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.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Wind of life....

Colorado... I was blessed to grow up there, and not just anywhere, but at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.  Morning bus rides to school in winter meant a view of snow-covered mountains turned pink or purple by the rising sun.  Driving home from after-school activities as a high school student meant cresting a rolling foothill to see cumulus clouds sitting just above rugged peaks, rays of sun shooting between the clouds as though the gates of heaven were opening and the hidden brilliance behind the pearly gates was spilling out.  Spring drives through the country meant rolling fields of golden, fallow fields of cut corn alternating with the green carpet of new sprigs of corn, all sweeping up to indigo mountains that exploded upward into snow-capped peaks towering into skies so deep a blue you thought you might be able to dive into them.

Most people would also mention cold, snowy winters.  Mornings where you wake up and underneath the layer of snow on your windshield is a layer of ice you have to spend nearly twenty minutes scraping away.  It meant driving through the mountains to witness pine trees frosted overnight by snow, each needle now individually coated in white as through it had sprouted little, white hairs.

Paired with this is brutal summers in the high nineties with next to no humidity.  Hills once purple with June grass turn brown.  Green fields turn to the dusky yellow of dried-out corn husks, the vegetation actually crunching underfoot, the ground cracking, dust rising at every footstep.  You can't drink enough water, and being at high altitude, it only takes ten minutes of sun to turn you into a lobster.

One feature of Colorado a lot of people don't seem to remember, though... is the wind.  Colorado has powerful winds that rip down off the peaks from the clouds above them and tear across the plains in gusts as powerful as the winds of category 1 hurricanes.  The strongest wind gust in Colorado history was 147mph, the speed of the winds in a category 4 hurricane.  I have seen flag poles bent in half, semi trucks pushed over, cars flipped, and in a humorous instance, a rooster flipped over on his back and blown head-first across a yard.  It's a common practice of Coloradans everywhere to come home from work and walk down the street to find where the wind has taken their trashcan on trash day.

Where am I going in all this talk of wind?  Today, I read Acts 2:1-13.  It accounts the day of Pentecost, when the disciples were given the Holy Spirit.  As they were sitting in the house, Luke records in verse 2 that when the Holy Spirit came, "Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting."

As a girl, my bedroom was on the west side of the house.  For those who have never lived on Colorado's east slope: that's the side of the house facing the mountains.  When wind storms came up, it was a very noisy room to be in, especially unfortunate at night when you're a light sleeper.  Reading verse 2 of this passage took me back to that memory of wind in Colorado: of the incredible noise and power of wind.  In the summers in Colorado, wind takes camp fires or the spark of a cigarette and turns them into uncontrollable wildfires that consume everything in their path.  Doubt me?  Just look up the Waldo Canyon Fire, the High Park Fire, or the Hayman Fire.  They are devastating occurrences, and are feared in Colorado the way hurricanes are in the South.

Yet these winds are nothing to the winds of God.  The first record of the wind of God we have is in Genesis 2:7(ESV), when God "breathed into [Adam's] nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being."  The wind from God brought life itself.  And from the very beginning, it implied an intimacy with the creation of man that God gave to no other being.  For in this passage, the Hebrew used to discuss God breathing into Adam implies the concept of God literally taking Adam into His arms, holding him close, and breathing life into his empty frame.  All the rest of creation was made with a single command.  But for Adam, God set Him apart, immediately showed a tenderness and concern for humanity that He showed to no other creature in creation.

And with Eve, God showed no less partiality.  For, just as Adam was created in a completely unique way from all other creatures... so Eve was created in a completely unique way, even from Adam.  While Adam God "formed...from the dust of the ground" (Genesis 2:7a), with Eve, God, "took one of the man's ribs [and] made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man" (Genesis 2:12-22).  Just as God was "hands on" in the creation of Adam, so He was with Eve.  However, unlike Adam, Eve was crafted from living tissue.  Through this, God distinguished humanity, both man and woman, from all creation.  From the dawn of time, He has told us "You are unique.  You are special.  I made you with not just my word, but the very work of my hands and the breath of my body."

Therefore, in Acts, when the wind blew through the house... it was a reminder of that "chosenness" which began at creation... and was heralding an even greater intimacy: God, Himself, living within us.  Not only do we breath with the breath of God, but at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came to live within the Apostles.  Through their preaching of the Gospel that day, the Holy Spirit also came to live in the hearts of 3000 people who became Christians from hearing the Message.  God spoke life at creation, and He spoke again through His Apostles to bring eternal life into the hearts of believers.

But it didn't end there.

