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)

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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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

Things Aren’t What They Seem

wisdom_power (1)

The Bible declares “Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.”

That’s not what it looks like at first glance.

Yes, Jesus Christ did miracles. His own birth – born to a virgin – was a miracle. Yet, Jesus’ own family members all weren’t convinced He was the Messiah. He was despised, rejected by the official religious establishment, convicted in a mock trial and turned over to the Romans who executed Him by crucifixion. Buried.

The ride-or-die disciples, who had left everything to follow Him, ran for cover.

This story does not have the ring of “Power” and “Wisdom.” Could be yours doesn’t either.

We’ve all had times when we thought following God’s plan would lead to a certain outcome, only to end up someplace we never expected to be.

  • You accepted a promising promotion only to be assigned the Manager from Hell.
  • Your child went to a great college only to return home overwhelmed before winter.
  • You exercised, ate right, denied yourself and your health still went South.

Things look bad. It’s disappointing. It hurts to get up in the morning. But know this: tough, tight places are where God’s wisdom and power make the difference – if you trust Him.

God seldom works the way I might hope, where I get to avoid all the unpleasantness and have it my way.

Yet, even when the worst happens, I promise you that God’s wisdom and power prevail. With God, things are not what they seem.

Sending a baby to save the world seems like a bad idea. Babies often didn’t survive childhood in Jesus’ day. Investing just three short years of ministry in a dozen guys who had never traveled much is not how I’d spread the word to the world.

Conquering through weakness, death and disappointment is something only God can orchestrate. We mortals spend all our lives trying to avoid those things. God makes all of it serve His purposes, for all things serve Him.

Seen through natural eyes, Jesus’ ministry looked like an absurdity that ended in failure. Maybe parts of your life look like that now. Remember, your story isn’t over any more than His is.

Jesus got up from the grave.

And those frightened disciples, who ran and hid, were empowered by the Holy Spirit to take the testimony of Jesus to the world, a seeming impossibility. We modern Christ followers are proof that it worked.

Trust God. The path may lead straight through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, but it’s only the shadow. God is with us. He is Faithful.

For the Scripture says, Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.

Romans 10:11