Monday, December 24, 2012

Art of distraction...

The art of distraction.  We're all experts at it.  We start out as tiny babies who know exactly what they want and can't really be distracted from it.  I poop my diaper, I scream; I'm hungry, I scream; I'm scared, I scream... the list goes on.  They're simple missions, but they're clear to us as babies.  At some point, though, it's like we go through this secret training society that teaches us how to avoid the real issues.  We go from the baby, knowing exactly what's needed, to the adult, who does everything they can to distract ourselves and everyone else from it.

What do I mean by this?  I'm speeding down the highway and get stuck behind someone going slower, so I tailgate and wave my arms and curse the other person's existence for slowing me down... even though they're not the ones breaking the law.  Somehow, it's still their fault.  I'm depressed or bored, but instead of dealing with the issue, I eat to make myself feel better.  Pretty soon, I'm overweight and depressed and eat to feel better...instead of dealing with the real issue, I distracted myself with something else.  I do something wrong and hurt someone else, but when they confront me with it I try to pass the blame onto someone or something else, even if it's the very person I hurt.  I disagree with someone about an issue, but if I can't defeat them, I try to discredit them personally or twist some small thing they said to distract other people and myself from the fact they're actually correct.

Why do you think we uniformly learn this art of distraction, even though none of us are schooled in it unless you take speech and debate?

Because it's Satan's biggest tool.

Satan uses the art of distraction all the time to tear our focus away from the center point of our lives: Jesus.  In Revelation 12:9(NIV), Satan is described as the one "who leads the whole world astray."  And isn't distraction the most beautiful, crafty way to do it?  With distraction, you don't even have to convince someone to do something that anyone would perceive as wrong.  You just make sure they miss the point.

I bring this up because of the season it is.  It's so easy to get distracted.  After all, Christmas is about
Lights on the house,
Christmas Tree up,
Decorations Up,
Christmas Cookies,
Christmas Turkey/Ham/Goose,
Christmas Cards,
Christmas Vacation,
Christmas Presents,
Christmas Parties,
Time with family...

At least... isn't it?


But wait a minute!!  Time with family is on there!  Isn't that important?!?  Of course it is.  And really, none of these things on the list are bad in-and-of-themselves.  They can be wonderful, lovely things that bring people together, express love for others, and bring people joy... But if that's all there is, they are distractions.

"The one who is the true light [Jesus], who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.  He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.  So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son." - John 1:9-14(NLT)

So this Christmas, as you eat those Christmas cookies and tear into those Christmas presents under the lights of the Christmas tree... remember the "true light," the undeserved gift that is Jesus Christ.  Satan will try to distract you, but all this Christmas wonder is ours because of what God has done for us.

"And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord." - Luke 2:8-11(NIV)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Do not lose heart...

In light of all that happened last week in America, namely, the shootings in Connecticut that resulted in the deaths of young children and their teachers, a lot of questions have been asked.  Are American gun laws not strict enough?  Are they too strict?  Is the issue even about gun control?  Is the issue how the mentally handicapped are cared for in this country?  Is the issue the creation of an overly-aggressive culture from video games and movies?  How can we make schools safer?.... The list goes on and on.  Ultimately, can we ever have the "right" answers?  People have been killing each other for centuries, for millennium!  It started in Exodus 4 when Cain murdered his brother, Abel, in the fields, or you could say it technically started even before that, when Eve and Adam first allowed themselves to be tempted by Satan all the way back in Genesis 3, right at the dawn of humanity.  That day they began to die as they passed out of the Garden of Eden, their genes and flesh and all the world condemned to the slow decay of time.  Long before those children in Connecticut were even born, children all over the world were dying in unsafe workhouses, being prostituted on the streets before they were even ten, forced into military service, and murdered at birth because of physical imperfections or disabilities.  Ancient (and not-so-ancient) societies used to believe that every thing about a country, even its people, became spoils of war in victory.  Women became toys, children became target practice, men became slaves.  Entire cultures of people have been wiped out of the histories of the world.  Families have been destroyed.

We have progressed since then... or so we claim.  Yet the same things still happen.  Children are still murdered, are still trafficked into the sex trade, are still worked to death, are still forced into military service, are still murdered before they have a chance to live.  Women and men are still treated as less-than-human, both in the ways they always have been... and in the more "refined" ways of civilized society.  How many of us have been annoyed to arrive at a store and find it closed?  How many of us have snapped waiting in line and seeing a cashier just up and leave?  How many of us have looked down on people in "labor" positions because they "don't have a 'real' job?"  Have we really changed at all?  Or we just make more of an effort to hide what humanity has always been: morally bankrupt.

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." -Matthew 5:5(NIV)

What does being "meek" have to do with all that I have just said?  Being meek here isn't talking about being a pushover, about letting people say and do whatever they want to us because we're "nice Christians."  No.  Being meek here means moving on from what we talked about last week in my entry "That is our comfort...", where we talked about how easy it is to recognize that we living in a sick world and mourn it.  This passage is about the next step... and perhaps the most difficult: recognizing we are completely unable to change the way the world is.  Meekness - humbleness - is recognizing that we are just as corrupt as the world and are in no position to be able to change this overwhelming wickedness.  We couldn't even save twenty children in our own backyard.  Yes, we may reduce the deaths... but we will never be able to stop the evil in this world from rearing its ugly head in some other way.  It will always come back, each time more tricky than before... each time spreading through us like a cancer.

