Breathe

Nine months into quarantine and working from home, I backed away from blogging. No bandwidth after a day job filled with one too many Zoom meetings. When I could finally hit the “Leave Meeting” button, didn’t have the heart go back to the computer.

Instead I’ve routinely run out of my house to the nearest trail or wood for some time alone under the open sky before dark. (Thanks to the end of Daylight Savings Time, it was dark today by 5:17 pm.) An added bonus: getting away from the computer has helped me avoid election ads, election news, election violence and election rants on social media, mostly.

It’s national Election Day in these United States. And stress is high tonight as polls begin to close and all kinds of ballots are counted: mail-in, drive-by, walk-in. Add to that the anxiety of living through a pandemic as U.S. cases of COVID-19 infection rise along with deaths.

In my state today, there was a record 67 COVID deaths in the last 24 hours and 2349 new cases. And still, there are people who think the Coronavirus is overblown, a conspiracy, a hoax.

Too much.

May I recommend a few simple steps to staying grounded and maintaining our sanity and calm in these crazy times?

Step 1: As much as we can, let’s step away from the screens of life: the phone, the television, the laptop, the paperwhite Kindle.

Step 2: Get alone somewhere with God where there are no electronics.

Step 3: BREATHE.

While breathing remember these truths:

God sits as king eternal, never to be overthrown. (Psalm 29:10)

He is good. (Nahum 1:7)

He is for us. (Romans 8:31)

He always causes us to triumph in Christ. (2 Corinthians 2:14)

He is coming again one day when we least expect Him. (Matthew 24:36-49)

Breathe. Refocus. Be still and know that He Is God.

Kindness on the run

I know the world seems to have gone crazy. But the kindness of strangers still exists. I experienced it on a recent morning run.

I was taking my usual route, a tree canopied trail through a wood where I regularly log a morning 2-miler. It’s just far enough to work up a sweat and close enough to shower and change before the work-from-home routine begins.

Probably half a mile in, I spotted a gray-haired guy ahead, wearing a hat and a jacket, with his back to me. He was off trail and didn’t appear to notice me. Good, I thought. I run early to avoid close contact in a pandemic. I don’t wear a mask when I run because it’s too hard to breathe.

It was a damp morning. And just as I came to the first of several wooden foot bridges, my feet slipped on the slick planks. Before I knew what was happening, I was sliding face-first to the ground. Screaming as I went, I landed in wet leaves and pine straw in a ditch beside the bridge. My car key went flying; my glasses, too. I clung to my phone.

As I lay there trying to collect myself, a hand reached for me. It was the man from up the trail. Asking if I was okay, he offered a hand up. I grabbed it, thanking him. His lined face was not covered by a mask. In a moment of human kindness, he forgot social distancing. He rushed to where I was, bent over me and pulled me to my feet with his bare hands.

Once I could stand, I recovered my senses and admonished him to step back. After all, I reminded him, “There’s a pandemic. You probaby shouldn’t be touching a stranger.” His soft blue eyes gave me a good once over. Satisfied I was okay, he stepped away without another word.

Things are tough in the world we inhabit. There is a ton of racial tension in the United States and a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. People are being asked to keep their distance, to look out for themselves. We are being conditioned to make snap judgments based on age, race, nationality, perceived political persuasions.

Yet, the Bible teaches that we are to be our brother’s keepers. How? “Be kind to one another… ” (Ephesians 4:32a)

We can be kind anywhere. On an early morning in a damp wood, an elderly white guy chose to be kind to a complete stranger, a black woman in a ditch. And very few words were said.

I don’t know whether he was a Christ follower. I do know that his presence and subsequent kindness was God’s gift to me in that moment. Normally, I am alone on the trail at that hour.

Each of us is a potential instrument of God’s lovingkindness at any moment. If we would open our hearts, chances are there’s an opportunity waiting for us to show some small kindness to a fellow human being; maybe a simple hand up to someone who has fallen down.

Are you really a hero?

When I’m reading the Bible, I tend to cast myself in the role of hero.

I am John, the beloved. Never Judas, the betrayer.

I am Ruth leaving my home country to follow mother-in-law Naomi to Bethlehem. Never am I Orpah who turns back to familiar Moab.

I am David, loyal subject to King Saul, daring to step on the field of battle and confront Goliath. Never am I David’s frightened older brothers cowering in camp.

I am the “Good Samaritan” who uses my own money to help a wounded traveler, never the hurried priest or Levite who see the man from a distance and keep going.

But heroism in my head is worthless. A hero is love in action, not some Walter Mitty daydreamer.

God is love. And His love for us moved him to do something sacrificial. (John 3:16) In response, His followers are to: “Treat others in the same way that you would want them to treat you” (Luke 6:31) and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mathew 22:39)

The Samaritan did this, and that makes him the hero.

Two religious Jews ignored the immediate needs of a fellow human being lying naked, beaten, robbed and left for dead beside the road. In contrast, the Samaritan interrupted his travel plans and “came to where the injured man was; and when he saw him, he felt compassion for him.” (Luke 10:33)

This guy didn’t worship in the “right” place. (Samaritans weren’t welcome at the Temple in Jerusalem.) Yet, he didn’t conform to the social norm of avoiding contact with Jews, his estranged relatives. We don’t know where the Samaritan came from or where he was going. We do know he was on the same road and saw the same thing the others did.

His response was different.

He felt compassion for the wounded stranger. Disregarding his schedule, what people might say, maybe aware that he might have suffered the same fate, the Samaritan did what he could to help. He imitates Jesus, our Savior, who through His sacrifice “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3)

What about you and me?

We can get pretty smug in our religious routines and completely miss that God is all about demonstrated LOVE. Meanwhile, people who don’t “do church,” but who understand the connection between loving God and loving people, “are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34)

I admit that I am challenged by the expectation to “love” people I don’t even like or have been taught to mistrust. No one can love without God’s help, but we get to choose whether to accept that help.

Loaded question: Are we even interested in sharing God’s love with hurting people who don’t look like us, don’t worship like us, don’t vote like us, who are from people groups with a history of conflict with our own?

Or are we just clamoring to get back inside the comfort of our church buildings so we can “worship” the invisible God while refusing to show love for the neighbor right in front of us, maybe by doing something simple like wearing a mask in a pandemic?

A real hero sacrifices for the good of someone else. Sacrifice costs something. Are we willing to pay the price to really love?

Channel The Rage

Poet’s freshly painted haiku on Durham city street

I was in fourth or 5th grade the first time I recall being insulted for having black skin. I was in an integrated public school classroom in smalltown Alabama.

Jenny – yes, I still remember her name – was a chubby white girl with short dark hair, glasses and a big round face. She called me the N-word as we lagged behind on the way to recess. I have no recollection why.  I knew the word to be a racial slur, hurled at me like a rock before she ran from the room.

I chased her. I didn’t think. I just reacted. She got to the playground ahead of me, wading into the safety of her friends and eyeballing me. 

What would I have done had I caught her?  No idea.  I was simply enraged.

That was not my last brush with hate-filled speech in my formative years. I wrote a Letter to the Editor as a young girl, back when letters to newspapers had to include the writer’s full name and address. I promptly received a threatening reply from the local Klan, the original domestic terror and white supremacist hate group.

First, I was frightened then infuriated. The indignity set my course in life. I became a journalist, championing First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Journalism presented its own maddening racial challenges. During our phone conversations, Fred, my first bureau chief, mistakenly assumed the new hire was a white woman. His jaw dropped to the floor when we met. The man who had offered to show me his mid-South capital city was a racist saboteur that I inevitably reported to the union.

James Baldwin once said: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”

I don’t have to tell you that we are living in infuriating times. News reports in these United States are a parade of “black death by policing” or white vigilantes: George Floyd, David McAttee, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin etc., etc., etc. Even when these killings are captured on camera, sometimes by the perpetrators themselves, arrests and charges can takes months. Convictions are not guaranteed.

Freshly painted protest mural in the City of Durham, NC

People are enraged. They’re rightly in the streets protesting. Some in the crowds have burned businesses, even police precincts to the ground, looted, turned on police. I don’t excuse that, but I understand it. Reforms have not worked to check police violence fueled by racial hatred. They are in Fight the Power mode.

Well-meaning white Christian friends ask what they should read to help educate themselves in this season. I recommend we all revisit the Bible command to love the Lord with everything we are and to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Mark 12:30-31

None of us needs new information. We need new hearts, open ears, changed minds and the will to do what we already know is right.

Racism is sin, and sin always leads to death. (Roman 6:33) Stop ignoring this sin, tolerating it, making excuses for it. Stop saying “I don’t see color.” It’s insulting. If you don’t see my color and culture, you don’t fully see me. Color is not all that I am, but it’s part of my identity. God sees my color, and I am accepted in the beloved.

Three closing points.

  • Don’t sin in your anger – Anger is a volatile emotion that “only leads to trouble.” May God help us to accomplish His righteous purposes in the power of His Holy Spirit. “Man’s anger does not bring about the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1:20)
  • Do goodMy children are engaged in this renewed struggle for justice, marching in peaceful protests and using creative expression to promote positive change. Let’s all find ways to shine light in the darkness.
  • Know your master – We are servants to the one we obey. Are we obeying Christ or have we become slaves to a political ideology, to a religious tribe, to family tradition (aka “how I was raised”)?

As a Christ follower, I intend to rage against the night that seeks to devour those I hold dear and everything that is good and decent. Join me. And may God give us grace to love our neighbors.

Love does no wrong to a neighbor.

Romans 10:13

Grass

I love the greening of grass in Spring. It amazes me how our slow-growing warm season grass, dormant and hay-colored all winter, gradually transforms into a vibrant emerald with rising temperatures and frequent rains.

Our neighbor has a deep green fescue lawn that is easily knee high. As I write, I hear the hum of mowing, a signal that the hired men have arrived to bring his overgrown grass into compliance with neighborhood standards lest the Homeowners’ Association threaten a fine.

In suburbia, a lot of effort goes into grass.

My neighbor is paying people to cut the same grass that he also paid them to plant last fall in a multi-step production that involved workers scraping the yard to bare ground, adding rich new soil, puncturing the ground with a bazillion little holes, sowing seed and covering it all with straw.

In less than half an hour, the neighbor’s grass is reduced to ground level.

Our lives are a lot like that grass.

For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away (1 Peter 1:24)

Our everyday lives have the illusion of permanence, like grass that grows unhindered month after month. In a crisis like the current COVID-19 pandemic, that illusion is stripped away and we come face-to-face with our certain mortality.

Though unpredictable, death is visibly certain and indiscriminate.

At first, the spread of Coronavirus seemed an affliction of the affluent, people who traveled on planes and cruises, frequented the better restaurants. Then it began to spread across continents and every demographic. Some victims recovered while others died within days or hours.

The infected/ill and infected/asymptomatic include actors, musicians, lawyers, school teachers, nurses, bus drivers, nursing home residents, children, pregnant people, the young, the old, the middle-aged, the previously healthy and those with underlying health conditions.

They have one thing in common: they are human.

We are all human. All mortal. Like grass that is mowed, everybody dies. Yet, God has set eternity in our hearts and made provision for us mortals who reverence Him.





As for man, his days are like grass;
As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.
When the wind has passed over it, it is no more,
And its place acknowledges it no longer.
But the lovingkindness of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him,
And His righteousness to children’s children,
To those who keep His covenant
And remember His precepts to do them ~ Psalm 103:15-18

Are You Using Your Resources?

TeamThe modern workplace is a team environment. Team members might be global, but chances are wherever you are, whatever you do, there is a team structure.

No more private offices. Most workers are seated in cubicles or open work spaces organized by team. Why?

Many reasons; perhaps foremost is the synergism of teams. Everyone has weaknesses, shortcomings, things we simply don’t know, don’t know that we don’t know or things we are required to do that we are not very good at doing.

That’s where working in a cooperative team can be a blessing. At least in theory, the strengths of teammates can compensate for individual weaknesses. The team succeeds because individual members help one another.

Currently, I am watching the antithesis of this play out.

A team member is failing, not meeting metrics and not saying a word. Not knowing more than what I see, I would say this person is failing because they don’t understand the concept of team. Surrounded by people who could help, this person has forged a path alone. And they are getting lost in the weeds.

In a team, help is close at hand. Because the team succeeds or fails as a unit, it is in every member’s self-interest to be helpful. Going it alone in a team environment is a recipe for failure.

We are better together, to borrow a phrase.

Christians can learn from this office lesson. Often, we struggle wordlessly, on our own, with an issue, a sin, a problem, never once reaching out for help. That thing gradually overtakes us. And we end up in rehab, in bed, in jail, in a bar, in trouble.

That doesn’t have to happen. We have help!

