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)

 

 

 

 

 

Looking for Fruit

We inherited fruit trees when we moved into our home nearly two decades ago: Plum, cherry and peach with thornless blackberry bushes thrown in as a bonus. We rolled up our sleeves and went to work. Naturally, when the season came, we were looking for fruit.

Peaches were not forthcoming.

The tree looked pitiful, leaning crookedly to one side with gnarled, dead limbs. That first fall, I got a book on pruning and went to work, knowing that once the beneficial whacking was done I could expect nothing the following spring. The tree would skip a yePeachtreear of bearing.

Three years in the little tree popped with gorgeous and fragrant peach blossoms. Then they were gone! No flowers = no fruit. We quickly discovered Bambi & Co. visited our yard to graze on all things green.

Fast forward: When blossoms managed to survive to produce fruit one year, the tiny peaches were infested by hole-boring bugs that left sticky black goo in their wake. I invested in organic sprays. Another time,  plump peaches promised a real harvest. They began to turn yellow and smell delicious. Overnight they vanished.

  • In desperation, the next year my husband strung habanero peppers around the tree like Christmas lights to ward off the deer. Later, he caught a glimpse of squirrels in the tree knocking our precious peaches to the ground – half eaten.
  • Determined to have peach rewards for our labor, we plucked a few to ripen in the window sill one year before leaving on vacation, knowing there would be nothing left when we returned.

This year, my husband had enough. He insisted on chopping the tree down. “It’s no good,” he’d say repeatedly. “Just taking up space. Might as well start over.”

I begged him to leave it alone another year.  I sprayed it. I talked to it. Life got busy and I forgot it.

One day he was mowing and stopped near the tree. Were those peaches beneath the full leaves? Indeed, they were. After 17 years of nursing this tree, we harvested 9 good-sized organic peaches. Fuzzy, vine-ripened, full-flavored with a little blush on the skin. Absolutely worth the wait!peaches

This year’s harvest was the fruit of patience and mercy. The tree didn’t deserve it, but its survival depended on it.

In Luke 13, Jesus shares the parable of a man who is repeatedly disappointed to find not a single fig on a well-tended fig tree. The tree took and took and gave nothing in return. The owner determined to get rid of it. The gardener asked for another year to tend and nourish it. If it still produced nothing, the owner was free to axe it.

In a prior conversation Jesus and the disciples discuss a disaster that left 18 men dead after a tower fell on them. Did the disciples imagine the men who perished were more wicked sinners than others in the city? Jesus said they were not: “No, I tell you. But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:5)

Our peach tree brought this story home for me. That tree is my life’s story and perhaps yours, too. I have received much and returned little: a mix of no fruit, wormy fruit, spoiled fruit, small fruit, only occasionally good fruit and not enough of it.

I live not because I am any more consistent or any less sinful than those whose graves I have stood over. I live – each of us lives – because God has mercifully given us more time. Each day is a gift and an opportunity. He waits patiently for those of us who claim to be Christ followers to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” (Luke 3:8)

Even so, the day will come when our time is up.

“Indeed, the ax is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:9)

Guilty As Charged?

 

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Everyone loves a gift, but it’s hard to accept responsibility.

That’s because we’re most often asked to take responsibility when something has gone wrong on our watch.

We may be clearly to blame, yet our gut reaction is to insist that it really isn’t our fault. It’s the rare person who, when the outcome will be penalty rather than reward, says: “Yes… I did this.”

I got a glimpse of both reactions during a week of TV time.

A news report featured a Kansas woman who brought three children to a museum – a child in her arms and two rambunctious boys who were moving about apparently unsupervised when one of them touched a piece of art that subsequently toppled to the floor and was said to be damaged beyond repair.

It was all caught on surveillance cameras; the mother not in the camera’s view until after the damage was done. The museum valued the work of art at $132,000 and its insurer sent the family a bill.

The woman was indignant. How could a public museum expect her to pay for an accident? The museum’s view is that the exhibit clearly was not interactive and patrons who do not supervise small children may be considered “negligent.” The woman took exception to the idea that she was negligent.

Aren’t we all a bit like that? No one likes to be held accountable. We don’t want to be told we’ve done something wrong. Our reflexive response is “Things happen. It’s not my fault.”

Accepting blame for our wrongs can be a hard pill to swallow. It’s humbling to admit:

  • I was fired because I was repeatedly late to work.
  • I was jailed because I embezzled money.
  • I am divorced because I was unfaithful in my marriage.
  • I _____________ (fill in the blank)

Sometimes, the truth is our only defense.

In tonight’s episode of “Parking Wars,” the parking policeman pulled up to a CVS drug store to find an unauthorized car parked in a Handicapped Parking space near the entrance. The car’s driver walked out while the guy was writing a $100 ticket for the parking violation.

Her response: She joked with him and accepted the ticket with a smile. “What can I say? It’s my fault.,” she said. She acknowledged that we must obey regulations or pay the penalty. She added, God had blessed her to be able to pay the ticket.

Consider the former Penn State fraternity brother charged in the 2017 frat house hazing death of another student who was left unattended and died after falling down stairs during a night of drinking.

A week ago today, he accepted responsibility for his part in the incident. The 21-year-old and his lawyer stood before cameras and admitted: He was there. He participated. He is willing to accept the punishment. The other men charged in the death have lawyered up with the intent of mounting a strong defense.

