Friday, August 12, 2016

Vacuums, Hoes, and Striving for Godliness

Giant Tasks, and the Small Steps Needed to Accomplish Them

The other day I was waling the track in the CU field house when I noticed a worker doing what seemed ridiculous. The field house had been used for weeks by various youth groups and conferences, and the residue of these groups still remained on the floor. The red, rubbery track section had all sorts of dirt, small pebbles, wrappers, etc., all over. And as I began to walk I saw, ahead of me, a girl with one of those portable vacuum cleaners you wear like a backpack used to clean in hallways and rooms. There she was, vacuuming the track--all six lanes, plus the surrounding red surfaces. Back and forth the vacuum stroked the track, again and again as she worked from the outer wall inward to the blue infield, and then back out. It was a massive job, and here was this one girl and one vacuum. It seemed overwhelming to think that she would be doing this. Imagine showing up for work, picking up a vacuum and heading to a cavernous building to start--you and your "wand." And yet, as I completed lap after lap, I noticed that she would be a little further along each time--not a lot, but still noticeable. As I was finishing I was passing her and looked back--she had covered nearly a quarter of the track! It was still a long way to go, but look how far she had made it!

This reminded me of a time I'd faced a similar task--actually a number of them. For two summers, I worked for my uncle in eastern Washington on his farm. He had grape vineyards, but also pasture for his cow and a grassy field for his horses. One day I was given the challenge of grabbing my hoe and going out to the nearly 20 acre section of the vineyard with immature grape vines. My job was to hoe out the weeds--getting below the surface to try to pull at the roots. And of course I was to miss the grape vines! I was to start on the first row, work my way all the way down, and then back up the next row. I don't know if you have an idea of how big a 20 acre vineyard looks, but I couldn't believe what I had to do. But I started, and I hoed, and hoed, and hoed. I can't even remember how long it took (more than a day or two, I believe), but I remember when I finished the last row and couldn't believe it.

Another time my uncle decided to have my cousin and me fence a large area for his horses--again the size of the field was daunting, and each post for the fence had to be dug using (what else) a post hole digger that was heavy, hard on the hands, and tedious work. Each post seemed like a personal challenge. And there were hundreds of them. But, post by post, we progressed until one day, we were done. At various times I remember looking and thinking, "we'll never finish this," but we did (and I got paid $2.00 an hour, before taxes, too--woo hoo!).

That is how I think about godliness. It is such a giant goal to reach, and even after all these years of walking with Christ, I feel like my obedience and efforts are so small, so feeble, and really don't seem to be accomplishing much. And yet, if I take to heart God's encouragement that he will complete what he has begun in us, and I believe that grace is at work in every step of progress I make, I can think of my progress as being like those back and forth strokes of the vacuum, those swings of the hoe, and the holes dug and posts placed. They add up. They move you forward. And while there are plenty of moments when you might look ahead and think, "I'll never get there," one day, by God's grace, you will.

Keep at it. Don't give up. Be faithful. Don't quit. Remember the old joke--"How do you eat an elephant?" Answer: "One bite at a time." 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Inadequate Words for Insensible Times

I sat with my computer at various times Thursday, trying to figure out how to write about what I have been reading and seeing in the news about the shootings of two black men by police officers this week, on top of other recent shootings. These recent cases seemed to be especially bad because they began with a broken tail light and selling CDs in front of a convenience store.

As one commentator echoed my dilemma in trying to write sensitively and correctly, he wrote about not knowing how to enter fully into the pain of African Americans while wearing his "protective layer of white skin." He is right. I've spoken to one of our African American members who has had the police called--in our community--when he was seen by someone walking one of our streets wearing a sweatshirt. That doesn't happen to me. Other black friends have told me of how they must warn their sons about special dangers they may face due to the color of their skin. That doesn't happen to my son. How can I say, "I get it" when clearly I don't?

I gave up, and finally went to bed. 

