Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Presence

Find rest, O my soul, in God alone, my hope comes from Him. Psalm 62:5

I love the Christmas season. The lights, music and good food. Decorating the house. Decorating the tree--which can take a week if you do it right (the anal retentive "I know exactly where each ornament should go" way I do). Visiting with family and friends. And presents. Presents are always welcome. But for many years the holiday season marked my annual descent into fatigue and depression, as I tried to do everything I usually did on top of Christmas baking, shopping, cleaning for company, wrapping gifts and additional social events. And about five years ago we began celebrating Hanukkah too. By the time New Year’s arrived. I was often completely exhausted, physically and spiritually. I finally realized it was because I didn't adequately rest. By rest, I don’t mean sleep, but regular times of quiet to refresh my soul. When I have a lot to do. It is unthinkable to waste even 15 minutes just sitting--it feels like doing nothing. I would make time for devotions and prayer, gutting my way through the disciplines that I would feel guilty skipping. The ones I get internal (and external) brownie points for doing. But rest is very easy to drop. I usually do not realize that I have neglected it until I find myself wondering where God has gone. His voice grows silent when I let myself become too busy to spend time with Him.

I’ve been reading through the gospel of Mark this month and enjoying the simplicity of the message. I was struck by the passage early in Mark 6 where Jesus sent out the disciples on their own to preach repentance and pray for the sick. Later in that same chapter, the guys have returned and are relating to Jesus all that they taught and did. Verse 31 says that there were so many people coming and going that they couldn’t even find time to eat. So Jesus says to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” Oh the loving kindness of Jesus! His concern was not only for the ministry He was handing over to His followers, but their physical and emotional needs as well. His statement reminds me that especially during times of busyness and stress, I need to take time away from my schedule, away from others and decompress. Rest is not something that can be relegated to when I have extra time. Rest is important. Jesus wasn't telling them to go take a nap (though I believe naps are from God), He was inviting them to spend time with Him, visiting or just sitting in companionable silence. His very presence had power to refresh and strengthen them. And thankfully, that power is available to us today.

Spiritual rest is the time I spend being with Him. Rest is vital, especially this time of year when I can become so focused on Christmas that I lose focus on Christ. I need regular dips into the refreshing pool of His presence--I need Him. In recent years I’ve adopted a more ruthless holiday perspective, giving myself permission not to attend every party; not to give a gift to every, single person I’ve ever met; not to feel guilty when my house doesn’t look like a Martha Stewart special; not to spend the entire month of December baking and crafting. I still enjoy Christmas, but no longer get to January out of gas and wondering whether I'd enjoy it more if someone else was responsible for making it all happen.
The time you spend quieting your surroundings and yourself is time well spent. Take even fifteen minutes watching birds at a feeder; sit quietly by the fireplace and enjoy the fire; go for an afternoon walk. Enjoy a piece of fudge...then enjoy another! The hardest thing can be to turn off all technology (especially those pesky phones) and permit God to use the simplicity of silence to murmur what you cannot hear when your mind is filled with noise and bustle. Just like the disciples, we all need times of quiet and rest, drawing near to Him so He can renew us with His presence.

This time of year rest may seem a wasteful extravagance, but wasting time on God is never a waste. When the holidays begin to feel overwhelming I want to remember that Jesus is calling me to come away with Him and rest. I like Christmas presents, but the best one of all is His presence.
May you have a restful Christmas, full of the refreshing, strengthening, nourishing presence of Jesus.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Dog biscuits

Recently I made some biscotti for Christmas gift giving...crisp, golden brown and filled with toasted almonds. The finishing touch is to drizzle melted chocolate over the top, to add visual pop and another level of yumminess. I spread wax paper on the kitchen table, laid out the biscotti and drizzled Ghiradelli premium bittersweet chocolate (60% cacao!) over the top. They were lovely. I pulled the paper into the middle of the table and left them to sit while the chocolate cooled and hardened. A mere ten minutes later I returned to a mystery. The paper was exactly where I’d left it, but only two of the biscotti were there. The rest were gone. Absent. Departed. All that remained was delectable chocolate drizzle with clean ovals where the biscotti had once sat. I stood there completely flummoxed. The two remaining biscotti had nothing helpful to say. After quizzing my family, it hit me—the dog! A quick search of the floor revealed some crumbs and smudges of chocolate…all that remained of my Christmas biscotti. Beside the disappointment of having done all that work and now having nothing to show for it, I added the outrage of knowing that Annie absolutely knows that she’s not allowed to take things from the table. I glanced under the stairs, where Annie watched me innocently from her bed. I can’t be sure, but she seemed a bit smug, as if she knew I couldn’t even scold her, because I didn’t catch her in the act.

