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.

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!

 

Honor Where It’s Due

   My son asked me the other day why someone we know routinely mispronounces the word “sword,” opening with the sound of the Nike symbol “swish.” The guy has an earned PhD and still doesn’t know that the “w” in sword is silent?

My guess is he learned to say “sword” as a child by repeating the way someone close to him said it, maybe a parent or grandparent. As a full-grown, well-educated man that pronunciation has stuck with him as part of his family fabric. His wife, who also holds a doctorate, is probably the only one close enough to him to correct him. She probably won’t, out of love and respect for him.

Then I told my son a story from my own childhood.

When I was growing up my Mom would come home from the beauty shop or grocery store and mention that she saw someone we knew, only she didn’t use the word “saw.” Typically, she’d say “I seed” so-and-so. As long as I can remember this was Mom’s way of expressing the past tense of “see.”

Mom was an intelligent and resourceful lady with beautiful handwriting and a love of newspapers, magazines and Paul Harvey. She’d left the South before graduating high school to go north for better opportunities and returned years later to work long hours in a textile mill.

In spite of all that (or maybe because of it), Mom valued and encouraged education. To her credit, all the girls who grew up in her home graduated from college and went on to earn advanced degrees. We never scrubbed toilets, did laundry or kept house for anyone but ourselves.

I’ll tell you something else we never did. We never corrected her when she said she “seed” someone.

I learned the English language well enough to earn a living as a writer, but I knew better than to tell my Mom how to speak. Some things are sacrosanct. My relationship with my Mom was one of them. What I am today, I owe in large part to the foundation she laid. Out of respect, I understood that it was not my place to correct her.

My place was to honor her. Not because she was perfect. Not because she was always right. She was neither of these things, but she was my mother. The position alone afforded her a respect that was inviolate.

 

The Bible says (and yes, I still believe the Bible is right):

 

“Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise—so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” Ephesians 6:2-3

 

To honor someone is to recognize their value. We may have many friends, many mentors. Parents stand alone. We ought to appreciate them, to hold them in high regard.

Do I even need to say that biblical honor is all but dead?

Children routinely return from college to shove their “enlightenment” in their parents’ faces, rejecting and ridiculing everything their parents’ hold dear and everything they were taught to respect. The children feel smug in being liberated from their parents’ so-called ignorance and antiquated ways.

These “smart” young people are ignorant of a truth I learned early in my marriage: To honor your parents is to bless yourself.

I learned this after my husband took me to task for my being rude and disdainful toward my father. I justified my behavior by rehearsing how he was biologically my father, but never had assumed a father’s role in my daily life. So what did I owe him? My husband bluntly reminded me that wasn’t the point.

As a Christian, out of love and respect for God, he said, I had an obligation to honor my father for the position he held in my life. He was my father, period. Simple, but very hard to accept. I understood that my mother should be respected. She’d raised me. My father never had been a real father to me but was my “father” nevertheless. God’s clear command was to honor him for that alone. I could not escape that.

A lifetime’s bad habit is not easily broken. But I repented; and I worked at it .

Before my father died of lung cancer, less than a decade ago, I had the privilege of spending the better part of day with him at his home in the Bronx. We poured over pictures from his youth, his service photos, and neighborhood snapshots. I listened to his stories. It was awkward, but worth the effort. When he died, I had far fewer regrets than I might have.

Honor belongs to parents, but the blessing goes to children: “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”

As we approach Mother’s Day on May 11 and Father’s Day in June, consider that parents have a short shelf life. Both mine are gone. Honor yours while you can, even if they haven’t been what you might have hoped. Without them, there would be no “you.”

In an age of easy abortion, that your parents gave you life is blessing enough. If they loved and cherished you, were real parents despite their frailties, you are blessed indeed!

Happily Ever After?

“This better work into a happily ever after.  I’ve put a lot of work into this son of a bitch.”

Now that’s some statement on which to build a life.

I overheard it while working out the other night. Two twenty-something girls were chatting obliviously beside me as I pounded the treadmill. The black-headed one was eager to share with the blonde the details of a lusty encounter with Mr. Right, who apparently was living with someone else.

She explained that he was “so sweet.”  He’d said how much he cared, how he’d been thinking about her all day. He  was not sleeping with this other female; they weren’t intimate, he insisted. He said it was “complicated.” He needed time. She believed him.

“He is such a nice guy” they agreed. He wouldn’t lie. Miss Black Head said she trusted him, and she was willing to wait.

While she apparently was willing to wait for Mr. Right to move out, move in, marry her or whatever, she hadn’t been willing to wait on the sex.

In an eager whisper, she described to Miss Blonde on the treadmill beside me how she’d ripped off her clothes in a moment of abandon and the two had gone at it. When he called later and “emotionally vomited” all over her, she’d thought: “You gotta be kidding. It was just sex.”

She wondered aloud: maybe she should have waited at least another day for them to get together? Clearly, he had  not been ready.

Miss Blonde, the confidant, was sympathetic. Ponytail swinging as she picked up the pace, she acknowledged that “the only thing that’s  kept me is my religion.”

Miss Black Head giggled at that, congratulating her friend on her self-control and adding that she had none.  “I just go for it!”

