse in a way that provides wonderful clarity: "Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, and You can not look on wickedness with favor. Why do You look with favor on those who deal treacherously? Why are You silent when the wicked swallow up those more righteous than they?" God cannot approve evil and he cannot look at wickedness with favor. God looks on sin and evil. He sees it. He punishes it. God doesn't hide himself from sin because it's just so awful it might stain him. He looks it full in the face and confronts it with his judgment.

Jesus took all the punishment of sin for us. He took the anger and wrath. Did he feel abandoned by God? Did he feel forsaken? Yes. Was he forsaken? Psalm 22 says no. Psalm 22 says God hears the afflicted, that God listens to his cry.

My friend, there will be days you feel abandoned and forsaken. In the midst of your pain, know that Jesus understands. Jesus knows what it is like to feel abandoned and forsaken. You have your savior's understanding. But will God turn his back on you? No! God did not abandon Jesus and he will not abandon you.