This morning, feeling less outraged and more philosophical, I ate the last biscotti with my morning coffee and reflected. Poor dog—dinner time was approaching and she hadn’t been fed yet and she was probably hungry and opportunity presented itself and why not just help herself? And then it occurred how like that I am! I know I am supposed to wait on God; I know He’s got my provision; I know His timing is perfect; I know He has promised to give me what I need. Yet how many times do I jump at the opportunity to provide for myself? To fix a situation? To reason out how God should help me and then finagle my way into that solution? And of course there are all the things I want that I’m not quite sure He feels I need. So I have to get those things, because I’m not sure He will. I don't always trust Him to make me happy. Too often I am impatient and anxious and unbelieving. How many times has God watched me, His arms full of blessings I can’t see because I’m so busy looking for opportunities to do for myself? I am Annie, snatching goodies off the table when no one’s looking, afraid I won’t get them any other way.
Needless to say, I'm grateful God doesn't respond to me like I did to Annie (she's banned from the kitchen). Even though He knows my weaknesses through and through, He still loves and patiently waits for me to learn to trust and wait for Him. And I am glad, though I am still a little sad about the biscotti...

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Light in the Darkness

At first glance, Hanukkah (or Chanukah) seems to be the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. It is celebrated around the same time of year and contains lights, decorations, gifts and family gatherings with tasty seasonal food. But Hanukkah--the Feast of Dedication, or the Festival of Light--is not Jewish Christmas.

Chanukah (Hebrew for dedication) is not one of the commanded Feasts of the Lord, but is mentioned in the gospels and was celebrated by Jesus (John 10:22-23). It commemorates a miracle which took place several thousand years ago, in the historical period between the writing of the two Testaments. Around 164 B.C. the Jewish people were ruled by a cruel Syrian king. Antiochus Epiphanes tried to make the conquered Jewish people easier to rule by neutralizing their Jewishness. He forced them to worship in a Greek manner as the Syrians did and forbad Jewish customs such as circumcision and Sabbath observance. Study of Torah, their Scriptures, was forbidden and pagan altars were built in every town in Israel. Antiochus placed a statue of Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem and had pigs, a ritually unclean animal, sacrificed on its altar to desecrate it. He insisted that all Jews show allegiance to him by worshipping idols rather than the true God of Israel. Those who refused did so at risk to their lives. Antiochus was a foreshadowing of the Antichrist, one of many throughout the years who’ve hated and attempted to eradicate the people of God.

Though many Jews did assimilate to a more Greek way of living, the priest Matthias and his five sons flatly refused to worship as Antiochus demanded. When the king’s officers came to their town to organize pagan sacrifices, Matthias and his sons killed them, then fled into the surrounding hills. Matthias is reported to have said, “Let everyone who is zealous for the Torah and who stands by the covenant follow after me!” A rebellion began, led by Matthias’ son Yehudah (Judah). He was a courageous and effective leader and became known as Judah Maccabee (the hammer). Amazingly, within three years his band of guerilla warriors defeated the much bigger Syrian army.

Jerusalem was retaken and the Temple cleansed. The defiled altar was removed and a new one built. The priests made plans to rededicate the Temple, but when they went to light the menorah, the large, seven branched candelabra which stood in the sanctuary, there was a problem. Scripture commanded never to let the light go out, but there was only enough oil to burn for one day. Not just any olive oil could be used, and the process for preparing the oil took eight days to complete. In faith, the priests lit the menorah anyway and were amazed when instead of burning one day, it burned for eight! This allowed the priests enough time to prepare more oil for the menorah. So Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of the oil when the Temple was rededicated to the Lord. It honors the God of Israel who has faithfully and repeatedly kept the Jewish people from extinction and assimilation.

The Chanukah story is definitely relevant to us today, with growing government intervention into previously protected speech and activities. We face tremendous pressure to assimilate to our culture in order to avoid disapproval--or even legal penalties. Hanukkah teaches that while government is in charge of many things and has power to make our lives uncomfortable or even dangerous, it is God who is in charge of His people. We can therefore take courage to maintain our Christian distinctive in the face of opposition, trusting His provision and protection.