The Bible is clear about where God stands on taking responsibility. If we want mercy, we must acknowledge guilt. No excuses.

He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper: but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion.  Proverbs 28:13 (NASB)

We’ve all messed up. God knows that, and He has provided a remedy in Christ. We need only admit we need Him and accept the forgiveness He offers.

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Is your preacher, preaching?

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Spent some time in church on this Lord’s Day? Maybe you heard preaching. Maybe not.

Preaching is important.

The Bible teaches that “it pleased God through the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” (I Corinthians 1:21)

So what exactly is “preaching”?

  • Is it just “God talk” by somebody standing in front of a congregation?
  • Is it “hooping” in the black church tradition?
  • Is it an academic lecture steeped in the Hebrew and Greek?

Biblical preaching is more the message than the method. This is what Jesus had to say about the message:

He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46-48)

A lot of what passes for preaching these days is motivational, inspiring, even entertaining. It makes people feel good, but it’s not preaching. It doesn’t bring people closer to God. It requires nothing. It doesn’t share the Good News: our sins can be forgiven because we have a Savior in Jesus Christ. He died so that we might live. Real, biblical preaching introduces us to that truth.

I seldom hear preaching that mentions sin or the need for repentance. My question: if there’s no sin, what was the point of Jesus’ death and resurrection? Why do we bother with church? God is not some adornment to our lives so that we can be the “best version of ourselves” (I actually heard some preacher use this phrase!) In Christ, we are a new creation, crucified so that it’s “no longer I who live but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

The Apostle Paul instructed his protégé Timothy to “Preach the word” (2 Tim 4:2) What “word”? Paul’s answer: “The word of faith, which we preach.” (Romans 10:8) What did Paul preach?

Now brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and in which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (I Corinthians 15: 1-4)

Paul declared preaching to be both gospel-centered and Holy Spirit-empowered. “And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” (I Corinthians 2:4)

God uses preaching to save people who believe and to grow them up in the faith. It is a supernatural thing. If that’s not happening where you worship, consider the source and find a place where it is.

“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Romans 10:14-15)

 

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!

Lies We Believe

  On the eve of Resurrection Sunday, the climactic triumph of Holy week, I am not feeling particularly holy. It has been a rough week, and I feel my need of a Savior. That’s probably a good thing.

 

People who are in good health need no physician, but the sick do. And we are sincerely grateful when we are made whole. Easter is that kind of celebration. The dead rising, the spiritually sick recovering their health!

It’s fair to say that the person who tells me I am well, when I am sick unto death, does not love me. To pat me on the head and tell me everything will be all right, when I need emergency surgery, is to do me no favors.

We all should be glad for people who love us enough to tell us the truth, even when it cuts like a knife. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” (Proverbs 27:6a)   Our tendency is to prefer lies that encourage us to follow our own path. Below are three lies we believe to our own destruction.

  • It’s enough to go to church: Some of us will be at church tomorrow for the first time since Christmas. It’s good to go to church and to hear sound Bible teaching. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:17)

But what real difference does church attendance make in our daily lives outside the pew: the choices we make, the company we keep?

There’s a danger in hearing God’s word again and again and refusing to obey it. The danger is that we develop callous hearts that cannot hear the truth; our consciences become “seared with a hot iron.” (I Tim 4:2). Think of scar tissue, so thick that it’s impermeable.

God holds us accountable for what we know. Hebrews talks about those who have experienced the good things of God “and who then turn away from God. It is impossible to bring such people back to repentance; by rejecting the Son of God, they themselves are nailing him to the cross once again and holding him up to public shame.” (Heb 6:6)

  • Jesus is always with us: This sounds sweet and biblical, but it’s not quite true. God is omnipresent, technically everywhere at once. But God “with us” implies more than His simply being in the neighborhood; God with me involves His personal care-taking, protection, provision, intervention.

In that sense, the question isn’t whether God is with me but whether I am with Him. The distinction is an important one. Christ is called “Emmanuel, God with us.” (Matt 1:23) Who is “us”? God’s own people.

God is particular about who He “hangs” with. He is not everyone’s homey.

When Joseph was in prison through no fault of his own, Scripture repeatedly says “the Lord was with him.” (Genesis 39) God was not with everyone in that Egyptian jail. God was with Mary and Joseph at Jesus’ birth. He clearly was not with Herod or the populace at large. God was not with Judas, Pilate, the High Priest or anyone who condemned Jesus to death on the cross.

Then, and now, God is with those who are with Him.

Study the Old Testament battles Moses and Joshua encountered. God did not go with them to battle when there was unrepentant sin in the camp. Even when they greatly outnumbered their enemies, they were forced to turn and run because God did not fight for them. God is not “with us” when we are in sin. He calls us to repent, to come out of sin, to enjoy His fellowship and blessing.

  • I can always get back to the place of blessing: Maybe not. When Esau sold his birth right for a meal, he didn’t think much of it. The sacredness of the blessing meant nothing to him… then. When he later sought to regain what he had so thoughtlessly tossed aside to satisfy a fleshly appetite, he couldn’t get back to that blessed place.

Esau didn’t foresee the ramifications of his careless choice. Yet Scripture records it as character-defining, describing Esau as a “fornicator or profane person.”

“For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears.” Heb 12:17

Take no comfort in lies. The devil is the father of lies (John 8:44) and uses them to destroy us. Christians serve a God of Truth. Our embrace of truth is a barometer of our spiritual health.

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