  • God has given every believer His indwelling presence, the Holy Spirit, the “Comforter,” the Greek word is actually “parakletos” or paraclete, one who comes alongside to help, counsel (John 14:16)
  • God also has given us one another in “koinoinia.” That is, Christian community in fellowship with other believers, our teammates.

God never intended life to be lived solo. He declared it “not good” that man should be alone then created Eve for Adam. Jesus formed a team of 12 disciples. He sent disciples in pairs to minister in the cities ahead of Him.

Life, Christian life in particular, is meant to be lived out in community. Yes, as God’s children, we can go directly to God our Father for help. We Protestants declare the priesthood of the believer and Jesus Christ as the only mediator between God and man.

Even so, there are times when we need each other. The same Bible that teaches if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness also says: “Confess your sins to one another that you may be healed.”

If we persist in facing life’s struggles Lone Ranger-style, we set ourselves up for failure.

The first step in success is admitting when we need help then having the humility to ask for it. God has provided everything that we need pertaining to life and godliness.

Are we using the resources He’s made available?

What Really Matters?

I’m starting to think differently. Some things matter much less than they once did. I’ve lost my appetite for putting time and money into things that really amount to nothing. At this point in life, I’d rather invest in something meaningful and lasting.

It’s not complicated. People over things. Christ died to save people. He loves us and has given us all things richly to enjoy. But at the end of the day, we have to leave it all behind. Other people are all we can take out of this world.

But most of us are captivated by petty things, things like grass and silverware.

On a 3-mile walk one afternoon, I passed the yard of an elderly couple overseeing the installation of an in-ground sprinkler system. You probably know the type: little black heads that pop out of the ground on a timer.

These white-headed people were meticulously pointing out where the sprinklers needed to be angled more or less to spray the grass and shrubs just so. In response to each instruction, the landscape guys, Latinos wearing bright-colored T-shirts, ran around making adjustments. On the return home, I found them still at, the sun dropping low in the sky.

  • I thought about our dismal attempts at growing a first lawn as new homeowners. In our next home, we promptly put in warm season Zoysia grass plugs, a thick, slow-growing, mostly weed-free variety that filled every bald spot. It’s tan-colored in cool weather and a hearty green in the August heat when all the fescue lawns are brown.

Grass is a low priority in my life these days. If I live to get really old and have disposable income, I hope to God that I am not pouring money into watering dirt.

My time, your time, here is too limited to fixate on cultivating something that’s ultimately cut down. “The grass withers, the flower fades. But the word of God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40:8)

********

While admiring heirloom jewelry at a shop, I overheard a customer discussing the purchase of an estate silver service valued at about $3,000. That’s $3,000 worth of forks, knives, spoons and serving pieces. It was weighty-looking stuff, polished to a shine that begged for sunglasses, clearly intended to be a family treasure.

At that moment, I wondered how much of the precious things we pass down will be turned into cash with no familial sentiment. Do Millennials even cook regularly let alone know how to set a fine dining table with that kind of cutlery?

A better question: how many hungry people could be fed by converting pricey forks into food donated to soup kitchens, food banks, and rescue missions?

  • I’m resisting the impulse to accumulate. I’m de-cluttering, gifting, learning to live more simply. I’d rather have treasure in heaven, where God is and where I expect to be.

Nothing wrong with beautiful lawns, fine dining, heirlooms. They’re just temporal, earthly. Better to hope in God, who is eternal, and to “do good, be generous and willing to share.” (I Timothy 6:18)

Grass is simply a reminder: time is short.

“As for man, his days are like grass

As a flower of the field, so he flourishes

For the wind passes over it, and it is gone,

And its place remembers it no more” Psalm 103:15-16

Waiting For Something?

what-are-you-waiting-forWhat are you planning to do “Someday”?

Apologize… Forgive … Give … Embrace? Pay Down Debt, Get Fit, Learn to Play Chess, Volunteer? Maybe it’s in your heart to volunteer with a ministry or start one? What has to happen before you actually do it?

  • Do the stars have to align?
  • Does God have to part the clouds, speak audibly?
  • Do you have to get a medical diagnosis that brings mortality into focus?
  • Does someone have to die?

Well, Someone already has.

Jesus died so that we might have life and have it to the full. He also got up from the grave and ever lives to see that His will is faithfully executed.

While it is called today, He wants us to believe Him and live because life is short.

I went to the Y today and someone else was seated in John’s place. John, a fixture at the front desk for years, was a slender man with hands frozen in such a way that his fingers did not easily grasp. Yet, he managed to pleasantly swipe entry cards and hand out locker tokens. I didn’t think much of his absence until I checked out an hour later. There was John’s picture on a funeral service program. He died 5 days ago.

Had I planned to say something important to John, my opportunity has vanished. That’s why it’s important to “Say What You Need to Say,” as singer John Mayer wrote.

God did not give us life for us to sit around waiting for Someday — when everything is nice, tidy, and perfect—before we start living the life we were created for. Life is messy, and we might never feel ready, but the day we hear God speaking, that is the time to act.

When it was God’s timing for His people to enter the Promised Land, they refused to go. Seeing themselves as grasshoppers being sent to face giants, they were paralyzed by fear. The result? That whole generation (save Caleb and Joshua) died in the wilderness, a dry desolate place when a land flowing with milk and honey was theirs for the taking.

If God says Someday is Today, we want to get in agreement with Him.

So if it’s in your heart to learn to ski, move in that direction. Read about skiing. Get in shape to ski. Meet other ski-minded people. See what God might do.

Prompted to pray more? Get in the Bible. How did Jesus and His disciples pray? Look for opportunities to pray. Ask God for some prayer partners and pray with them.

Need to ask for forgiveness? Humble yourself; pray for God’s timing and make the call, make the visit or send the email. It’s our obedience and not the outcome that matters.

Almost nothing just happens. Expect to put some effort into your “Someday.” In my 49th year, I set a deadline to run a half marathon: before I turned 50. Then I prayerfully planned. I joined a training group, ran and cross-trained on a disciplined schedule. When it got tough – as anything worthwhile eventually will – I persevered. I got injured; I got therapy. I kept running. When race day came, I completed the race.

Now I am learning to swim, fulfilling a “Someday” promise made to my children (all swimmers) long ago. I don’t swim in the deep yet, and I don’t swim expertly. I am not even sure I like swimming! But I am in the pool and swimming as best I can at this point. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start. Someday I’ll be a lap swimmer. But it won’t happen if I don’t work at it now.

In realizing a few “Somedays,” I’ve learned that we are capable of more than we might think because the God who called us to Himself is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask, think or imagine according to the power that works in us, His Holy Spirit. All He wants from us is our cooperation.

Our days on this earth are numbered. Let’s make the most of them by conquering our fears, dropping our excuses and getting on with the business of living. What are we waiting for?

Do you have access?

  I arrived at work, entered the lobby and realized I’d left my badge at home. The badge grants me access. It’s a sign of relationship. Only people with established relationship enter: employees, new hire candidates, vendors, contractors.

No badge. No entry.

Controlled access is a standard security measure. We routinely swipe badges or cards to enter buildings, swipe again to enter elevators.

We respect controlled access at work. But when it comes to God, some people seem to think anyone can march into the presence of a holy God and get their prayers answered.

At least that’s the impression I got from a young Brit on Facebook. He posted a discussion about the existence of God and invited opinions. It turned out to be an excuse for a diatribe against God.

I replied that I believe God “is” and that He can be known. He promptly replied: “bullsh*t!” And he didn’t use an asterisk.

In the ensuing conversation, he accused me of being brain-washed, compared belief in God to a brain virus and offered so-called proof that God is a myth: he had prayed and God had not answered. “You might as well be talking to a vase.”

I get it. He knocked at God’s door and believes God ignored him. Access denied. I think he wanted, still wants, to believe. He is hurt, angry, disappointed.

I say here what that wounded soul wasn’t willing to hear. Just because somebody prays doesn’t obligate God to answer. There is no access without relationship. And God knows our hearts, whether we want a relationship or we just want what we want.

Relationship starts with belief. Those who come to God must believe that He is, and that He rewards those who diligently seek Him. (Hebrews 11:6) Scripture says of Christ, “through Him you believe in God” (1 Peter 1:21)

God loves the world, and He has established the way the world gets access to Him. Jesus is the Way. (John 14:6)

God has protocol. In Old Testament times, one guy, a priest, could enter into the Holy of Holies one time a year to offer sacrifices for sin, his and the people’s.

One guy, one day a year. (Exodus 30:10; Leviticus 16)

If that guy didn’t come into God’s presence in the prescribed manner, he dropped dead and had to be pulled out. God didn’t allow anyone to come get him. That, beloved, is controlled access.

In New Testament times, Paul writes in the book of Hebrews:

Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)

Who is “us”? The letter to the Hebrews is addressed to brethren, to partakers of Christ, to those to whom the gospel was preached and they believed. Paul is writing to members of the family of God.

To have access, we have to have relationship.

Lots of people pray who have no relationship with God.  I would not say that God doesn’t respond.

Acts 10 tells of Cornelius, a devout man who feared God, gave to the poor, fasted and prayed. He certainly seems to be seeking God. And God noticed. One day, while Cornelius prayed, an angel appeared and told Cornelius to send for a man who would tell him what he should do.

That man was Peter, who preached the gospel of Christ to Cornelius “that through His name whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins.” (Acts 10:43)

God works on the basis of relationship. To get to Him, we must come through Jesus. He alone restores access.

Open Heart, Closed Casket!

Listening to the radio on the drive home one afternoon, I caught a snippet of a woman speaking to a group about a topic I couldn’t make out. What got my attention was a three-word phrase she used: “cold, hard, empty.”

Those words immediately took me back to a conversation I’d had with my daughter on a drive. Somehow we got talking about the dead which led to laughing about theatrical displays at open coffins.

(We laugh about almost anything!) If I go before her, she promised an award-winning performance to get me laughing from heaven.

If open casket drama is unfamiliar, you probably did not grow up in the South in a black church, as I did.

Funerals in Alabama are a scripted production that begins with the body being properly dressed and laid out in a funeral home parlor, the odor of perfumed formaldehyde hanging heavy in the air and permeating everything, including the roomful of cut-flower arrangements.

Done right, this display provokes the obligatory response: “Doesn’t he or she look ‘natural’?” or “Didn’t they put him or her away ‘nice’?”

This is where the radio remark comes in: Dead people do not look “natural.” They do not look “nice.” They look, well, dead: Cold, Hard, Empty. Those words precisely describe what many of us actually are while living – though we may appear otherwise simply because we are still breathing.

Apart from Christ, we are dead in trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1), spiritually dead and unresponsive to God. When people actually die, we come face-to-face with the physical reality of what it means to be dead. A dead body is cold, hard as leather and empty. The unique spirit that animated the personality is gone.

You can stand at a casket for hours, fiddling with buttons, adjusting ties, talking, shouting, weeping. (I’ve seen people actually kiss the dead.) You will get no response.

If the deceased was a believer in Jesus Christ, Christians believe that their spirit is “Absent from the body, present with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:8) If they did not trust Christ, their spirit, being eternal, still lives on in some place of torment. (Consider the rich man and Lazarus) 

I’m not a fan of viewing dead bodies. When I was a child, the departed were sometimes stretched out in their living rooms, where we’d join friends and family while dropping off a sweet potato pie or a bowl of home-made potato salad. Always seemed a little odd to me, eating and conversation with a dead body in the room.

Home viewings may have ended, even in Alabama where the old ways die hard. But the classic last look lives on. Sometime after the readings, tributes, songs and eulogy, family members typically file past the casket before it is finally shut and summarily rolled down the center aisle with prerequisite Scripture sentences: “I am the resurrection and the life…; I know that my redeemer lives…” .

Sadly, that last viewing is often where things turn dramatic. Sometimes the people who showed the least love during the deceased’s life weep inconsolably, require smelling salts to remain upright or have to be restrained from leaping into the casket.

Personally, I favor a closed casket funeral with lots of photos from various points in my life so those who knew me when, can recognize me then. As my mother used to say, “Remember me as I was.” Not cold, hard and empty, but full of life, laughter.

Of course, traditions die hard. When Mom passed away more than five years ago, family insisted on an open-casket send-off. And no, she did not look natural. She was wearing gloves, for heaven’s sake, which she never wore in life unless she was putting on a pair of Hanes!

Come to the Light

moths

Intelligence is over-rated.

Moths, so far as I know, don’t have a brain in their heads. But they seem instinctively to understand something that we humans have missed.

We’re meant to come out of the darkness and into the light.

I was sitting in the office a few hours ago with the blinds raised and all the lights in the room glowing brightly when I noticed a host of moths fluttering at the windows, some pasted to the panes as though they might find a way through in spite of the glass wall.

And this doesn’t just happen at my office windows. When I open the kitchen door to a dark garage, waiting moths race into my brightly lit kitchen before I can get the door slammed again. I spend the rest of the evening chasing them from one glowing lamp to another. Some find their way into enclosed overhead lights and, sadly, die there trying to get as close to the source of that light as possible.