Then I got up Friday morning and read about police officers shot in Dallas--at this moment five officers are reported dead and seven more people wounded (some critically) after a peaceful protest against police violence (especially these last two shootings) turned violent. One shooter--who is dead--claimed he was acting alone in this ambush. His stated reason was that he wanted to kill "white people," and especially white police officers, because of anger over the recent shootings. Three other suspects are in custody and not cooperating.  All of the officers were working to protect the protesters and others.

As a father in law to one police officer, and friend to quite a number of others, I don't know what to say that would enter in to what they must be feeling--I don't wear a badge and choose to protect a public that I don't know other than as citizens of my community. That is a level of sacrifice embraced in a career that most of us don't choose to undertake.

There is no "equivalence" to be found here, nor elevating one devastation over another. To families, friends, and community of a man shot in his car by a police officer, there is only grief and loss--and anger. The same is true for the families, friends, and fellow officers--grief, loss, and anger.

I was already feeling heaviness of heart for the families of these shooting victims in Minnesota and Louisiana, and for the black communities for whom this appears to be too common. My seven years of service in a minority community during my time in an inner city church doesn't make me an expert on this, only one who knows that such communities can have a very different experience of the presence of law enforcement than mine. The witness of my black brothers and sisters in Christ to this difference confirms it. That doesn't mean there aren't reasons, or history, or anything else. It is simply what is true. Far too many of my black brothers and sisters (as well as my Hispanic ones in other places) can tell me stories of those who are supposed to protect instead becoming a threat or danger. That is the day  we live in.

My police friends and family feel under attack, and this morning's evidence is only another confirmation of the elevated dangers they face doing their job. Police and fire officers, along with our military personnel, choose to place themselves in harm's way for others. No one can be prepared for the day when the protectors become the targets of those they are seeking to protect. Heaviness of heart just continues to compound. That is the day we live in. 

I've already written (just last week!) about other tragedies around the world, and this week it was an ISIS-planned suicide bombing in Iraq that killed over 400 people in a marketplace--more victims than any other bombing by this terrorist group. Smaller bombings in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia hardly made the news. That is the day we live in.

As an American, I grieve for the evils perpetrated in our nation, as well as against her. The injustices experienced by minorities are what they are, and none of us who are not a part of those minorities can say it isn't so. 

As a Christian, I have the precious truths of God's Word that become my only source of insight and hope, and they also guide me to know how to lament and interpret the times. They remind me that God's evaluation just before the Flood in Genesis would be true today--the thoughts and intentions of men's hearts are "only evil continually." We are not less evil than those that perished, only those who have received God's covenant that he wouldn't wipe us out with a Flood. Rather, God's great mercies have led to his redemptive purposes being fulfilled in Jesus Christ, where sinners can be changed into saints. It also means that another judgment will come on those who reject God's redemption. God allows the world to continue from bad to worse, but he will, one day, judge the earth in righteousness. The wicked will be punished forever, and the righteous vindicated.

I know this. But how can I, in this moment, be one who brings some sort of grace and comfort to bear?

First, I can pray with a broken heart for the broken hearted. I can ask God to bring comfort that I can't.

Second, I can reach out. I can speak to my black brothers and sisters and say, "I can't 'identify' with what these shootings may mean in your heart, but I ache over this, and I grieve over however much this may resonate in your experience. I'm so sorry. When you are wronged, you should be able to tell that to me without me trying to explain why that isn't really what is going on. I want to be an understanding and faithful brother, and I need you to help me know how to do that."

I can also reach out to my police friends and tell them, "I can't comprehend both the risks you have embraced and the dangers you face and how that must feel some days, but I am thankful for you, and I grieve with you as you mourn the loss of others who, just like you, have chosen to protect others. I want to be a support to you and encourage those I know to honor your courage and sacrifice, and to pray for God's protection and wisdom for you."