Pausing briefly, she motioned toward a boy across the room. “Isn’t he cute?! He has a nice butt.”

I did not make this up. Actually happened within ear shot,  actually within reach-out-and-touch distance of me,  a complete stranger.

No shame. No worries. No morals.

It made me sad. These women are nobody’s marriage material. Clueless pawns of culture, they probably consider themselves liberated feminists, free to have sex with whomever they choose, “just like men.”  Naive and nauseating.

Marriage and family were God’s idea, but few people have any regard for marriage’s sacredness any more. Girls routinely “hook up” and still don a white dress on their wedding day, a fashion statement rather than a symbol of any purity. Increasingly, marriage is shunned altogether in favor of cohabitation. The Spring 2014  issue of Duke magazine quotes sociology professor Christina Gibson-Davis as saying:

The emergence of cohabitation as an acceptable context for childbearing has changed the family-formation landscape. Individuals still value the idea of a two-parent family but no longer consider it necessary for the parents to be married.

I soon will have been married 27 years and can testify that marriage is tough even with God in the mix. No self-control, no sensitivity to the emotional consequences of intimacy or concern for the other person beyond getting your own needs met is not a recipe for a happy marriage.

Without God, these young women may get a man to the altar, but they will never have a real marriage no matter how hard they work at it.

“Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” Psalm 127:1

Looking for life in dead things?

 

Vultures.

Wherever there is something dead you’ll find these carrion-eating carnivores feasting on putrid flesh.

I was running the other day and noticed the wide wings of a group of these scavengers circling overhead. The closer I got to their position, the more I wondered just what what had caught their interest. Eventually, my run took me past two squirrels flattened to the pavement dead ahead – no pun intended!

The vultures, flying high above the trees, had spotted those poor creatures and apparently were planning when to swoop in and enjoy the road kill.

By the time I passed that spot a few minutes later on the return run, two of those dead-eyed, bald-headed birds had made their descent and were chomping away at each of the departed squirrels. As I approached, I tried to calculate how long it would take them to abandon their dinner and take to the skies. Neither seemed to be in any hurry. I was close enough for them to hear my foot fall. Neither looked up.

The one closest to me waited until I could have hit him squarely in the head with a rock before he finally took flight. The other, however, kept right on eating until I was beside him. Even then, he refused to leave the ground, reluctantly flying almost directly into me as I passed and settling a few feet away on the side of the road, keeping a wary eye on the meal.

No sooner had I passed than this nasty bird went right back to eating, head down in a mass of bloody tissue.

Vultures love dead things. That is just their nature. They feed on it. They have internal radar, it seems, to help them find a constant supply of the next dead meal.

Ever known people like that? People who are attracted to dead things? I don’t mean corpses necessarily. I’m talking about people who seem to be captivated by things that have no life in them?

  •  People who are serially attracted to dead people – same type with a different name – only to find that this relationship, too, is lifeless.
  • People who keep doing the same dead things expecting them to one day produce life: looking for love in dead zones – bars, raves, blind dates – hoping to find a life-giving soul mate.
  • People who fill their minds with death-soaked music, books, movies and art and wonder why they are depressed and suicidal.

People are not meant to find sustenance in dead things. In fact, God wants us to put distance between ourselves and dead people and things. The Old Testament, for example, commands God’s people to separate themselves from dead things lest they be made “unclean.”

When the disciples made their way to the tomb where Jesus’ dead body had been laid, they were met by angels who asked them a question:

 “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” It’s a question still worth asking.

Jesus came that we might have life. So why do we keep trying to suck life out of spiritual carrion?

Looking for life? The Psalmist said you’ll find it by seeking the Lord. And you will lack no good thing.

O taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in Him. Psalm 34:8 (KJV)

Are you sure God’s Not Mad?

God Is Not Mad at You.” That’s the catchy title of the 100th book recently published by Joyce Meyer. It caught my eye while strolling the aisles of Walmart.

My first thought was, “Really?”

Psalm 7:11 says something quite the opposite:

 God is a just judge,

And God is angry with the wicked every day.

So whose report will we believe?

I’m not hating on Joyce Meyer. I’ve listened to her teaching, been to her conferences, bought her tapes. I even own a leather bound signature Amplified Bible translation from back in the day when her ministry was known as “Life in the Word.” (The ministry now broadcasts as “Enjoying Everyday Life.”)

The truth is whether God is angry at you depends on you. Romans 8:1 tells us there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. 1 John 1:9 says if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us. We don’t need to wallow in guilt and shame.

If we happen to be disobedient, unrepentant, and rejecting God, however, the unvarnished truth is that God is angry. The Bible clearly says so.

I know the idea of an angry God is not good marketing strategy. We live in the age of “God is Love,” where even Christians try to make God look good by sometimes shading the truth. An angry God, after all, doesn’t play well to crowds. An angry God is dangerous.

Listen to Jeremiah 15:6 “You have rejected me,” declares the LORD. You keep on backsliding. So I will reach out and destroy you; I am tired of holding back.”