Moths, sometimes huge ones, congregate around the outdoor flood lights that grace the corners of my home whenever they’re left on for any length of time.

Moths, you see, are attracted to light despite barriers.

We humans, on the other hand, seek to put as much distance as possible between ourselves and the Light.

Why do we do this? Scripture gives this answer: Men love darkness rather than light because our deeds are evil.  (John 3:17-21)

My friend, God is Light and in Him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5) His desire is that we draw near to Him that He might draw near to us.

And yes, our God is a consuming fire. Yet, the same fire that can burn down a house also can cook a hot meal and warm cold hands. The same fire that burns away dross simultaneously purifies precious metal.

Instead of stumbling around in the dark, bruising ourselves and piercing ourselves through with many a pain, why don’t we all turn to God to walk in the light as He is in the light? (1 John 1:7)

To quote Oswald Chambers, whose writings you may know through “My Utmost for His Highest”:

  To “walk in the light” means that everything that is of the darkness actually drives me closer to the center of the light.

If we’re hurting, bruised and can’t find our way in the dark, it’s time we admit that and come to the Light. God is not waiting to burn us to cinders. He stands ready to help us find our way home.

May we all someday say with the psalmist: “It is good to be near God…”  (Psalm 73:28)

Pass the plate, and celebrate!

In my world, a happy occasion is an excuse for celebrating with food. Heck, where I was raised, even death was accompanied by a parade of foil-covered pies, cake, and potato salad and such. Even in grief, people gathered around food.

So this afternoon, we will sit down to a feast prepared in honor of our risen Savior Jesus Christ, who proclaimed Himself the Bread of Life. There will be root veggies, apple cake, chocolate pie, fresh greens and, of course, roast lamb fresh from the oven.

I happen to believe that Penzeys motto: “Love people. Cook them tasty food.”

At my house, mashed potatoes are real potatoes actually mashed. Meat is fresh, seldom frozen. Veggies are mostly Farmer’s Market fare. I grew up eating fresh from gardens. I learned to cook by watching it done both at home and on TV before there was cable. My version of “The Food Network” was watching “The Galloping Gourmet” on a black-and-white set with Mom’s friend from New Jersey who loved to cook on visits South.

I had to learn to cook. When I married, my husband endured rock-hard biscuits and sometimes three-hour meal prep before I produced something edible. I am full of thanks that he was patient. My cooking improved with good advice. I used to phone Mom across three states to have her translate a pinch and a dash into measurements that would reproduce her macaroni and cheese made with red-rimmed hoop cheese and butter – or her peach cobbler made with Georgia peaches.

I rather think Jesus enjoyed celebrating around food and drink with those He loved. Search the Scriptures and you’ll find him around a table.

His first miracle was at a wedding in Cana. (John 2) His Last Supper found Him gathered around a table to celebrate the Passover meal, of which He Himself would be the fulfillment.(Matt 26:18) He is recorded reclining at the table in the home of Simon the leper. (Matt 14:3) I am pretty sure there were meals served when he dropped by the home of Mary and Martha, who is said to have been busy with preparation.

For me, what gives a meal meaning is not so much the food itself. What makes the difference is who we share it with and why. All the chopping, stirring and hovering over pots is an opportunity to gather in the kitchen for relationship, conversation and laughter.

As my young people have grown and gone, their arrival home is a joy that we celebrate around meals.  My daughter drove in last evening for Resurrection Sunday, and the cooking commenced in earnest.

I couldn’t help thinking about the marriage supper of the Lamb that Jesus will one day celebrate with us in His kingdom, perhaps with a toast of wine. It will mark the culmination of what He accomplished at Calvary and sealed at His resurrection: to save us sinners and to finally deliver us a prepared people to a prepared place.

It will be a meal to remember, as He welcomes us home.

Learning anything from the pain?

Suffering1   I knew I was beginning to recover from surgery when I became aware of the sticky square shapes in odd places on my body, the residue of monitoring patches. Now that I had the sense to realize they were there, it was time they were scrubbed off.

Hadn’t noticed them for a week. My days were filled with meds, meals, sleep and occasional trips to the loo.

Major problem; major surgery. Pain and suffering. Weeks of recovery.

I hope no one has told you that once you become a Christian, all your problems are solved. No more suffering or pain, just smooth sailing ahead.

It’s a lie. If someone told you this lie, I hope you don’t believe it. All it’s going to bring is disappointment with God over something He never promised.

Scripture actually teaches that we can expect trouble. Pick your translation and the upshot of 2 Timothy 3:12 is this:

“Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer…”

Not might, will.

Most of my real problems started once I became a Christian. (Before Christ, my “problems” were mostly the by-product of my sin.)

When I embraced Christ, I made the mistake of inviting my running partners, now called “road dogs,” to my baptism. That pretty much cleared my calendar. The ones who stuck around, thinking this was just a phase, exited stage right when they realized I really was a changed person.

I suffered the loss of “friends.” Then there were the family members who went a little crazy, the religious people who didn’t go for all the “saved” stuff. The person who had given me my first Bible became unglued. To this day, our relationship is strained.

Bodily suffering can pale compared to emotional hurt. Still, all suffering hurts. We’d all like to avoid pain, but don’t believe that other lie that if you  “just had enough faith,” you wouldn’t get sick.

If Christians were immune to sickness, there would be no need for all the New Testament teaching on healing. Paul, who wrote much of it, suffered a thorn in the flesh that God refused to remove. Instead, He reminded Paul:

“My grace is sufficient for you; my strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9)

God is with us in all our suffering. I encountered Him in the longtime nurse who brought cups of warm broth to soothe my aching throat after surgery left me barely able to swallow. I glimpsed Him in the bright bouquets that arrived on my doorstep, the meals brought, the cards mailed. I felt His embrace in the hugs of family and friends, heard His voice in their phone calls.

Suffering is part of the journey, not an aberration. It doesn’t last, but it will happen. When Paul encouraged disciples on his missionary journeys, he did not sugar-coat the reality of what it means to follow Christ, saying: “We must suffer many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22)

No servant is greater than his master. Jesus suffered; we will suffer.

“Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered.” (Hebrews 5:8)

I’m learning that dust bunnies will wait. That the people I care about are more important than the work I do. That feeling good is a gift easily taken for granted. That, in spite of everything, God is good. He is faithful and worthy of obedience and praise.

Your Jesus still in the manger?

It’s Advent, a time of Christian preparation for the coming of Christ. We’re fixated on the crèche: baby Jesus in swaddling clothes, haloed and lying in a manger, surrounded by animals, shepherds.

Babies are cute, cuddly, harmless, helpless, adorable. But babies grow up.

Despite Hollywood and Christmas card depictions, the wise men most likely missed the manger; Bible scholars say they arrived about two years later, where Scripture teaches they came into a house to greet Jesus as a young child.

Full story: Jesus kept right on growing into the God-man who died on a Roman cross to save sinners; He became a Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief, a Suffering Servant. He got up from the grave with all power in heaven and in earth in His hands. This same Jesus will one day come again — not as a baby, but as a conquering King.

Are you living like Jesus is still in the manger?

I get it. A grown up Jesus can be scary, awakening the kind of uneasiness sometimes associated with developmentally disabled children as they mature. Full grown, they aren’t so non-threatening; their non-conformity draws attention that can make us uncomfortable.

A baby can be soothed, silenced, ignored. A mature Jesus is not so easily managed.

Don’t be afraid. I bring you good tidings of great joy: Jesus has left the manger.

It’s time we who say we believe allowed Him to grow up or, to put it another way, to be “formed in” us. Strong’s describes the Greek word used for “form” to mean: a life and mind formed in us that is in complete harmony with the mind and life of Christ. Gal 4:19 

This, beloved, is what Christmas is about.

Jesus at the manger points us beyond Christmas to Easter and on to Pentecost, to the God who supplies supernatural power to His people to deal with daily life in real time, where we’re confronted with spiritual wickedness in high places.

This is not Jesus lying in manager, not Jesus suffering on the Cross or wrapped in grave clothes in the Tomb. This is Jesus moving by His Spirit in the Book of Acts.

Risen from the dead and preparing to get back to heaven, Jesus told His core followers to wait at Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, His Spirit, who would guide them in truth, empower them to live as Christians and to do the work of ministry.

Folks, the manger was only Act One. History, some say His Story, has kept moving.

Baby Jesus was on a mission: born to die to save us and to rise from the dead, His Spirit enabling us to be His witnesses and become mature men and women of God who reflect His image in the Earth.

Still looking for the perfect gift? Could be we all simply need to fully unwrap the priceless gift we already have: “Christ in you, the hope of glory!”

~ Merry Christmas.

 

No Labels!

 Someone said in conversation this week that they consider me a “liberal” Christian, which I suspect means I practice “Christianity Lite.” This amused me. My husband is convinced I’m a natural conservative!

Actually, I’m neither. I listen to the pulpit. I think, ponder, pray, debate and study the Scriptures to see if those things are true.

So how’d I get a liberal label?

Maybe because I resist the idea that everything in the Christian faith is black and white. Obviously, the essentials of the faith are unambiguous and non-negotiable. But there also are things that are less clear cut. Not “gray” areas but things requiring wisdom and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit as to life application.

Or maybe because I’m a vocal critic of the nonsensical behavior of self-proclaimed conservative Christians:

  • Randomly cold-calling strangers at their front doors with the three spiritual laws
  • Standing outside “women’s health clinics” with bullhorns and poster-sized pictures of shredded babies shouting that abortion is murder
  • Arguing with queer theory people about whether sexual identity is fixed. (Note: Please don’t take me to task for referring to homosexuals as “queer.” My college-age insider assures me the LGBQT community now embraces the term as a means of self-identification.)

I’ve seen people do these things, and I’m pretty sure it brought no glory to Christ.

Christianity lived well, it seems to me, is not a matter of leaning left or right but of holding love and truth in a balanced tension. This is accomplished only by walking in the Spirit, something every believer is instructed to do.

We struggle because living this way requires reliance on God rather than hard-fast rules for human interaction.

I will admit that, over time, I have become more liberal in extending grace. Not because I have become soft on sin, but because I have learned this:

There is a wrong way to be right.

Nothing in Scripture instructs Christians to categorize ourselves as liberal or conservative. We are told:  “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith.” (2 Corinthian 13:5a)

THE faith is historic Christianity; not the modern-day version that is speculating about whether Jesus married and had children or rewriting gender references in hymns and Bible versions or redefining the nature of man as “basically good.”

Historic Christianity is the faith first delivered to the apostles and affirmed in the Christian creeds. A sampling:

One God, the Father, Creator and maker of the heavens and earth. Man a sinner in need of a savior whose name is Jesus, the Christ, Son of God and Son of Man. Foretold by the prophets, born of a virgin, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead and buried; descended into hell, rose bodily on the third day, ascended into heaven and seated at the right hand of God to one day return to planet Earth to judge “the quick and the dead.”

It’s possible to give mental assent to all that and still be a hard, graceless person. It’s equally possible to be a kumbaya personality dedicated to the social gospel while conveniently forgetting that our citizenship is in heaven and we await a savior from there.

The Jesus of Scripture is neither. He eats and drinks with sinners. He visits their homes and welcomes tax collectors, zealots, prostitutes, Roman soldiers, the blind, and the lame – basically, all the undesirables — into his company. His message is frank, powerful and uncompromising. Yet, He is loving, compassionate and forgiving.

He heals people who don’t even know His name. He pardons the guilty. He’s upfront about the price to be paid for following Him. If people choose to walk away, He lets them go. There’s no coercion.

I don’t know anybody else like that.

Jesus doesn’t do liberal or conservative. He came to save every kind of sinner, from the inside-out. Jesus only had issues with Pharisees, the religious conservatives of His day, who didn’t think they needed saving. Their beautiful labels spoke of life, but Jesus said they were whitewashed tombs filled with dead men’s bones.

Labels can be misleading. Intel had it right. It’s what’s inside!

 

How grows your garden?

Begonia

This is a tale of one plant in two seasons.

The wax begonia pictured above is proof that we can’t always look at a thing and tell if it’s viable: whether it will live or die, grow or shrink, strengthen or weaken.  Some things require purposeful work and the patient passage of time before you know how it will turn out.

A year ago, my begonia was looking pretty much like you see it now. It thrived spring to fall, putting out some killer blooms. It was so lovely that I decided it should winter over in my South-facing family room. It did great for a while, purposefully placed on a stand before a wall of triple-hung, nearly floor-to-ceiling windows.

Ah, but what a difference a few weeks can make. Little by little, that plant began to whither despite the sunlight, the water and tender care. I cut back the dead blooms that were dropping all over the floor. I trimmed the dying stalks. It kept dying. I finally had enough. In a fit of frustration, I took that begonia out to the deck, determined to dump it over the side.