Today Jewish families celebrate Chanukah by lighting special nine branched menorahs, called hanukkiahs. Menorahs are usually lit just after sundown and displayed in windows, so their light shines into the darkness outside. Family and friends gather and eat special Hanukkah foods fried in oil, like latkes (potato pancakes) and jelly doughnuts. Gifts are usually exchanged. Children receive chocolate coins and play with a dreidel, a special top that has on its sides the Hebrews letters for the phrase, “A great miracle happened there!” 

Some scholars have speculated that Jesus was conceived during the Feast of Chanukah. Though we cannot be certain, it would be so like God to begin the salvation story--the incarnation of the Light of the World during the Festival of Light. Like all the Feasts, Hanukkah is a reminder of God's faithfulness to His people as well as an opportunity to gather and celebrate His goodness to us.

This year Hanukkah begins at sundown on December 16 and ends at sundown on the 24th. This is a great time to pray that our Jewish friends and family members receive a greater revelation of our amazing God and the best gift of all—their Messiah. Just as the Temple was cleansed and rededicated, let's rededicate ourselves to the One who loved us enough to leave Heaven's glory and come to earth to be a light showing us the way through the darkness. Happy Hanukkah!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

God in a Box

When I was younger and pretty sure I had Christianity all figured out, I was sometimes frustrated by all the different streams of Christianity…and even the different ways that my individual friends perceived Jesus. You see, I thought that the way I saw things was the right way, so it followed logically that the way others saw things had to be the wrong way. What can I tell you, I was young and knew less about the human heart’s propensity for self-deception. I’ve grown to see that my perspective is heavily influenced by what I am comfortable with, which is formed less by what is true and more by my background, temperament, education and experience.

That is one reason I’ve become leery of systematic theology as I’ve grown older. I studied it in college (back in dinosaur days) and believed what I was told, because it was in thick books with small print. Systematic theology interprets Scripture so that it fits within a particular system, or point of view. It neatly folds and even cuts and pastes where necessary in order to make the mysteries of God fit within that logical framework. My issue lies in the fact that godly, sincere scholars, pastors, seminaries and authors pick a side, then hunker down behind the barricades of dueling systems, all sides claiming to interpret the Bible “correctly.” I wonder if these good people ever consider the confusion they cause regular folks when thinking biblically changes depending on which camp you’re in.

I’ve come to the conclusion that God must look at how seriously we take ourselves and shake his head. I cannot believe the first thing that will happen when we all get to Heaven is a theology seminar, ironing out every tiny wrinkle in every single verse, until everything in the Bible makes sense to human minds. I don’t think there will be celebrating from one camp and mourning from another as we finally discover who was right after all. I think I’ve read something about a giant wedding reception, which sounds much more fun.

A more Hebraic view of things might help here. Systematic theology grew out of Greek philosophy. The Greeks believed it was possible to use human reasoning, step by step, until they found the one, right answer to a question. But the Bible comes to us from the Hebrew culture. Hebrew scholars believed that God was bigger than their theologies, and that there were bound to be disagreements, and that debate wouldn’t necessarily end with the “right” answer. It is a given, in Hebraic thinking that some things are simply beyond our understanding. Therefore debate can be a spirited discussion among family members, not a death match to decide a winner. We could benefit from thinking like that.

God created a diverse population, full of unique individuals. Isn’t it wonderful that Jesus loves us enough to reveal Himself to us in the way we can receive Him best? Then once he has captured our hearts and made us his own, we are able to share that aspect of him with the world. No one person or church or denomination has the complete picture of Jesus. One may know Him mainly as a God of love; another may be more familiar with his holiness; still another may love His majesty and justice. This is an evidence that we need each other, not that a lot of folks need straightening out. It is only when we honor and receive the vision each of us holds that the body becomes more complete.

