Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Strong, Crushed, Renewed?

What is the condition of your spirit?

Proverbs 18:14 says "A man's spirit will endure sickness, but a crushed spirit, who can bear?" This offering from the wisest of teachers lets us know a few things about that part of us that we can't see but governs the whole of our life--our spirit.

First, it tells us that our spirit can "endure sickness." Infirmities, diseases, and illnesses are hard for us to take, especially when they linger and when their symptoms are severe. Even so, we know that people find ways to endure such hardships. We tell stories of people who dealt with such things in ways that inspire in their perseverance. Some of you have gone through such hardships and been an example to me and to others.

But second, this proverb tells us that while the spirit is resilient in the face of this and other adversities, it can still be "crushed." The word here comes from a root that speaks of being broken, stricken (by a blow), or wounded. It is the condition of something that, when whole, is powerful enough to endure hard things like cancer or physical injuries. But it can be wounded, and such wounds can be debilitating.

That's the third truth--the crushed, broken spirit is something we cannot live with. As the writer says, "who can bear it?" The answer is, no one can. In fact, Proverbs 17:22 says "a crushed spirit dries up the bones"-- a metaphor for the loss of vitality, hope, and ultimately, life.

What kinds of wounds crush the spirit? This book gives us some clues. Though not an exhaustive list, I think we can see how these things can or have wounded spirits, including ours.

Perverse, evil words are one such destructive tool. Proverbs 15:4 says, "...perverseness in [the tongue] breaks the spirit." We have all had people say things to us that were hurtful, and meant to be so. When such words come from those we have loved and trusted, they can be devastating. Believing them can forever shape a child's heart, and they can cause adults to shun situations and people under their influence. Of course, perverse words can also be lies, such as those Satan used at the beginning: "has God really said? You will not surely die!" These kinds of perverse words may not hurt immediately, but become deadly once accepted.

Later in the same chapter, the writer of Proverbs says, "A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed (15:13)." This is not just a disappointment, but an abiding sense of grief at a fundamental level. It comes when what we have built our life and sense of meaning and purpose on is taken from us. It can consume us when those idols we have trusted fail us. We experience it when the things we are counting on to make us happy fail to do so. It is the opposite of the joyful heart that is like good medicine (17:22)

In 16:18 we get another clue to a way to damage our spirit -- it is through "haughtiness" of spirit (an inflated view of ourselves). This, we are told, leads to a "fall"-- again, not just a simple stumble, but a crushing, fatal collapse. When we allow our spirits to be "puffed up" with pride and arrogance, we create the situations that will lead to our being not just humbled, but potentially crushed.

How is your spirit today? If it isn't enduring the hard things of life as well as it should, perhaps you should ask whether or not one of the following is true?

1. Are you allowing evil words and lies to shape your beliefs and attitudes about yourself?
2. Are you discovering that you have trusted in the wrong things to give your life meaning and purpose, and now finding that they are failing to deliver what you have relied on them to give?
3. Have you put all your confidence in your own ability to make it in life as the captain of your soul?

Brothers and sisters, take heart. There is a cure for the broken spirit and these three causes of it.

Rather than let the words and lies of others, including Satan, hold sway, run to the Word and hear the promises of Jesus, who speaks grace to you, his child, and tells you of his everlasting love. He speaks peace, and forgiveness, and whatever else  you need to hear. Listen!

Put away your idols, and seek Jesus and him alone. Let that pursuit lead you to experience how he will add all other things you need into your life (Matthew 6:33). Idols are deadly, tricky things. Often they are, as has been said, by others, "good things, turned into ultimate things" -- which then makes them a bad thing.

Humble yourself before the Lord. Confess your tendency toward self-sufficiency. You can't fix everything, nor should you try. You are not God and don't have access to his plans and ways. You cannot even cause your hair to grow faster (or at all) or even stay in place! God has them all numbered. Let God be God, and let him bring balm to heal your spirit.

