Parking Lesson

FairParking

The annual N.C. State Fair has come and gone. But it left me with a lesson I hope will last a lifetime.

I left the fair knowing how quickly I can be tempted to do “what I can get away with” rather than what I know is right but inconvenient. After decades of walking with God it’s sobering to realize how easy it is to dishonor that relationship for a night of frivolous amusements, indulgent food and overpriced games offering dime-store prizes.

It all began with the parking ritual. Fair parking is an entrepreneurial sport for locals. For a fee, people will let you park on their front lawns, in a business parking lot, anywhere the car will fit. The closer to the entrance, the higher the price.

The first parking opportunity we were offered was priced at $20. Too much. We almost parked street side near a roped off lot before two policemen in a golf cart warned us off. “You’ll get a ticket if you park there,” they said. We moved on. Then we saw a movie theater parking lot. The sign read: “Fair Parking $10 Bottom Parking Lot Only Towing Enforced”

We chose to park in a space in front of the theater, end of a row behind a very large SUV. No parking attendant. We walked away. Free parking! You’d think we had lived long enough to know that nothing in life is free.

Had a great time at the fair, returned to the parking lot 4 hours later to find our car … gone! The parking spot was empty. No mystery. Clearly, we’d been towed!

A visit to the popcorn counter and we learned the name of the towing company. After paying $16 for a one-way Uber ride and another $250 to settle the towing bill, we headed home in silence.

Not much to say. No reason to be angry. We knew the price of parking and the unspoken consequence of failing to pay. We were not ignorant. We were disobedient. We figured we could get away with it. We did not. We paid the penalty.

Sometimes that sowing and reaping thing has a quick turnaround.

Driving home, sobered by the turn of events, my mind turned to this verse, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) After the most expensive one-day fair visit in my lifetime, I could think of only three things to be thankful for:

  1. We were able to pay the tow charge
  2. The car had no new, post-tow dents
  3. The tow lot was on our side of town and still open when we arrived.

Lest my readers dismiss our little parking drama as the sad tale of two miserable sinners and/or complete idiots, I should tell you that this is the story of life.

Seemingly innocuous choices can have far-reaching consequences. Not everything in life “just happens.” Sometimes we create our own reality.

More often than I’d like to admit, God’s will is neither hidden or ambiguous. It is as clear as the movie theater parking sign. God’s sheep know His voice. (John 10:27) We don’t always listen.

Instead, we sometimes deliberately choose to do our own thing, following our natural inclinations instead of allowing ourselves to be guided by the Good Shepherd (Psalm 23:3)

“Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it.” (James 4:17)

Apart from Christ, each of us is just a sinner who will one day be judged and receive our just and eternal penalty. Sin has built-in judgment. It’s like mac and cheese. Package deal.

While waiting for Uber, my husband and I told God we were sorry for having willfully sinned when we knew better. We were still out nearly $300, the price of doing it our way, but our fellowship with God was restored.

Next time we’re tempted, I want to remember the lesson: Sin is never a shortcut. It’s a complicated detour that always costs more than expected. Knowing the price Christ paid for me to be forgiven and called a child of God, honoring Him with my choices seems like a small way to show my gratitude.

Beauty for Ashes

Back in May, I posted a view of the charred woods along my favorite run route after a controlled burn. It wasn’t very pretty then. Take a look at it now.

Now…

Then…

If your life resembles scorched earth, keep the faith. In time, God can cause something new and beautiful to grow from the ashes.

Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And He said to me, “Write, for these words are true and faithful.” ~ Revelation 21:5

 

 

Signs of Change

same old Was talking to someone I love when the conversation turned to a topic about which we disagree: their relationship with a woman whose dossier includes an active pornographic website, multiple social media accounts under fictional identities and a criminal history.

That alone is enough to warrant disapproval from the most generous soul, but that’s not all. This vile person has worked hard to destroy relationships between the one I love and everyone who truly cares about them.

Yet, the one I love would have me overlook all that and embrace this “significant other.” Their argument: “How do you know they haven’t changed? Aren’t Christians supposed to forgive people?”

It sounds so spiritual.

Back-sliding Christians who have decided to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season, naive souls who believe in cheap grace, and people who live like the devil all have this in common:

When confronted with their sinful behavior and reckless associations, they are quick to defend with some variation of “Doesn’t the Bible say ‘Judge not’?” or “Shouldn’t Christians forgive?”

Does the Bible really say forgive on-going, unrepented sin?  Does it say ignore reality and not assess what you see?  Jesus didn’t do that. Jesus came to earth to deal with sin head-on.  Reconciling us to God required clarity about our true condition.

  • Jesus told the Samaritan woman that she’d had 5 husbands and the man she was with was not her husband. (John 4:16-18)
  • Jesus told the outwardly pious Pharisees that inwardly they were full of sin, white-washed tombs. (Matthew 23:27-28)

Christians are to “be imitators of God” (Eph 5:1), the God who makes a “distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.” (Malachi 3:18)

Sin is like rotting flesh and fecal matter to holy God. God loves us, but He won’t embrace sin. We can understand that. We separate ourselves from excrement and garbage because the filth and stench attracts vermin. We flush toilets. We bag garbage, take it outside and pay people to haul it away.

Jesus came to forgive our sin, to cleanse us from all unrighteousness and to make us acceptable to God. He changes us, if we let Him. That change is not just something we say; it’s something others can see.

Signs of real change?

  • We acknowledge and confess our sins that we may be forgiven. No games. No excuses.
  • We have “godly sorrow” for having sinned. Not sorrow for being caught and punished but sorrow that we have betrayed and offended a holy God.
  • We “repent,” meaning we turn to God and turn away from sin. Repentance is a 180-degree turn. Our lives should be going in the opposite direction of sin.

