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

Good news!

good friday

I woke up Good Friday morning thinking: What’s “good” about it?

After all, it’s the point in Holy Week when the hero dies.

Jesus is beaten, bloodied and finally nailed to a Roman cross. Crucifixion: an excruciatingly torturous form of public execution meant to deter criminal opposition to the state.

Jesus, who is innocent of wrongdoing, submits to this horrendous death. This is the same Jesus who healed blind men, lepers, paralytics and raised the dead, even Lazarus who had been in a tomb 4 days and had begun to stink!

Jesus’s followers were counting on Him to save the world. Instead, He hung on that cross until He died. Some onlookers remarked, “He saved others, but He cannot save Himself.” (Matthew 27:42)

How can this be “good”?

It’s not the end of the story.

Good Friday presents Jesus, the baby in a manager in Bethlehem, fully grown and identified by John the Baptist as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), actually becoming that atoning sacrifice. When Jesus says from the cross “It is finished” (John 19:30) it means something like: “Mission Accomplished.”

What was Jesus’s mission?

Scripture teaches that while the wages of sin is death, God’s gift is eternal life in Christ.  “The sting of death is sin; and the strength of death is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Cor 15:56-57)

Good Friday is Jesus accepting the death penalty in our place. Those who accept His sacrifice on our behalf are completely forgiven. We receive life that never ends, restored fellowship with God, our creator. We are no longer slaves to sin or the fear of punishment that comes with it.

Hebrews 12:2 says of Jesus, “for the joy [of accomplishing the goal] set before Him endured the cross, disregarding the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God [revealing His deity, His authority, and the completion of His work].” (Amplified)

Holy Week builds to the cross of Good Friday after which things go quiet and still. Then comes Resurrection Sunday. Boom! Jesus gets up from the grave demonstrating that He is exactly who declares Himself to be: the resurrection and the life. (John 11:25)

Jesus Christ is the real deal. He took the worst punishment the world could dish out, and He conquered so that we can be more than conquerors. That is good news!

 Since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15)

What if you don’t like God’s answer?

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What if God’s answer to your prayer is something you don’t want to do?

A while back I struggled with feeling good in my own skin. Nothing I could put my finger on, but I knew something wasn’t right. My doctor’s response was more meds. It didn’t help. So I prayed for an answer.

A gestational diabetic with three pregnancies, I had twice managed it with diet and exercise. The third time I needed insulin shots. I was so freaked out by needles that my husband had to play nurse. The day he was away on business, I was late for work trying to give myself that stick.

All that vanished when I gave birth, which I considered a bonafide miracle!

Fast forward a few years. I am following doctor’s orders but still don’t feel like myself. I drove a friend to a church-sponsored health fair planning to drop her off. She asked me to stay. A panel discussion that included an endocrinologist presented new treatment options for a variety of conditions. I decided it was time to engage a new provider.

Some months and tests later, I learned I’d been misdiagnosed. The solution to my problems turned out to be the very thing I wanted to avoid: a daily insulin shot. I was angry at God. Why did I have to do what I dreaded to receive the relief I needed?

I had to choose:

  • Resist the answer to my prayers because it wasn’t the one I wanted? Or
  • Surrender to what God was doing and face my fears?

I surrendered, but not without a struggle. I  can’t explain why God sometimes works this way.  It comes down to Sovereignty. God is God. He does whatever He pleases. It pleases Him to do us good even when it doesn’t seem good. Proper treatment would improve my health. It simply wasn’t the treatment I wanted. Frankly, it still isn’t.

In a moment of retrospection not overshadowed by hysterical emotion, I was reminded that God causes everything to work together for good to those who love Him. So I looked for the “good” in the expense, inconvenience and daily discipline required to manage insulin-dependent diabetes. Knowing the truth about how to maintain my health is a good, freeing thing.

We buried my mother 9 years ago this May. She spent her last years in a nursing home after diabetic complications resulted in a below-the-knee leg amputation. Fiercely independent, she was diminished by having to leave home once she lost a leg. I’ve wondered how much she really knew about how to manage her condition and the difference it might have made.

I don’t know what you’re asking God, but don’t be surprised if His answer includes the thing you don’t want, don’t like or have declared you won’t do. God is about truth. Accepting an inconvenient truth can be humbling, making us more dependent on Him. That is always a good thing.

God’s ways are not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts. Yet, all His ways are right.  If we truly believe those things, we must leave all options on the table for God to choose. We can accept His decision as what’s best, knowing that God is for us!

Trust in the LORD with all your heart;
do not depend on your own understanding.

Seek His will in all you do,
and He will show you which path to take. (Proverbs 3:5-6, NLT)

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)