Pray, with David, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me." God will hear and answer that prayer -- every time.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Ascension Day: When Christians Should be Looking Up!

Today is Ascension Day, forty days after Resurrection Day (Easter). The Bible tells us that it was after forty days on earth, during which time Jesus appeared publicly twice in the upper room to his disciples (John 20:19-29), once in Galilee to a large crowd of followers (Matthew 28:16-20), picnicked with some of the eleven after a night of fishing on the Sea of Galilee (John 21:4-14), and met with them again in Jerusalem (Acts 1:6). Luke makes it plain that during these days he offered "many proofs" that he was, in fact, the same Jesus who was alive again (Acts 1:3). He also told them that great power was coming for them from heaven, but that they must wait in Jerusalem now for it to come.

After all of this, according to the book of Acts (1:6-11), he led them for their final "study session" (where he laid out once again the plan for worldwide witness once their power had come to them), to the same hillside east of Jerusalem where he had, weeks before, told them about the end of the age--the Mount of Olives. He repeated the plan (you remember what it is, don't you?) and as he finished, with the eleven watching, he began to rise bodily into the sky, a glorious, shining cloud of glory enveloping him as he rose so that they could no longer see him. He (and the cloud) were gone! But in the meantime, two angels stood next to them, and gently told them that staring was not their occupation. But hope was theirs--this same Jesus, will return in just the same way.

In his glorified body.
Carried back on the cloud of God's glory.
To the Mount of Olives, where he will stand on earth.

We've been studying a little bit (OK, a lot) about what the Bible says will precede this return, but never let us lose sight of what the signs point to.

Our Jesus is alive, and he is coming back.

Can it happen? Just as surely as he went up, he will come back down. Until then, don't lose hope, even though you can't see him yet.

Happy Ascension Day!

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Significance, Suffering, and Sovereignty

We want the first, avoid the second, and ignore the third

And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” Mark 10:35-40 (ESV)

This story always intrigues us, for many reasons. One is that in Matthew's gospel we discover that James and John used their mom as the one to make the request--how bold of them!

There are many lessons to be gathered but there is one specific lesson that has been on my mind this week.

Note that James and John wanted special seats in the kingdom of Jesus--on his right and left hand. These would be prominent places indeed. If the rest of the disciples were on thrones as well, and in a line, they would be the ones seen most prominently, closer to Jesus than anyone. And these seats would identify these two disciples as especially significant--as if no one was closer to Jesus. It wasn't exactly what Peter would have thought.

We look at them and feel sorry for them--after all, the entire church for 2,000 years has heard of their prideful move and its failure. We know that the other disciples were angered, perhaps because they didn't ask first. Being important in the kingdom was a big deal to them. They wanted, they craved significance!

Interestingly, Jesus doesn't just put them in their place with a withering response. Instead, he points out two issues.

The first is whether they are able to drink the cup that he is about to drink. We have the advantage of history and the biblical record to know that this was the cup of his suffering and death. They brazenly answer, "we are able." They weren't at that point, although Jesus tells them they will, in fact drink from that same cup. James would be the first martyr and first of the disciples to die for Christ. John would be the last, after numerous attempts on his life, dying as an old man after living in exile because of his faithfulness.

Why does Jesus say this? Because the road toward significance in the service of Jesus is, invariably, the road of suffering. It is, after all, the way of the Cross. A path that emphasizes death to self, putting others first, sacrifice, loss, giving up familial relationships, and a cost to pay is not an easy, rosy one. It is good--incredibly good--and we know its ultimate joys. But it is still a road of suffering. Were they willing to embrace suffering? They said yes, but when Jesus prepared for his, they slept, and when he underwent his, they ran in the other direction.

How about us? Are we willing to run toward suffering, and chaos, and all the mess involved in invading strongholds of sin to, as the old song says, "rescue the perishing?" The followers of Jesus must embrace suffering on the path to significance.

