What Do You See?

See    At the grocery checkout I notice the sparkling blue eyes of my cashier, a slim college boy with a dirty blond ponytail. I tease him that he’s the only employee whose eyes match the uniform polo shirt.

He replies, “Really? I didn’t know. I’m color-blind.”

Not everyone who is blind is completely unable to see.

Some of us are just blind to nuance, to gradation, to perspective. We Christ-followers can be so fixed on what the eye can see that we are blind to people’s underlying issues, the spiritual stuff the eye cannot detect. I plead guilty.

When we see only in the natural, we can miss what’s most important. Apart from God, what can any of us really see or know? “People look on the outward appearance but the Lord looks on the heart.” (I Samuel 16:7 NIV)

I knew a man who was drunk, drinking, hungover or on his way to get drunk as long as I knew him. Never knew him sober until he was too old and sick to get liquor on his own. And I knew him my entire life. Or thought I did.

It turns out drunkenness was not his core issue. When he died, I learned the rest of his story, the linchpin of his life.

When this man was young, he’d gotten into a fight with his best and lifelong friend, whom he killed in a drunken rage. They had grown up together in a small community that people seldom left. Their families were friends. This man had gone to prison for killing his friend. When his prison days were over he returned to that same community to live among those same people. He never went to church in a community where life revolved around Sunday services, camp meetings, gospel singing, weddings, funerals. He didn’t even go to his own mother’s funeral.

The one thing he did consistently was drink.

I thought I knew him. What did I know? He’d committed murder, killed his close friend. He’d had to return home to the place where he’d killed him and live with it. Alcohol might have submerged the guilt, sorrow, pain and heaven only knows what else. But those things never drowned. I never saw this hurting human being. All I could see was his vice.

In the same way,  it’s easy to “see” only the flawless resume: Ivy League education, check. Employed by a solid Corporate Inc., check. Spouse, 2.2 children and a dog, check. Home in the right neighborhood. Membership in the right church. Supporter of charitable causes. Check, Check, Check. What we see isn’t necessarily all there is. That resume may belong to someone who also is a closet drinker, sexual abuser, embezzler, pathological liar.

I’ve learned that I cannot always trust my eyes to see no matter how clear my vision. And neither can you.

“Remember, the sins of some people are obvious, leading them to certain judgment. But there are others whose sins will not be revealed until later.” (I Timothy 5:24 NLT)

Looking for Fruit

We inherited fruit trees when we moved into our home nearly two decades ago: Plum, cherry and peach with thornless blackberry bushes thrown in as a bonus. We rolled up our sleeves and went to work. Naturally, when the season came, we were looking for fruit.

Peaches were not forthcoming.

The tree looked pitiful, leaning crookedly to one side with gnarled, dead limbs. That first fall, I got a book on pruning and went to work, knowing that once the beneficial whacking was done I could expect nothing the following spring. The tree would skip a yePeachtreear of bearing.

Three years in the little tree popped with gorgeous and fragrant peach blossoms. Then they were gone! No flowers = no fruit. We quickly discovered Bambi & Co. visited our yard to graze on all things green.

Fast forward: When blossoms managed to survive to produce fruit one year, the tiny peaches were infested by hole-boring bugs that left sticky black goo in their wake. I invested in organic sprays. Another time,  plump peaches promised a real harvest. They began to turn yellow and smell delicious. Overnight they vanished.

  • In desperation, the next year my husband strung habanero peppers around the tree like Christmas lights to ward off the deer. Later, he caught a glimpse of squirrels in the tree knocking our precious peaches to the ground – half eaten.
  • Determined to have peach rewards for our labor, we plucked a few to ripen in the window sill one year before leaving on vacation, knowing there would be nothing left when we returned.

This year, my husband had enough. He insisted on chopping the tree down. “It’s no good,” he’d say repeatedly. “Just taking up space. Might as well start over.”

I begged him to leave it alone another year.  I sprayed it. I talked to it. Life got busy and I forgot it.