In these troubled days I need input from other lovers of Christ. I need to stretch my boundaries to include what others have received from Him. Not to swallow whole everything that ends up on my plate, but taste and see...then eat the meat and spit out the bones. Only a child turns up his nose at something he hasn't yet tried. So instead of looking with suspicion at other denominations, or other believers, I can ask myself what they might have that I lack. What has been deposited in them that can enrich the church at large? Because a day is coming when we will be less concerned with whether someone was baptized in Jesus’ name only; or whether someone speaks in tongues; or whether some go to Mass; or whether one is Calvinist or Arminian. All the differences which now loom large will shrink to insignificance when the world decides it has had enough of its conscience and moves to silence it. Those who truly know Jesus will be identified by their refusal to reject Him when it becomes easy and even prudent to do so.

I am looking forward to the day when we lay down what divides us as Baptists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Methodists, Charismatics, and all the rest and gather around the few (and I think we will be amazed at how few) theological imperatives that make us disciples. I believe that true unity, forged in great trouble, will make the church a force to be reckoned with. I believe that is the church which will blaze like stars in the growing darkness.

"Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe.” Philippians 2:14-15 NIV


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Storm Warnings

When dangerous storms threaten Oklahoma, regular network programming is suspended and we're glued to the TV as weather is reported non-stop. Because of our sophisticated radar and computer systems, meteorologists can pinpoint not only where the greatest danger is but where it’s heading. But all the warnings in the world mean nothing, if I’m not paying attention. When the tornado siren goes off, I would be foolish to dismiss it as irrelevant, or shake my fist at the interruption. When an alarm sounds, I look to my news source to get the information I need to protect myself and my family.

I confess I am a typical American. I love my undisturbed life. I tend to be a happy camper as long as I have cheap gas, good coffee, interesting books, church on Sunday and my life left alone. When things are going well and according to (my) plan, I can become so focused on doing life that God must interrupt my routine in order to get my attention. I need shaking from time to time to remind me that I am part of God’s story, unfolding from Genesis to Revelation…something way bigger than America and my little life.

All too often, when life interruptions occur I am impatiently waiting for the spiritual “all clear” signal. Kind of like the old TV announcement, “…and now we return to your regularly scheduled program.” But when my regular program is interrupted by a special bulletin from God I have to do more than give a cursory listen, for God’s bulletins are never casual FYI’s. They are always given because they are needed; when they are needed; and directed to those who need them. 

It doesn’t take much to see that over the past fifteen years, the world has changed in frightening ways. We are seeing increases in natural disasters, terror attacks, societal upheaval, dangerous disease, war, and economic failure. And the alarmingly rapid increase of distain, disapproval and persecution of Christians. The latest is the civil unrest and violence in Ferguson, MO, which makes me wonder how soon America will choose security over freedom (but that's a topic for another time). 

One event taken alone is distressing, but taken as a whole, a trend of increasing trouble emerges. Are these random events, or a forecast, a la Matthew 24, that a bigger storm is coming? The reality is that my perspective is too limited to see accurately. I need someone with the big picture, so I must check in with God for a helpful interpretation of current events.

Jesus told his disciples that before He came back, the world would become a dangerous place, in which his people would shine brightly in the darkness. He told us, not to scare us, but to give us confidence and strength. He told us so we would know when it was time to prepare. Time to build deeper relationship with Him; to love and learn to lean more completely on Him. Time to listen to His voice and practice joyful obedience. Time to yearn and watch for His return.

Ever since God put the ones He loved in a Garden, He has been working toward a conclusion to history that brings us back together with Him. Far from being a scare tactic, His storm warnings are designed to make us aware of our need for Him, to call us closer to Him; to remind us that, for the friends of Jesus, there is no such thing as life as usual. Though we are in the world, we are built to live above—in joyful friendship with Jesus. 

Since we are not interchangeable units, there is no formula for preparing. When storm sirens sound, ask the One you love what it means and what you should do. Jesus is our safe harbor, a refuge of peace from the coming storm.. We can run to Him and rest secure even in the midst of a frightening world.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Setting an ambush for God

"When the Lord saw that [Moses] turned aside. God called to him from the bush." (Exodus 3:4)  Moses' relationship with God was powerfully changed when he took time to wait on Him at the burning bush. The verse implies that God spoke to Moses, because he turned aside...chose to make time for God. We don't know what might have happened had Moses strolled by, giving the burning bush a casual, "Hmmm that's weird" and kept going. But he didn't. He stopped what he was doing, turning from his shepherdly duties in order to give his complete focus to the supernatural fire. God always provides glimpses of Himself, but only those who turn aside to wait for Him will see more than that. Relationship with God is what you were made for, and waiting is a way of drawing near so He will in turn draw near to you.