What had I been thinking? Better to stop wasting time with this miserable specimen. Time to let it go, buy another one come Spring. I was about the hurl it into oblivion when I hesitated. I had so loved the little plant when it was beautiful; and hadn’t my neighbor successfully kept her geraniums alive through a winter? Maybe I’d give the begonia another chance.

I proceeded to hack that plant back to a few simple stalks that looked like bent fingers, not a leaf remained and there were no blooms whatsoever. I removed the naked plant from its pot, gently, but firmly displacing most of the soil, which I discarded. I repotted in fresh, fertile soil. The plant looked pitiful, but I was hopeful. I watered it well, let it drain and placed it back in its old spot before the window.

In the weeks that followed the begonia grew a few scrawny sprigs, but nothing to brag about. Those slender stems grew fatter in time and stretched out. Leaves sprouted and fanned out. When spring temperatures finally arrived, I put the plant on the deck, where it promptly wilted and nearly died again. The intense direct sunlight was not what it needed.

I remembered that its original resting place had been the front stoop, covered and providing only partial sun. Day by day, that plant perked up. What you see before you is that same, formerly dead and dying potted plant that I nearly tossed with a cry of “good riddance.”

Our lives can be a lot like that begonia’s life cycle.

We start out in full bloom. In time, we can begin to deflower, drop leaves, dry up and become a thing worthy of the trash heap. And yet God, who Scripture compares to a gardener, keeps working with us, ever committed to cultivating our growth through all life’s seasons.

Like any good gardener, God works at bringing out the best in us. He expects results, but He isn’t in a hurry. He prunes back the life-sucking dead weight. He moves us from a spot that we may consider ideal – a job we love, a relationship we started — because He knows the light isn’t right in that place. He gives us a firm shake now and then, like the North wind blowing leaves off the oak trees in my backyard, forcing us to cast off the dirt we cling to and that clings to us.

All that God is really asking of us is that we do what my little begonia did: Submit to the work of His hands. Through the painful pruning, shaking and changing, to just abide and do what a healthy plant does naturally: bloom, bear fruit.

This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15:8)

 

Love: Show More Than Tell

There’s nothing like death to give you a fresh perspective on life. And I’m recently returned from a funeral.

Everyone there seemed to know the departed in slightly different ways and even by slightly different names. Some called him by his last name, Bellamy. Others used a nickname, Billy. To me, he was Uncle Monroe, his given name and the one my mother always used.

To some, he was a co-worker. To others, a friend, a fellow church member or a relative. Some knew him on the nightshift in work clothes. Others recognized him in dapper duds at formal dinners. He’d lived for decades in an urban metropolis but his roots were rural and he never forgot.

He was a fixture in my life. My mother’s last sibling and slightly younger brother born on Christmas Eve, he was tall and well-dressed whether in plain clothes or Sunday go-to-meeting suits. Mustachioed and smelling of Aramis cologne, he’d suddenly appear in our driveway for a visit, fresh off the road from his home in Atlanta slightly more than 100 miles away.

He always drove a truck, stick shift until the knee began to bother him, with a camper top and cooler in the back full of drinks. The truck changed by the years, but the greeting was always the same, “Hey, baby!”

My uncle never talked much about himself to me. I knew his son graciously shared him with the nieces. I vaguely knew that he’d served in the Armed Forces, worked at the post office. He was a Baptist when everyone else in the family went to African Methodist Episcopal Church. He didn’t push church. When I worked in Atlanta, he invited me just once that I remember: to hear a singer with a voice fit for the Met who had grown up in the congregation.

At the funeral, I got the full resume. He’d served in the Navy. He was married to the same woman for 68 years. He worked for the post office, 36 years. He was an honorable “Deacon Emeritus” who had mentored several deacons who would mature to become chairmen of the board. He himself had devoted many years to bereavement ministry.

The details of my uncle’s life were long a mystery but his consistent, unmistakable love for me was very clear. I sat at his funeral remembering how he drove his truck from Atlanta to Raleigh nearly 30 years ago to give me away at my wedding. It would have been much easier to buy a plane ticket. The drive was a gesture of love, again. Mom needed a ride, and they enjoyed each other’s company.

I know that I’m partial, but my Uncle really was something special. Most of us Christians are the Titus 1:16 variety: we claim to know God but our actions deny him. We talk too much and live too little. We don’t cultivate real relationships. We’re plastic, chameleons who are so busy doing “church” that we’ve forgotten we are Christ’s ambassadors.

My friend, God is love. God so loved the world that He gave us His Son at great sacrifice for our good.

I know my uncle loved God, because he loved me all my life.

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35

Forget Fault

 Once upon a time, a family bought a wonderfully clean car for a steal-of-a-deal and considered themselves fortunate to have gotten so lucky… until the car had a catastrophic coolant failure at a traffic light resulting in a repair bill that cost more than the car’s Blue Book value.

These Christian folk had a choice to make: to accept the situation with grace as a “Life Happens” moment while trusting God for the next step or to do what most of us do when something goes wrong: find someone to blame.

The reasoning goes something like this: If something is wrong, it has to be someone’s fault. What we actually mean is,  someone else’s fault.

This family had several blame options. They could have blamed the guy who sold them the car, the driver for failing to check the hood, the mechanic for not pointing out a potential defect, themselves for being gullible consumers or God for not preventing the whole thing.

Needing to assign blame before we can move on is a failure to grapple with an uncomfortable truth. Sometimes things really do “just happen,” at least from a human perspective. There is no “fault.”

In the case of that family car, the cause of the problem appeared to be metal fatigue. A metal part suddenly failed.

It’s the rare person who can simply accept something like that and move toward a solution without bitterness, ranker and causing a helluva stink. In corporate-speak, such stinks are known as “venting,” translated as having a fit just to make yourself feel as though you’ve done something. Nothing good ever comes of it, of course, which brings me to the next point.

From a Christian viewpoint even when we can find the smoking gun, what does it really matter? Being able to point to someone and say “whodunit” may make a nice wrap for an Agatha Christie Poirot mystery,” but it doesn’t fix problems, heal relationships or promote spiritual growth.

Maybe the question isn’t  who is to blame but “What can I learn from this?” God always wants us to “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  (2 Peter 3:18)  And He uses all of life to accomplish this end.

Our persistence in placing blame is really pointless. (It hasn’t done anything constructive for me.) We’re all guilty of being human. We are faulty creatures who make mistakes, despite our best intentions. When things go wrong, as they sometimes do, my challenge is to take it personally, to see it as opportunity to press into God a little closer, to listen more intently for His voice, to become more God-focused and less self-reliant.

Ultimately, we Christians are called to put our trust in God, not in our circumstances whether they be good or bad. Life really does happen in unpredictable ways, and we can make ourselves crazy by demanding to know the why.

As time goes by, I am learning to leave the mysteries of life in the hands of a faithful, all-wise God, believing that through life’s struggles He is “working in me both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” (Phil 2:13)

Got Gifts? Thank the Giver.

Ever stop to think that everything you have is a gift?

I have. Each of my children was born into the world naked, screaming, filling their little lungs with free air. They are a gift to me, not something I crafted with my own hands and certainly not something my doctors created.

They never expected me to have children. Yet, I have them, each one born in a hospital birthing room with those amazed doctors attending.

After the Apgar scores, they were washed, diapered, heads topped with little knit caps and their little bodies tightly bundled in those pink-and-blue striped blankets that made them look like little sausages.

From the beginning, everything my children have had has been a gift:

Blankets, onesies and toys and all that would come later: a multitude of meals, museum visits, picnics, voice and ballet lessons, T-ball, soccer, basketball and countless uniforms, haircuts and hairdos, truckloads of clothes, birthday parties with armloads of gifts, braces, vacations, plane tickets, medical care, hospital stays (only a few, for which we are thankful) and camp and college fees. Our continual presence, protection, provision.

All of it a gift.

No strings. No price. Just: Because we love you, we are freely giving you what you need and some of what you want. Enjoy the gift.

This is actually my story and yours, too.

Think of it. We are naturally selfish, greedy, all-about-me creatures. We like to take credit for our successes, blabbering about pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps and being self-made men and women.

Nonsense. We’d all be nothing if Someone hadn’t been generous with us.

The apostle Paul wrote:

“For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive. And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (I Cor 4:7)

 

  • Smart? Have a mind for high level math… facility with languages… musically gifted? You had nothing to do with that. Some gifts are hard-wired. You might have been born with a deficit of some kind, a learning disorder.

 

  • Beautiful? Be thankful instead of vain. You could just as easily bare an unsightly deformity. Though society elevates the “beautiful,” being unattractive doesn’t diminish one’s worth. Believe it or not, God actually takes responsibility for the less than perfect people among us. (Exodus 4:11)

 

  • Born to wealth? So what? You didn’t earn it. None of us choose our parents. You could have as easily been born into Third World poverty.

The older I get, the more I am aware that we make too much of ourselves. We so easily forget from whence we came, or what might have been, and to whom we owe a great debt.

Our pastor recently ended an eloquent sermon about the life of Noah with a point that has stayed with me: No matter where we go, no matter what we achieve, no matter who we become, we ought never to forget God.

God alone is the author of Life. It is He who made and formed us. (Deu 32:6) And it is God who makes possible every good thing we enjoy: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father…” (James 1:17)

Enjoy the good gifts of life, but don’t get twisted about their source. I didn’t do it and neither did you. God did.

What God Wants

 

Been thinking about some situations in which I find myself. Let’s call them relational difficulties that never seem to quite resolve themselves. Perennial problems that present me with immediate issues that must be faced and deep wells for future contemplation.

Most people have no problem articulating what they want. When I want something different, it’s easy to tell them where they’re wrong. In the midst of these tangled discourses, we seldom stop to ask: “What does God want?”

 

Does He want me to go along to get along, to keep the peace at any cost? If questioning is viewed as contrary, do I not ask questions that ought to be asked just so the other person isn’t made to feel uncomfortable?

It can be easy to say nothing. It’s possible to bully another person into silence. But can there be any real relationship if people can’t openly talk to each other about the hard stuff? If there is repeated disagreement over the same, unavoidable stuff maybe there needs to be a deeper conversation. Maybe a counselor would help.

Sadly, many of us avoid biblical counseling out of pride and self-sufficiency: “I don’t need that!” We’re quick to make a dental appointment if we have an unrelenting toothache. But we’ll suffer for years in a broken relationship refusing to seek help. Doesn’t a painful relationship warrant as much attention as an aching tooth?

It is possible to please – or placate – another human being. They get what they want – agreement, silence, control, whatever – but you are left to answer to God for a violation of conscience, for failing to do what you knew to be right simply because you were pressed by another human being. Have you ever been in that place: where someone is repeatedly behaving in a way or asking you to do something that is clearly wrong to you, but they won’t listen or they insist that your lack of cooperation is un-Christian? You want to talk but they keep saying you want to fight because you disagree?

In relational conflict between Christian believers, disagreements don’t usually involve black-and-white matters about which the Bible is clear. The issues tend to be more nuanced, where you have to apply biblical principle while taking into account our human tendency to do what is comfortable and to avoid dealing with our “stuff.” We are good at justifying ourselves; at conveniently excusing our personal issues while magnifying the other guys’ struggles.

So what does God require of His followers, of those of us who are learning to walk with Him in a world soaked in sin?

Micah 6:8 sums it up very simply:

 

He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the LORD require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?

 

Justice. Mercy. Humility.

God wants me to do the just thing. Not the expedient thing or the selfish thing. Show mercy. Where would we Christians be if God gave each of us what we deserve? Mercy is not deserved; I’m guilty, but mercy gives probation instead of jail time. Even though I committed a capital crime mercy commutes the death sentence to life imprisonment. Pride and self-assertion is our natural, carnal state. It always leads to a fall. The devil’s own rebellion began with a declaration of “I will…” God asks me to lay pride aside and to humble myself.

Being in relationship with people, Christian or not, tests my willingness to do what God requires. I struggle with it.

Doing justly may mean denying myself. I love mercy for me, but not necessarily for someone who hurts me. Once upon a time, before I really cared much about what God required, I went three years without speaking to a relative who wounded me deeply. I wanted them to feel my pain. God wasn’t in that, but I thought it was right. Humility doesn’t come easy, but it is rewarded. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. And I need a lot of grace.

If you struggle in relationships as I do, join me in refocusing on what God requires. People will pull us in many directions. We all need to keep our eyes on Jesus. His word to every believer is the same one He gave to the early disciples who entered into relationship with Him: “Follow me.”

 

 

Honor Where It’s Due

   My son asked me the other day why someone we know routinely mispronounces the word “sword,” opening with the sound of the Nike symbol “swish.” The guy has an earned PhD and still doesn’t know that the “w” in sword is silent?

