Saturday, February 28, 2015

Of Purim and Imaginary Gorillas...

When I was a kid, my Mom used an expression, “the whole megillah.” If someone cleaned their plate, she’d say, “they ate the whole megillah.” If an event was a big deal she might say, “they had a band, decorations, food— the whole megillah.” In my child-mind, I thought that somehow she was referring to Magilla Gorilla, a cartoon I had often seen on TV. Therefore, to me, the whole Magilla meant something very large, because Magilla was very large. Hey, I was a was the only Magilla I knew of.

It was years later that I discovered my error. Megillah is Hebrew for scroll, which is how Scripture was written down originally. The expression the whole megillah comes from the celebration of the feast of Purim. And Purim was inaugurated at the end of an amazing story of a rescue of an entire people group from certain death.

Esther was a Jewish orphan God raised from obscurity to serve a key role in saving her people from the clutches of a wicked, anti-Semitic politician. The story is a real pot boiler. It has everything—poor, but beautiful girl who rises to the top of her society; court intrigue; ambitious courtiers; fancy dinner parties; jealousy, revenge, betrayal—even casting lots or pur to determine the best day for the Jewish people to die. But it is also a story of repentance, sacrificial intercession and conquering love, which leads to a great victory at the end.

Tradition decrees that Purim be celebrated with great rejoicing. It is not one of the Feasts of the Lord, but finding that you’ve escaped annihilation does seem a very good reason for a party! The Jewish people have encountered many ‘Hamans’ over the years who have tried to eliminate them. So Purim has become a memorial of all the times God has rescued them from destruction.

Purim is often celebrated as a masquerade party, complete with masks. Attendees might come dressed as Esther, Mordecai, King Xerxes or even the bad guy, Haman. Purim skits are sometimes performed. Part of the celebration is an interactive reading of the entire book of Esther—the whole megillah—while the party-goers participate with cheers, boos, hisses and noise makers, called groggers. Tradition dictates that when Haman’s name is read, enough noise should be made to blot out the sound of it! Festive foods are eaten, including Hamantaschen, a filled cookie formed in the shape of the three-sided hat Haman was supposed to have worn. Giving money, food or clothes to at least two needy people is another tradition of Purim. Many Jewish people also fast the day before Purim. This is called Esther’s fast and commemorates the intense three days of repentance, fasting and prayer that preceded Esther’s going to the king to plead for her life and her people.

This year Purim begins on Wednesday evening, March 4. The day before, on the day of Esther's Fast, Israel’s Prime Minister has been invited to give a speech to a joint session of Congress. That is fitting, as he is expected to speak of Israel’s concern about a peace plan in the works that leaves Iran with nuclear capabilities. A nuclear Iran—a nation that has  not only repeatedly called for the elimination of Israel, but the Jewish people as well—makes tiny Israel very, very nervous. That would be a great day to intercede for the Jewish people; to stand with them as they fight against the spirit of Haman, thousands of years later still calling for their destruction.

There is ongoing debate in this country over whether America should continue to support Israel in the Middle East. While we may prefer to remain neutral, thinking we don’t have a dog in that fight, that can only last so long. The evening news alone provides ample evidence that many sects of Islam don't distinguish between what they call the "little Satan"  (Israel/Jews) and the "great Satan" (Americans of every persuasion). In their minds (and in their own words), both are deserving of death. So neutrality at best, can only be a temporary option. And while America may decide finally to end its support of Israel, that is not an option for Christians who believe the Bible means what it says. We are commanded to love what God loves, and He loves the Jewish people.