There are several Hebrew words for waiting. Qavah is an interesting one, translated 'to eagerly wait for with anticipation,' but it also means 'lying in wait, as in ambush.'  We're accustomed to thinking of waiting as killing time until something meaningful happens...like waiting for an appointment at the doctor's office. But waiting for God is different. A hunter must go where he thinks the deer might be and watch and wait attentively. He doesn't expect a deer to wander through the living room while he's watching his shows. This waiting is active. It takes focus and intention to still myself, quiet my mind, set aside my to-do list and anticipate God drawing near and communing with me.

So because I know this, my spiritual walk must be one continuous high, right? One moving encounter after another. Probably have to wear a veil to keep the reflected glory from blinding folks over at the Walmart.

Sorry. Had to pick myself up from the floor where I lay, hysterically laughing. As with most of the Christian life, it's one thing to know something and quite another to do it. So I'm grateful that our life of faith is a long distance journey. And the longer I travel, the more I realize that I will be a beginner all my life. I am once again learning to wait; setting aside times to spend with Him, just as I would a friend with skin on. I am reading the Bible and asking Him to illuminate my reading; allowing His lovely, living words to reorder my thinking along biblical lines. I am playing worship music and singing the words as prayer to Him. When I pray, I purpose to put thanks and worship at the beginning, saving my list of needs and wants for the end. I am taking time for silence, so there is room for Him to speak to me. I am shushing my busy, anxious, caffeinated brain, which is way harder than just shutting my mouth. And I am cutting myself major slack. Giving myself grace is often the hardest thing I do, for I fail so often it can seem impossible to have faith to begin again.

The hardest part of any journey is the beginning, when the road stretches endlessly before you and the destination is unseen. That's when you're tempted to give up, because nothing seems to be happening. But knowing that appearances can be deceiving and the devil is a liar, I keep moving forward, trusting in the love and character of Jesus—and isn’t that what faith is? Intimacy with Jesus grows bit by bit, nurtured by all the little steps you take in the dark; then finding that He was there waiting to make Himself known to you all along. While your encounters may not be the audible voice of God from flaming shrubbery sort, I guarantee that they will be life changing. Because encounters with the Fiery One cannot be otherwise. Ambush God and be changed.

"Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?" Luke 24:32

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Who does she think she is?

I have spent most of my adult life trying to get myself together enough to be qualified to be used by God. Subconsciously I've believed the lie that there was some invisible, unknowable standard I needed to attain before I could really start using my gifts. There are at least two problems with that sort of thinking. One is that all the things I've done thus far then fall into the category of 'just killing time while waiting for my ministry to begin.' The other is that I've resisted stepping out in those areas I feel called to. Even to publically identify what I felt called to was often a threat too great, opening myself to scrutiny I was unsure I could withstand.

The funny thing is, I thought I was waiting on the Lord. I thought I was being humble--resisting the sin of presumption. I was waiting until I sensed it was time or received a sign. The reality is that I was afraid. Afraid to take a chance. Afraid I wasn't capable. Afraid I wouldn't be received or approved. As a perfectionist, I've feared doing anything that I couldn't do extremely well. Excellence is a worthy goal, but perfectionism is a paralyzer. I've hated my weaknesses and hated my seeming inability to overcome them. It seemed outside the bounds of propriety that God would call me to exhort people about Jesus when I'm such a poor example of a disciple. I'm sarcastic, sometimes angry, and a bit of a know-it-all. I can't lose weight, can't stop chewing my nails when I'm anxious, and can't stop being anxious. I mean, who do I think I am? I clearly don't have it together enough to tell others anything about anything!

And every time I encountered someone who stepped outside their comfort zone and did something they felt God asked them to--even though they didn't feel qualified--I became a little more envious. Until finally every time I saw a new avenue of ministry that had apparently fallen magically into someone's lap I was angry. Angry at myself and angry at God--as if there were a finite number of opportunities out there and those people were taking them, leaving me with one less. I know--very childish. But I am so grateful God is big enough to wait patiently while I throw tantrums. He just kept me bumping into people who shouldn't have been able to do what they were doing--but they were doing it anyway. When I would ask Him why (usually in a whiney tone), He'd say, "because they love me and were willing." My abilities or lack thereof were never the issue, because perfection is not a qualifier--willingness is.