To judge is to condemn a person as hopeless. Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world but so that the world might be saved through Him.  (John 3:17) Because His  offer still stands, anyone can change.  Whether we actually have changed is evidenced in how we live.

“For of this you can be sure: no immoral, impure or greedy person – such a man is an idolater – has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient” (Eph 5:5-6)

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“Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, “The Lord knows whose are His,” and, “Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness.” (2 Tim 2:19)

 

Prescribed Fire

 

 

Walking through my favorite park on a recent afternoon I happened on a large swath of forest charred black as far as I could see.

The air smelled of soot. Stretched before me was torched earth, pine tree bark blackened a few feet up trunks, limbs clinging to singed leaves.

This was no wildfire accident. The burned area was bordered by green grass, the evidence of fire only within that boundary.

Clearly, park rangers had intentionally set fire to the woods. The parched ground stood in stark contrast to the lush green woods along surrounding paths where a tangle of kudzu-like vines smothered many trees and pine needles and undergrowth carpeted the forest floor.

Ground cleared to rocks and roots stood waiting to be reborn as if saying, “Now, I am ready for the next thing.”

I read that fire management experts practice something called “prescribed burning” which “may be defined as fire applied in a knowledgeable manner to wildland fuels on a specific land area under selected weather conditions to accomplish predetermined, well-defined management objectives.”

Don’t miss that: Applied in a knowledgeable way, to accomplish predetermined, well-defined objectives.

Gazing into those smoke-scented woods, I realized this principle from the natural world of forest management has a spiritual application.

There are no random fires in God’s kingdom. Our all-knowing God has good plans for us. He sits as king eternal and manages our lives in sovereignty. Sometimes He lets a fire purposely burn through our lives.

Things get hot, go up in smoke; and we are left with ashes. It seems the flames will destroy everything meaningful and dear: our health, our hopes, our relationships, the futures we had planned.  But God-ordained fire is always controlled. Not everything is lost.

Those who trust Jesus Christ are promised: “a crown of beauty instead of ashes.” How can that be?

The power of fire is that it destroys but it also regenerates. Heat and pressure are a catalyst for new growth, releasing new seeds into the nutrients left behind. From the ashes a new forest develops. Our lives can get cluttered with things that retard our growth. Fire has a way of making space.

In the Bible, fire is a method of purification, a tool of judgment (Ezekiel 28:18) and a means of testing the value of our work. Fire also symbolizes the presence of God Himself. God stood sentry in the pillar of fire by night as Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt.

The park fire opened a formerly dark patch of wood to penetrating light by eradicating well-established, honeysuckle, poison oak and other vines by literally consuming their roots. In this same way, God’s fire incinerates entrenched habits, mindsets and entanglements that keep Christ-followers from being salt and light.

The aftermath of a controlled fire looks bad, but the burning ultimately can accomplish a great good. Our God “is a consuming fire” (Deu 4:24) cleansing our hearts to make us more holy, in the likeness of Christ, and more fruitful in His service.

“Everyone will be salted with fire.” Mark 9:49

Lover or Liar?

LoveGod   Do I really love God?

Not “love” as some warm, emotional feeling, but love as action.

When I know what God wants me to do, and it sticks in my craw, do I do what God wants or do I follow my own heart?

When we really love someone, our heart’s desire is to please them – above ourselves.  Self-denial seldom feels good. Loving God is about choosing to honor Him, despite how I feel.

The Bible has two important things to say about Love for God.

  1. Love is measured in actual obedience.

Saying “I love God” is worthless if my actions betray a different allegiance.

Matthew 21:28-31 speaks of a father who asks each of his two sons to go to work in a vineyard. The first says, “I will not” but later has a change of heart and goes. The second says, “I will” but does not go. Jesus asks: “Which of the two did his father’s will?” The reply: the one who obeyed.

God loved the world so much that He gave the gift of His only son. (John 3:16) The Son arrived on planet Earth and fulfilled the words of Psalm 40:7-8: “Here I am O Lord, I come to do your will.”

In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus struggled with what God’s will required: being brutally beaten, abused and nailed to a cross to die. Sweating drops of blood, knowing the agony that awaited Him at Calvary, Jesus finally submitted to the will of God.

“He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” (Matthew 26:42)

How do we demonstrate love for God? “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)

  1. Love for God is directly related to love for people. If we don’t love them, we cannot love Him.

“But if we say we love God and don’t love each other, we are liars. We cannot see God. So how can we love God, if we don’t love the people we can see?” (1 John 4:20)

My struggle to love actual human beings who are made in the image of God is a reflection of my struggle to love God. “Whoever does not love does not know God because God is love.” (1 John 4:8 ) People can be mean, cruel, hateful. I’m still commanded to respond in ways that reflect love for Him. This isn’t possible except God’s love abides in us.

Jesus repeatedly asks Peter if he loves Him. Peter replies that he does. Jesus responds: Feed my lambs. Take care of my sheep. Feed my sheep. Follow me. In other words, show your love for Me in loving relationship to my people.

It’s easy to claim ignorance about what God wants. Yet, we know more of God’s will than we want to admit:

  • Love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:31)
  • Love your enemies,
  • bless those who curse you,
  • do good to those who hate you,
  • pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you (Matt 5:44)

In the book of Revelation, Jesus rebukes a perseverant but loveless church for having “forsaken the love you had at first” and calls them to repentance. (Revelation 2:4-7)

What matters most is love!

The first of all the commandments is, ‘Listen, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment. The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)

 

 

 

 

 

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)