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)

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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Conquering Death: Faith not Fences

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Most of us are too busy living to spend time contemplating death and dying, but avoidance is not a long-term strategy for dealing with death.

Death has a way of intruding without warning, commanding immediate attention. We drop everything, travel, make phone calls, send flowers and cards to acknowledge that someone loved has gone. Though life goes on, death has left its calling card.

Death is constant; we notice only when it touches us. As I write, the World Death Clock ticks steadily at the rate of 1.8 deaths every second, an estimated 32 million deaths this year so far.

Three weeks ago, I got an early morning call that a family member had died suddenly. Not yet 40, he left behind a wife and two young children. Days later I sat in a church two states away reviewing the life of a dear man I knew only by proxy.

The grief was palpable. Death was front and center, open casket on the big screen. Fast forward: cemetery, repast, flights home, resume life. No disrespect. It’s what we do. Keep it moving lest death get in our heads, touch our hearts.

Fencing out Death

A church on my daily commute recently decided that death should take a holiday, at least visually.

This one-church-in-several locations congregation, the kind that sends out colorful postcards with hip slogans, merged with a declining mainline church. The merger of people, buildings and grounds included a neat, century old traditional cemetery with flower-topped, granite grave markers in various sizes and shapes.

Apparently, a cemetery with looming gravestones didn’t fit a “life is good” image. Church leaders summarily hid the grim reminders of mortality behind a substantial wooden privacy fence – with gated access for those wishing to pay their respects, of course.

Trying to hide a cemetery only draws attention to it.

The subsequent unflattering publicity revealed that people whose family members are buried in that cemetery didn’t want their graves behind a fence. Driving home this week, I noticed the privacy railings have been removed. The reality of death has come back into public view between open horizontal slats.

It’s a good thing. Death is as much a part of life as sunrises and sunsets. The writer of Hebrews said, “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27)

Fear Not

A cemetery is a reminder that, despite all distractions and protestations to the contrary, “A man’s days are numbered.” (Job 14:5) Nobody lives longer than the time God has set.

Understandably, death gives people the creeps. Nobody wants to die. The church’s mission is to help people face this uncomfortable reality with biblical faith.

Like Jesus Christ standing at Lazarus’ tomb, the church must confront death by teaching people that God has given us eternal life and this life is in His son. (1 John 5:11)  Jesus conquered death, dying in our place and rising from the dead. Likewise, the dead in Christ will be raised. This is the hope of the gospel.

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 NIV)

Resist fear in all its guises and embrace faith instead. Trusting Jesus Christ is the only hedge against death and opens the door to a whole new life!

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.’ Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26

 

 

 

Hating on “The Shack”?

shack  For the record, I’ve read “The Shack.” And no, I don’t believe it’s heresy… as many of my church-going Facebook friends do and re-post often.

Most of them haven’t read the book or seen the movie. Yet, their advice is to avoid it like the plague. My seminary-trained nephew compared suggesting he actually read Shack to my asking him to drink spoiled milk. To hear him expound on his reasoning, you’d think I was asking him to drink poison.

To be clear, I’m a Christ-follower. I’m also someone who made a living as a writer. As such, I appreciate people taking the time to read my work before forming an opinion. Accepting someone else’s translation of my words doesn’t do it justice.

(I suggest Bible critics do the same thing: read the Bible with an open mind before arguing about it. A lot of what you’ve heard is in there is missing, misquoted or misconstrued.)

The Shack is a novel aka a work of fiction. It’s the story of a man’s grappling with God, or rather God reaching out to him, after an unspeakable tragedy touches his family. I’m not going to be a spoiler and give away the details. If you want an overview, go to: http://www1.cbn.com/books/whats-so-bad-about-the-shack

Evidently, some critics expected a solidly Christian message and/or gospel presentation given the story deals with “biblical” issues. The Shack, however, goes outside the box to depict Father God as an African-American woman, the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman and Christ as a way to God, but maybe not the only way.

Presenting the Trinity in a multi-body, gender-bending form is in stark contrast to Scripture which teaches that God is spirit, that “in Christ is all the fullness of the godhead bodily”  and that Jesus plainly says “I am the way” to the Father.

Why expect fiction to rightly represent non-fiction? Does it matter if the author is Christian (or maybe a universalist, depending your point of view)? Does being Christian mean a writer is bound only to write strictly chapter-and-verse equivalent texts? Does being creative mean being heretical?

I hope not. I’ve written about serial killers; contractors who cheat; corporate deceptions and outright liars who purported to be Christian. Does daring to pen their stories make my relationship with God suspect?

I think the outcry over The Shack misses the point of the novel, which is very clear to me: No matter how tormented and terrorized by life we may be, God loves us and He cares. He is willing to meet us in the middle of our mess, restore our souls and make our lives into something beautiful. All He asks of us is to respond to His call.

Seems biblical to me: Christ came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). We didn’t choose Him, He chose us. (John 15:16)

We modern-day Christians are in danger of becoming irrelevant with our knee-jerk rejection of everything with which we disagree.

Yes, we must know the genuine to spot the counterfeit, which means knowing what the Bible teaches so that we can separate truth from error. But what is the good of knowing the Truth if we are so objectionable that we never get to share Him?

I believe that Christ has left us in the world so that we might engage the culture in a way that brings people to God. Jesus calls this being His witnesses.

So if we think the devil is in the details of The Shack, why not do what Scripture teaches: “Examine all things; hold fast that which is good.” (I Thessalonians 5:21) It’s a good place to start building bridges instead of erecting walls.

Call me a heretic, but I think we serve a big God and limit Him with our little minds. One day we are going to be surprised by the tools He used to draw people closer to Himself, maybe even an unorthodox book like The Shack.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

 

 

 

Do you have access?

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

No badge. No entry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To have access, we have to have relationship.

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

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

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

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

Open Heart, Closed Casket!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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