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.

Remember

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I grew up in America when terrorism happened somewhere else.

In the 1970s, I vaguely remember IRA bombings in London, violence aimed at pressing the case for Irish liberation from British rule.

In November 1979 Iranian students occupied the American embassy in Tehran and took more than 50 Americans hostage. They would remain captive for 444 days, each one chronicled by Ted Koppel’s Nightline late night news program.

Until then, everything I knew about Iran I’d learned from a high school friend who’d left that country to avoid conscripted military service.

In 1983, the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut was bombed, killing 241 US service people. By then, Beirut had become a metaphor for bombings, assassinations and guerrilla warfare.

In 1992, as I waited at JFK to board an EL AL flight to Tel Aviv, terrorism seemed a more imminent danger. Nobody just boarded at the gate. Airline security asked pointed questions about the reason for travel, carry-ons were scrutinized. Would-be travelers considered a threat were left behind.

In April 1995, terror arrived at home. A domestic terrorist blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City leaving 168 people dead, including children. At the time, it was the worst terror attack on American soil in the nation’s history.

Then came the morning of September 11, 2001. My husband called from work. “Are you watching TV,” he asked?

I turned it on and sat speechless as planes flew into New York City’s World Trade Center. The North then South Tower, each filled with people, were struck. As the smoke rose, people leapt from windows before the burning buildings finally collapsed into a tsunami of ash and smoldering debris. Nearly 3000 people perished.

Hate spreads across borders, across time zones, across oceans. Hate breeds death. The world has grown smaller. We cannot isolate ourselves from this reality.

Killing that was “over there” has become commonplace in American schools, malls, festivals, marathon races, night clubs, various places of worship coast to coast: Columbine, Charleston, Charlottesville, El Paso, Orlando, Pittsburgh, San Bernadino and soon maybe a town near you.

We Christians live in this world, a world Jesus loves and died to save. What are we to do? We are His ambassadors, called to love one another, to love our enemies and to stand firm in the faith against our common adversary, satan.

Let’s remember the mission and keep the faith. God is love.

Love never fails. 1 Cor 13:8

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)

 

 

 

 

 

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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Transforming Love

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Before everyone in my home state completely loses their heads over HB2, North Carolina’s birth gender bathroom legislation, may I say a word to my fellow Christians?

Transgender people are people, too.

I get that we may not understand how or why people are transgender.

I get that we may disagree with their notion of “gender identity.”

I get that we may not even like that there is such a thing as “transgender.”

I don’t fully “get” what it is to be transgender. I grew up in a time when gender was static.

What I do “get” is that people are created in God’s image. God loves people. He so loved people that He sent His only son to die to save us. (John 3:16) Save us from what? Whatever would distort the image of God in us. And He didn’t wait until we “got it.”

“God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 my emphasis)

Gender wasn’t always a general topic of conversation. Need I say that times have changed? At my house, we do talk about gender and sometimes late into the night. Frankly, we don’t always agree.

Convinced that being transgender is not new, my spouse doesn’t know why we suddenly need a bathroom law. My 20-something former gender studies student offered a primer, adding that this is not  an abstract notion. My 20-something actually knows transgender people who have been rejected by family, especially their church-going relatives.

What is missing from most Christian discourse about being transgender is any mention of the love of God, the mercy of God, the patience of God. Have we forgotten our condition when Christ found us? Overcome by deception, drunkenness, greed, lying, sexual dysfunction and perversion etc. “Such were some of you, but you are washed.”  (I Cor 6:11)

There are Scriptural reasons to disagree with a host of recent societal shifts, but no Bible passage promotes being hateful in the name of the Lord. God is not eager to condemn people. God is for people, and He keeps the conversation going.

In Genesis 4, to my surprise, God is still talking to Cain, who committed the first murder recorded in Scripture. This guy had whacked his brother Abel after inviting him out for a stroll. Premeditated, unprovoked killing. When God inquired about Abel’s whereabouts, Cain gave a smart-mouthed reply: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Yet, God didn’t punish Cain with immediate death. He didn’t allow anyone else to kill Cain either. Cain lived to marry, father children, build cities. God’s grace, mercy, love.

Let’s not allow HB2, or whatever else may come along, to pull us off message. The gospel is Good News, a message of love shared by loving people. Christ is not glorified by angry talking heads or screaming picketers carrying banners bearing hateful slogans. The fruit of His spirit is love; and love never fails.

“Whoever does not love, does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8)

No Labels!

 Someone said in conversation this week that they consider me a “liberal” Christian, which I suspect means I practice “Christianity Lite.” This amused me. My husband is convinced I’m a natural conservative!

Actually, I’m neither. I listen to the pulpit. I think, ponder, pray, debate and study the Scriptures to see if those things are true.

So how’d I get a liberal label?

Maybe because I resist the idea that everything in the Christian faith is black and white. Obviously, the essentials of the faith are unambiguous and non-negotiable. But there also are things that are less clear cut. Not “gray” areas but things requiring wisdom and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit as to life application.

Or maybe because I’m a vocal critic of the nonsensical behavior of self-proclaimed conservative Christians:

  • Randomly cold-calling strangers at their front doors with the three spiritual laws
  • Standing outside “women’s health clinics” with bullhorns and poster-sized pictures of shredded babies shouting that abortion is murder
  • Arguing with queer theory people about whether sexual identity is fixed. (Note: Please don’t take me to task for referring to homosexuals as “queer.” My college-age insider assures me the LGBQT community now embraces the term as a means of self-identification.)