One day he was mowing and stopped near the tree. Were those peaches beneath the full leaves? Indeed, they were. After 17 years of nursing this tree, we harvested 9 good-sized organic peaches. Fuzzy, vine-ripened, full-flavored with a little blush on the skin. Absolutely worth the wait!peaches

This year’s harvest was the fruit of patience and mercy. The tree didn’t deserve it, but its survival depended on it.

In Luke 13, Jesus shares the parable of a man who is repeatedly disappointed to find not a single fig on a well-tended fig tree. The tree took and took and gave nothing in return. The owner determined to get rid of it. The gardener asked for another year to tend and nourish it. If it still produced nothing, the owner was free to axe it.

In a prior conversation Jesus and the disciples discuss a disaster that left 18 men dead after a tower fell on them. Did the disciples imagine the men who perished were more wicked sinners than others in the city? Jesus said they were not: “No, I tell you. But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:5)

Our peach tree brought this story home for me. That tree is my life’s story and perhaps yours, too. I have received much and returned little: a mix of no fruit, wormy fruit, spoiled fruit, small fruit, only occasionally good fruit and not enough of it.

I live not because I am any more consistent or any less sinful than those whose graves I have stood over. I live – each of us lives – because God has mercifully given us more time. Each day is a gift and an opportunity. He waits patiently for those of us who claim to be Christ followers to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” (Luke 3:8)

Even so, the day will come when our time is up.

“Indeed, the ax is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:9)

Truth over Lies

no liesChristianity is all about Truth: believing truth, speaking truth, living truth. We Christians claim to be in relationship with the God of truth, the God who cannot lie

The sum of God’s word is truth. (Psalm 119:160) The same Jesus who is The Way to God the Father, also says He is “The Truth.” Starting in Exodus, repeated in Deuteronomy and echoed in the gospels: “You shall not bear false witness…. “ (Exodus 20:16, Deu 5:20) or as the Message Bible puts it: “No lies…”

A lifestyle of consistent, unrelenting and unrepentant lies reveals our true allegiance is not to God the Father but to the devil, the father of lies.

You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)

And so I am baffled by church people who steadfastly support the current U.S. president who lies like breathing. I am inundated with talk of “prophecies,” of the president’s “faith” and Christian magazine articles proclaiming Trump as “God’s choice for this time in American history.” 

My response: A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45)

It saddens me, maddens me, that the lies at the heart of today’s political turmoil are oft repeated by my church-going friends and neighbors:

  1. Abortion and same-sex marriage are the most important voting issues 
  2. Undocumented immigrants aren’t supposed to have equal protection under the law
  3. Godly character is less important than having the right politics

God’s people are to be sanctified – set apart – by truth. What is truth?

Individual Accountability – God does not want me, as a believer, to have an abortion or engage in same-sex marriage. God is not asking people who don’t know Him to behave like people who do. Obedience without relationship is not salvation. Individual believers, not nations, will stand at the judgment seat of Christ and be held accountable for our personal choices. So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:12)

One law – God’s people are to treat foreigners living among them as countrymen, not to molest or mistreat them.

  • One law shall be to him that is homeborn, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among you.” (Exodus 12:49)
  • But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:34)

Truth inside – Character is what we are on the inside. God “desires truth in the inward parts.” (Psalm 51:6) Men look on the outward appearance. God looks on the heart. Since we can’t see hearts or trust words, God instructs His children to be guided by His Spirit. And where does His Spirit lead us?

But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.” (John 16:13) 

Truth is foundational. “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Psalm 11:3

 

 

Guilty As Charged?

 

take

Everyone loves a gift, but it’s hard to accept responsibility.

That’s because we’re most often asked to take responsibility when something has gone wrong on our watch.

We may be clearly to blame, yet our gut reaction is to insist that it really isn’t our fault. It’s the rare person who, when the outcome will be penalty rather than reward, says: “Yes… I did this.”

I got a glimpse of both reactions during a week of TV time.