So it has finally sunk in that waiting for perfection to overtake me is a fool's errand. Duh! It seems to me I read somewhere God uses clay jars so we don't get the idea that we've had anything to do with His work. So who do I think I am? Nobody, I'm simply attempting to do what He tells me without trying to figure out whether He's made a mistake asking me. Because I love Him and belong to Him, what else can I do?

What holds you back? Do you think you're too old, too young, too broken, too misunderstood, not spiritual enough, not educated enough, or don't have enough connections--STOP IT! If you feel God is identifying areas in which you might use your gifts and talents, start taking baby steps to use them. You will make mistakes. You will sometimes be misunderstood. But if you remain teachable and step forward with humility, God will make a way for your abilities to be expressed and used. You will mature in God, being who He made you to be. Don't waste time walking a rut in your rug, worried that you aren't good enough for God to use. Nonsense...no one is, so everyone can. That's one of the wonderful paradoxes God is so fond of. 

And though it makes me chew my nails to confess it in writing...I am a writer. And holy cow, I've erased and re-written that sentence three times already!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

War of Attrition

Those of us who’ve served the Lord for many years have pretty much seen it all. I’ve been there, done that, bought the tee-shirts, made a quilt of all the tee shirts and then burned the quilt. And then buried the ashes in the backyard. And then refused to go in the backyard. You get the picture. I am convinced that one of the enemy's best strategies against older believers is a war of attrition--just pick, pick, picking at us about what's wrong with ourselves, everyone and everything else until we're completely demoralized and give up.  I confess that more than once I have worn down into bitter agreement with the scoffers in Malachi, "it is futile to serve God." (Mal. 3:14)

It's incredibly easy to get over-focused on the never ending parade of unmet expectations, personal and church issues, as well as general discontent bred by our 'me first' culture. Not to mention the daily news. By the time you're my age, mainly we're seeing that the world doesn't work so well. Nor my eyesight, hearing, memory and digestion. In the face of so many issues demanding attention, we can lose sight of the Lord and lose hope.

And then there's the church. As we age, youthful optimism fades and a number of different churches have been attended. One can definitely lose faith in the church as an institution--or come to believe the church is an institution...like a nut house. Sorry, but if you've been a practicing believer for a long time, there is no way you haven't seen the ugly side of church life. But because the church is made up of broken, fallen people (Me! Me! It's me!), how could I expect it to be anything other than a broken institution? 

But I recently read something that has sparked hope in me. My disappointment with the way things are may actually be a reflection of longing for the heavenly reality--the way things ought to be. God has promised that one day things will be set straight. We will be without spot or blemish. He will purify the church into a glorious bride dressed in white linen as for her husband. And we get new bodies (Yay!). So instead of weariness and depression at the long, long siege warfare waged against us, I can see my dismay at the gap between what is and what should be differently. I can allow it to jar me into remembering that God intends to close that gap. That puts everything in a different light, because what God intends is not only possible, it will happen. But to keep despair at bay, I must remember to keep my eyes focused on Him. Not on the mess all around me. 

Ultimately, the relentless onslaught the enemy uses to wear me down is like a cloud of gnats buzzing around my head. Irritating, but not dangerous. The danger is taking my focus from the Lord. That I actually come to believe that the enemy is winning. That there is no hope. That I may as well retire from the battle, lay down and wait for God. No! When the tension of 'now, but not yet' disturbs me, I want to long for the coming greater reality, while remembering that we are still in process. And then look with faith to God to receive strength to go on.

I am pleased that hope is growing once more, as I refocus on Jesus and choose to remember that what I see all around me is not the final answer. Though the process is not pretty, what we have yet to see will be more marvelous than our wildest imaginings. 

"Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever." Psalm 73:25-26  Amen.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Drama in Houston...

A storm of outrage is building against Houston's mayor who, if you believe her story, didn't know that her office had issued subpoenas demanding some area pastors turn over a broad spectrum of communications with their congregations. The subpoenas demand pretty much anything the pastors have written or said concerning gender issues, homosexuality, the mayor herself, or anything to do with the HERO ordinance she recently signed. The new ordinance permits, among other things, trans-gendered individuals to use the opposite sex's public bathrooms, which you might imagine has thrown a whole lot of folks into a tizzy.

