Monday, April 29, 2013

Happiness and head-banging

Did you ever want to shake someone? No, not literally. Well, okay, maybe literally, but not hard enough to cause permanent damage.

Why do I ask? Because I just wanted to shake someone. There I was, scrolling down my Facebook page (yes, I know) when I saw a quote from the Dalai Lama being shared by one of my Christian Facebook friends. Now, before you start in at me about how we can find truth and wisdom everywhere, and that Christians don't have a monopoly on either – yes, I agree. Nobody is always wrong about everything, except for that one guy. You probably know him (or her).

But my problem wasn't with the fact that a Christian was sharing a quote from the Dalai Lama. My problem was with the quote itself. “The purpose of our lives is to be happy.”

It took every ounce of my will to not type “no it isn't” and hit the enter key. The only reason I didn't is because I know it would have led to much more heat than light, because, sadly, that's the currently popular mindset.

If you're not happy with your job, quit and get another one (although only the brave and the foolhardy quit a job in today's economy). If you're not happy with your house, sell it and get another one. If you're not happy with your car, your furniture, your church, or your husband (or wife), get another one.

Instant gratification has become the ruling philosophy of our time. I have to deal with it with my children almost constantly. They always “need” the next, the newest, the coolest. My response is invariably “then save your money until you can afford one.”

The problem with that advice is that I don't immediately follow it up by placing the boys into a sealed room with no television or internet access. It never takes more than a few days for them to see something that they just HAVE to buy. Occasionally, when I remind them that they were saving up for this or that, they'll have an “Oh yeah” moment and pass up whatever it was that caught their eye. Most often, however, the “need” for whatever it is overwhelms them, and they crumble like a stale cookie.

Some of you are probably asking yourselves why I allow the kids to spend their money in this fashion. I have found that slowly, bit by bit, when they realize that their need for instant gratification has destroyed their plans, they learn just a bit more patience. The next time, they have to think the decision over just a bit longer before they give in and waste their money. Occasionally, they even decide to stick with their plans. I believe (or at least I hope) that learning the dangers of spending frivolously now will help them avoid the pitfalls when there's more at stake than being able to buy the newest Playstation game.

You expect children to behave rashly, to have a need for instant gratification. Today, however, adults have the same mindset. But as I read my Bible, I don't find anywhere the notion that the purpose of my life is to make myself happy. In fact, I read that I'm supposed to deny myself, take up my cross and follow Jesus. I'm supposed to nurture my children and love my wife. I'm supposed to allow God to bring my desires into line with His desires, and to realize that I'm not the main character in the story.

The simple fact of the matter is, the purpose of my life is to make God happy.     

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Answers and Amazing Love

Hebrews 5:8 Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered.

I'll never forget the day this verse slapped me in the face. There I was, minding my own business, when this verse jumped out at me. Well, actually, somebody threw it at me. But what he had to say that day really made me stop and think about life.

How often do you hear someone say something along the lines of, “Why doesn't God show up and answer prayer the way He used to? Why can't He come down and rescue us today like He did for Peter and Paul and all those guys in the New Testament?”

On the surface, that seems like a fair question, right? I mean, the Bible is full of stories where God dramatically rescues His people from serious trouble. He delivered Paul and Silas from prison, he rescued Paul from a shipwreck, he freed Peter from prison, and the list goes on and on. They prayed (or someone else prayed for them) and God answered with a breath-taking miracle. So, why doesn't He answer my prayers the same way?

I hear that a good bit. I'll even confess that I've had those thoughts myself from time to time. I mean, Jesus PROMISED that if we'd ask anything in His name, He would do it, didn't He? So, why doesn't it work? Just in John 14-16 alone, Jesus says at least five times that if you ask any thing in His name, He will give it to you. The other gospels contain similar promises, such as Matthew 7:11 and Luke 11:13. So, why doesn't it work?