Esther’s Uncle Mordecai told her something that should resonate with us today—that she hadn’t been made queen to please herself, but was advanced to just the right place at just the right time to intercede for her people. As we press ever closer to history's conclusion, God has a role for us to play as well. Like Esther, we are here at this time in history ‘for such a time as this.’ And we are invited to come before a greater king than Xerxes, asking for His favor as we become part of His dramatic end times story. The megillat Esther reminds us that God can work through the unlikeliest people and circumstances—advancing His kingdom while caring for His people. But it has absolutely nothing to do with gorillas…

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

People of the Cross

It is the beginning of Lent, traditionally a time when Christians examine how they’re doing in the faith. A season of repentance and reflection leading up to the highest holy day of the year, when our Messiah gave His life, then took it up again. It seems fitting that I’ve been praying for the families of the Egyptian Christians who died as witnesses to their faith last weekend and meditating on what this means for us here in America. Twenty-one men, grabbed from a town in Libya, marched to the sea and beheaded because they were Christians…designated by the demonized Muslim murderers as “People of the Cross.”

That phrase, people of the cross, has stuck with me, reverberating through my soul. They, of course meant it in a demeaning way, but I’m thinking that it gets right to the heart of the matter. We are people rescued, identified, and directed by the cross of Jesus Christ… foolishness to Gentiles and scandalous to Jews (I Corin. 1:23).

What happened on that beach in Libya is a stark reminder that civilization is not always a defense against violence; that no one is promised a happily ever after; that God takes us seriously when we give Him our lives; and that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. I know that last is true, because the images of the kneeling men, their names, the unavoidable horror of what happened to them keep pushing to the front of my mind. Keep shoving aside my concerns about appointments, budgets, hobbies, weight loss, and myriad, mostly insignificant, things that keep me worried all day long. It’s as if those men, now with Jesus are asking, “On what are you spending your life?”

I’ve been around long enough to have attended numerous services with emotional altar calls. I’ve gone to the front on many an occasion, making my passionate declaration that God may use me as He sees fit. And of course, in the heat of the moment, I’ve meant it. Then the reality of living it out arrives, and I realize how often I slide into doing Christianity to benefit myself. Paying attention to the things which make me happy, rather than seeking to know what my beautiful Savior wants. Too often wasting time, wasting resources, wasting opportunities. Not spending my life, but frittering it away trying to be liked, trying to get ahead or trying to satisfy my human black-hole of want with the world’s goods.

And I know better. The past ten years have seen rapid changes, in economics, morality, technology—even our laws. We are poised at the edge of a future in which Christians—even in America—will be faced with difficult choices.* The Spirit has been calling us to deeper levels of trust in Jesus, and I kind of got busy with life and other things and just…kind of…let things roll to a stop. Sheesh! But I also know that God isn’t angry with me…He loves me enough to give me a swift kick to the seat of my pants when I need to wake up. And I’ve needed waking up.

So during Lent I’m asking, does my life show that I belong to Jesus? Or have I simply given God a tithe of myself, reserving the remainder for me, myself and I?  Have I fallen prey to the error that I can walk an aisle, say some words and then walk out to live as I please? If I have, then the most loving thing God can do is call me on it. It’s awfully easy to do, especially in America, where having to pay full retail might be considered a calamity, and entertainment beckons from every side. Listen, God loves America too much to leave us relaxing in a warm bath of luxury; lulled to sleep by Babylon’s siren song. We think we’re sitting pretty, but we’re wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. Those martyred Christians didn’t have much, yet they had everything, and they are calling us to wake up! To measure ourselves against the yardstick of Jesus, rather than America, and then repent.  

When I came to Jesus. I made an exchange—my mess for His perfection. I no longer belong to myself. I am part of a glorious company (though we don’t seem so yet). Therefore I must press on, not coast. I must seek Jesus as my absolute, utmost treasure, not my Sunday obligation. I must resist the allure of the world and all its treasures…just as Jesus did before me. He had the right answer when Satan offered Him all the kingdoms of the world. “away from me Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.’”

Not everyone will die a martyr’s death, but millions have already. And Scripture tells us that many more will join them before it is all over. I don't know what God has for my future, but I want to go forward with one thing settled. I am a person of the cross and I do belong to God. He can do with my life whatever He wants, even if it means kneeling with me on a beach somewhere. I could never walk that road under my own steam, but Jesus can...He already did. He was the first and foremost Person of the Cross. And I'm with Him. 