A news report featured a Kansas woman who brought three children to a museum – a child in her arms and two rambunctious boys who were moving about apparently unsupervised when one of them touched a piece of art that subsequently toppled to the floor and was said to be damaged beyond repair.

It was all caught on surveillance cameras; the mother not in the camera’s view until after the damage was done. The museum valued the work of art at $132,000 and its insurer sent the family a bill.

The woman was indignant. How could a public museum expect her to pay for an accident? The museum’s view is that the exhibit clearly was not interactive and patrons who do not supervise small children may be considered “negligent.” The woman took exception to the idea that she was negligent.

Aren’t we all a bit like that? No one likes to be held accountable. We don’t want to be told we’ve done something wrong. Our reflexive response is “Things happen. It’s not my fault.”

Accepting blame for our wrongs can be a hard pill to swallow. It’s humbling to admit:

  • I was fired because I was repeatedly late to work.
  • I was jailed because I embezzled money.
  • I am divorced because I was unfaithful in my marriage.
  • I _____________ (fill in the blank)

Sometimes, the truth is our only defense.

In tonight’s episode of “Parking Wars,” the parking policeman pulled up to a CVS drug store to find an unauthorized car parked in a Handicapped Parking space near the entrance. The car’s driver walked out while the guy was writing a $100 ticket for the parking violation.

Her response: She joked with him and accepted the ticket with a smile. “What can I say? It’s my fault.,” she said. She acknowledged that we must obey regulations or pay the penalty. She added, God had blessed her to be able to pay the ticket.

Consider the former Penn State fraternity brother charged in the 2017 frat house hazing death of another student who was left unattended and died after falling down stairs during a night of drinking.

A week ago today, he accepted responsibility for his part in the incident. The 21-year-old and his lawyer stood before cameras and admitted: He was there. He participated. He is willing to accept the punishment. The other men charged in the death have lawyered up with the intent of mounting a strong defense.

The Bible is clear about where God stands on taking responsibility. If we want mercy, we must acknowledge guilt. No excuses.

He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper: but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion.  Proverbs 28:13 (NASB)

We’ve all messed up. God knows that, and He has provided a remedy in Christ. We need only admit we need Him and accept the forgiveness He offers.

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Come Sunday: believe God

 

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It’s possible to do “church” without ever knowing or believing God.

That’s my first takeaway from the Netflix film “Come Sunday,” the recently released movie about former Pentecostal evangelist Carlton Pearson’s rejection of hell and the need for repentance and salvation.

My second takeaway: It takes a certain arrogance for a man to think: “I am smarter than God, qualified to be his judge or tutor.” I’m not, and neither are you.

Pearson was a charismatic fourth generation preacher and a gifted musician. His life and business was Pentecostal Church Inc. About 15 years ago, he says he had a “revelation” and stopped believing in a burning hell of eternal torment or a god who would “send” anyone there.

Pearson calls the message he once preached “indoctrination” and now shares a “gospel of inclusion.” Nobody needs to be “saved” because everyone is saved, he says; they just don’t know it.

Carlton Pearson
Carlton Pearson

For the uninitiated, this is not historic Christian doctrine which says through the “foolishness of preaching” God chooses to save those who believe. The Bible, the official book of Christian faith and practice, presents hell as a literal place; though some disagree on whether it’s a place of continual torment or annihilation.

The church is the “body of Christ,” people who’ve entered into right relationship with the living God through trusting Christ as the atoning sacrifice for their sin. This intimate, supernatural union enabled by the Holy Spirit starts with believing God. Clearly, despite years of doing church, Pearson does not believe.

Because I don’t want that to be my story or yours, let’s rehearse some fundamentals:

  • To know God is to know His character. Psalm 107:3 says of God, “He revealed his character to Moses and his deeds to the people of Israel.” Moses had the relationship. The  people were spectators. God’s character is love, justice, mercy. To imply that God would unjustly condemn people to destruction is to charge God falsely. “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”” Genesis 18:2
  • God loves people so much He sent a savior. Jesus died for all because all have sinned and all need a savior. Christianity 101: For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but should have eternal life. For God sent not His son into the world to condemn the world but that through Him the world might be saved. (John 3:16-17)
  • Hell was never intended for people. “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25:41, my emphasis)

Anyone who follows the devil is going to hell, including faithful church workers who don’t know God.