Third, I can humble myself before God in these sorrowful times, when the marvels of our technology and media alert us to terrible events in "real time" and barely give us time to contemplate them, let alone grieve over them. I can ask him to do what I cannot in ministry to the broken hearted. I can also ask him to open my eyes to ways that, in my world, I can bring a small measure of grace and comfort to those who may need it. And I also can ask him to help me see ways that I can work in my own setting to address injustices and wrongs to which I may be insensitive or just colorblind.

Finally, I (and all of us) can pray the two word prayer (in Aramaic) that the church has prayed as it faced its evil days throughout history, and looked for the fulfillment of our hope--"Marana-tha": "O Lord, come!"

Friday, June 10, 2016

Deepening Your Delight in the Word of God

This past Sunday we kicked off our Summer in the Psalms with a look at the first one, and there we discovered that the "blessed man"--that man or woman who is experiencing the favor of God--finds delight in the law of the Lord, meditating in it day and night. I drew the rather plain implication from the text that if you don't delight in God's Word, you may well not be a blessed person at all. The one who does not love God's Word cannot claim assurance of salvation, since it is the Word that gives us the promise of salvation, not to mention the gospel, the knowledge of Jesus Christ, and the story behind our need of him.

But I would readily admit that our delight in God's Word can and should grow and deepen. How might we see that happen?

I would suggest that the passage itself gives us one clear way--the action that follows the description of this truth is "in this (God's) law he meditates day and night." The simple truth is that there is no substitute for regular, consistent exposure to the Word. Here are some things that may or may not be a part of your life, but should be.

1. Bible reading. You have the tremendous privilege of having a Bible. Use it. The vast majority of church goers in the USA do not read their Bible regularly with any significance. The satirical site "The Babylon Bee" had this "story:" Local Man Still on Track to Finish Reading Entire Bible By End of This Century. How I wish that weren't actually the common practice--read a few verses when you feel like it. You would never read a letter or a novel in dribs and drabs. And you wouldn't read a letter by choosing random sentences. Choose a book and work through it. Make it a goal to cover the entire Bible--you don't want to miss the riches you might find in a book you've ignored.

2. Bible reflection. You must take time to think about what you are reading. What is it saying? Why? Can I understand why this is here? You should also think about the riches you may be reading. Are there promises or provisions from God that you are taking for granted? Are there sins to be avoided? Are there reminders of great things that are ahead or deliverances received in the past?

3. Bible memorization. Find passages of Scripture that speak to your heart, or address a particular sin you battle, or encourage you with a truth you need to remember. Learn it by heart. It can be a verse or two, or it can be a paragraph, chapter, or more. The Bible tells us that hiding God's Word in our heart keeps us from sinning (Ps. 119:9, 11).

4. Bible listening. You can use the "YouVersion" Bible app to follow any number of plans through the Bible where you hear it read. This is how most people learned the Word of God for generations, along with listening to sermons and learning scriptures set to music. That's another form of Bible listening that is helpful, too.

5. Bible study. You may discover that your reading and your reflection don't give you confidence that you know what the text means. Learn how to study the Bible. One method you can learn is Inductive Bible Study, used by both Bible Study Fellowship (available in our area) and Precept Ministries (there are Precept classes taught here at Grace). There are other methods, too, that teach you how to understand the text, how to use Bible study tools that are easily available, and how to come to a point where you can be confident that you have learned the basic meaning of the Scriptures. A book that has been helpful to many is Dig Deeper. It teaches you the basic principles of study that guarantee you don't go off into accidental heresy!