*Things that make you go hmmmm: check out the history of 1930's Germany to se the striking parallels between what happened then and what is beginning to happen today.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Belling the Cat

This morning I was watching the birds enjoy the feeders, when I spotted a neighborhood cat on the prowl. It’s a nice kitty, but I know that cats cannot help themselves when it comes to small prey animals. If only I could slip a collar with a bell on that cat, I thought, then the birds would have fair warning that a predator was nearby. Which reminded me of the fable in which the same remedy was proposed by a council of mice, but no one wanted to do the deed. Hence the moral of the story, “it is easy to propose impossible remedies.”  

We have a predator stalking us as well. This predator has silently and subtly infiltrated the arts and entertainment industry in our country. He has proved efficient at re-training us to think as the world does. Not a nice kitty. Unfit for polite society was a saying used in my Mother’s day; can you remember the last time you heard it? It seems that in the days of Miley Cyrus and Beyonce and Fifty Shades of Grey there is no such thing as polite society anymore. Not only that, if you dare to point out that anything offered by the entertainment industry is on any level inappropriate, you must be a prude, a bigot, an ignoramus to the nth degree—or a Christian, which seems to include all of the above. Well, I don’t think sex is nasty, but sexual abuse is; so I am taking up the challenge to bell the cat.

Fifty Shades of Grey opens on Valentine’s Day and is creating buzz…as if a secret cache of esoteric knowledge has been uncovered, which will enrich our lives if we're not too narrow minded. Morning news programs covered it as a cool girls night out sort of thing to do over Valentine’s weekend (which would have made the original St. Valentine sick to his stomach). One network interviewed an audience of giddy women who’d gathered for the preview showing. While there is debate, the main thrust seems to be more about freedom of speech or liberating women, or defeating prudery than whether what is essentially stylized, violent, sexual abuse ought to be viewed for entertainment. What has happened to us?

We've been groomed, much as a sexual predator would groom his next victim. Through the various media we’ve consumed for years, we have been trained to accept a culture which increasingly caters to the darkest inclinations of the fallen human heart. Stuff that would never have appeared on TV back in the day is shown today with nary a peep of protest. Now, in pursuit of being thought cutting edge (and the almighty dollar) Hollywood is romanticizing violent sexual abuse. Out of the other side of its mouth it pontificates about the evils of violence against women. Which makes no sense, except these are the same folks who make millions feeding us a steady diet of violent action movies, then make PSAs condemning gun violence. Why are we letting these people teach us how to live?

I like a good story as much as the next person, but not everything offered to us is fit for consumption. I freely admit I have not read the books, nor do I intend to. In order to correctly identify what is in the bottom of an outhouse, I needn’t sample it with fork and knife. The Psalmist declares, “I will set no vile thing before my eyes” (Psalm 101:3). If watching a troubled young man convince a young woman that he should be allowed to torment her for sexual satisfaction is not vile, then I shudder to think what would be. And it doesn’t matter whether he forces her or gains her willing participation through romance. What a perversion--love is supposed to benefit the other, not exploit them.

Do we really think that because we aren’t suffering active persecution that the enemy has no agenda for American believers? We feel at ease, but this only makes us more vulnerable to his attack. This predator may be subtle, but he’s still asking us the same question he put to Eve, “Did God really say…?” He continually pushes the envelope. He whispers, “this too, is food to eat,” while spooning poison into our mouths. But we have a choice here. We can say a firm “no thank you!” to Fifty Shades of Grey. It does not empower women. It does not enrich our lives. It will not make us better, more loving people. It may be I cannot bell the cat, but I am ringing the bell as hard as I can, while pointing to where that sneaky cat is prowling.

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble,
whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely,
whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—
think about such things.” Philippians 4:8

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Hide and Seek

More than once when I’ve encountered an angry rant against religion— specifically Christianity—I’ve drafted a carefully worded response (after calming my knee-jerk, defensive reaction, of course). I would attempt to frame my arguments to support a logical, thoughtful conclusion. One that sought to answer questions or refute accusations in ways that would help the complainer to see that God isn’t who he thinks He is--or even that He actually is. Most of those responses have never seen the light of day (or social media either). Usually after spending several days thinking and writing and revising, I end up deleting them. Not because rational proofs are not possible, but because they tend to stir up argument rather than convince. So I end up saying nothing. But the problem is not the evidence, but simply that God doesn’t always feel the need to provide it.