You may disagree, but think of every Utopian society man has tried to create: the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, the Republic of China, the Democratic Republic of Korea, the Roman Empire, the British Empire, the United States of America... Each one of these nations had a view, in their own way, that they were bringing on a better order than had ever been known before.  Yet... has anything really changed since the sun rose on any one of these nations?  No.

So where do we turn?  How can we go on knowing that ultimately, all our efforts to create a perfect world are meaningless in ending the overall existence of evil?

 "I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, 'Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.'  And the one sitting on the throne said, 'Look, I am making everything new!'" 
 - Revelation 21:3-5a(NLT)

When Christ returns... the existence of evil will end.  All these things that cause us to mourn, that remind us of how powerless we are alone... will be overthrown.  God, Himself, will live with us... and will heal the world from what it has become.  That is the earth we have to inherit, not this broken husk on which we now place our feet. SO:

"Do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal." - 2 Corinthians 4:16b-18(NIV)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

That is our comfort....

My bachelor's degree is in international studies, a degree that incorporates geography, anthropology, economics, politics and history to understand regions of the world and why they are the way they are.  When I studied this field, I particularly found myself drawn to the study of human rights, including how they are abused around the world and what the international community does (or doesn't do) to avert human rights abuses.  Let me tell you, this is not the most encouraging field of study.  There were mornings were I wondered if it was worth getting out of bed because there was so much wrong with the world and no body seemed willing or able to fix it.  I felt depressed for a week after writing a paper about how rape is used as a weapon of genocide and ethnic cleansing across the world.  What baffled me was how people get to where they can perpetrate these kind of horrors on another human being... and how could it be that they could continue to do it with the full knowledge of a world that had developed documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  For example, the government of Burma/Myanmar has been systematically murdering ethnic minorities in its country for sixty years, hundreds of thousands have died... and yet nothing changes.

This brings me to the second beatitude in Matthew 5:4(NIV):
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."

If you have ever looked around the world and realized that it is utterly broken - and mankind is entirely to blame for it - you have mourned.  How can it not be?  There was a ten-year old girl that was abducted, sexually assaulted, and dismembered this year in my area.  Every day, women in this country are trafficked illegally into the sex trade in this country and in countries all over the world.  Thousands of teens and children commit suicide every year.  Every year, people in this country trample each other to death or assault one another for nothing more than the chance to get ahead of another person for a Black Friday sale at a store the day after they celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday focused on giving thanks for all the blessings in their lives.  In America, fifty percent of marriages end in divorce.  The average age someone is first exposed to pornography is eleven.

This world is sick.

It is easy to believe everything is hopeless; that this is just the way the world is and there is no escape from it.  Yet Matthew 5:4 says we are blessed when we mourn, for we "will be comforted."  What comfort can possibly outweigh all this?

"For the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people.  And we are instructed to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures. We should live in this evil world with wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God, while we look forward with hope to that wonderful day when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed.  He gave his life to free us from every kind of sin, to cleanse us, and to make us his very own people, totally committed to doing good deeds." - Titus 2:11-14(NLT)

This world... this life... is not all there is.  There is a God who was not content to linger in heaven without a care for His fallen creation.  He acted.  He invaded this "evil world" as a man and "gave his life to free us."  And now... we who have been set free can look forward to the day when all evil will be ended when Jesus Christ will return... and until then, we know that God continues to fight for this world - through us.  Through we who believe, He works to bring the light of Christ into the lives of others, changing the world one soul at a time.  So yes, this world is sick, but there is also this:

This world has hope: Jesus.

That is our comfort.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The poor have it all....

In teaching circles, it seems like common knowledge that if you teach something, you learn it much more thoroughly than you ever have before.  I had heard this saying even before I was a church worker, but now that I have spent a few years writing Bible studies and teaching children, youth, and adults... I understand how true this is.  It is especially true of teaching something like the Word of God, which is called "living and active" in Hebrews 4:12(NIV).  You can learn a particular story and passage a dozen times, and still turn around to read it one day and have a whole new understanding of what you read that revolutionizes the way you think or act.  This is not to say the meaning changes, but knowing the words of the Bible is like knowing a person: even if you've known them for your whole life, they can still surprise you.

Recently, I taught a study on the Beatitudes, which are the first part of Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount," and are recorded in Matthew 5:1-12.  I had read through the Beatitudes probably a million times, had sat through several bible studies on them, and had even written the study that I taught.  Yet, as I discussed the Beatitudes with the youth mentors who would teach the study to their small group of youth, and as I taught it to my youth small group... the significance of this passage overwhelmed me again.