Several responses come to my mind, and I'm going to briefly lay out a few of them. First of all, when God rescued Peter, Paul, Silas, etc etc etc, they were boldly and unashamedly doing the work God had set before them. When it seems like God isn't listening to me, can I always say the same thing?

Second, notice that Paul, Silas and Peter were all IN prison when God rescued them. He did not keep them from all of life's problems. He saved them OUT of them, not FROM them. Paul lays out a list of how many times he was beaten, thrown into prison, etc in 2 Corinthians 11.

Going further, we know that Paul was beheaded. Peter was crucified upside down. Matthew was killed by sword. Mark was dragged by horses until he died. Luke was hanged. James (Jesus' brother) was thrown from the pinnacle of the temple and then beaten to death with a club. James (John's brother) was beheaded. Bartholomew was whipped to death. I could keep going, but I hope I made my point.

Which of those would you prefer? Exactly. I think we have a tendency to take a few instances of miracles and assume that the Apostles were always kept from harm. In fact, they were horribly persecuted and brutally killed for their faith. On an interesting side note, the Roman soldier who guarded James, the son of Zebedee, became a Christian while watching the way James behaved during his trial and imprisonment. When he escorted James to the chopping block, he confessed his newfound faith to the judge and then knelt down beside James to accept beheading as well. Would anyone who watched my life do the same?

Third, notice that several of those verses specify that God wants to give GOOD gifts to his children. The problem with that is that God knows much better than we do what's good for us. The second problem is that He loves us so much that He will not stop working until we are exactly what He wants us to be. Many times, the best way to move us towards the goal is by allowing trials and circumstances to shape us.

After all, if Jesus learned obedience by the things He suffered, how much more do we have to learn than He did? (No, I'm not trying to imply that Jesus wasn't perfect, or was somehow disobedient until He learned better. Don't argue with me, I didn't write Hebrews.)

It's amazing to think that God loves me. The thought fills me with awe and wonder and deep gratitude. It also scares the bejoobies out of me. God loves me. He loves you, too. And His primary concern is NOT my comfort. His primary concern is that I become formed into the image of Jesus Christ, that I be made into a fit vessel, that I be shaped into the living stone that will become part of His home. And God is perfect – not just in love, but also in holiness. His love is holy and righteous. It isn't the mushy, sentimental kind of love that gives you that second piece of cake. It's the kind of love that says, “I know this will hurt, but it's what you need to draw you closer to Me.”

Scary, but also exciting.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Ouchies and the real problem

Isaiah 53:5 has always been one of the most fascinating verses in the entire Bible for me.

But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.

I have spent a good deal of time mulling this verse over, working out what it meant, trying to dig into it to see if I was missing anything. And along the way, in addition to finding meaning in the verse, I have decided what I really think it doesn't mean as well.

For instance, I am just about one hundred percent positive that “by His stripes we are healed” has absolutely nothing to do with physical healing. You've heard that taught, I'll bet. “Are you sick? Well, just come on and claim your healing! By HIS stripes you are HEALED!” But I don't think that's what God meant. Not at all.

Don't believe me? Let me ask you a question. How many stripes had Jesus taken when he healed the ten lepers? How about Bartimaeus? Jairus' daughter? The Gerasene demoniac? Here's a tough one: Lazarus. How many stripes had Jesus taken when he raised Lazarus from the dead? I mean, that seems like it would be a lot tougher than replacing a nonfunctional eye, right?

Jesus didn't have to go through a massive beating, dehydration, torture and death to heal physical ailments. For Jesus, healing physical problems was a slow Tuesday. We know of at least one time where He went into a town and healed every sick person that was brought out to meet Him.

All before the Romans ever threw the first lash!

Please don't take this the wrong way, but using Isaiah 53:5 as a promise of physical healing is an insult to our Lord. In fact, the more time I spend on this verse, the more strongly I believe that trivializing the suffering of Jesus, using verses like this to promote a health and wealth gospel is treading dangerously close to blasphemy.