This coming Sunday, Chris Miller is going to give you an example of a psalm that shows what the writer thinks about the blessings of the Word of God, and how it changes your life. Listen, and then ask yourself, do I want those experiences, those comforts, and those riches? Be ready to be encouraged as you hear about Psalm 19.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

An Example You Wouldn't Know

Six years ago this week, I helped conduct the funeral of a man in our church that many people even then would not have known—Carl Zerges. He was usually seen on his own, looking maybe just a little disheveled (it was his look). I’m sure that younger, newer families here probably didn’t notice him much, and he wasn’t one to draw attention to himself. He wasn’t your stereotypical kindly-looking older gentleman. And sometimes, if you wound up in conversation with him, it might take a little longer than you had planned. Carl’s story would not be one that would make a great book, and his life’s ups and downs were the kind that sometimes made you smile or wince, sometimes both at once.
Carl's years of more visible involvement were before my tenure (he served as an usher/greeter).  Even so, many people knew him—as there were more at the funeral than I would have guessed, and those who had known him best over the 20 plus years he was in our village knew he was special in a number of ways.  Sadly, it is often as people are preparing for their own or others’ funerals that I learn so much more about a person’s life and testimony, and that was the case here. Many of us heard the story of Carl's conversion for the first time, as well as stories about the change that faith brought into his life. 
He had been on the road regularly for business, traveling from his home in Cincinnati to Columbus or Cleveland, and often he passed through Cedarville. His life, by his own admission, was not happy and he knew he needed help, so during one of those drives through town he actually stopped here at the church—a landmark you can’t miss as you make the U.S. 42 jog through town. Through the witness of the staff, he came to know Jesus, and decided the best thing he could do was move here to learn more. So he did, and lived here until he died.
He became passionate to let other people know about Jesus, and he loved to find ways to help and give to others.  He welcomed me to town when I moved here with one of his favorite passions and gifts--good coffee beans!  He repeated that gift a few times, too. One story about Carl, though, stands out in my mind most clearly.
One of our missionaries returned home for a year of furlough.  Reporting to the church, the missionary shared a prayer request that the Lord might provide a vehicle for the family to use for the year.  Carl responded after the service, telling the missionary that because he recently purchased a new car and had two vehicles, he could give the missionary one to use.  Indeed Carl had a brand new Chrysler that was to replace an old clunker he had driven for years.  The next day, the missionary came to Carl's home to get the car, and was surprised when Carl handed him the keys--to the new Chrysler.  Carl kept driving the old car for the year. 
As I spoke to other people, I discovered that this was not out of character for him--it was normal.  The few who knew about this at the time were profoundly affected by his example.  I was, too, when I heard it. While I’ve known many who’ve been able to pass on their used items when they get new ones (including me), this sacrifice of the new for those in need is rare.
I’ve been privileged to know many godly people in my life who loved Jesus, knew the Scriptures, lived according to the truth, and set good examples. But I wonder if sometimes we have many more such examples around us (perhaps even in our own church) that might enrich us greatly, if we only knew. That’s why I try to engage people whose stories I’m not familiar with in conversations. It’s amazing what I can learn or be encouraged by.
So now, you all know about Carl. And maybe knowing about him will encourage you to seek out such examples, and maybe even emulate them!

Friday, May 20, 2016

What Happens When We Die?

There is lots of confusion about what happens when a Christian dies. Are we in "Heaven" then? Do we have bodies? Are we asleep in the grave until the end? 

Recently, I was sent this question that I’ve seen before, and thought it might be one that some of you deal with, too. Someone who was in a Bible study on the Book of Revelation asked me the following:

“There have been some passages in the New Testament that we've read that have me confused. We also just discussed Rev. 20 and talked about the first resurrection which made me think about what happens between death and that first resurrection of believers. Anyway, I feel like I've been taught my whole life that when we die we go to heaven...immediately. It wasn't until this year that I even heard or thought otherwise. What are your thoughts? From these passages in Revelation as well as some other New Testament passages it makes it seem like we won't be with Christ until He returns for his 1000 year reign.” 

Here’s the heart of my response:

The Bible clearly states in Philippians 1 and 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 that at death we are “at home with the Lord” or “with Christ,” which Paul says is “far better” than being here. Obviously our bodies aren’t with Christ, since we’ve died and our bodies have been (typically) buried. But we, in a real sense, are there. We call that “heaven” sometimes, and that is appropriate, since it is where God lives.