I’ve seen people do these things, and I’m pretty sure it brought no glory to Christ.

Christianity lived well, it seems to me, is not a matter of leaning left or right but of holding love and truth in a balanced tension. This is accomplished only by walking in the Spirit, something every believer is instructed to do.

We struggle because living this way requires reliance on God rather than hard-fast rules for human interaction.

I will admit that, over time, I have become more liberal in extending grace. Not because I have become soft on sin, but because I have learned this:

There is a wrong way to be right.

Nothing in Scripture instructs Christians to categorize ourselves as liberal or conservative. We are told:  “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith.” (2 Corinthian 13:5a)

THE faith is historic Christianity; not the modern-day version that is speculating about whether Jesus married and had children or rewriting gender references in hymns and Bible versions or redefining the nature of man as “basically good.”

Historic Christianity is the faith first delivered to the apostles and affirmed in the Christian creeds. A sampling:

One God, the Father, Creator and maker of the heavens and earth. Man a sinner in need of a savior whose name is Jesus, the Christ, Son of God and Son of Man. Foretold by the prophets, born of a virgin, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead and buried; descended into hell, rose bodily on the third day, ascended into heaven and seated at the right hand of God to one day return to planet Earth to judge “the quick and the dead.”

It’s possible to give mental assent to all that and still be a hard, graceless person. It’s equally possible to be a kumbaya personality dedicated to the social gospel while conveniently forgetting that our citizenship is in heaven and we await a savior from there.

The Jesus of Scripture is neither. He eats and drinks with sinners. He visits their homes and welcomes tax collectors, zealots, prostitutes, Roman soldiers, the blind, and the lame – basically, all the undesirables — into his company. His message is frank, powerful and uncompromising. Yet, He is loving, compassionate and forgiving.

He heals people who don’t even know His name. He pardons the guilty. He’s upfront about the price to be paid for following Him. If people choose to walk away, He lets them go. There’s no coercion.

I don’t know anybody else like that.

Jesus doesn’t do liberal or conservative. He came to save every kind of sinner, from the inside-out. Jesus only had issues with Pharisees, the religious conservatives of His day, who didn’t think they needed saving. Their beautiful labels spoke of life, but Jesus said they were whitewashed tombs filled with dead men’s bones.

Labels can be misleading. Intel had it right. It’s what’s inside!

 

Kiss Ishmael Goodbye!

I’m kissing Ishmael goodbye.

You know Ishmael. You probably have one yourself.

Ishmael is my attempt to get what I want on my schedule because I’m not willing to wait for God to act. Practically speaking, Ishmael is a manifestation of my own self-will, impatience and unbelief. Ishmael is me saying, “Okay, God. Since you won’t, I will.”

Historically, of course, Ishmael is Abraham and Sarah’s solution to a problem created by God. The Book of Genesis introduces this childless couple, past the age of childbearing, with no heir in a culture where male offspring meant something. God, of His own volition, promised Abraham a son. Independent of anything Abraham would do, God said here is what I will do.

But God did not say when. And waiting is always the hardest part.

As years passed, in the minds of Abraham and Sarah, time was running out. They began to write their own script.

Scene 1: Sarah gives Abe her handmaid Hagar; who gets pregnant and gets an attitude. Sarah gets offended, takes her hurt out on Hagar, who runs away. Fast forward, Hagar returns, gives birth to Ishmael. Abraham has a son!  And so begins the resulting family drama.

Scene 2: Eventually, Sarah does become pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. Now Abraham, age 100, has two sons. Ishmael: the son of Abraham and Sarah’s presumption. Isaac: the son of God promised. Abraham is on cloud nine, but not for long. Their improvised solution now presents an unavoidable problem. Ishmael and Isaac cannot coexist, no matter what the bumper sticker says.

Abraham’s story is my story, our story.

In our early years, life stretches before us, a blank canvas. As years pass, we don’t always like the scene we’ve painted; our hopes and dreams aren’t realized. We wrote The Great American novel, twice, and no one will publish it. We married Prince Charming and are now living with Homer Simpson. We got an MBA and still got passed over for promotion.  The prodigal we’ve prayed for is at home in the Far Country with no plans to move.

Ishmaels are conceived at this intersection of disappointment and disillusionment:

  • a cross country move for a “dream job” that uproots the family and almost destroys a marriage
  •  an ill-timed and under-financed business venture;
  • divorce and/or marriage to a trophy spouse or newly discovered “soul mate”
  • etc., etc., etc.

Ever birthed any Ishmaels? I have. Unwilling to wait, I’ve struck out on my own. When God finally did what He said He would do – as He always does – I couldn’t enjoy His blessing the way I might have if I’d waited. Ishmael complicates things. Ishmael, as Abraham’s history reveals, is a complication for my children and their children for generations to come. That’s why he has to go.

It’s not easy to send him packing. Ishmael is my baby, a part of me. Abraham invested 14 years in Ishmael, pouring himself into that relationship, before Isaac came along. But that didn’t change God’s perspective. Ishmael was Abraham’s idea, not God’s.  And God will not abandon His plan to sanctify the result of my carnality. He won’t kill Ishmael either. I have to deal with the monster I created.

God gives us the choice. Ishmael or Isaac? Your plan or mine; what’s it going to be?

I’m kissing Ishmael goodbye.

When the tears dry and the dust settles, I expect to find what Joshua found after the battles beyond the Jordan. God will have kept His  promise, in His time.

“Not a word failed of any good thing which the LORD had spoken to the house of Israel. All came to pass.” Joshua 21:45