Faith Is Expressed In Love

stop-hating-paint-grunge-sign-vector-6373892(1)Jesus’ command to His disciples is “Love one another. As I have loved you so you must love one another.” Love is to be the distinguishing mark of Christ followers. “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

So why are American Christians such “haters”? In public discourse, whether social media, talking-head news shows or conservative commentary, the loudest “Christian” voices tend to be indefatigable critics eager to cast stones.

It ought not be so.

This week, I read an article in Atlantic magazine  in which self-described Christians criticized singer Lauren Daigle for performing on the Ellen DeGeneres Show.  Ellen is an openly gay woman. Daigle’s haters argued that a Christian has no business fraternizing with a lesbian.

Never mind that Jesus ate and drank with sinners and social outcasts, sometimes in their own homes, which earned Him the wrath of Pharisees, those professional religious people for whom He reserved His strongest condemnations.

A radio host later pressed Daigle to opine on whether homosexual relationships are sinful. She said, “I don’t know” with minimal elaboration. Whereupon she was widely condemned as a coward, a compromiser, a Judas to the faith.

These critics act as though homosexuals have a monopoly on sin. Jesus came to save sinners of whom Paul the apostle said, “I am chief.” Paul never forgot who he had been: a persecutor of Christians who hunted them down, dragged them to jail and approved of their murder, watching as Stephen, the first martyr, was stoned to death.

Each of us has a sinful past. Writing to the Corinthians about the kinds of people who will not inherit eternal life, Paul added: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor 6:11)

Daigle was accused of fraternizing with a sinner. However, the prohibition of Scripture is that believers “not associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard or swindler – not even to eat with such a one.” (I Cor 5:11, emphasis my own)

Disassociation is how to deal with people who call themselves Christian brothers while living a lifestyle of sin. Paul plainly states he doesn’t mean believers are to disassociate from “the immoral people of this world… for then you would have to get out of the world and human society altogether.” (I Cor 5:10)

Clearly, Jesus wants His people in the world. “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.” (John 17:15-16)

Advent is a good time to remember that salvation began with love, not hate:

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world through Him.” (John 3:16-17)

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)

Things Aren’t What They Seem

wisdom_power (1)

The Bible declares “Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.”

That’s not what it looks like at first glance.

Yes, Jesus Christ did miracles. His own birth – born to a virgin – was a miracle. Yet, Jesus’ own family members all weren’t convinced He was the Messiah. He was despised, rejected by the official religious establishment, convicted in a mock trial and turned over to the Romans who executed Him by crucifixion. Buried.

The ride-or-die disciples, who had left everything to follow Him, ran for cover.

This story does not have the ring of “Power” and “Wisdom.” Could be yours doesn’t either.

We’ve all had times when we thought following God’s plan would lead to a certain outcome, only to end up someplace we never expected to be.

  • You accepted a promising promotion only to be assigned the Manager from Hell.
  • Your child went to a great college only to return home overwhelmed before winter.
  • You exercised, ate right, denied yourself and your health still went South.

Things look bad. It’s disappointing. It hurts to get up in the morning. But know this: tough, tight places are where God’s wisdom and power make the difference – if you trust Him.

God seldom works the way I might hope, where I get to avoid all the unpleasantness and have it my way.

Yet, even when the worst happens, I promise you that God’s wisdom and power prevail. With God, things are not what they seem.

Sending a baby to save the world seems like a bad idea. Babies often didn’t survive childhood in Jesus’ day. Investing just three short years of ministry in a dozen guys who had never traveled much is not how I’d spread the word to the world.

Conquering through weakness, death and disappointment is something only God can orchestrate. We mortals spend all our lives trying to avoid those things. God makes all of it serve His purposes, for all things serve Him.

Seen through natural eyes, Jesus’ ministry looked like an absurdity that ended in failure. Maybe parts of your life look like that now. Remember, your story isn’t over any more than His is.

Jesus got up from the grave.

And those frightened disciples, who ran and hid, were empowered by the Holy Spirit to take the testimony of Jesus to the world, a seeming impossibility. We modern Christ followers are proof that it worked.

Trust God. The path may lead straight through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, but it’s only the shadow. God is with us. He is Faithful.

For the Scripture says, Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.

Romans 10:11

Conquering Death: Faith not Fences

fence

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

 

 

 

Restoring Twisted Things

forks I’m roaming through the thrift store the other day, in search of nothing in particular, and I spot this long handle fork. Four prongs, the fourth one leaning left and crooked down. But the design is sleek and stylish. And the price is right: 10 cents!

You might be wondering why anyone would buy a bent fork. Well, I carefully examined this banged up, jet black fork with its out-of-line prong. The inscription on the back read: “WM Rogers IS.” Didn’t mean much at the time, but I know enough about silverware to realize that a black fork has some actual silver.

That little fork had potential. With a little attention, I could envision it poking olives or lemon wedges on a well-set table. For a dime, I was taking absolutely no risk!

I bought that bent fork. Silver, a relatively soft metal, can be bent back into shape with a bit of effort. Having realigned it,  I applied some silver polish and some elbow grease…. and Voila! There’s the lovely fork pictured above.

Often a thing of value is marred, discolored, misshapen and devalued. This fork, silver or perhaps silver-plated, sold for a measly dime. And now it has become my treasure!

Twisted things can be straightened. Dark things can recover their shine. I did this with a simple fork. Jesus does this with souls.

We are not very attractive investments, messed up as we are by the world, the flesh and the devil. The good news is Jesus chose us anyway. He sees beyond what we are to what we can become through His transforming love, mercy and grace.

Life may beat us up and toss us aside, like a bent fork. But we are still valuable to God. Jesus shops thrift; am pretty sure He found me in the bargain basement. He is the master of restoring souls.

And the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. (1 Peter 5:10)

 

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)