Jesus doesn't dwell on their actual inability, but he moves to a second issue--sovereignty. He says that it is not his prerogative to award those seats, but that right belongs to the Father, who will give them to those for whom they are prepared. Not only will the Father give them out, but he has prepared the seats for particular people and people for those seats. Was it James and John? Jesus doesn't say--only that he won't do it.

Why does Jesus reveal this truth? I would suggest it is because we must remember that it is the Father's will that matters, and sometimes that will is not for us to be made prominent or significant in the eyes of others. You can indeed serve faithfully, and suffer bravely, and yet God's plan for you may not involve being seen as significant. Your role is perfect for you, and brings glory to God (as we are all made to do), but it may or may not be appreciated and valued by others. This creates another question: are we willing to be faithful in serving and even suffering, if God's plan for us does not involve being recognized as "a great servant" or "a noble sufferer for righteousness?"

By the same token, we have to decide if it is enough to be "significant" in the eyes of God alone? Will we walk the path of obedience, knowing it brings suffering, hoping only for the joys in Christ we are promised, and not worried about whether we will be recognized for doing so? True significance means trusting the sovereign determinations of God as to when or whether earthly eyes will know of us and our faithfulness.

I think James and John were a bit out of control in their request, but if we are honest, it can be easy to want to be significant--to be recognized, even if it is for our humility! May God help us serve, and live, and worship for the approval of the only One who matters. The path of true significance in God's sight is open to all his children--it will involve both suffering, and sovereign direction, but also divinely promised reward at the time we hear, "Well done!"

Who will get those two seats? I don't know. But the question reminds me of a story I read about the death of George Whitefield, the great evangelist. John Wesley had been an early friend and co-worker of Whitefield, but they differed sharply on doctrine--with Whitefield being a strong believer in the sovereignty of God in salvation and Wesley taking a strong view in favor of man's free will. Their letters back and forth on these issues were argued with passion and heat. When the news of Whitefield's death reached Wesley, a lady who was one of Wesley's followers asked, "Mr. Wesley, do you expect to see dear Mr. Whitefield in heaven?"

"No madam" replied Wesley after a lengthy pause.

"Ah, I was afraid you would say that," she answered.

To which Wesley added, "Do not misunderstand me, madam; George Whitefield was so bright a star in the firmament of God's glory, and will stand so near the throne, that one like me, who am less than the least, will never catch a glimpse of him."

I think that we may be surprised to find that God has a way of making significance in his eyes much more rewarding that significance in the eyes of others. And learning to rejoice in the recognition that others may receive (even if you don't for the very same service) is one of the greatest preparations of our hearts for a destination we rightly call "Glory."

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Out of Control!

We are reminded daily that we are not in charge.

This week, I have had nearly a dozen conversations with people that have in some way pointed out that plans made did not happen. Things thought certain turned out to be illusory. Decisions that seemed to be no-brainers turned out to be wrong. As one person said it, "Nothing here seems to be going according to plan." Even my devotions sounded this note during the week.

That should not be a new discovery for us, but an acknowledgement of settled reality. Oh, I don't mean that there isn't a plan that is being carried out. It's just not yours, or mine. Does that bother you? Why? After all, it's been the truth as long as we've been alive.

The longer I live, the more I realize that the moments when my plans for me and others come to fruition are more happy exceptions than a regular rule. How many times have I envisioned the way a conversation should go, only to have it not go that way? How often have I thought that things should work out a certain way for me or those around me, only to have them be different? Would anybody really think that I'd create a plan where I'd live in Ohio and my married kids and grandchildren would be all over the country? No way.

Yes, I can decide to go to the store, and then go. Even then, however, I'm warned to take an "if the Lord wills" approach to those details. And that's a clue to the greater reality we must see. There is a master planner, and it is not any of us.

We live in a God-created world where everything follows the Creator's plan. And it is set: look at Isaiah 46:8-10
 “Remember this and stand firm,
recall it to mind, you transgressors,
 remember the former things of old;
 for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,’
calling a bird of prey from the east,
the man of my counsel from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
I have purposed, and I will do it."