However, as I understand it, it is not us as we will always be, but still waiting for something more. Our spirit is there, and we are rejoicing with the Lord and those we love, but we are also awaiting the resurrection, because we still need bodies, and ours is in the grave. In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul writes that we are currently in an earthly “home” or “tent,” and are longing for a “heavenly dwelling” (a new, resurrection body). Putting off this earthly tent for our heavenly dwelling seems to involve an interim that Paul references as being “naked” and “unclothed”—a state that is not what we finally want. It’s not embarrassing, like being naked here, but rather unadorned, lacking the beautiful exterior that is to come. It may be in that happy but incomplete state that we find ourselves when we are with Christ, waiting for the resurrection.

So, after our death while we wait for this future event, our existence would be similar to angels—spirits that have no permanent body. Some suggest that we will have a temporary or intermediate body, but we don’t have any evidence for that. We will be known and “seen” by God, angels, and I assume one another, but how that “works” isn’t clear. I’ll trust God to take care of that for us!

At the resurrection, we are united with a new, glorious body (the last half of 1 Corinthians 15 talks about this at length) that is perfect and will last forever. After the judgments of Rev. 20, we then move into the New Heaven and Earth—the recreated place where the heavenly Jerusalem will be. It’s a perfect world (the new earth) and God chooses to make his presences abide there as the Son is there, too (and I’m assuming the Spirit).  

The unredeemed, whose spirits have been “residing” in Hades (a place of conscious torment) are also raised in bodies that will last forever, but only to be judged and cast into the Lake of Fire—even worse than Hades, since Hades is emotional, mental, spiritual torment, but the Lake of Fire may also then include physical torment as well. 

I hope that gives you some help, or at least some things to think about when we consider our future, and those we love being with Christ. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

"The Center Cannot Hold"

Reading an article about the deteriorating conditions of our public culture and discourse, I noted a reference to a famous poem called “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats, one of the great Irish poets of the 20th century. The line cited was, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.”

That despairing comment needed a context, so I looked up the poem (I think I’d heard it before, but I’m of the age where I’m learning all sorts of things I once knew). Yeats had just lived through World War I, and had experienced other conflicts as well and saw his civilization seeming to fall apart. The first stanza of this reflection on the various wars he had lived through says,
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The “center” not holding is from that picture of a falconer spinning and his falcon on a tether moving so fast the man can no longer hold on—and that’s what Yeats thought was happening as the 20th century hit the 20-year mark. It is a powerful image of events of his day—World War I had left Europe in shambles, his beloved Ireland was in a state of rebellion, the societal stability of the Victorian era was gone, and Yeats was not optimistic! I see why the writer of the article I was reading used this line to reference contemporary conditions, where, as culture shifts dramatically toward chaos, doublespeak (thank Orwell for that term), and moral oblivion, all seems out of control.

But I think the most telling lines are the last 2 of the stanza: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Is that true today? For all the handwringing over genderless bathrooms in stores and schools, and bakers and photographers losing businesses, the people who are most intense about their positions and their actions are those who are, in my view, the “worst.” Their hatred of God’s created order and authority to declare something good (or not) leaves them, literally, “hell bent” on making every change they can. They have momentum, and they want to add to it. We are less than one year into the era of same sex marriage, and public discourse has turned to general support of the conclusion that people are “born” transgender (the illogic of that phrase is stunning). On the other side, only a paltry few voices are raised in opposition and urging meaningful action, and some of their actions are more reactionary than thoughtful and compelling. They labor against the tide, and are either derisively laughed at, scorned, or given no platform to be heard.

And the rest? Most of those who consider themselves “good” and “reasonable” and are not supportive of this new direction may feel personally uncomfortable—maybe even unhappy--but refuse to take any action lest they be seen as opposed to the “right side of history” as it marches forward. They don't want to be targets. What they don't realize is that they already are. Respectful dissent from the new consensus doesn't seem to be an option if you want to be a part of public life.