I have to admit that I was huffing indignantly along with everyone else. But what has begun to bother me is not the idiocy of permitting biologically male individuals into women's bathrooms and vice versa, but our reaction to the subpoenas. On Facebook alone, the outcry has approached a shrillness one might associate with truly heinous crimes--like the beheading of children in Iraq just a short time ago. Which makes me nervous we could be missing the bigger picture.

Of course we are entitled to the same respect and rights of citizenship as anyone else, and the event in Houston is alarming. But an alarm warns of danger, and we want to correctly identify the danger. Could it be that it's mostly that we're looking in the wrong place for our help? Our government and the majority culture have long been turning away from a Judeo-Christian foundation... we just mostly didn't notice, because they mostly left us alone. And now they're not leaving us alone and we're surprised, and alarmed and angry. But we shouldn't be--Jesus told us it would be like this. (Luke 21:16, John 15:18, 16:2, and others). Our rights as Americans have given us benefits Christians in the rest of the world can only dream of. Perhaps Houston serves as a timely reminder us that we are citizens of Heaven first and America second. Our rights are a blessing, but were never intended to preserve the church. Our rights abrogated by unjust (and ridiculous) laws will not kill the church either, but might help us trust the rule of law less and God's protection more.

By all means we should engage the issue, and remind society at large that the Constitution still applies to Christians. But in addition we might want to reflect on what this latest incident might mean...to discern the times by checking Scripture to see where this sort of thing falls on God's timeline. And pray. Our highest, best appeal is to God. We belong to Him and he has the ultimate responsibility for our rights and reputation. And He created and is running the game plan the world is unwittingly playing by. If this infringement of our rights shakes us into asking God what's going on, then Houston's mayor may have done the church in America a great service.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Holding God's Hand

When Josiah was two and wanted to walk everywhere, I insisted he hold my hand when we were outside, and he resented that restriction of his independence. I explained about cars; I explained about strangers; I told him I liked holding his hand; I demanded that he respect Mommy’s wishes. But none of that meant anything to my stubborn toddler. In the end I had to firmly and consistently insist that he hold my hand. There were spankings involved. More than once I pulled a crying child across a parking lot. In the end he realized that he was not going to win and began to automatically hold out his hand so I could take it. He began to feel safe and confident because of his connection to me. He learned to trust me to keep him safe.
I too am learning to hold hands…with God—though I have to say it’s taking me much longer than it took Joey. How sad is it that I am more stubborn than a two year old? Too often I have had to learn obedience the hard way—kicking and screaming. Or worse, gone spiritually boneless--a sullen heap on the ground—daring God to make me go with Him. I know better. There are dangers on every side; but like my former toddler, my confidence I know what I'm doing is often ill founded. I don’t know where the land mines are. Exotic disease, broken economic realities, natural disaster, failing political system, and the intolerant political correctness of tolerance all demand my attention and concern. And we are entering ever deeper into a reality in which self and its ravenous demands are worshipped as the ultimate good; which sadly I find is in me as much as in the world.

But because all these issues shout so loud from every side, I've become suspicious that they are mostly side show. Don't get me wrong, all these things are real, and big, and scary; but for believers they are penultimate only. The ultimate reality must be my need to grow and maintain an intimate relationship with Jesus. I must never stop learning to hear His voice amid all the competing voices around me. I keep forgetting what I must remember…the main event is that Jesus is coming back. Jesus is coming back and the only safe place to be in the midst of all these frightening realities is with Him, holding tight to His hand.

God alone knows thoroughly where the greatest danger lies for me…where I must not step if I don’t want to end up a bloody smear on the side of the road. I don’t always want to, but I want to want to automatically hold out my hand and let the Lord lead me. I am reminding myself that I need to put my trust in the One who not only knows my destination but the safest, best road to get there.

Lord, help me to stay focused on You. Keep fear for my personal safety, outrage at perceived slights or infringements of my ‘rights’ from blinding me from the greater reality that You are in charge and You know what You're doing. Help me to see your hand stretched out to me. And give me the humility to grasp it as if my life depended on it...because it does.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Sukkot Reflections, 2014

The Feast of Tabernacles at first blush seems an archaic event--best relegated to quaint elementary school plays or scholarly examination. Peasants gathering to feast, as an expression of gratitude and relief that the harvest has been completed and there is food aplenty for the winter. Today, most of us are several steps away from growing our own food--or even seeing it grown. And we already celebrate Thanksgiving, so what could this ancient harvest festival have to do with us in the twenty-first century? But Sukkot is so much more than that.