My guess is he learned to say “sword” as a child by repeating the way someone close to him said it, maybe a parent or grandparent. As a full-grown, well-educated man that pronunciation has stuck with him as part of his family fabric. His wife, who also holds a doctorate, is probably the only one close enough to him to correct him. She probably won’t, out of love and respect for him.

Then I told my son a story from my own childhood.

When I was growing up my Mom would come home from the beauty shop or grocery store and mention that she saw someone we knew, only she didn’t use the word “saw.” Typically, she’d say “I seed” so-and-so. As long as I can remember this was Mom’s way of expressing the past tense of “see.”

Mom was an intelligent and resourceful lady with beautiful handwriting and a love of newspapers, magazines and Paul Harvey. She’d left the South before graduating high school to go north for better opportunities and returned years later to work long hours in a textile mill.

In spite of all that (or maybe because of it), Mom valued and encouraged education. To her credit, all the girls who grew up in her home graduated from college and went on to earn advanced degrees. We never scrubbed toilets, did laundry or kept house for anyone but ourselves.

I’ll tell you something else we never did. We never corrected her when she said she “seed” someone.

I learned the English language well enough to earn a living as a writer, but I knew better than to tell my Mom how to speak. Some things are sacrosanct. My relationship with my Mom was one of them. What I am today, I owe in large part to the foundation she laid. Out of respect, I understood that it was not my place to correct her.

My place was to honor her. Not because she was perfect. Not because she was always right. She was neither of these things, but she was my mother. The position alone afforded her a respect that was inviolate.

 

The Bible says (and yes, I still believe the Bible is right):

 

“Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise—so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” Ephesians 6:2-3

 

To honor someone is to recognize their value. We may have many friends, many mentors. Parents stand alone. We ought to appreciate them, to hold them in high regard.

Do I even need to say that biblical honor is all but dead?

Children routinely return from college to shove their “enlightenment” in their parents’ faces, rejecting and ridiculing everything their parents’ hold dear and everything they were taught to respect. The children feel smug in being liberated from their parents’ so-called ignorance and antiquated ways.

These “smart” young people are ignorant of a truth I learned early in my marriage: To honor your parents is to bless yourself.

I learned this after my husband took me to task for my being rude and disdainful toward my father. I justified my behavior by rehearsing how he was biologically my father, but never had assumed a father’s role in my daily life. So what did I owe him? My husband bluntly reminded me that wasn’t the point.

As a Christian, out of love and respect for God, he said, I had an obligation to honor my father for the position he held in my life. He was my father, period. Simple, but very hard to accept. I understood that my mother should be respected. She’d raised me. My father never had been a real father to me but was my “father” nevertheless. God’s clear command was to honor him for that alone. I could not escape that.

A lifetime’s bad habit is not easily broken. But I repented; and I worked at it .

Before my father died of lung cancer, less than a decade ago, I had the privilege of spending the better part of day with him at his home in the Bronx. We poured over pictures from his youth, his service photos, and neighborhood snapshots. I listened to his stories. It was awkward, but worth the effort. When he died, I had far fewer regrets than I might have.

Honor belongs to parents, but the blessing goes to children: “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”

As we approach Mother’s Day on May 11 and Father’s Day in June, consider that parents have a short shelf life. Both mine are gone. Honor yours while you can, even if they haven’t been what you might have hoped. Without them, there would be no “you.”

In an age of easy abortion, that your parents gave you life is blessing enough. If they loved and cherished you, were real parents despite their frailties, you are blessed indeed!

Lies We Believe

  On the eve of Resurrection Sunday, the climactic triumph of Holy week, I am not feeling particularly holy. It has been a rough week, and I feel my need of a Savior. That’s probably a good thing.

 

People who are in good health need no physician, but the sick do. And we are sincerely grateful when we are made whole. Easter is that kind of celebration. The dead rising, the spiritually sick recovering their health!

It’s fair to say that the person who tells me I am well, when I am sick unto death, does not love me. To pat me on the head and tell me everything will be all right, when I need emergency surgery, is to do me no favors.

We all should be glad for people who love us enough to tell us the truth, even when it cuts like a knife. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” (Proverbs 27:6a)   Our tendency is to prefer lies that encourage us to follow our own path. Below are three lies we believe to our own destruction.

  • It’s enough to go to church: Some of us will be at church tomorrow for the first time since Christmas. It’s good to go to church and to hear sound Bible teaching. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:17)

But what real difference does church attendance make in our daily lives outside the pew: the choices we make, the company we keep?

There’s a danger in hearing God’s word again and again and refusing to obey it. The danger is that we develop callous hearts that cannot hear the truth; our consciences become “seared with a hot iron.” (I Tim 4:2). Think of scar tissue, so thick that it’s impermeable.

God holds us accountable for what we know. Hebrews talks about those who have experienced the good things of God “and who then turn away from God. It is impossible to bring such people back to repentance; by rejecting the Son of God, they themselves are nailing him to the cross once again and holding him up to public shame.” (Heb 6:6)

  • Jesus is always with us: This sounds sweet and biblical, but it’s not quite true. God is omnipresent, technically everywhere at once. But God “with us” implies more than His simply being in the neighborhood; God with me involves His personal care-taking, protection, provision, intervention.

In that sense, the question isn’t whether God is with me but whether I am with Him. The distinction is an important one. Christ is called “Emmanuel, God with us.” (Matt 1:23) Who is “us”? God’s own people.

God is particular about who He “hangs” with. He is not everyone’s homey.

When Joseph was in prison through no fault of his own, Scripture repeatedly says “the Lord was with him.” (Genesis 39) God was not with everyone in that Egyptian jail. God was with Mary and Joseph at Jesus’ birth. He clearly was not with Herod or the populace at large. God was not with Judas, Pilate, the High Priest or anyone who condemned Jesus to death on the cross.

Then, and now, God is with those who are with Him.

Study the Old Testament battles Moses and Joshua encountered. God did not go with them to battle when there was unrepentant sin in the camp. Even when they greatly outnumbered their enemies, they were forced to turn and run because God did not fight for them. God is not “with us” when we are in sin. He calls us to repent, to come out of sin, to enjoy His fellowship and blessing.

  • I can always get back to the place of blessing: Maybe not. When Esau sold his birth right for a meal, he didn’t think much of it. The sacredness of the blessing meant nothing to him… then. When he later sought to regain what he had so thoughtlessly tossed aside to satisfy a fleshly appetite, he couldn’t get back to that blessed place.

Esau didn’t foresee the ramifications of his careless choice. Yet Scripture records it as character-defining, describing Esau as a “fornicator or profane person.”

“For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears.” Heb 12:17

Take no comfort in lies. The devil is the father of lies (John 8:44) and uses them to destroy us. Christians serve a God of Truth. Our embrace of truth is a barometer of our spiritual health.

Kiss Ishmael Goodbye!

I’m kissing Ishmael goodbye.

You know Ishmael. You probably have one yourself.

Ishmael is my attempt to get what I want on my schedule because I’m not willing to wait for God to act. Practically speaking, Ishmael is a manifestation of my own self-will, impatience and unbelief. Ishmael is me saying, “Okay, God. Since you won’t, I will.”

Historically, of course, Ishmael is Abraham and Sarah’s solution to a problem created by God. The Book of Genesis introduces this childless couple, past the age of childbearing, with no heir in a culture where male offspring meant something. God, of His own volition, promised Abraham a son. Independent of anything Abraham would do, God said here is what I will do.

But God did not say when. And waiting is always the hardest part.

As years passed, in the minds of Abraham and Sarah, time was running out. They began to write their own script.

Scene 1: Sarah gives Abe her handmaid Hagar; who gets pregnant and gets an attitude. Sarah gets offended, takes her hurt out on Hagar, who runs away. Fast forward, Hagar returns, gives birth to Ishmael. Abraham has a son!  And so begins the resulting family drama.

Scene 2: Eventually, Sarah does become pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. Now Abraham, age 100, has two sons. Ishmael: the son of Abraham and Sarah’s presumption. Isaac: the son of God promised. Abraham is on cloud nine, but not for long. Their improvised solution now presents an unavoidable problem. Ishmael and Isaac cannot coexist, no matter what the bumper sticker says.

Abraham’s story is my story, our story.

In our early years, life stretches before us, a blank canvas. As years pass, we don’t always like the scene we’ve painted; our hopes and dreams aren’t realized. We wrote The Great American novel, twice, and no one will publish it. We married Prince Charming and are now living with Homer Simpson. We got an MBA and still got passed over for promotion.  The prodigal we’ve prayed for is at home in the Far Country with no plans to move.

Ishmaels are conceived at this intersection of disappointment and disillusionment:

  • a cross country move for a “dream job” that uproots the family and almost destroys a marriage
  •  an ill-timed and under-financed business venture;
  • divorce and/or marriage to a trophy spouse or newly discovered “soul mate”
  • etc., etc., etc.

Ever birthed any Ishmaels? I have. Unwilling to wait, I’ve struck out on my own. When God finally did what He said He would do – as He always does – I couldn’t enjoy His blessing the way I might have if I’d waited. Ishmael complicates things. Ishmael, as Abraham’s history reveals, is a complication for my children and their children for generations to come. That’s why he has to go.

It’s not easy to send him packing. Ishmael is my baby, a part of me. Abraham invested 14 years in Ishmael, pouring himself into that relationship, before Isaac came along. But that didn’t change God’s perspective. Ishmael was Abraham’s idea, not God’s.  And God will not abandon His plan to sanctify the result of my carnality. He won’t kill Ishmael either. I have to deal with the monster I created.

God gives us the choice. Ishmael or Isaac? Your plan or mine; what’s it going to be?

I’m kissing Ishmael goodbye.

When the tears dry and the dust settles, I expect to find what Joshua found after the battles beyond the Jordan. God will have kept His  promise, in His time.

“Not a word failed of any good thing which the LORD had spoken to the house of Israel. All came to pass.” Joshua 21:45

The Great Car Debate

My teen-aged son is desperate to have his own car now that he’s a worker bee. Realistically, we parents expect him to put up his own money. He doesn’t see why we can’t “just buy” him a car.

It’s pretty simple to us. Nothing in life is free. Nobody “just bought” us cars. I got my first car courtesy of an enlisted brother-in-law whose friend was deploying to Germany and couldn’t take it with him. I got a big-engine, leather interior Cutlass Supreme with power everything for a couple hundred dollars. The rear windshield leaked. My husband got his first car, an oil-burning Vega, for a few hundred as well.

Being almost free meant, these cars weren’t expected to be in mint condition. We were happy just to be riding. Our son considers our first cars clunkers. His friends, after all, drive the coveted Mustang, BMW or Lexus or lowly but new Hondas. And so we’ve been inundated with an email stream of acceptable luxury models: Volvo 850s, SAABs, Acura. On the advice of our trusted mechanic we’ve steered clear of these high mileage potential nightmares.

Our latest suggestion – an affordable, American-made, one-owner only driven to church on Sundays by a little old lady (not exactly but close!) – has been rejected as not “stylish.”

The “Great Car Debate” continues, reminding me of something I heard a preacher say: “It is possible to be madly in love with someone you should never marry.”

Men fall in love with cars as well as women. And it’s a good thing to avoid “marrying” a lemon no matter how lovely. Automotive lemons can be detailed to look pristine even after floating through a New Orleans flood or surviving a frame-bending wreck. CarMax showrooms like to display these beautiful wrecks – the kind they pledge not to sell – and to reveal their cleverly disguised flaws.

While there are lemon laws for cars, when it comes to women, there is no legal protection for unwise choices. Whether it’s women or cars, we hope to teach our son that it’s wise to consider the end from the beginning. So what if he can swing a car payment or buy the car outright? What matters is whether he can maintain it over time: pay the insurance, make the repairs.

The Bible says, “Count the cost.” (Luke 14:28)

Just as a car’s value is under the hood, a person’s true value is revealed in character. Like a rust bucket polished into showroom brilliance, people show well when we want to make an impression. Time tells the real story. Keep a car through a few oil changes and its quirks begin to show: the leaks, the squeaks, the controls that are a little wacko. In time, people reveal their true colors, too.

The message to our son: Avoid “buyers’ remorse.” It’s what happens when we’re sold on the sparkle, the new smell and the performance. We drive home and the reality of 48, 60 or even 72 months of payments sets in. We can’t believe we bought it! Can we take it back?

This doesn’t just happen to young boys. I heard a middle-aged caller to a financial radio program confess to being mesmerized by a new car she purchased in a whirl of emotion. She later realized that she works two full weeks of every month to make the payment and barely is able to cover other bills. She was looking for a way out.

The way out, of course, is to do what she obligated herself to do: pay the price. Here’s hoping we can convince our son to first, count the cost.