Why do I say this? Well, let's look at what I believe this verse is really talking about, and then you tell me.

Imagine for just a moment that you and I are going to hop into my truck and go for a ride. We see a rundown little singlewide trailer beside the road, and we pull into the driveway. When we open the front door, we see a young man passed out on the sofa in the front room with a pile of empty beer cans and liquor bottles scattered around. We pass by him and walk into the kitchen to find a young woman sitting at the kitchen table crying quietly. She has a cut over one eye, which is swollen nearly shut. Her lip is split, and she is covered in bruises, old and new. We leave her and walk down the hall to find a four year old boy lying on a mattress on the floor. His cheeks are streaked with tears as he whispers, “Dear God, please don't let my daddy hit my mommy again. Please?”

Now, imagine that we have the power to reach inside that young boy and just scoop out all of the pain and anguish he's feeling. Then we do the same for the young woman, taking away all her pain, her embarrassment, her guilt, her shame. Then we do the same for the man. We take all his guilt, all his shame, all his bitterness and rage, and we pull it out of him.

Now, we're going to get back into my truck and drive across town to the wealthy section of the suburbs. We're going to pick a house and go inside. Up on the second floor we hear music pouring from one of the rooms. When we open the door, we find a teenage girl wearing black clothes, crouched in the floor. As we watch, she takes a razor blade and makes several deep gashes along one arm, then across one thigh. And we're going to reach into this young girl and take away all her pain, her suffering, her loneliness and despair, her guilt, and we're going to pull it out of her.

When we leave this house, we're going to hit the road, and we're going to go to every drug addiction treatment center, every halfway house, every crisis pregnancy center, every prison, every street corner, every house, and we're going to find every hurting, guilty person we can, and we're going to scoop out all of the pain and the guilt and the shame they carry, and we're going to add all of that to our pile.

And when we're done, we're going to drop every last crumb of it onto one man.

Does that seem incredible? That's exactly what happened on the cross. If you keep reading after Isaiah 53:5 to verse 6, you read these words:

All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

Can you imagine it? I can't. I know what bearing the weight of my iniquity feels like. I can't imagine bearing mine and yours. And yet that's what Jesus did.

Isn't that much better even than a cure for cancer?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Bombs and millstones

I just turned on the television to find that a series of explosions have disrupted the Boston Marathon. My first thought, and hopefully yours as well, was to pray for the victims and their families. I have never lost a loved one to a senseless act of violence such as this, but most everyone has lost someone they loved in one way or another, so I think we can all empathize to an extent.

Watching the footage of people being loaded onto stretchers and wheelchairs, placed into ambulances, and otherwise being carried away from the carnage, my heart goes out to that city. Some of the early eyewitness reports being read and played are absolutely heartbreaking.

My second thought is to wonder how long it will be before someone uses this tragedy as a platform from which to bash religion. It never takes long for someone to lump all religious people into one large pile and labeling the whole pile with one broad brush.

I'd be willing to bet that those same people would deeply resent being lumped into a pile with men like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc. The question is, which comparison is more appropriate?

Honestly, I don't think any generalization along these lines is appropriate. People are people. Not statistics, or probabilities, or likelihoods. They're people. No set of statistics ever created can tell you what a random person with x belief system will do in a given situation.

The question of which comparison is more logical, however, is a totally different animal. If you compare the teachings of the founders of each system of thought, it quickly becomes clear which followers are most closely following their leader.

But today is not a day to point fingers of hurl accusations. Today is a day to cry with those in pain and help them if we can. As reports continue to roll in, it appears that there will be no shortage of people who will need help.

The other thing we all need to do today is examine ourselves. Sadly, too many people are too willing to twist things Jesus said to justify their behavior. Abortion clinic bombers come to mind. Yes, Jesus did say that it would be better for a person to have a millstone hung around his neck and be thrown into the sea than to harm a child, but He did not tell His followers to go out and buy millstones and rope.