That is just one passage of many that speak of God's directive power over his creation, including us. But that is not the only truth about his plan that we must hold on to, lest we go crazy with fear and doubt.

The second great truth is that the God who is all powerful is working things for his glory and the good of those he has redeemed. Even in the passage above he makes sure we recognize that his control points to the glory of his name. Consider also Isaiah 42:8:

 I am the Lord; that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to carved idols
And then that verse we glibly quote but don't dwell on its depths: Romans 8:28-30
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. 
Taken together, these texts (along with many others) point us to three realities:
1. God is in control of everything, not us.

2. God's plan lines up with his character of holiness and love, bringing him the glory he is due as God.

3. The people who have been called by God into his family (and become those who love God) can be sure that all things are working out what God knows is good for us.

The fact that I'm not in charge of things should become great news. After all, the One who is in charge came up with the plan of redeeming sinners through the death of his Son and making us righteous by faith alone. If he can do that, then I can rest in knowing the rest of his plans are equally good.

However, it's tough to live in that reality when things go badly, or what we perceive as badly. We don't get the job, our relationship falls apart, a loved one gets very sick. These aren't good circumstances, and they will be our lot in a world still marred by sin. And we face the sinful choices of others (that God's plan includes--even when we can't figure out how such freedom to defy him can be harmonized with his control) that bring pain and suffering--these are not good things.

But all of the bad that we acknowledge is not outside his directive plan, and will yield ultimately good results for us and glorious results for the name of God, even when he exercises judgment over his enemies; this glorifies his justice.

This is where faith comes in. We must believe what we know to be true. God's control is always good for us. My thinking that things are bad may be true about the circumstances, but not about the outcome. And it's really, really good that you and I are not ultimately in charge of our lives. I've made enough wrong moves in my life to know that I don't get things right all the time, and I don't want to imagine what my life would be if my failures were fatal on my own, instead of tools in a good Father's plan for me!

"A person's heart plans his way, but the LORD determines his steps."--Proverbs 16:9

I taught Christine a song from that verse, and it's what I hold onto now and I seek to make the decisions in front of me. You can, too!

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Words that Heal

During my devotional study in Proverbs last year, my readings often focused on the power of words. Tim Keller's devotional book on the Proverbs has been my guidebook through the wisdom we find, and for a successive number of days, the various proverbs relating to speech were in view.

I've considered the nature of words from the many types of speech discussed there. Solomon speaks of words that are true, and not just factually true, but honest--without any attempt to mislead. Words should be faithful in their intent, reflect integrity in the speaker, and bring grace to the recipient (I was going to put all the references in here, but all you would see would be parentheses and numbers!).

Words can be kind or cruel; they can have power to hurt or even kill. They can encourage and build up, or they can wound and tear down. They can refresh or cause anxiety. Sometimes they can be both needed and hard to hear when they contain the faithful rebuke of a friend. Even as I say these things, some of you are remembering various verses from the book that say these things.

Recently, I have been impressed by the discussion of words that heal. In 16:24 we read, "Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones." That's an image that requires some experience. Mine comes regularly in Israel.

On our Israel tours, the hotels we use provide very large breakfast buffets. One of my favorites features a large section of fresh honeycomb, dripping with honey. It is a treat to enjoy and I do almost every morning we are there. Spreading it on some of the wonderful breads available makes the morning meal a "sweet deal."

In a culture that didn't have the abundance of sugar in everything that we have, honey and the honeycomb were a treat, and came to symbolize a special refreshment. We are told that both Samson and Jonathan found themselves refreshed and sustained in eating from it.

Similarly Solomon says words that are empowered by grace ("gracious words" are not just "nice," they are reflective of grace to others) have a similar effect. They can bring a lightness to the soul that may be weighed down. More than that, they can bring healing--a restorative power--to the person who may be suffering.