God Wants You to Live

  • A pregnant mother is brutally murdered in her suburban home, teeth fragments scattered around her room, blood puddling so that her toddler, left unharmed by the assailant, tracks crimson footprints through the house. The convicted killer: her husband.
  • A woman is shot dead in her employer’s parking lot by the father of her children in the midst of a protracted custody battle that ends as a murder-suicide. Their children: orphaned. 
  • A young man is stabbed to death in his own apartment. Police arrest his live-in partner amid rumors of domestic abuse.

These are not random plot lines from an episode of CSI or, my personal favorite, The Closer.

These are real life tragedies involving flesh-and-blood people whose names and faces I knew. Not characters in a Hollywood drama. These were neighbors, fellow church members, co-workers.

No one ever expects to actually know somebody whose life ends in homicide. But what used to be the stuff of screenplays or page-turning novels has become the scenario of everyday life.

Relationships matter.

The people with whom we choose to enter into intimate relationship can alter the course of our lives for good or ill. The right relationships with the right people can be a blessing, life-giving. The wrong relationships with the wrong people in the wrong circumstances can be deadly.

How do we know which people can be trusted? We don’t. Ultimately, those who have a relationship with God, must choose to trust God. Through Jeremiah, the prophet, God said this:

“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?” He added: “I, the Lord, search the heart…” 

Whatever else may be a mystery to you about God, know this:

Now, be honest. Do you see yourself or someone you know living a plot line with the potential to end badly – in bruises, body bags, morgues?

Resolve to do something: To get help, To get out.

No one has to die. You can walk away. You can start over. God makes all things new.

* Are you in Wake County, NC and need safety, support, aware in a domestic violence situation?  Interact offers a 24-hour crisis line: 866-291-0855 Toll-Free or visit http://www.interactofwake.org/

No magic: You can face Tomorrowland

2013-12-28 17.58.55 It’s Day No. 1 of a new year, and I am getting back to reality after a holiday sojourn at the Magic Kingdom. It was great fun, but truth is it wasn’t magic. I got tired walking through the crowds, irritated at standing in long lines and hungry for food with unbelievable price tags.

Disney runs on money – and the labor of a gazillion hired hands – not magic. And like those hirelings, I will be back at work in the morning to earn what I need to fund my everyday life. New year, but same old responsibilities.

I’ll be facing the same kitchen frig that needs filling, meals that need cooking and laundry that needs wash/dry/fold. I’ll return to the same work environment with the same personalities, to the same church drama,to the same school carpool schedule and to the same unending PTSA appeals to “write a check for… .”

There is nothing magical about getting back into the work/life groove after a summer- in-winter vacation filled with sleeping in and ordering off the menu. For me, this is where the message of Christmas gets real: Emmanuel, God with us.

Not God floating around in space somewhere. Not God waiting for me to die and be received on high. No, the Christian God, the Christ of Christmas, is God right here, right now in real time.

God with me in the I-40 traffic when some nut cuts me off and gives me the finger. God with me when the “Check Engine” randomly pops on after I’ve already dropped a few hundred with the mechanic. God with me when I arrive home exhausted and wondering what I can possibly make for dinner in the hour I have before soccer practice. God with me when people are talking to me a mile a minute and I’m already on system overload.

What I love about Christmas is that its real “magic,” if you will, doesn’t end when the ornaments are packed, the lights are unplugged and the tree is tossed. The power of Christmas is having Christ with me, in me, enabling me to deal with everyday stuff. My pre-holiday frustrations and troubles are unchanged. But so is my God. He is unmoved by the calendar.

Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever.

So as we head back to the office in the morning, let’s remember that God is with us right in the frustrating, irritating thick of everyday things. Because He lives, we can face tomorrow.

Happy New Year!

Looking for life in dead things?

 

Vultures.

Wherever there is something dead you’ll find these carrion-eating carnivores feasting on putrid flesh.

I was running the other day and noticed the wide wings of a group of these scavengers circling overhead. The closer I got to their position, the more I wondered just what what had caught their interest. Eventually, my run took me past two squirrels flattened to the pavement dead ahead – no pun intended!

The vultures, flying high above the trees, had spotted those poor creatures and apparently were planning when to swoop in and enjoy the road kill.

By the time I passed that spot a few minutes later on the return run, two of those dead-eyed, bald-headed birds had made their descent and were chomping away at each of the departed squirrels. As I approached, I tried to calculate how long it would take them to abandon their dinner and take to the skies. Neither seemed to be in any hurry. I was close enough for them to hear my foot fall. Neither looked up.

The one closest to me waited until I could have hit him squarely in the head with a rock before he finally took flight. The other, however, kept right on eating until I was beside him. Even then, he refused to leave the ground, reluctantly flying almost directly into me as I passed and settling a few feet away on the side of the road, keeping a wary eye on the meal.

No sooner had I passed than this nasty bird went right back to eating, head down in a mass of bloody tissue.

Vultures love dead things. That is just their nature. They feed on it. They have internal radar, it seems, to help them find a constant supply of the next dead meal.

Ever known people like that? People who are attracted to dead things? I don’t mean corpses necessarily. I’m talking about people who seem to be captivated by things that have no life in them?

  •  People who are serially attracted to dead people – same type with a different name – only to find that this relationship, too, is lifeless.
  • People who keep doing the same dead things expecting them to one day produce life: looking for love in dead zones – bars, raves, blind dates – hoping to find a life-giving soul mate.
  • People who fill their minds with death-soaked music, books, movies and art and wonder why they are depressed and suicidal.

People are not meant to find sustenance in dead things. In fact, God wants us to put distance between ourselves and dead people and things. The Old Testament, for example, commands God’s people to separate themselves from dead things lest they be made “unclean.”

When the disciples made their way to the tomb where Jesus’ dead body had been laid, they were met by angels who asked them a question:

 “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” It’s a question still worth asking.

Jesus came that we might have life. So why do we keep trying to suck life out of spiritual carrion?

Looking for life? The Psalmist said you’ll find it by seeking the Lord. And you will lack no good thing.

O taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in Him. Psalm 34:8 (KJV)

Give Thanks

It’s early the morning hours of Thanksgiving. The last pie is baked and all the side dishes refrigerated. I’ve just turned out the lights and climbed the stairs, thinking how truly gracious and trustworthy God has shown Himself to be since another Thanksgiving a decade ago in this same place.

Just before Thanksgiving 2003, my husband came home early and announced that he had been “selected” to be part of a resource action. If you are unfamiliar with this bit of corporate speak, it has nothing to do with winning the lottery. My husband had been chosen for layoff after 15 years of award-winning service.

The family breadwinner had lost his job. Happy holidays!

This was about the scariest news I could have imagined. I’d been a stay home Mom for a decade. I did freelance jobs from time to time. But it was a hobby, nothing like the career I’d left behind to parent my own children. (This wasn’t exactly an heroic decision on my part. I couldn’t afford daycare; and could never get comfortable with the idea of giving strangers that much face-time with my offspring.)

After my husband shared his news and handed me a thick severance package filled with legalese, I still remember the frightful possibilities that jumped into my mind like a leapfrog: foreclosure, tax liens, homelessness, possibly facing a health crisis with no health insurance, having to make a long distance move to a job far away from aging parents. There were other questions: How would our marriage weather the stress? Would our family survive this?

That was just the major stuff. Later, myriad small worries crowded my mind, like which “nice but not necessary” things would have to go: my daughter’s ballet classes, the lawn service or maybe the garbage service?

Somewhere in there I was reminded that we were believers in Christ. And this crisis was an opportunity to see if my Christianity was real or just for show. Was I going to believe God or not? Could I count on Him when everything familiar moved? Did I really trust Him like that?

Ten years later, I am thankful that by God’s grace, we weathered the storm. We still live in the same house where I got that terrible news just before Thanksgiving so long ago. I’m still married to the same man. He still works in the same industry. Those children whom I worried might be homeless have spent the intervening years sleeping in their same beds, driving to see their grandparents in the same city. Our health is good; our minds are peaceful.

God has proven Himself faithful.

When we sit around our home and talk about Christianity and why we trust Christ for time and eternity, as we sometimes do, I honestly tell my children that I know God is real because we have history together.

I am thankful that, if you walk with God, you will find that He is just who He says He is. And He will do just what He says.

A God like that deserves my undying gratitude, love and obedience.

As our family sits down to dinner this afternoon and passes the acorn to share what we are thankful for, join us in following the instruction of Psalm 100:4

 Enter His gates with thanksgiving; 

go into His courts with praise.

Give thanks to Him and praise His name.

Are you sure God’s Not Mad?

God Is Not Mad at You.” That’s the catchy title of the 100th book recently published by Joyce Meyer. It caught my eye while strolling the aisles of Walmart.

My first thought was, “Really?”

Psalm 7:11 says something quite the opposite:

 God is a just judge,

And God is angry with the wicked every day.

So whose report will we believe?

I’m not hating on Joyce Meyer. I’ve listened to her teaching, been to her conferences, bought her tapes. I even own a leather bound signature Amplified Bible translation from back in the day when her ministry was known as “Life in the Word.” (The ministry now broadcasts as “Enjoying Everyday Life.”)

The truth is whether God is angry at you depends on you. Romans 8:1 tells us there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. 1 John 1:9 says if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us. We don’t need to wallow in guilt and shame.

If we happen to be disobedient, unrepentant, and rejecting God, however, the unvarnished truth is that God is angry. The Bible clearly says so.

I know the idea of an angry God is not good marketing strategy. We live in the age of “God is Love,” where even Christians try to make God look good by sometimes shading the truth. An angry God, after all, doesn’t play well to crowds. An angry God is dangerous.

Listen to Jeremiah 15:6 “You have rejected me,” declares the LORD. You keep on backsliding. So I will reach out and destroy you; I am tired of holding back.”

Personally, I think a holy fear of an angry God is a good thing. There was a time when Americans were moved to repentance to know that God was angry at sinners. The great preacher Jonathan Edwards, preached a now famous, unemotional sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” that prompted many to seek salvation.

Today, in our desire not to offend, we sometimes give people a less than accurate impression of God in an attempt to make our message more palatable. Scripture explicitly warns us not to add or subtract from God’s word. Unrepentant sinners are guilty before God and should be ashamed. God hates sin; and He will judge it, if we do not repent. It’s an uncomfortable truth.

The central message of Christianity can be summed up in John 3:16, which simply states that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son to save us. Ephesians goes on to say, “By grace you have been saved…”

Ever ask yourself, just what is it that we Christians are “saved” from?

The Bible answer is that we are saved from “the wrath of God.” The Book of Revelation, in which the long withheld judgment on an unrepentant planet is finally unleashed, makes particular reference to “the winepress of the wrath of God,” and to “bowls full of the wrath of God” being poured out on the disobedient, the unrighteous, the unbelieving.

God is not one-dimensional. He is both a God of Love and a God of Wrath. By definition, wrath is “extreme anger.” It is God’s great love that, for a time, restrains His wrath. “He is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”

We can’t fully appreciate God’s undeserved love toward us until we acknowledge the very real wrath that He will one day justly unleash on those who reject His offer of rescue. Paul, writing to Christians in Colosse, admonished them to “put to death sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.”

When Christ returns to Earth, He is not coming as a meek, suffering servant. He is coming the Second time to “rule with a rod of iron” and to “dash in pieces” the wicked.  

We can escape the wrath of God to come by accepting His gift of love today. John 3:36 says: “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

As Jonathan Edwards said in one last appeal to listeners of his famous sermon, “Therefore let everyone that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come.”

Make the Turn

Ever been driving and suddenly realized you didn’t know where you were?

You thought you were going in the right direction. The music was cranked; you were having fun. Now nothing looks familiar. No landmarks, no streets you know.

It happens…. People get lost.

I’ve had some truly lost moments of my own creation.

  • We were driving to Florida. I put the address into the GPS on what I thought was Florida State Road A1A and we set off to St. Augustine Beach. That road is nearly 330 miles long. I should have entered St. Johns County Road A1A, a roughly 3-mile spur route of SR A1A. My mistake added more than an hour to an already long trip.
  • I drove to dinner in Fayetteville, again blithely relying on the GPS to direct me. It took me to the middle of an apartment building parking lot and announced “You have arrived!” The street address was right, sort of. Someone had built the apartment building in the middle of the street, cutting off access from one end to the other.
  • On a soccer trip to Virginia we were trying to get back to our hotel after dinner one night. It seemed like the right way until the lights of the city began to recede, becoming a fading flicker in our rear-view mirror. Clearly, we were driving away from the city, into the darkness.

And these are just “lost” moments that happened while driving.

Thank God that we can never go so far in the wrong direction that we can’t make a correction. All we need to do is turn. My Garmin says: “Make a U-turn, when possible.”

The Bible is equally blunt when it comes to making spiritual turn-a-rounds.

God tells Ezekiel: “Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the Lord GOD, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel? 

Turning begins with admitting we are lost.