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ Matt 7:21-23

  • Heaven is the destination of believers.  According to Jesus, the only “work” God requires is “to believe in the one He has sent.” (John 6:29) Belief and confession matter. Preaching should facilitate belief. “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10:14)
  • Salvation requires active acceptance. Everyone is invited to receive salvation. It’s an open invitation marked RSVP.  Two thieves were crucified with Jesus Christ. One mocked him; the other asked Jesus to remember him when He came into His kingdom. Jesus replied to him: This day you will be with me in paradise.

It’s not incredible that salvation requires response. Even winning the lottery requires acknowledging the win by presenting a winning ticket before it expires. God has given us a lifetime opportunity to confirm acceptance of what Jesus did on our behalf at the Cross.

  • God loves everyone, not everyone loves God. I believe God assumes salvation for all, writing our names in the book of life mentioned in Revelation. That doesn’t mean everyone is saved. On the contrary, God has given us freewill to choose our eternal destination. People who choose not to believe God will have their names blotted out of the book of life. Their destination will be the lake of fire.

I don’t always like or understand God’s methods, but I don’t get to rewrite the script to fit my version of reality. The full counsel of Scripture is that the wicked are turned into hell and guilty sinners are made righteous by the knowledge of God through Jesus Christ, who alone is the atoning sacrifice for the sin of unbelief that otherwise dooms us all to hell.

Pearson is preaching a different gospel. It sounds compassionate and enlightened. Don’t believe it. It is not the truth.

 

Stay on Mission

mission from god   A Facebook friend was bemoaning the fact that a particular church denomination has lost its focus on evangelism. No kidding? Clearly, most of the American church has relegated evangelism to a back burner. I’m not even sure we know what “evangelism” is anymore.

We have spent so much time fighting the culture wars that many of us have forgotten “The Great Commission,” the reason the church is here.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matt 2:18-20

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8  (Emphasis is mine)

Jesus followers are to be His witnesses and to make disciples. That mission has zero to do with saving the culture. Jesus died to save people. He has made us “fishers of men.”  J. Vernon McGee, founder of Thru the Bible, often quoted these words: “We are called to fish in the fish pond, not to clean up the fish pond.”

The early disciples were witnesses. That was their identity. They received the Gospel, the Good News, and it became their life’s work to share it. Their relationship with Jesus  transformed and permeated their lives. People perceived that they had been with Jesus. That created an opportunity to speak about the hope they had in Him.

Today, we don’t have to “go” far to be on mission. God has sent people from all over the world to America’s doorstep, many from countries where evangelism is prohibited. They are our neighbors, co-workers, doctors, hijab-wearing clerks, and professors in Sikh turbans.

Are we actively seeking to be kind, to build relationships and bridges so that we might have an opportunity to share our faith? I know a few Christians who are.

Yet too often American Christians are among the loudest voices for closing the borders to immigrants considered dangerous foreigners who are taking our jobs and plotting terrorist attacks while building unbelieving temples in our backyards. When we do reach out, we can be culturally insensitive, confusing evangelizing with “westernizing” people.

America still sends the most missionaries, second to South Korea, but I also personally know American missionaries who struggle to maintain consistent financial support and, at least one couple who had to return stateside from Japan after their sending church decided to “go in another direction.”

The passion of the American church is less spreading the Gospel and more  circling the wagons to “save” America by returning to isolationist dogma and religious tradition. It saddens me as it does my Facebook friend, a “retired” pastor who is still making disciples and building churches on foreign soil. Reactionary responses have replaced reliance on God for wisdom and discernment.

It wasn’t always this way.