I think most of us would want our words to be able to have this kind of impact on others when they are hurting, and perhaps even when they just need to be encouraged. So, how might we make sure our words are restorative and healing when that is needed?

I started working on a list of the other characteristics I find in Proverbs that give healing power to words. Here it is--you can probably add more.
  1. They should be true. You don't help anyone or show grace in any real sense by not being honest.
  2. They should be "hear" able. What I mean by that is that what I say needs to be both understandable and receivable by the hearer. Sometimes I may have a gracious message, but the person I address is not in a state of mind to hear it. I should gauge the moment to see if I can speak in a way that will be heard in the right way.
  3. They should have credibility. That means that the person has reason to believe that I am a credible witness and a trusted voice. This is especially true if the healing needed involves any measure of correction.
  4. They should have the effect of "blessing." The way they are spoken and the aim in the speaking should be seen as seeking the good of the hearer. When we say something "for their own good," that is what we mean, but sometimes the way such messages come across is less healing than harsh.
  5. They should reflect and line up with wisdom. Many of the proverbs extol wisdom, and healing words will bear the evidence of flowing from wisdom we have gained through our experience of God's truth and his work in us.
  6. They should be regular. Just as we may need multiple doses of a medicine, healing words sometimes need repeating and regularity to have their desired effect. 
That's my initial list. As I said, you might add to it out of your experience. But this has become my personal challenge--to find ways to make my words and conversation a greater source of healing to those around me. 

Monday, April 22, 2019

A Tale of Two Easter Sundays

You can see me facing the congregation with the orchestra
in the foreground and the choir in the distance.
Yesterday here in Cedarville, the Grace Church family celebrated the Resurrection with two services filled with music and Word--we have our children worshiping with us on this day, and so the whole service was geared toward the whole family. We considered three themes together, "Lost, Waiting, Rescued" as we recounted the story of Jesus death and resurrection in the context of the Bible's grand story. It was a great day of worship and celebration. We arrived and left without incident. We always do. Surprisingly, last week, the new Chief of Police, a believer himself who attends a sister church, stopped by on Sunday morning to speak to our safety team here and ask if there were any ways that he could be of any assistance to us. It was a very kind gesture. We haven't had any need for the police to protect us, and in my tenure here, we have not had to have the police intervene during a service or offer us assistance, other than in an occasional medical emergency when they accompanied EMS workers who came to help.

In contrast, the Zion Church in Sri Lanka did not have their expected Easter Sunday. Instead, a bomb ripped through their building killing dozens of people. The pastor, a graduate of Singapore Bible College, lost his son in the blast. The picture you see was taken at Zion Church just ten minutes before the bomb exploded and killed half the people you see in that room. The authorities are convinced that this was the work of terrorists targeting Christians, but they have not yet named the group responsible [UPDATE: The government has named a known Islamic terror group as the perpetrators, but says they could not have acted alone and must have had outside help from other like-minded groups. The government was warned of these attacked by the US and other intelligence services weeks in advance but did not issue warnings or take steps to protect Christians].

This is a picture of the children of Zion Church in Sri Lanka,
ten minutes before half of them were killed in a bomb
blast that targeted the church along with others across
Sri Lanka, on Easter Sunday morning.
Sri Lanka is an island nation where the majority religion is Buddhism, and the next largest is Hinduism. These groups were at war for decades ago, as the minority Tamil Tigers, made up of members of the minority Hindu people, waged a guerrilla war against the Buddhist Sinhalese majority. It was a terrible time, but a peace agreement ended such terrible carnage over a decade ago, and Christians were not in the crosshairs then. No one expected such large scale violence again in the country, and especially not against Christians on Easter. But the longstanding Catholic presence, along with a small but fast-growing Evangelical presence, has brought opposition from the larger religions, including Islam.

Sometimes these stories make us momentarily sad, but they are easy to hold at a distance. Not so this time. We have two members of our own Grace Family from Sri Lanka, and each of their families was touched by this string of church bombings, losing members of extended family. I spoke with them Easter Sunday at our services, and they were still awaiting word on the rest of their families. Thankfully, no immediate family members were harmed.