What shall Christians do? In the days of the final antichrist, that evil leader will seek to turn everything toward evil, but there is a wonderful phrase in Daniel 11:32-33 about those who face this challenge: “…but the people who know their God shall stand firm and take action. And the wise among the people shall make many understand, though for some days they shall stumble by sword and flame, by captivity and plunder.” It won’t be easy in those days to stand firm and take action—in fact it will be harder than today. And some will pay a price. But isn’t that what makes it evident who knows their God and who does not?

I'm not announcing a boycott of anything, or telling you what to do--in many ways I'm still trying to figure that out. But passivity is one option that the godly must rule out, especially as we seek to influence those closest to us (where we can do the most good) what the truth is and why it is important.

Yeats’ poem is called “The Second Coming” and later he says that people in his day looked at the circumstances and cried out that it must be time for the Lord to return. He thought that was foolishness and that such a hope was futile. Actually, his title was much more profound than he knew. We know that the Lord will come, and this may be the time. But we also know that, until He comes, He will empower His people to stand against evil and for the truth of the gospel, even if they do have to pay a price. Knowing who is really on the right side of history makes a difference, doesn’t it?

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Eve of Pentecost

It’s seven weeks past Passover, in A.D. 33, and its also the same time past the crucifixion and the resurrection the following Sunday. Ten days ago, Jesus has ascended into the sky from the Mount of Olives in a display of God’s glory that was awe inspiring. The glory of God’s “shekinah” had enveloped the bodily rising Savior and the last of him the disciples had seen was as he disappeared into the blindingly brilliant glory of that cloud. The angels who appeared next were not nearly as impressive after that, but their message was—“this same Jesus” would one day return in the same way he left—with the glory of God shining.

Jesus had already told them to be witnesses to him, throughout the world, but to wait in Jerusalem until power came to them. He had spoken to them in the upper room of the Holy Spirit that the Father would send in Jesus’ name as that power. They certainly would need that power; after all, how would such a ragtag bunch be able to carry off something that was to be worldwide in scope?

They had some idea of what was going to come, and they didn’t doubt Jesus, but how would they know?

And while they’d done some praying and worhsiping, and they’d selected a replacement for the accursed Judas, there was, no doubt, a sense of anticipation mixed with uncertainty and just a little impatience. Jesus had said it would be a “few days from now” just before he left, and that was over a week ago. By most of their measures, they were at the most generous understanding of “a few days.”

So, when would the Spirit come, and how would they know? What kind of power would it be?

Today is Pentecost Eve.  And perhaps, like the disciples in the upper room, you are waiting just a bit impatiently for the promised power of God to show up in a time of great need. You can’t do what you know is God’s will in your own strength (perhaps a consistent record of failure in that regard has cemented that message in your mind). You know he has promised you power, but when?

The answer, as it was for the disciples in the upper room, is “a few days from now.” God often builds waiting into his provision so that we will learn faith and patience.

The answer is also “tomorrow.” It will come at the most needed opportune moment. For the disciples it was Pentecost, the great Jewish feast where in one day they could start their mission to the world with an audience from the known world all gathered in one place. For you, it will be the moment when you most need his power, and when you can use it most effectively. By the way, while we tend to think of the tongues of fire, the mighty wind, and being supernaturally empowered to speak the languages of their hearers, the point of the power was witness to Jesus. And that has been its “point” ever since.”
And, because we live after Pentecost, the answer is “today.” While the disciples did not have the indwelling Advocate/Comforter, we do, and his powerful presence is always available to convict you when you sin, to enlighten you when you read the Word and ask for understanding, and empower you to tell the world about Jesus.

Let this Pentecost Eve remind you of the power that changed everything the very next day is the same Holy Spirit that is present in you and around you, to enable you to live a life and speak the words that will make much of Jesus, as the Hero of your story (and everyone else’s).
Visiting the traditional site of the Upper Room