Everyone in a car may know they’re lost, but the driver must agree and make a decision to turn the wheel. As we sit in the driver’s seats of our lives, however, we resist making U-turns even when we know we’ve lost our way. And we all have at one time or another.

All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)

Yet, pride keeps us going in the wrong direction. If anyone tries to correct us, we:

  1. Get defensive. How dare anyone question my judgment, my sense of direction, my preferences?
  2. Question motives. Why are they trying to control me? How do they know the way? Even if they are more familiar with the road ahead, things could have changed.
  3. Listen politely. And just go harder in the wrong direction convinced that if we just keep going, it’ll be all right.

It won’t be. Pride leads somewhere, but nowhere you really want to go. 

Honest to God now: are you on a road in life that just doesn’t look or feel like where you ought to be? Accept the advice of someone who has been there: Stop wasting time and making excuses. Swallow your pride. Make the turn. You can still get home before dark.

No Boundaries?

We are not free to do as we please. Boundaries, limits, standard requirements are a reality of everyday life. These are necessary evils for the sake of law, order and public safety.

Before 9-11, I could pick up people arriving at the local airport directly at their gate, embracing them moments after they stepped off the airplane. No more. Security checkpoints keep me at a distance. I’m lucky to be allowed near baggage claim.

When I visited the hospital during a friend’s cancer surgery, I was not free to barge into the operating room for a firsthand look at the procedure. I had to sit in the waiting room until someone emerged to share the outcome. To do otherwise would have meant risking eviction.

I can’t drive any way I want.  On American roads, I’m required to “keep right.” Sure, it’s possible to ignore the road markings, be a non-conformist and drive left of center. It’s also potentially fatal. There are posted speed limits, too. I can drive faster and, regrettably, sometimes do. I don’t recommend it.

Boundaries are not crossed without penalties: tickets, lawyer fees and, occasionally, morgues.

Knowing the consequences of disobedience, most of us respect imposed limits as the rules of the game. So why do we normally law-abiding people live like outlaws before God, rejecting the notion that He has any right to set boundaries for our lives?

The answer, as I see it, is that we have no fear of the Lord. We give grudging respect to civil authorities, which are actually established by God,  and conform as necessary. Biblical authority, on the other hand, has become meaningless – even to so-called Christians.

I had coffee with a young man the other night who is a poster child for this pervasive yet cancerous attitude. He’s a “nice guy,” educated, gainfully employed, decent looking, polite, a church-goer. He also is willfully disobedient to Scripture, by his own admission, and quite probably lost.

This guy dates my daughter.

He considers himself a Christian even though he is not willing to live by biblical truth, an historically contrary notion which he considers a small thing.

With his head, he agrees that the Bible is right, insists that he “respects” God and biblical values. With his heart, however, he refuses to respect the boundaries God has set for Christian living when they conflict with what he wants to do.  Indeed, he rejects the notion that he has any obligation to do so.

The times in which we live are not unlike the book of Judges in which it is said, “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25)

We attend church, crack our Bibles now and then and mouth the occasional prayer. But none of that has any relationship to how we live or make decisions. We know where the boundaries are drawn, but persist in living outside the lines. This has been done before.  Ezekiel 33:31 says: “My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. “

Hearing but not doing is hypocrisy.

“The Lord says: ‘These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.’” (Isaiah 29:13)

As I reminded the young man at coffee, Christians are not free to live as we choose. We live in committed relationship with a holy God who loves us and desires to make us holy.  God has established standards, boundaries, limits for His children. These are for our good. If we love Him, we conform our lives to  His wishes.

I liken the Christian life to a marathon race. I ran the Outer Banks Half-Marathon once. Training required a lot of personal discipline, self-denial, patient endurance. To be competitive, I did things I normally would not choose to do: changed the way I ate, ran at odd and inconvenient times and for longer distances than I ever imagined possible. I did this, not because I liked it, but because my goal was to run well and finish the race.

The race had an established course with a starting line and a finish line. On race day, I was required to run within clearly marked boundaries.  I couldn’t make it up as I went along and veer into the finish line at the end. I would have been disqualified.

Similarly, Christians enter into a relationship with Christ and run the race He sets before us.  Paul encouraged his fellow believers to have the disciplined commitment of soldiers and athletes who respect the boundaries imposed by their office:

“Anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules.” (2 Timothy 2:5)

Beg Your Pardon

When was the last time you apologized?

I don’t mean the last time you choked out an “I’m sorry” after somebody confronted you with what you’d done wrong.

I’m not talking about the last time you “apologized” for something that actually was not your fault just to keep peace with someone you knew would be angry for days if you didn’t take responsibility.

I’m asking when you last sincerely owned up to having been truly wrong without first being confronted with that fact by another human being? In other words, when did you last respond to the Holy Spirit unmistakably showing you your wrong and prompting you to apologize for it?

Last week, last month, last year?

We are all guilty of sometimes saying the wrong thing, or maybe the right thing but in the wrong way, at the wrong time, in the wrong tone.

Most of us know when we’ve done wrong. But we are loathe to actually go to the human being we wronged and own the fact with six simple words: “I am sorry. Please forgive me.”

You’d be surprised how many hurt feelings, broken relationships and lawsuits could be solved with those words.

Our problem, Christians included, is that we are too filled with pride to admit that we have made a mistake. Oh, we will own that “Nobody’s perfect.” We don’t mind admitting that “We all make mistakes.”

But we draw the line at getting specific about the wrong we have done and actually going to the person we hurt, looking them in the eye and saying, “I did this. I was wrong.” In the age of remote communication, we are even too proud to tweet, text or email the equivalent apology.

Instead, we go on just as if nothing happened. We mouth hymns seated beside the person we wronged. We talk about other things over lunch. We don’t apologize. We move on. But the people we hurt do not. They may not say a word, but the wounds we caused are real and lasting.

I am reminded of the Bible’s recounting of Absalom’s concealed hatred of Amnon after he raped their sister Tamar. Amnon never confessed the wrong he’d done. Absalom never forgave him but bided his time to avenge the matter, waiting two full years to have Amnon murdered. 2 Samuel 13

Resentment, bitterness and hatred grow between people when there is  unconfessed sin and a refusal to forgive.

The Bible says, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:16)

Confession brings healing to the soul that has wronged another.  Forgiveness brings healing to the soul that is wronged. Even when a wrongdoer won’t confess and repent, true believers have an obligation before God to forgive them.

The Lord taught us to pray, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” (Luke 11:4a)

Biblical Christianity is not for wimps. Christians suffer many wrongs and cheerfully put up with a lot of crap. We do this out of love for God, entrusting ourselves to him.

“So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” (1 Peter 4:19)

We all wrong people. If you are the wrongdoer, admit it. If you are wronged, forgive. Pride goes before destruction; and life is too short to hold a grudge.

Keep the faith ’til the finish!

Only God knows the end from the beginning. He is, after all, the Alpha and Omega.

We only see what happens in between. Because what we see is not always what it seems, the Bible counsels believers to walk by faith and not by sight.

Imagine Samson’s family traveling to Gaza to retrieve his broken body from the rubble where he’d brought down the house on the Philistine lords. If his mother made the journey, she probably passed the time rehearsing Samson’s life (Judges, chapters 13-16).

No doubt her mind went back to the day she’d learned she’d be a mother.

She and husband Manoah had been childless. She was barren, unable to bear children. Then an angel appeared and announced she’d have a son, a Nazarite: one consecrated or dedicated to, separated for God’s service. He would begin to deliver Israel out of the clutches of the Philistines.

I know the excitement of a moment like that. After six years of marriage, that included fertility treatment, doctors offered little hope that I’d have children. A group of Christian women began to pray for me.

One day, I got the news I’d be having a baby!

In my first trimester, I visited the remaining Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem with my husband. I wrote my hopes, dreams and prayers for that child on a piece of paper, folded it tightly and stuffed it into a small crevice between ancient stones.

In time, I’d have not only a daughter but two sons as well.

Manoah and wife had a son they named Samson. He was blessed by the Lord. The Spirit of God moved him.

When Samson came of age and began to desire a wife, his parents hoped he’d choose a God-fearing Hebrew girl who would help him fulfill God’s purpose for his life. Doesn’t every believing parent want: a helper suitable for their son; a husband who will love their daughter as Christ loves the church?

Samson, however, demanded a “daughter of the Philistines.” His parents protested, but he was adamant. “Get her for me for she pleases me,” he said.

The marriage ended before it really began. Loyal to her unbelieving kinsmen, the woman betrayed Samson by revealing the answer to a riddle he’d proposed (with a wager). Samson had his revenge, but the woman was given to his best man.

Samson didn’t pursue another marriage. He visited a Philistine prostitute and came to “love” a Philistine woman named Delilah. His association with Delilah is what brought his family to Gaza to claim his body.

Delilah was paid to entice Samson and to learn the source of his strength so that he might be captured. She finally wore down Samson’s resolve with her persistent questioning. When he had told her “all his heart,” the Philistine’s fell on him. He didn’t know that the Spirit of God had left him, that he had no supernatural strength to prevail.

The Philistines put out Samson’s eyes and set him to grinding grain in the prison, like an animal. He was brought out to entertain a Philistine “Who’s Who” gathered to praise their god for bringing Samson into their hands.

By this time, Samson’s hair – a symbol of his Nazarite vow – had grown and with it his faith. He prayed, the first prayer Scripture recorded from his lips. God answered that prayer as Samson grabbed the building’s supporting pillars and brought the house down, literally.

The writer of Proverbs asked, “Can a man take fire in his bosom and his clothes not be burned. Can one walk on hot coals, and his feet not be burned.” Proverbs 6:28-29.

Samson was burned. It may have looked to his family like his whole life had been reduced to ashes. He’d died in the enemy’s camp, blind and broken after judging Israel 20 years.

That, however, is not the end of the story.

God is merciful and forgiving… else we’d all be lost.

We are reintroduced to Samson in Hebrews 11:32, where Samson is expressly named as a person of faith.  God never changed his mind about Samson. He was indeed “a Nazarite to God from the womb to the day of his death.”

And somewhere between Delilah’s bed and that last appearance before his enemies, Samson got it together with God. His last act demonstrated what the psalmist wrote, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word.”

As Samson’s family came to Gaza to claim his body and plan a burial, things didn’t look good. All his mother would have had was God’s promise at the beginning of Samson’s life and the knowledge that God is faithful.

If you find yourself somewhere between the promise and its fulfillment — and things just don’t look good — keep the faith. Remember, Jesus is both the author and the finisher of our faith.

Have Anything That’s Fireproof?

We spend years and sometimes a great deal of money accumulating stuff: cars, homes, furniture, clothing, gadgets. And we can make a great fuss about what we “own.”

But what do we really have that can’t be taken away?

Some of us go for antiques, spend our Saturdays wandering small towns and flea markets looking for the odd piece to fill just the right nook. I have a neighbor who is into roosters. House is filled with them, every size and description.

Some of us are blessed with heirlooms: I inherited a carefully folded flag that was presented to my grandmother at the military funeral of her husband, a World War I veteran, in 1963. He died before I reached the age of two so this possession holds great meaning for me. I have a friend whose grandmother’s hand-made Christmas ornaments are a treasure her family enjoys each year. The grandmother wanted her to have them while she could see her enjoy them.

Maybe you inherited an original painting that has hung in your family’s homes for generations. I have two small pictures of flowers in vases that hung in the modest home my grandfather built for my grandmother with its tin roof and pinewood paneling. They are inexpensive prints but priceless to me because they connect me with my family’s past.

We all have irreplaceable family photos. I inherited my mother’s photo albums and those of my childless Aunt Margie, who knitted her way through her daily commute between Bronx and Long Island. These photos were collected over the decades before digital imagery, when picture-taking was rare and people dressed for the occasion and sometimes posed in a studio. There are even a few photos taken by my great Aunt Mary, for whom my mother was named, with the brownie camera that hung ‘round her neck on the Greyhound bus rides South from Pittsburgh.

These thick photo albums are filled with the faces of family, shielded by plastic sheets, living in the far-away lands of Chicago, Detroit, New York. Familiar people and nameless babies, old men, young women and longtime family friends are captured on glossy, square black- and-white photo paper with decorative edges and simple date stamps in black, some dating back to the 1940s.

And, of course, there are my own wedding photos, nearly 26 years old now, and pictures and negatives of my own children as they have grown through grade school, athletic competitions, state fairs, vacations, proms and graduations. Their baby books – they each have one – are filled with a lock of their baby hair, their first ultrasound views, their early footprints and congratulatory cards at their birth.

Then there are the childhood keepsakes: kindergarten drawings, that first wrestling trophy, the high school wood shop piece, the change maker from the first paper route, the winning pinewood derby car, first pair of ballet slippers, the signed high school annuals and trunks full of our own college books and journals that marked our passage to adulthood.