I see some Christians who seem to be reacting with anger toward those who did this: anger that probably is due, at least in part, to being taken by surprise in both the incident and its violence toward people we know were not a threat to anyone. I'm troubled, but not angered. Here's why.

Jesus told us a number of truths about being his people. One is that we should expect hatred, just like he himself faced. Further, he told us that we are blessed when we are persecuted for his name's sake, and that is clearly what was happening here. Speaking to the church in Smyrna about the persecution they would face, he did not urge anger or retaliation, but rather, "be faithful to death, and I will give you the crown of life." These martyrs will receive that special gift from Jesus himself.

We grieve the loss of life, and we weep with those who weep. This was not deserved, nor was it anything other than criminal and evil. But it really should not surprise us that it happened--even if the particular occurrence was a surprise. It has been happening throughout Asia for years, even as the evangelical church is growing rapidly there.

Those who plotted these bombings believe they can silence Christians and stop the gospel from moving forward by their actions. Not only are they wrong, but they will find what many before them have discovered--"The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." And in what might be one of the most ironic of results, some of those who plotted this deed may themselves come under the conviction and saving power of the One they were trying to fight. Just ask Saul of Tarsus.

We had a great Sunday, but it was a bit more sobering than normal, for the events in Sri Lanka had already occurred and we noted them, praying for our brothers and sisters there. But right after we prayed, we sang a song that included the following words:

There's a reason why our hearts can be courageous,
There's a reason why the dead are made alive,
There's a reason why we share his resurrection,
Jesus is alive."
(From "Praise the King" by Shane and Shane)

Believers in Sri Lanka and other places need that courage right now, and God will give it. And we may need it sooner than we realize--may we seek it in the power of Christ's resurrection!

Sunday, April 21, 2019

"Christ is Risen, He is Risen Indeed!"

[Originally published on Easter, 2014]

I've actually been to this tomb in Israel many times--a rolling stone tomb along the road that is probably the closest we
will get to a good representation of what Jesus' empty tomb would have looked like.
A very well known "cutting edge" Christian famous for his iconoclastic life and writings wrote a book a number of years ago that was every "wanna be cutting edge" Christian's favorite book. In it, the writer echoed one of his mentors in saying that the beauty of the teachings of Jesus is so great, and the power of his instruction so overpowering, that even if the whole story of Jesus wasn't true, and there was no heaven ahead, he would still want to be a Christian because of these qualities.

At that point as I was reading the book, I threw it across the room.

Why? Because that is what Paul the apostle would have done.

Actually he says, in 1 Corinthians 15 that if Christ is not, really and truly, raised from the dead, we Christians are "most to be pitied." That is Bible talk for "losers," "idiots," or just about any term of derision and foolishness you would want to pin on us. Why, Paul says, would we go through all the self-denial, the enduring of wrongs in hopes that they will be made right some day, the offending of others, and who knows what else, if this whole matter of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus isn't real?  Good question! 

Christianity, thankfully, is not just a self improvement program because, let's face it, even if I improve myself to my highest potential, I am still falling short of God's glory, still selfish, still thinking more about myself than I should, only now I'd just have more about me to brag and think highly about. And I can't save myself from myself--from my sinfulness. 

Christianity is about resurrection, not just reformation. It is not just weak becoming strong, but dead coming to life. The resurrection of Jesus figured much more prominently in the apostles' preaching in Acts than it often does in our thinking. We focus on his death--a vital focus to be sure. But they loved to proclaim his resurrection--his power over death, and the guarantee of right standing before God forever in his presence. His death, without the resurrection, gave his followers only grief. They didn't think about how noble it was, or even of it as a possible appeasement of God's wrath. Only the resurrection made it real to them.

And it keeps making it real to us. He is risen. He's alive, now and forevermore. And as he ascended into heaven the message of the angels at that event was the same as he had been giving--he is coming back!