Personally, I think a holy fear of an angry God is a good thing. There was a time when Americans were moved to repentance to know that God was angry at sinners. The great preacher Jonathan Edwards, preached a now famous, unemotional sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” that prompted many to seek salvation.

Today, in our desire not to offend, we sometimes give people a less than accurate impression of God in an attempt to make our message more palatable. Scripture explicitly warns us not to add or subtract from God’s word. Unrepentant sinners are guilty before God and should be ashamed. God hates sin; and He will judge it, if we do not repent. It’s an uncomfortable truth.

The central message of Christianity can be summed up in John 3:16, which simply states that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son to save us. Ephesians goes on to say, “By grace you have been saved…”

Ever ask yourself, just what is it that we Christians are “saved” from?

The Bible answer is that we are saved from “the wrath of God.” The Book of Revelation, in which the long withheld judgment on an unrepentant planet is finally unleashed, makes particular reference to “the winepress of the wrath of God,” and to “bowls full of the wrath of God” being poured out on the disobedient, the unrighteous, the unbelieving.

God is not one-dimensional. He is both a God of Love and a God of Wrath. By definition, wrath is “extreme anger.” It is God’s great love that, for a time, restrains His wrath. “He is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”

We can’t fully appreciate God’s undeserved love toward us until we acknowledge the very real wrath that He will one day justly unleash on those who reject His offer of rescue. Paul, writing to Christians in Colosse, admonished them to “put to death sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.”

When Christ returns to Earth, He is not coming as a meek, suffering servant. He is coming the Second time to “rule with a rod of iron” and to “dash in pieces” the wicked.  

We can escape the wrath of God to come by accepting His gift of love today. John 3:36 says: “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

As Jonathan Edwards said in one last appeal to listeners of his famous sermon, “Therefore let everyone that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come.”

No Boundaries?

We are not free to do as we please. Boundaries, limits, standard requirements are a reality of everyday life. These are necessary evils for the sake of law, order and public safety.

Before 9-11, I could pick up people arriving at the local airport directly at their gate, embracing them moments after they stepped off the airplane. No more. Security checkpoints keep me at a distance. I’m lucky to be allowed near baggage claim.

When I visited the hospital during a friend’s cancer surgery, I was not free to barge into the operating room for a firsthand look at the procedure. I had to sit in the waiting room until someone emerged to share the outcome. To do otherwise would have meant risking eviction.

I can’t drive any way I want.  On American roads, I’m required to “keep right.” Sure, it’s possible to ignore the road markings, be a non-conformist and drive left of center. It’s also potentially fatal. There are posted speed limits, too. I can drive faster and, regrettably, sometimes do. I don’t recommend it.

Boundaries are not crossed without penalties: tickets, lawyer fees and, occasionally, morgues.

Knowing the consequences of disobedience, most of us respect imposed limits as the rules of the game. So why do we normally law-abiding people live like outlaws before God, rejecting the notion that He has any right to set boundaries for our lives?

The answer, as I see it, is that we have no fear of the Lord. We give grudging respect to civil authorities, which are actually established by God,  and conform as necessary. Biblical authority, on the other hand, has become meaningless – even to so-called Christians.

I had coffee with a young man the other night who is a poster child for this pervasive yet cancerous attitude. He’s a “nice guy,” educated, gainfully employed, decent looking, polite, a church-goer. He also is willfully disobedient to Scripture, by his own admission, and quite probably lost.

This guy dates my daughter.

He considers himself a Christian even though he is not willing to live by biblical truth, an historically contrary notion which he considers a small thing.

With his head, he agrees that the Bible is right, insists that he “respects” God and biblical values. With his heart, however, he refuses to respect the boundaries God has set for Christian living when they conflict with what he wants to do.  Indeed, he rejects the notion that he has any obligation to do so.

The times in which we live are not unlike the book of Judges in which it is said, “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25)

We attend church, crack our Bibles now and then and mouth the occasional prayer. But none of that has any relationship to how we live or make decisions. We know where the boundaries are drawn, but persist in living outside the lines. This has been done before.  Ezekiel 33:31 says: “My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. “

Hearing but not doing is hypocrisy.

“The Lord says: ‘These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.’” (Isaiah 29:13)

As I reminded the young man at coffee, Christians are not free to live as we choose. We live in committed relationship with a holy God who loves us and desires to make us holy.  God has established standards, boundaries, limits for His children. These are for our good. If we love Him, we conform our lives to  His wishes.

I liken the Christian life to a marathon race. I ran the Outer Banks Half-Marathon once. Training required a lot of personal discipline, self-denial, patient endurance. To be competitive, I did things I normally would not choose to do: changed the way I ate, ran at odd and inconvenient times and for longer distances than I ever imagined possible. I did this, not because I liked it, but because my goal was to run well and finish the race.

The race had an established course with a starting line and a finish line. On race day, I was required to run within clearly marked boundaries.  I couldn’t make it up as I went along and veer into the finish line at the end. I would have been disqualified.

Similarly, Christians enter into a relationship with Christ and run the race He sets before us.  Paul encouraged his fellow believers to have the disciplined commitment of soldiers and athletes who respect the boundaries imposed by their office:

“Anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules.” (2 Timothy 2:5)