Today... thousands of years from that morning when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles as "tongues of fire," we, too, carry within us that same Spirit.  And when we speak the Truth of the Gospel, we are speaking the same life into peoples hearts that was first breathed into mankind from the very mouth of God on the sixth day of creation.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Fraidy cat....

Uncertainty.... uncertainty seems to constantly define our lives, and if we are honest with ourselves, ultimately moves us through life in constant fear responses that attempt to guard us from the threat of the unknown.  I was told once the stock market is run by "fear and greed."  If people fear something bad will happen with the market, they pull out, and actually make something bad happen in the stock market that may not have been that bad if they had stuck it out.  And that's just a fear of material loss.  There are fears we act on that are much deeper... and so much more destructive.  These are the fears of what could happen in our lives... fears of failure.  I fear I will not be accepted to the ivy league college I really want to go to.  Instead of facing that fear, I run and apply to other colleges.  I fear I won't be able to afford a college I really want to go to, so I don't even apply or only apply for ones I know for sure I can afford.  I don't try out for a sports team because I know it's really competitive and I fear I won't make it and can't bear the thought of that failure.  I fear the person I'm attracted to will turn me down, so instead of speaking up or spending time with that person, I stand silent as they pass me by.  I know a class will be difficult, so rather than trying and perhaps finding out I can't do really well in that class, I give up all together because it's better to fail when I know I'm not giving my all than do the best I can and discover I still can't make it.  I know what I believe about God, but I'm afraid to share or speak up because I don't want to be judged as "intolerant" or face questions I can't answer, so I let life-saving opportunities to share the love of God pass me by.

Most, or even all, of these fears are ones we have faced in our lives.  I know all of these are ones I have experienced myself... and at least once I have given into all of them.  As a Christian, I know that 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" (Ecclesiastes 3:11).  Yet, I live with this finite perspective left over from the fall of men, where I think, "The length of our days is seventy years-- or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away" (Psalm 90:10).  I often live trying to reduce that trouble as much as I can, though I have "eternity set in [my] heart," and should have a perspective of how trouble now can mean joy later for me and even many beyond my lifetime.  

For example, I am what you would call a "second career" church worker.  I started out studying in a completely different field with a completely different set of life goals in mind.  By the time I realized I wanted to enter church work... I was a senior in college with a semester of school left.  I had already accumulated my school debt from studying abroad my junior year.  I was fully trained to enter the workforce, except for a few minor, core credit requirements I needed to complete my final semester.  The church work college I needed to go to was expensive, and there were essentially no scholarship opportunities available going into that program as a graduate student.  As a natural long-term planner (i.e., someone who deeply fears the unknown and attempts to plan their whole life before they enter high school), I was standing on the precipice.  Would I follow the fear... or the calling God had set before me?

In Psalm 77:19(NIV), the psalmist writes about God, "Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen."  The psalmist wrote this reflecting about when the Israelites left Egypt, a land in which they had been enslaved, and found themselves on the edge of the Red Sea with no way to cross.  Behind them came the entire Egyptian army at a time when Egypt was one of the premier world powers, and they were not coming with boats... they were coming with swords to destroy and enslave once more.  The Israelites were trapped.  Many of them reacted in fear.  God had promised to their ancestors He would be faithful to their descendants and had delivered them from the hand of Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the known world, with miracles they could not even have imagined... but that's hard to remember with a sword at your back and no way to escape.  What did God do?  He drove the waters apart to create a path to the other side of the Red Sea.

"Your path lead through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen."

How often in your life have you faced that, a moment of decision... when the "footprints" of God were unseen?  So many, I would guess... and if you're like me... there are so many ahead.  Yet, He is there, isn't He?  As the Israelites crossed between the parted sea, they were following a path God had opened for them.  As they traveled forward, behind them God stood as a pillar of fire, blocking the pursing Egyptians so they could not overcome the Israelites before they crossed.  Throughout their journeys in the desert, "the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.  Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people" (Exodus 13:21-22).  God never left His place in front of His people.  

And God never leaves His place with you, either.  Jesus said in Matthew 28:20(NIV), "And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."  In Romans 8:9, it says that as a Christian, the "Spirit of God" lives in you, that He "leads" you... and the Spirit of God is not "not a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline" (2 Timothy 1:7).  So though, like through the waters, it may be that God's "footprints [are] not seen," don't live in fear.  He is there; He is guiding you, no matter how desperate the circumstances may seem.  The all-powerful creator of everything is actually living in you. And though, even when you face your fears you may still fail, remember this, "We know that in all things God works for the good of those wholove himwho have been called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28.)