This passage is a description of Christian living, or at least... of what Christian living should look like as we are transformed more and more by the love of Christ and motivated by the Holy Spirit to live out that transformation in the lives of others.  I would love to explore all of them today, but I think over the next few weeks I will explore them in chunks and how I have understood them in my life.

The first Beatitude is:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." - Matthew 5:3(NIV) 

What a contradiction this first verse seems!  The "poor in spirit" receives "the kingdom of heaven"?!  But I think it is no contradiction at all, but fits beautifully with the message of Christ.  Romans 3:23(NIV) states, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."  We are all "poor in spirit" because we have all done things for which we are ashamed, and we have all looked at the world and thought "This is wrong."  We know that we are not as we should be, and it is clear every day that the world is not as it should be.  

Yet, in this moment, God does not leave us in the shame of recognizing our own failings or the despair that the world is corrupt and broken.  In the same verse where we are called "poor in spirit," God offers this undeserved gift, "theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  In Luke 17:20-21, we learn the "Kingdom of God" is Jesus himself, for when Jesus is asked "When will the Kingdom of God come?", He replies, "the Kingdom of God is already among you," indicating Himself there speaking with them!  So when we, in our brokenness, are offered the "kingdom of God," we are offered Christ, Himself!  In that moment when we recognize how many mistakes we make and how horrible this world is, how completely contrary everything in life is to an absolutely perfect God... this same perfect God steps in and offers life! 

"I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." - Jesus (John 10:10b)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Nothing to be thankful for....

So you think you have nothing to be thankful for?  It's that time of year again when Americans are filling their kitchens with turkey, mashed potatoes, pies, cranberry sauce, and any other number of holiday food traditions associated with Thanksgiving.  Social media sites are loaded with anecdotes about thankfulness, with people using the twenty-some-odd day build up to the fourth Thursday in November to list, each day, one person or thing in their lives they are grateful for.  If you're one of those, who even in the cheery light of this season cannot seem to discover one thing to bring a smile to your face in the midst of your circumstances... it probably becomes tiresome.  There is probably a point where everybody else's overwhelming thankfulness twists into overwhelming vanity about their own happy circumstances.  "Look how great my life is!" they seem to say.  All you can think of may be "Good for you and la-tee-da!  My life sucks!"

I would challenge you that no matter your circumstances, your life is chock full of blessing.

There it is; the gauntlet is on the ground.  How can I possibly making such a sweeping statement when, you're right, I may not know you personally or be acquainted with those things that keep you up at night or too-readily pursue you into dismal dreams?  I can say this with confidence because of Ecclesiastes 3:11, a passage I have often quoted, which states:

"God has made everything beautiful in its time.  He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end."(emphasis mine)

"God has made everything beautiful in its time."  I've looked at the Hebrew in which this was written.  Everything has no caveats, no exceptions.  It literally means what it says: God has made ALL THINGS beautiful.  Why is it past tense?  Because God does not function inside our understanding of time.  For Him, all things that have ever been or ever will be have been simultaneously known to Him since before the dawn of time.  He Sees your misery and despair when people reject you again and again and again and you can't figure out why.  He Sees your frustration and grief when you fail at the same things over and over again and can't seem to change them or yourself.  He's there in the house with you when your mother or your father or your siblings don't love you the way they should and leave you broken inside.

But how can those things be beautiful; what can possibly undo what has been done?  That's a difficult question, you're absolutely right.  If we sat down together and you told me your circumstances... I probably wouldn't be able to give you a precise answer to what exactly about your particular circumstance is beautiful.  It would probably tear my heart apart to hear what you're going through, to know how much you are hurting.  But I can tell you this, we "cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end."  God is so much bigger and so much more powerful and so much more loving and caring and wise than all the wisdom and all the knowledge of all humanity has ever been or ever will be.  We cannot grasp even a teaspoon of all that He is up to in the story of all humanity or even in your single life.  But He is up to something.

"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love himwho have been called according to his purpose." - Romans 8:28 (NIV)

In those horrible circumstances, God has promised to work, to be present, to turn those things that seem beyond redemption into something beautiful... something for your good and maybe the good of others far beyond yourself.  Trust this promise, and all the promises, God has made.  He is faithful to them; to you.  This is the God who created all things in all the universe and then gave it to you to rule over (Psalm 8.)  This is the God who did not spare His son, Jesus, but sent Him to this world to die the most gruesome, torturous death of the time period, in order to have a relationship with you (John 3:17).

My friend... whoever you are, whatever circumstances you are in... you have so much to be grateful for.  

"And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge." - Ephesians 3:17b-19a(NIV) 

Friday, November 16, 2012


Perspective... I think it's something we often live our lives without.  Yes, there are moments of clarity when we step back and look at this big, beautiful world in which we live, at the possessions that we surround ourselves with... and realize how blessed we are... but oftentimes I think our field of vision is much narrower than that.  We run through our days like a blinkered racehorse, able only to see what is right ahead of us, not realizing how short the race is in the great scheme of all that will be.