In fact, Jesus made it very clear that we're to pray for our enemies and do good to those who persecute us. I honestly believe that it is the height of arrogance to think that anything I could do would be more effective than what God can do in response to my prayers.

Including the prayers being lifted for the victims of today's tragedy in Boston.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Thoughts from the pinkie toe

1 Corinthians 12:27 “Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.”

I've known this verse for most of my life. I don't recall the first time I read it, but I'm sure it's been over 30 years, and probably more than 35. And very likely more than 40 years since the first time I heard someone else read it.

The analogy of the followers of Jesus being like the parts of a body is one of the most popular – at least in the circles I've been part of. People have even had fun trying to decide which part everyone is. I told my wife just today that I'm pretty sure she's the tongue (although she has a lot of competition for that particular honor).

Most Christians, I would imagine, have heard this term used at least a few times. “We are the body of Christ.” I can think of at least three songs off the top of my head that use this very terminology. It's one of those things that most of us take for granted. We rattle it off at various appropriate times, much like “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” and John 3:16.

But sometimes I wonder if we let the truth of this verse really get into our lives. I know I'm part of the body of Christ, but have I really fleshed out what that means?

Think about the last time you stubbed your toe, or banged your knee into the edge of your desk, or bumped your head. I imagine you said, “Oh, look. My left great toe is bleeding. Hmm...”

Of course you didn't. If you're anything like me, it was more like, “OOOOOWWWWWWWWW!” When one part of my body hurts, I'm in pain. If I bite the inside of my cheek, it hurts all of me, the same as if I bang my knee (which I do at least once every work week).

So, if my whole body sympathizes with my toe when it's hurting, shouldn't the body of Christ react the same way? If the toe is hurting, the rest of the body should rally to it.

By the same token, my hand can't steal without dragging the rest of me into trouble with it. My foot can't walk somewhere it shouldn't without taking the rest of me along for the trip. The same is true of Christ's body. Everything I do, for good or ill, affects the whole body. Not only that, but this isn't just a body. It's His body. So, everywhere I go, everything I do, Christ is going with me. It's His body, after all. I can't just ask him to wait for me at home while I borrow it to go out and have some fun.

I wonder how much different the church would be if all of us kept that in mind more often.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Where are you living?

As I study the Bible, something keeps popping up. In fact, no matter what I'm doing, the same theme seems to come to the front. It's one of the basic tenets of business, and a lot of companies seem to want to build the concept into their advertising. What am I talking about?

Location, location, location.

How many times have you heard that statement? Just off the top of my head, here are some slogans that reference the idea of location.

“When you're here, you're family.”

“Head for the border.”

“Where dreams come home.”

“A very good place to be.”

You get the picture. The idea of location being important is as old as humanity. From the very beginning, God prepared a place for His people. The problem is that God's people always managed to mess things up and become displaced from the land He had given them – either by force or by choice.

First, there was the Garden of Eden. God created a beautiful place and set Adam and Eve over it to worship and serve Him through their care-taking of the Garden. Obviously, that didn't last. Even though God had given Adam and Eve dominion over all creation (including serpents), they allowed themselves to be tricked into sin. And as a result, they were evicted from the Garden, forced to make a home in the wilderness instead.

Soon after, God gave Abraham the land of Canaan. Now, think back through what you know of Biblical history. How many times did Abraham's descendants leave The Promised Land?

The first time was just two generations later. Abraham's grandson Jacob and family left after some of his sons sold another into slavery. Now, I know what you're thinking. “God used those circumstances to save His people from starvation during the seven years of famine.” Yes, He did. The problem came from His people getting comfortable in Egypt and settling down instead of returning to their Land once the famine ended. The result? 400 years later, they're still in Egypt, and now they're slaves.

Fast forward a few hundred more years. The Israelites have once again fallen away from God, and now they have been carried away captive to Babylon. Seventy years go by, and finally the new king allows them to return to their Land. Guess what? Less than five percent of God's people leave Babylon to return to The Promised Land.