Now imagine all that stuff, those memories, those milestones… going up in flames.

All of it.

Ashes.

Not one solitary piece remaining except in memory.

Gone.

That imaginary moment may be your worst nightmare. But it’s no dream.

This actually happened to my neighbor’s daughter. A fire in the middle of a February night burned their Georgia log cabin home to the ground, even melted the siding on their car.

Everyone – both parents, two kids and a dog, plus some house guests – got out alive.

They have their lives, their love and each other. With that they can rebuild.

Relationships are fireproof because love never ends.

We need stuff: food, shelter, clothes. Extra stuff is useful; it makes life comfortable. It provides continuity and a sense of connection across the generations. But stuff is temporary. It comes and goes.

Better to treasure the people in our lives, and keep stuff in perspective.

“For we brought nothing into [this] world, [and it is] certain we can carry nothing out.” 1 Tim 6:7

Asking the Right Questions?

Voltaire is quoted as having said, “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.”

Jesus asks a lot of questions. Direct, bold questions with seemingly obvious answers. I read them and think: why would He ask that?

  • He asks a man who has been sick 38 years, “Do you want to get well?” Could anyone possibly not want to get well after suffering for that long?
  • A couple of John’s disciples begin to follow Him and Jesus asks, “What do you want?” I thought Jesus wanted people to follow Him. The question sounds almost like a challenge.
  • The disciples are describing how other people characterize Jesus. Then He confronts them with this: “Who do you say that I am?”
  •  Jesus and the disciples are out on a mountainside with a crowd of hungry people. Jesus asks: “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He is the Son of God, and He is asking them?

 Children ask questions the way most people breathe. Naturally curious, they want answers. Adults often ask questions because they want to debate.

Why do you suppose Jesus asks questions? He’s the God of the universe, maker of all things, knows what is in us intimately, our very thoughts and intentions.

And yet, He bothers to ask.

Obviously, Jesus is not trying to learn something. His questions, I think, are meant to teach us something. Could be we have all the right answers to the wrong questions.

Maybe better questions would include:

Do I ‘Want To’?

 In life, we sometimes assume too much. For example, we assume that a sick person wants to get well. Jesus assumes nothing. He asks: Do you want to get well?

Maybe what happened to this guy was directly related to his refusal to stop sinning in some area of his life; (later, you’ll notice that Jesus warns the guy to stop sinning lest something worse happen to him.)  Maybe Jesus was really asking something like, “Do you finally want to get well bad enough to let that thing go?”

It all boiled down to this guy’s willingness to obey God. Jesus said, Pick up your bed and walk. The guy obeyed; and as he was doing it, he found that he could do it.

We whine about what we can’t do, blame other people for our impotence, for being stuck. But what it really comes down to is: Do you want to? When push comes to shove, we can obey God – if we want to.

What Do I Want?

When we come to Jesus, what are really looking for? What do we want from Him? If we are seeking something that is out of character for Him, not in sync with Who He is, we’re going to be disappointed. That’s what always comes with wrong expectation.

In Jesus’s day, people followed Him for many reasons. Some wanted deliverance from Roman rule, a Hebrew king. Others wanted a Healer to bind up their broken bodies and make them well. Still others were just looking for a Magic Chef who would produce a miraculous meal to fill their empty bellies; they never really discerned the supernatural, eternal value of Christ’s message.

We moderns have the same tendency to think materially rather than spiritually, often coming to Jesus with “A Shopping List” that begins with make me wealthy and ends with keep me healthy.

Jesus never promised His followers lives of wealth, health and ease. Instead, He said, “In this world you will have trouble.” (John 16:33) Historically, Jesus’ disciples have been persecuted: fed to lions, sent to prison, into exile, tortured and executed in unimaginable ways, according to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

Jesus didn’t heal all the sick while He lived and the ones He did heal eventually departed this life. Even Lazarus — whom Jesus famously raised from four days dead, buried and stinking — died again.

Obviously, Jesus cares about real pain, need and human suffering. His real mission, however, is dealing with the root cause of all our misery: sin. We sinners who come to Jesus should be looking first for a savior. The very name “Jesus” references His primary role:  “You shall call His name Jesus for He shall save his people from their sins.” (Matt 1:21)

What Do I Say?

In our “Talking Heads” generation, we’re accustomed to cable news and talk radio offering constant comment about what “they” said and what “they” should do. Commentators tell us what people around the world are saying about how every problem can be solved by some anonymous, collective “them.”

When the spotlight is on “them,” I become a mere observer with no personal responsibility for outcomes.

Jesus, however, makes everything personal. He always brings the conversation back to “us.” It’s all very well to talk about what Mom, Dad, my neighbor, my co-worker think about Jesus. But what they say really has nothing to do with me.

Jesus is a personal God who wants me to make a personal decision. What I say about Jesus – believing in my heart and confessing with my mouth — is what counts. (Romans 10:9-10)

Who Do I Rely On?

 In the middle of nowhere with no grocers or food stand for miles, Jesus asks where they are going to get food for a crowd of 5,000. The disciples must have thought, “Good question.”

I am equally sure that Jesus did not expect them to provide a real answer. It was a test. (John 6:6) How would they approach a problem that was so obviously beyond human means to solve?

What most of us do is: a) completely give up because we focus on the impossibility of our situation or b) try to come up with a solution on our own. When neither approach works, we come to Jesus with that original problem and whatever mess we made while trying to solve it.

Jesus wants us looking to Him as our solution source. When we face some beyond-human-ability issue, God is not asking us to solve our own problem. He wants faith in action, our bringing what we have to Him as inadequate as it may be – like five loaves and two fish for feeding 5,000+ — and trusting Him to figure it out.

We are all about answers. Jesus starts with the right questions. Maybe we should follow His lead?

Let’s Eat!

Bread and water are life-sustaining… but only if eaten.

My favorite local bakery is La Farm in Cary, where the smell of French breads and pastries can literally make the mouth water – never mind the soups and sandwiches and fresh-brewed Counter Culture Coffee. This is the kind of place where you have to arrive early if you expect to see, let alone sample, the full day’s selections.

It opens at 7:00 every morning of the week. By 9:30 on Saturday mornings, the stacks of scones, croissants, tarts etc. have severely dwindled and there is nary an empty chair in the house.

(Yes, I know it’s Lent, when people are abstaining from delicacies, but trust me. I am going somewhere with this!)

As much as I enjoy simply being in this place and taking in the aroma, being there is nothing if I don’t have something to eat. The beautiful breads and carefully-crafted pastries are a feast to the eye, but La Farm bakers intend their work to be eaten and enjoyed.

I am happy to oblige. For bread or water to do me any good, I have to take it in. It’s not enough to surround myself with it. Nourishment comes from eating and drinking.

In the book of John, crowds were following Jesus around because he had miraculously fed them. He confronted them about being more concerned about filling their stomachs than about being spiritually nourished. They didn’t get it. They reminded him of the manna from heaven their forefathers ate in the desert.

Jesus replied: “I am the Bread of Life.” Then he explained:

Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.  For my flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed. He who feeds on Me will live because of Me…. He who eats this bread will live forever. (see John 6:53-58 for full text)

They were talking natural bread, a one-time meal that would need repeating to address their continual hunger. Jesus took it to a spiritual, eternal level.

To experience true life that never ends, He said they needed to do something more than just passively stand in the crowd and look, listen and wait for a bread basket to come their way.

Jesus says life is experienced by the one who: Eats, Drinks, Feeds. These are verbs, action words. Seems to me, He essentially is telling a bunch of spiritually starving people:

Look, you are following the only truly life-sustaining Bread there is, but you haven’t been eating. If you want life that does not end, you have to act. You have to take me in. I have to become a part of you. I have to nourish you from within.

The problem with church-people, I think, is that many of us are habitually coming to God’s House of Bread and leaving hungry because we aren’t eating.

We enjoy the aroma from the oven and the sound of living water as the Bible is taught and worship songs are sung. But we aren’t really ingesting Jesus’ words and allowing Him – the Living Word – to transform us from the inside out.

Some of us are just following Jesus for the loaves and the fishes – for the  quick fix to a material and sometimes momentary need — when He wants to fill us up with Himself so that we are never hungry again.

I wouldn’t dream of leaving the local bakery hungry. (I always eat plenty at La Farm and usually take a little something home for later!) Think about that next time you’re in church… and be sure to eat.

 

Who do you love?

It’s not surprising that we should love God.

We breathe His air, bask in His sun and enjoy the life-sustaining water He created. Without these things we would cease to be. We owe Him our very existence.

That God would love me is inconceivable. What is there to love?

People, at our best, are not lovable creatures. Oh, we have our moments to be sure. But most of the time, we have attitudes, dispositions and quirks that make us very unappealing. We are self-centered, unthankful, moody, insatiable, unholy creatures who are drawn to the very things that would destroy us.

The more we have, the more we want, the less we give. Denied something, we willing forsake all else to possess that one thing. As soon as we grasp it, we complain about what we lack in some other realm.

We Westerners whine about what a friend described over dinner as: “First World problems,” things like not having enough clean towels at the gym or the water not being hot enough; being served a restaurant meal that’s not quite what we’d hoped, valet parkers who don’t bring the car ’round precisely when we exit.

Nauseating stuff… when you consider people routinely are going to bed hungry, sleeping outdoors and walking miles for clean water.

In a perfect world, a holy God would have nothing to do with us. He would long ago have wiped clean the planet of any trace of our contaminating presence and started over.

In fact, God told Moses He would do that very thing and start over with him when the people continually complained about the hardships of freedom and insisted on returning to the slavery of sin and Egypt. (Deu 9:14)

But God relented, and here we are.

As we contemplate love in the wake of Valentine’s Day, let’s stop to consider that it is because of self-sacrificing love that we enjoy the blessing of being (John 3:16-17).

Personally, I tire of bearing with other people’s faults and shortcomings.  Yet, God just hangs in there with me and my messes. Love suffers long and is kind. (1 Cor 13:4) I still have much to learn about real love.

Jesus repeatedly asked a repentant Peter one question: “Do you love me?”

Many of us really don’t love God. We ought to.

Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. (Lamentations 3:22)

God The Father, not The Bodyguard

 Whenever there’s a natural disaster or a man-made catastrophe such as the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colo., or the shooting of Sikh worshipers in Wisconsin, invariably someone asks: “How could a loving God allow this to happen when He could have protected those people?”

Fair question, but I think it’s the wrong one. Most of us live our everyday lives independently of God. Aside from mouthing an occasional “God Bless America,” we want God to mind His business while we mind our own.

My question: Why do we expect a God we ignore to come running to our defense when all hell breaks loose?

The God of the Bible does not obligate Himself to act as a universal bodyguard. God loves the world (John 3:16) and is rich in mercy to all His creation. He rains on the just and the unjust, extending common grace to us all.

Yet, God specifically reserves His protection and deliverance for a subset of humanity:

  •  “The righteous cry and the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles.” Psalm 34:7
  • “The Lord watches over all who love Him….” Psalm 145:20(a).
  • “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him, and rescues them.” Psalm 37:8

God knows if we love Him based on whether we do what He wants.

Jesus told the story of two brothers whose father asked each of them to go work in his vineyard. The first initially refused to go, but he finally did. The other said he would go, but did not. Jesus asked: who actually did the will of the father? The one who did what the father asked.

Think of God’s care as a kind of umbrella. When we rebel, we step into the rain. God’s love is unchanged; we just don’t experience its benefits. “Your sins…. have cut you off from God.” (Isaiah 59:2) If this sound unfair, I hear you. But it’s simple family dynamics.

I take responsibility for nurturing and protecting my children. They are a part of me; we have a blood tie. It’s not that I have no concern for my neighbors’ children. If they have a need or are in danger, I can help. But I am not obligated to do so. We don’t have that kind of relationship. Even my own children can refuse my help; and I cannot make them accept it.

Similarly, the Bible says, “I will be a Father to you, And you shall by My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Cor 6:18)

A Father is responsible for His own children; obedient children submit both to their Father’s loving care and His correction. Yet, we expect God to intervene at crisis points in the lives of people who may want nothing to do with Him.  This is a wrong-headed expectation for two reasons.

First, our safety isn’t God’s only concern. He wants to make us holy, which sometimes means allowing us to suffer. Life happens to us all. God has not promised all rainbows and roses. He simply has said He will never abandon us.

Secondly, while God’s explicit protection is a family privilege,  the Good News is we can be adopted into His family. Whether we start out near to God or very far away, through Christ “we have access by one Spirit to the Father.”(Eph 2:18)

My challenge, perhaps yours too?, is to let God be my Father when there is no crisis – when I like it and when I don’t. No one can invoke God’s favor as some kind of force-field against the vicissitudes of life, but we can choose to trust Him day by day. He obligates Himself to us only when we commit ourselves to Him.