In this race of life... we get caught up in all the things we think we need.  We need more money, we need a better car, we need new shoes, to see the latest movie, to get the newest cell phone or laptop or tablet, to get the trendiest clothes, to have a nicer kitchen, a nicer bedroom, a bigger house, a cup of ice cream!  Maybe we don't process those as all the same level of importance at a conscious level, but how many times have you wanted one of the things on this list and felt upset, even "cheated," if you didn't get them?  I know I have.

Yet, as you read this, there are children starving to death in countries all over the world who would gladly eat the leftovers in your trashcan.  There are people fleeing and dying under the rule of despotic rulers as their homes and livelihoods are burned to the ground.  There are women being brutalized who would give anything for one day where they could be certain no one would hurt them.  There are men desperately trying to find any sort of work because they have a family depending on them to survive.  What those men wouldn't give to have a minimum wage job at any fast food chain in the United States.

I am not writing this to make you ashamed of the blessings God has given you.  They are gifts from our Heavenly Father, and we should never feel ashamed of honest gain.  But I ask, first of myself but also of you... that we keep these things in perspective.  In Matthew 4, Jesus tells the "Parable of the Sower" about a man sowing seeds for harvest.  The seeds are the faith of people, and the soil is the type of environment in which the faith lives or dies.  In verses 18&19, "Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful."  

When we focus completely on the things that we desire of this life, we forget that we are living with an eternal perspective, that God has "set eternity in the hearts of men" (Ecclesiastes 3:11).  Satan tries to take the things of this life and blind us with them, waving them before our eyes so we can see nothing else, and before long, we are dancing to his tune. 

So as you go through life, I encourage you to remember that God has set eternity in your heart, and though the things of this life may seem so crucial and so necessary and so absolutely important...yet Psalm 39:5b(NIV) says, "Each man’s life is but a breath."  Rather than be distracted by these things, which though painful last less than a breath, remember this from 2 Corinthians 4:14-18(NIV):

"We know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence.  All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.
Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Dying to succeed....

When I was in high school - no... let's be honest - WHENEVER I was in school, I was one of those students.  You can pinpoint them a mile away: the walking-as-fast-as-I-can-without-running footsteps from class to class, the high-pitched anxiety voice at finals week, the dark circles under the eyes from studying into the night and getting up early, the has-no-social-life-because-over-committed schedule, and the over-analytical critique of every bit of homework or test returned with anything below an "A" written at the top.  That was me.  I remember lying in bed at night, unable to sleep because of my anxiety over a project that was coming due or an upcoming concert or sporting event that I wasn't convinced was perfected yet.  High school was even worse, as I climbed the "ladder of success" in the academic, music, and athletic worlds into which I immersed myself.  Looking back, I am admittedly proud of my accomplishments... but there's also a sense that I lost focus of those things that really matter, sometimes.

Now, what can I mean by that, you might wonder.  From the list above, it sounds like I was prioritizing all the right things.  It wasn't like I was spending time getting high or drunk or skipping classes to slum around town with friends.  But I've become more and more convinced that you can be doing "all the right things" and still be "missing the mark" of what really matters.  School, whether it was sports, music or academics, consumed my life back then.  I lost sleep over those things.  Those things were the focus of my life.  Yet, if we read Matthew 6:21&24(NIV):

 “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also... No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money."

What does this passage have to do with school is probably your next question.  The word "money" in this passage is actually a Greek word that more directly translates "treasure."  The concept, then, is that you cannot serve both God and that which you treasure most highly.  When I was in high school and even college, as I said, my life REVOLVED around school and the success I felt I needed in order to move forward and be successful in life.  I was devoted to it.  I gave most of my time to it, my focus to it... even my health at times.  I was convinced that my future depended on my performance in school.  Do you see where I'm going?  I was trusting in academic/musical/athletic success to secure for myself a good future.  I should have been trusting God with that future, the God who died and lives for me, the God who created all things and is responsible for the continuation of all life in this universe, the God who has worked throughout history and every day in order to ensure that I will live eternally with Him. But I was trusting in myself, my success, and my hard work to take care of my future.  Within my own heart, I had dethroned the "King of Kings and Lord of Lords" (1 Timothy 6:15) and seated myself as Lord.

Now, I am not saying academic, musical, or athletic success are in-and-of-themselves bad things.  I'm not saying you shouldn't seek to do well in those God-pleasing pursuits you have committed to.  I am saying that we so easily put our trust in those things, in our ability to be successful in them because we so often buy into the expectations of this world that say we must be successful in these things to have a good life.  Remember that it is in God that we "live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28a) and it is Christ that "was given authority, glory and sovereign power"(Daniel 7:14a) over all times and peoples.  Rather than fretting over the things of this world, simply do what you are able, and remember this passage, which has been central in my faith walk since I was young:

 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?   Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not much more valuable than they?  Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?  So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."
-Matthew 6:25-34(NIV)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Good isn't enough....

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.  You are the light of the world.  A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." - Matthew 5:13-16(NIV)

If all I have done with my life is convince others that I am a good person, a person to be trusted, than I have utterly, miserably failed in the one calling around which all the rest of my life was supposed to circle.  If the "good deeds" of this life that I carried out were credited only to me, than I "missed the mark."  All the praise and the accolade I may receive to my person is meaningless, unless it is turned heavenward.