Now, most Christians (myself included) have a tendency to look at the Israelites in Babylon and wonder why in the world they would want to stay in Babylon instead of going home. Looking back across 2500 years, it's easy to ask why a group of people would choose to settle, to, in effect say to God, “Yes, I know You gave us this Land, I know You made us this promise, but I think I'll just stay put.”

But, how often do we do the same thing? The Israelites had, for the most part, made a decent life for themselves in Babylon. They were comfortable. God had blessed them. Looking through their eyes, I'm sure it was really easy to say, “God is blessing us here. Most of us are here, so God must be here, too. After all, if he didn't want us to stay, would He have given us successful businesses and comfortable houses?”

Don't we do the same thing? It's really easy to sit here in a nice, cozy recliner and make judgments about how someone else should have followed God. The question is, have I gotten comfortable and assumed that God must be happy with me just the way I am since He's blessing me?

The problem that keeps hitting me in the head is that most of the people in the Bible who were living in God's will were FAR from comfortable. I read about prison, stoning, beatings, mockery, scorn, shipwreck... you get the picture.

There aren't a lot of recliners in Paul's story. Or Peter's. Or John's.

Maybe it's time to rethink.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Welcome to here

If you didn't come here by accident, then you're probably in the right place.  Although, how you knew to show up is a little beyond me.

Regardless, you're here, so welcome to my very first blog post.  With this first post, I'd like to lay out exactly what you'll find here over time.  I'm a person of wide and varied interests - as I think most people are.  But, not everything needs air time.

So, you will probably never read anything about what I ate for dinner (unless it was extraordinarily awesome), or what movie our family watched last night, the sweet deal I got at Wal-Mart, or how long it took to change the oil in my truck.

You might see, at various times, book reviews (when I run across a book I think someone might enjoy), funny stories from the insanity that resides in my home (if you've ever lived with three young boys I don't have to explain what I mean), and random thoughts that struck me as profound (or at least interesting).  In short, I'll be sharing my passions.

This week, I've been pondering how various themes seem to come full circle in the Bible - many times, over and over.  I was listening to a talk by Frank Viola (not the baseball player), and he was pointing out a group of things that show up at the very beginning of the Bible, and then again at the very end.  If you look closely, you'll find mention of the tree of life, a flowing river, gold, pearl and precious stones, a man, a woman, a marriage, and on and on - both in Genesis 1-2 and in Revelation 21-22.

Now, I'm not a big believer in coincidences, especially when it comes to God.  I mean, if He really knows how many hairs there are on my head (a number which changes daily, much to my chagrin) then He probably already noticed all these similarities in the beginning of the story and the ending.

But, if you start digging around in the middle, you'll find the same things.  Go read the description of the tabernacle of Moses, or the temple of Solomon.  You know what you'll find?  Gold, precious stones, a laver (representing the river) a big, branching candlestick (that looks an awful lot like a tree, right down to the almond buds - in fact, the Jewish people refer to it as a representation of the tree of life), and I could keep going.

So, it looks like maybe these aren't really coincidences at all.  But if they aren't, then what does it all mean?  Well, I'm glad you asked.  I think God has a plan.  I think He has an eternal purpose, and I think that all of history has been aimed at finally, ultimately fulfilling that purpose.

I don't know about you, but I want to be part of His story.  I think that too often, we try to squeeze God into our story.  We have our lives planned out, and we want God to bless those plans.  And sometimes, He does exactly that.  But that's a post for another day.  The point I'm trying to make today is that I don't think God is really interested in being squeezed into my story.  I think He wants me to take my place in His story.  But to do that, I have to take the spotlight off of me and realize that the story is HIS story.  The fact that he's condescended to allow me to have a place in that story is mind-blowing.

The question is, am I living His story, or mine?  Are you living His story, or yours?