I became a believer in the age of Evangelism Explosion (EE), an approach to introducing people to Christ that was founded by the late Presbyterian minister D. James Kennedy. EE helped people learn to personally share their faith. Once Kennedy founded the “Center for Reclaiming America,” the focus shifted more to preserving America’s Christian foundation.

Baptists spent the ’80s and ’90s fighting among themselves about religious orthodoxy: whether the Bible is “inerrant” – without error – and whether liberal or moderate or fundamentalist factions were the true Baptist standard-bearers. Voter guides highlighting “Family Values” candidates became popular and, I believe, sowed discord among the brethren by bringing politics into the pews.

In contrast, Paul instructed Timothy to stay away from divisive discussions:

And a servant of the Lord must not be quarrelsome, but he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, and forbearing. He must gently reprove those who oppose him, in the hope that God may grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth. Then they will come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, who has taken them captive to his will. 2 Timothy 2:24-26

Arguing over non-essentials is not evangelism. Patriotism is not evangelism. Neither is hit-and-run witnessing that does not also connect people with baptism and biblical teaching in Christian fellowship and community.

On mission, stay on message:

“Yes, all have sinned; all fall short of God’s glorious ideal; yet now God declares us ‘not guilty’ of offending him if we trust in Jesus Christ, who in His kindness freely takes away our sins.” Romans 3:23-24 (Living Bible)

And let’s not forget to live a life that demonstrates what we say we believe. Being genuine in a world of shams and scams is an unmistakable witness for Christ.

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Let the Winds Blow

winds  A couple of days ago a nor’easter raked the Atlantic Coast with high seas and storm to gale force winds. I went into the yard of my North Carolina home this afternoon to survey the aftermath. Limbs were strewn all over, some as much as four feet long, stripped from pine, cherry and Bradford pear trees.

Hard to believe I was in this yard a couple of weeks ago on a suddenly 80-degree winter day, picking up only a few relatively small limbs scattered about.

Today, I was confronted with heavy, rotted limbs fallen everywhere. They were leafless but seemed firmly attached, before the winds came. Roughly 5000 Fitbit steps and many wheel-barrow loads later, the debris is cleared. Everything that could be shaken has been removed. What cannot be shaken remains.

That’s a metaphor for the life of the believer.

Like my trees before the storm, our lives can look green but be filled with dead things we cling to because we don’t realize they’re dead. That is, until life’s winds begin to blow. Trouble comes and our attachments to the dry, dead stuff of this world are loosened. Our pretensions, our busyness, our little attitudes all fall away.

Get a lay-off slip and suddenly we can prune the dead-weight from the budget with ease. Get a bad medical test result and overnight our health is the most important thing in our world. Get a text alert that our child’s school is on lock-down with a potentially active-shooter on the ground and family – not work, so important moments earlier – becomes the priority.

I don’t like storms; they portend disaster. Yet, God allows them. He speaks in the shaking. He knows we often don’t recognize the dead weights and besetting sins we need to cast off. He also knows that even when we do recognize them, we often lack the will to act.

I long knew which trees in my yard needed pruning. The work was not a priority. My arborist’s last visit came with a hefty bill and I was in no hurry to invite him back. I kept putting it off until a more convenient season.

We do that. We know we should. And we would, but we don’t.

  • We’re in a questionable relationship. We know we should probably end it, but we don’t.
  • We know our finances are over-extended and we should probably live less large. We do nothing because we like the high life.
  • We know our church-life is religious theater. We have no interest in a real relationship with God because of what it might cost us. We keep playing the role.

Whatever our story, God loves us enough to sometimes send a storm. The Bible speaks of God as a gardener and Jesus Christ as the true vine. Jesus says: “Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away.” If we’re not bearing fruit, we’re cut away. Cuttings end up in the fire. God doesn’t want that.

So, like a nor’easter, the winds of life come to violently shake away the dead wood so that Christ followers are prepared to receive a kingdom that is unshakable.

The shaking will come. Hold firmly to the word of God, and let the winds blow!

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire.” Hebrews 12: 28-29