"In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." - Matthew 5:16(NIV)

I have spent most of my life being involved in volunteer or professional ministry in the church.  Outside of that circle, as a Christian my life is supposed to be a light in a world corrupted by sin.  I am to serve others because Christ serves others.  I am to love others because Christ loves others.  NONE of these things are supposed to point to ME but to HIM WHO SENT ME!

I was told by a non-Christian friend of mine that, though this person does not believe, he knows I'm "one of the good guys."  At first, I was flattered... naturally I was!  But as I thought about it... about the implications, I wondered, "What if that was all he ever got from me, that I was 'one of the good guys?'  What if all he ever saw was me, when it was only Jesus who could change his life?  What if I have gotten in the way of the ministry God has given me?"  All the kindness I showed him in the world, all the care and discussion and friendship... would be meaningless.  Because at the end of the day he'd still be in hell, and I'd be the one who didn't "make the most of every opportunity" (Colossians 4:5).

And I guess that's the point I want you to take home as you read this; that is the HEART of the issue.  People live and die outside of the grace of Jesus every DAY!  As we go through our lives, there are people on the path to HELL that we pass right by because we're afraid to speak, afraid to be judged, afraid to be wrong or challenged or rejected.  It's like watching a man starve to death because we're afraid they won't like pb&j.

We hold the keys to LIFE people!  Look at the people that you pass every day.  Really look at them!  Look at the students in your class, the people on the sidewalk, the families at the mall or grocery store or at your sporting event.  The knowledge you have in Christ will save their lives.  All that is necessary is for you to speak!  

It's not enough that people like you or think you're a good person  At the end of the day, you cannot save them.  Only Christ can.  He is the one who stands in the brink; who bears us into the presence of God every day of our lives.  Don't be content to stand there and watch the dying pass.  Be the breath of life from God, Himself.

"But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.  To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God." - 2 Corinthians 2:14-17(NIV)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Scent of death...

For me, it always happens when I'm out and about around sunset/twilight, especially on a cool, fall evening with just the slightest bit of a breeze that falls short of chilling you.  The sunlight reaches little fingers of orange gold around the edges of my sunglasses, the mountains are turning blue with evening, everything is starting to still as creatures of the day settle down and creatures of the night haven't yet emerged.  Trees with changing leaves seem to glow in the final light of day.  In that moment... everything seems poised in perfect stillness, and I think of this passage, "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - His eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made" (Romans 1:20).  What does this mean?  Those beautiful fall leaves, that golden orange sunlight on my face, those blue mountains, that clean breeze... all of it... shouts, "GOD IS REAL!!!  HE IS HERE, IN THIS MOMENT!! AND HE IS WONDERFUL AND POWERFUL AND PERFECT AND BEAUTIFUL AND THE SOURCE OF THE ONLY PEACE YOU CAN EVER KNOW!!"

All of this amazing world around us knows who its creator is, but you know what's funny?  The one thing in all creation that God most wants to know and love Him... is the one thing in all creation He allows to reject Him.  Human beings.  In John 3:16(NIV), we read, "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."  God loved the world enough to come to send Jesus to die for us while we were "enemies of God" (Romans 5:10).  Yet, at the dawn of creation, He gave us a choice to follow Him or ourselves with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  He gave us everything - even His heart - and then gave us a choice... knowing what our choice would be.  We chose to follow ourselves, and every horrible and awful thing that has happened since is a result of this choice.

With the coming of Christ, though, there was a shift... a change.  All who believe in Christ "have eternal life" (John 3:16) and have been "reconciled to [God] through the death of his son" (Romans 5:10).  But with this comes something else:

"If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you." - Jesus in John 15:19(NIV)

In other words, as Paul puts it in 1 Peter 2:11(NIV), we are "aliens and strangers in the world."  In light of this, another thought comes to mind: if we are "aliens and strangers" and "the world hates you" because  Jesus has "chosen [us] out of the world"... why do we expect things of this life to go smoothly?  We are  hated by this world.  2 Corinthians 2:16&17 says we are literally the "scent of death" to "those who are perishing."  When horrible things happen to us, and we turn to God and demand an explanation... we are asking Him a question He has already answered: the world is against us.  Every single dark and awful situation we face reminds us that this world is not our home.  It reminds us we don't belong here.

So, when these horrible things happen, remember that you are an unwelcome alien here, and call to mind this passage from Hebrews 12:1b-3:

"Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart."

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Powerless to save....

Today, our pastor baptized a little baby boy.  I wanted to start this entry with this amazing thing that is baptism... but I'm overwhelmed by sorrow even as I try to write it.  God gave us this beautiful thing in baptism.  When we are baptized, the Spirit of God actually comes into our bodies.  Even as a little baby, this boy who could not yet speak was being filled with the grace and mercy of Christ.  What a perfect reflection of what grace is!  