God is wise. He knew we'd find life on earth a challenge. Knew we'd wear down and wear out and forget who and whose we really are. He lovingly set up the annual cycle of feasts like a spiritual maintenance schedule for our souls. These are appointments (the Hebrew moed means appointed time) arranged by God to meet and party with His people. The feasts are breaks from our normal routine scheduled throughout the year--times to gather with friends and refresh by remembering who God is and what He has done. The feasts are designed to remind us to look to our Great King and remember and trust that He has a plan He is working.

And He thoughtfully provided us with the bullet point version of that plan, built right in the cycle. The Spring feasts prophetically pictured Jesus' first appearing and were accurately fulfilled when He walked the earth. The Fall feasts are an annual rehearsal of what remains to be fulfilled--Jesus' return and a wedding party of unimaginable proportions. It's like He left us His Daytimer, so we could not only follow along as he unfolded history, but could actively anticipate what will happen in the future.

When God set up Sukkot, one of the commands was "to rejoice with great rejoicing." I like that. No moping around, complaining about the work it took to get ready or having to have Uncle Moshe to dinner, whom nobody likes. Life is short--get ready, get busy and get happy. When one reads about how the celebrations ran during the Temple period, the mind boggles. Sukkot ran for seven days with two days tacked on...as if once the gratitude train got started it was hard to shut it down.

All adult men (boys twelve and over were included) were required to journey to Jerusalem for this feast, and those who could afford to do so brought the family. There was activity day and night in the Temple compound, which functioned as both church and community center during this Feast. Sacrifices were offered all day, along with prayer and the singing of Psalms, thanking God for what He had done for them, and expressing expectation and longing for the coming of Messiah and His kingdom.

An elaborate water ceremony took place each morning, in which 'living water' was drawn from the spring of Siloam, carried to the Temple and poured out on the altar, accompanied by prayers for rain. Jesus used that ceremony to speak to the people in the Temple about who He was in John 7:37.

Four 75 foot tall candelabras were erected in the Court of the Women and lit each night. Accounts of those who saw them say the entire city was illuminated by the glow of those lamps, leading people to call Jerusalem the light of the world during Tabernacles. Jesus' claim that he was the light of the world in John 8:12 would have resonated deeply with people who had seen the blazing Temple lights chase away the night during the Feast.

And at night, the people would return home to eat and sleep in the distinctive feature of this Feast--a booth. Sukkah means tent, or temporary dwelling. They were to construct a little shack and live in it seven days to commemorate the time after the Exodus, when God led them in the desert, protecting them, feeding them and guiding them with His presence manifested in pillars of cloud and fire.
By the time of Jesus, it was an extravagant, joy-filled week, filled with feasting, singing, praying, and dancing. There were priests in full regalia parading back and forth from the spring near the Temple, priests worshipping with instruments, priests waving tree branches like banners; priests chanting the Psalms of ascent (Ps 120-134)--even priests juggling flaming torches. How exciting must it have been to see those dignified and serious men, exuberantly worshipping the Lord? 

Only five days removed from the solemnity of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the people would be filled with gratitude that God had covered their sins; that He had sent the rain and filled their barns; that He protected them from their enemies; and for the promise of the coming Messiah. The Scriptures recited during that week rehearsed the testimony that their God was different than the gods of the nations. He was active; He was present; He spoke; He intervened in their lives to make and keep them as His beloved people.

So yes, Sukkot has something to offer even in the twenty-first century. I need encouragement and strengthening every bit as much as my ancient brethren. I too need to be reminded that I belong to a mighty One who loves me and saved me and is fully capable of meeting my needs and keeping me till the end. Though I will encounter many storms, my great Messiah will bring me safely into the harbor of His kingdom. So this morning I'm sitting in my sukkah with my coffee, reflecting on the joy of friends laughing, sharing and enjoying one another just a few nights ago. I am glad that long ago God considered me, and set this time aside to celebrate and remember.

Show, don't Tell

In fiction writing an author's greatest sin is  telling , rather than showing . Explaining plot points in large paragraphs is vastly in...