If seeing is believing why doesn’t He appear in the clouds or smite a particularly wicked individual with a bolt of lightning? (Kim Jong-Un comes to mind). Maybe divide a sea or two during the evening news—that would settle the existence question pretty handily (and would add a lovely "I told you so" quality to the God debate). But God doesn’t have insecurity issues that might provoke Him to put on a display as proof He exists. He isn't answerable to our demands that He jump through hoops, like a show dog. He isn’t found by the casual observer, or the skeptic who just wants an argument. He so values our free-will that He has left room for doubt, which makes real choice possible. Definitive, in-your-face proof might make for grudging obedience but not friendship, and that’s what He’s after. God wants a loving family, not terrified slaves. So until we are genuinely interested in meeting God, He hides. But He also hints, leaving spiritual bread crumbs which draw the hungry into a search for the something more they sense is there, though they aren't quite sure what it is. And those are the ones who find Him. In the world of faith, seeing is believing is turned on its head, for God mostly reveals Himself to those who want to find Him. 

My encounters with the angry do leave me sad, though not the sadness of whether or not someone is “going to Heaven.” After all, the God who desires that none should perish can be trusted to give everyone on the planet as many opportunities as they need to make a decision about whether or not they want to spend eternity with Him. It makes my heart hurt that someone would believe that we’re just an accidental collection of atoms, with no purpose other than what we can scrape together for ourselves. That we slog along until we die and return to the earth to feed the grass…and that’s it…that’s all. No expectation that history is anything other than a collection of random happenings, which mean nothing. That there is nobody out there to call on for help any wiser, or stronger or more reliable than the next human being. Earth's only hope for a better future resting unsteadily on the weak and inconsistent "Goodness of Man." To believe, as Richard Dawkins does, in a world of “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” He says that folks just need to deal with that reality and get on with it, but I don’t know how that encourages anyone to hope for a better tomorrow.  My sadness lies not in religion losing a convert, but rather that someone has missed knowing and experiencing God, Himself.

To know Him is to know that you are deeply, completely and fiercely loved, just as you are, unconditionally. It is to live, fuelled by the knowledge that no one is an accident…that you are here because God wanted you, the unique you who has never existed before and will never exist again. It is to know you have a purpose independent of the world’s criteria of personal achievement, or financial success, or intelligence, or physical appearance. It is to know that when bad things happen (and they will) that God is so deeply connected to and concerned about you that even your suffering and pain from living in this broken world will be redeemed and ultimately made useful to you. No one need face life and its challenges alone; for there is strength, companionship, encouragement, and support available in endless supply. To know Him is to have confidence that even in a world gone mad, there is someone at the helm, steering us safely through to history's conclusion. I would soon fall into despair, if all there was to believe in was Dawkins' bleak world of pitiless indifference. 

I rehearse these things to myself, so I remember that angry or even disrespectful encounters with unbelievers should not make me angry or disrespectful. I can tend that way, so I need reminding. Such encounters are not for scoring points or winning arguments. They are not for gaining a reputation for myself or even making converts. They are opportunities to introduce people to my closest friend, my comforter and counselor, the one who gave everything, so I could have everything. They are about love. So now rather than argue, I find myself praying, with tears, for those who do not yet know Him. For those who rage, because they have only encountered distortions of His character. For those who’ve been hurt. For those who’ve felt betrayed. For those repelled by the shenanigans (and worse) that go on in the name of God. For those who find it incomprehensible that God could be good, when the world is so bad. For those lost in the pain, and the fury and the darkness of themselves, convinced there is no door to freedom, because they've been unable to find it. But there is. It is only visible to those who are ready to see it. The ones who dare to seek the hidden God.


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...