"You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly." 
- Romans 5:8

Just like a baby, who cannot feed himself, dress himself, or even relieve himself without help... we were - are -  helpless to save ourselves from death in sin.  Yet, Christ came and died for us.  He "saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:5-8).  What hope, what joy at the Baptism of a little child, who faces all their future with the power and life of God residing in him.

What brings me sorrow is what happens down the road.  This little child grows, they learn to walk... they learn to talk... they learn all the necessities for sustaining this body.  But the world doesn't stop there.  The world teaches them to hate, to fear, to lust, to be greedy and selfish... It whispers "you're not good enough, unless you do...." or "no one loves you, so you better look out for number one" or "the world is out to screw you over, so you better make sure you get them first."  Or maybe it just says "you can do it on your own.  You're strong.  You're smart.  You don't need _______."  In other words... the world fills this child's head with all its nonsense... and tries to drown out the voice of God whispering truth from their heart.

Working with youth... I see the impact of the world's lies on them on all the time.  It breaks my heart to see how quickly Satan strikes with all the burdens of this life, trying to snuff out this glorious life that God has given them through the death of His son.  It's very discouraging sometimes... What do you speak into the life of a child when they feel like they have gone through years of hell and God hasn't helped.  How do you encourage them with the hope of Christ when their reality right now seems so far from Him?

It reminds me... I am not the one who can save these kids.  All my fine words and training in faith education and kindness and caring will never be enough without this:

"I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me." 
- Jesus (John 14:6)

"Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away."
 - Jesus (Luke 21:33)

“I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep.  All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.  I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved."
- Jesus (John 10:7b-9)

Jesus is the key to all of this.  He is the only one who can save.  Not me.  All other things will cease... all other things are powerless to bring salvation. What I cling to is this great promise, this promise I pray the broken children of this world will never cease to hear from me... this one promise without which life has no meaning:

"For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
-Romans 3:38-39(NIV)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Calling obsessions....

People collect all sorts of things, from your standard, run-of-the-mill stamp or coin collection, to things a little more odd: like belly-button lint and celebrity hair (yes, people actually collect hair that once was connected to the scalps of famous people.)  If you're like me and have walked into an office lined with figurines from a much-loved TV series, then you know that sometimes our little collections can turn into obsessions.  Most of us have had at least one, and as long as you're not the collector who tackles famous people on their morning jog to make off with a hunk of hair, you're probably not hurting anyone with it.

However, there is an obsession we have in the Christian world that I think is causing harm, and we don't even recognize it.  That obsession... is our fixation on a concept known as "your calling."  Don't get me wrong, calling is an extremely important concept that is a part of the life of every believer, but it is my belief we have taken something that was supposed to be a blessing in our lives, as well as a means of blessing other people, and have made it into a burden on the necks of believers.

Before I explain my point, I want to highlight that I am working from a Lutheran (LCMS) perspective of calling, where "calling" equates to "vocation."  Vocation, from this perspective, is not necessarily what we could call a "career" or "job," though it does include those things.  More generally, vocation is  whatever legitimate labor we carry out in our day-to-day life, with a "legitimate labor" being any action we carry out that does not go against the life God has called us to in the Bible.

Already, this definition is touching on the point I'm trying to make.  We have convinced ourselves that "calling" implies the one thing in our lives that we were made to do, and until we are doing that one thing, we are in a sort of holding pattern where we are getting prepped to do that thing.  This leads us to thinking that, unless we're doing that "one thing," we are not engaged in things that truly matter or that we are not where we "need to be" at the moment.  Yet what does scripture actually say?  Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:31(NIV):

"So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God."

Wait a minute...does that mean... that my eating and drinking are to God's glory?!  How can this be?!  As a Christian, when you eat a steak or carrot, who is benefiting?  Well, you, for one.  This food is being used to sustain the life of a person that scripture calls "the light of the world" (Matthew 4:14).  This food is allowing you to continue living, to go out into the world and shine the light of Christ into a world "in darkness" (John 12:25).  What is more, by eating, you are blessing everyone that worked to provide that food.  You bless the check-out lady at the grocery store, the stocker who put that food out on the shelves or in the cooler for you to buy, you're blessing the guy who manages the stocker and the check-out lady, you're blessing the guy who owns the grocery store, you're blessing the trucking company that shipped the food to the store, the trucker who drove the truck, the gas station attendant who the trucker paid to get the gas that runs the truck, the guy who owns the gas station, the guys who fix and maintain the truck, the guys who make the parts for the truck, the guys who ship the parts to the guys that fix and maintain the truck, the guys who ship the oil, the worker on the oil platform, the owner of the oil platform, the company that makes the parts for the oil platform, the engineers who designed the oil platform, the guys who build the oil platforms, the farmer who raised the cow or carrot you ate, the farmer who raised the feed the cow ate, the company that made the fertilizer for the carrot, the water company that the farmer buys water from to water his crops or cows, the company that makes the cars that all these people use to get to work or at work, all the way down to the kids and wives and husbands who wear clothes, buy their food, go to school, and have electricity because all the way down the line, a little Christian somewhere in the world bought a steak at the local grocer.  With one little action, as a Christian, you blessed thousands of people you will never know, just by living out the life God has given you.  Sure, you weren't preaching at the pulpit on Sunday morning or teaching kids arithmetic or shaping policy on capitol hill... but you were changing people's lives none-the-less.  Wherever you are, "whatever you do," you are living out "calling."

Now let's get on to the heart of the issue: the calling, if we must put it that way.  What about your career field?  What about that one thing you are trying to figure out you are supposed to do, as though God has this one thing for you to do, and if you don't find it your life was wasted.  One of the verses I hear cited a lot in support of this view is Jeremiah 29:11(NIV):

"'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'"

This a beautiful passage, one that has given me hope in many very unpleasant situations, but I don't necessarily think we have understood this passage rightly when we have cited it to prove God has a specific plan for our lives in regards to that ONE career choice we need to make.  Keep in mind this was written in the Book of Jeremiah, an Old Testament book, and a prophetic book none-the-less.  This was written in a time when Israel was about to be conquered and enslaved by Babylon, and when Israel would be looking forward to a promised Messiah who would deliver them.  What I'm getting at is: Christ had not come yet, and this book was reminding people of the promise of His coming.  Wasn't Jesus God's ultimate "plan" for humanity's good?  Doesn't he allow for prosperity, doesn't He give us hope and a future we would otherwise not have?  In Christ, we have hope in the knowledge that God loves us and has done everything to bring us back into peace with Him.  We know that life does not end in death, but that we have eternal life with God.  We know that one day, all suffering and hardship will cease when God perfects all things.  These things ARE our promised hope and future.  Jesus was and is God's plan for us.

Does this mean I think God has no calling for us?  By no means!  But I think scripture more clearly supports that whatever God-pleasing thing we are doing right now is our calling.  We aren't waiting for some future thing to do with ourselves, we are living out calling every day.  

Now, legitimately, I won't say that means every Christian has a calling to do everything.  In 1 Corinthians 12, it is clear that not everyone has the same gifts, though they all are equally important to the whole of Christianity.  When God created you, He gave you certain gifts and abilities that are unique in the way they are combined in you.  Necessarily, then, there are certain things in life that you are more suited to than someone else with a different combination of gifts.  But that still does not mean there is only one thing by which you could serve God and humanity.  You have options, and as long as your focus is on using your gifts to serve God and other people, whatever you choose (even if it's different things over your lifetime), be assured you are living out your calling, and that God is using you to bless this world:

"But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.  For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing." - 2 Corinthians 2:14-15(NIV)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The LORD is near....

In John 9:1-3, the disciples are walking along with Jesus when they see a man that was born blind.  They ask Jesus, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  They asked this because, in Jewish tradition, physical illness was considered a punishment from God for wrongdoing.  Not only was physical illness, but any sort of calamity or even poverty was considered a mark of God's displeasure with you.  What is Jesus' reply?

"Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him."

Now, I said it was a Jewish tradition to view calamity as a mark of judgement from God... but if we're honest with ourselves, do we really act like we don't believe the same thing?  How many times have awful things happened, especially to good people, and we have turned to this question to God, "Why, God?!  What did we do to deserve this?"

Yet look at this passage.  This young man was born into a society that viewed disability as a punishment from God.  The moment he drew breath, the moment his parents realized what he "lacked," their world was changed.  Everyone would have treated them differently because that blindness meant somewhere along the line, either the parents or the kid must have done something to deserve what had happened.  It's like how AIDS patients were treated when the disease first became known: like plague carriers, like even being near them would risk you contracting their disease.  The neighbors were thinking, "God's angry at them.  I don't want Him to get the idea I have anything to do with people like that!"  Even the disciples, following in the footsteps of Jesus, who spent all his time with socially outcast people, were quick to assume someone was at fault for this man's blindness.  

What Jesus says, though, is telling.  God did not make this man blind because of sin.  He was just simply, born blind.  But God allowed this to happen in order that this man would have a personal, saving encounter with Jesus Christ.  This man may never have met Jesus or believed in Him had He not  been blind.  But through Jesus' healing of his eyes in John 9:6-7, this man came so See who Jesus is, as he said in John 9:32-33(NIV), "Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind.  If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”  A brief period of trouble allowed this blind man to meet Jesus Christ Himself, and be forever changed by it.

So in trouble, remember that it is not God's punishment coming down on you for what you have done.  Romans 8:1(NIV) says, "there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."  In fact, when you face hardship of any kind, remember Psalm 34:18(NIV), "The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit."  This word "near" in Hebrew can be translated "near in place," "near in  time," or "near in personal relationship."  Not only is God actually present with you as you struggle... His heart and all His concern is focused upon you.  He is not punishing you... He is carrying you through.

Isaiah 46:3-4(NIV) says:
“Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
    all you who remain of the house of Israel,
you whom I have upheld since you were conceived,
    and have carried since your birth.
Even to your old age and gray hairs
    I am he, I am he who will sustain you.
I have made you and I will carry you;
    I will sustain you and I will rescue you."

Though you may not genetically of the "house of Jacob," Galatians 3:29(NIV) says, "If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise."  Jacob and Israel were both descendants of Abraham, and so God's promise in this passage applies to you.  So read it, rather:

“Listen to me, O house of God,
    all you whom Christ has saved,
you whom I have upheld since you were conceived,
    and have carried since your birth.
Even to your old age and gray hairs
    I am he, I am he who will sustain you.
I have made you and I will carry you;
    I will sustain you and I will rescue you."

Thursday, September 20, 2012

For whom Christ died....

When I was in my early twenties, I had a revelation about interacting with people.  That revelation was this: just because something someone did was irritating to me or was awkward... didn't mean I had a right to treat them however I wanted.  It didn't even mean there was really anything they were doing that was wrong!  Now, looking that thought over, some of you may think "duh" or "well of course," even I'm thinking that!  After all, I had heard similar statements before and verbally professed agreement with them.  I had never been a bully growing up, nor had I been part of any sort of "exclusive" social group, despite being both a jock/musician/nerd in high school.  Nonetheless... I cannot help but think that I have often in the past lived in disagreement with this, and I see others do this all the time, no matter if they're children or past retirement.  If you're honest with yourself, I think you'll agree you've lived in contradiction to this statement, too, despite your best intentions.  Now how so?

Think of that guy or girl in high school.  You know the one.  They weren't necessarily disliked by anyone... but nor were they really anyone's friend.  They tended to sit by themselves or hang onto the fringes of a social group that they weren't really a part of.  They may have not showered as much as they should; they may have been physically awkward or uncoordinated; they may have been overly talkative about anything and everything or just about that one thing that no one else cared about.  They may have seemed slightly immature for their age; they may have dressed in a way that was very "uncool" or simply unflattering.  Maybe they just had a habit or way or functioning that irritated you.  Whatever the reason, when you got into a conversation with them, one of two things happened:

  1. You listened politely, all the while squirming inside, trying to find a way out of the conversation, not really caring what the person said.  If you saw them coming, you would try to find a way to avoid them so you would have to endure spending time with them. Or:
  2. The way they talked or acted rapidly irritated you, so you would endure them or get snappish with them until you could get rid of them, then talked with others about how irritating they were and how you couldn't understand why they acted the way they did.
But, if you reflect honestly back on this person's actions, ask yourselves this: is there really anything they said or did that was inherently wrong?  Or were you choosing not to like someone simply because they were outside your comfort zone or sucked at socializing?  I hate to admit that oftentimes I have not spent the time on someone simply because they were socially awkward or inept.  I have subconsciously labeled them as not worth my attention because they didn't fit the picture my society has built in me of how a person should behave and talk.

What does the Bible say about this?  In Romans 12:16(NIV), the Apostle Paul writes, "Live in harmony with one another.  Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.  Do not be conceited."  But the Bible does not stop there.  Our society can concede to this concept at some level.  Of course we should treat people with respect and not judge them just because they're "different."  That's intolerance!

The Bible takes it a step further: 
"Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to what is honorable in the sight of all.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengence is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'  To the contrary, 'if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by doing so you will heap burning coals on his head.'  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." 
(Romans 12:17-21)

Did you read that?  

"Repay no one evil for evil."
"So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all."
"Never avenge yourselves."
"If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink."
"Overcome evil with good."

So we're not just talking about befriending the socially rejected kid.  We're talking about treating well:
  1. The guy that accelerates so you can't change lanes in traffic and causes you to miss your turn.
  2. The woman constantly accelerating and decelerating in front of you because she's too busy on her cell phone.
  3. The girl who spreads gossip about you until everyone in the school knows your embarrassing secret.
  4. The girlfriend or boyfriend who has betrayed your trust.
  5. The parent who has chosen their career or other things over you or your family.
Wow!  These are hard things!!  How are we to do all this?  Philippians 2:13(NIV) says, "it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure."  You are made able to do all this because GOD HIMSELF is working in your heart to make you capable of desiring to do what He has called you to.  He has not given us this incredibly difficult calling in a vacuum and then left us to figure out how to make it work. Rather, He sent Jesus to actually SHOW us how the Christian life is to be lived:

"Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God  something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
    taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!"
(Philippians 2:5-8)

What is more, Paul wrote in Romans 8:9b(ESV), "The Spirit of God dwells in you."  He hasn't left you high and dry, trying to figure out how to emulate Christ, but He has actually entered into your heart to be present with you every day and help you "discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." (Romans 12:2b)  So when you face that socially awkward person, or that person who has genuinely hurt you... God is facing them with you, giving you the ability to treat them with kindness, no matter if they deserve it or not.

I close with this final note: this does not mean you have to be best friends with everyone you encounter.    Should you be inviting over for sleepovers people that hurt and abuse you emotionally?  That's not what this passage is asking.  Instead, the passage is telling us that no matter how others treat us, we have a choice to treat them better than they treat us.  If someone treats you disrespectfully, confront them on it!  But when you do it, do it with kindness and respect.  No insults, no cut-downs, just truth, remembering always that they, like you, are someone for whom Christ died.