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Sunday, October 26, 2008

I Vote for an Unchanging God

Over the past year, and especially the last few weeks, the blogosphere seems to be buzzing with politics. The favorite political word in the U.S. this year is change. Yes, it's true that something is going to change. I can't predict who will be elected or what the world political scene will look like in a few years. I won't endorse any candidate or party on this blog because politics are neither my calling nor my job, and I don't want to step outside of God's purpose for my life. I don't want to get too involved because I can't honestly believe any human being is the next Savior of mankind.

I can tell you that as Christians in the free United States, we shouldn't hide out. We should go to the polls and vote, because if we all stay home on November 4, only people who don't share our values will be making decisions that affect our and our children's futures. Beyond that, I can't tell you if any of the candidates are good, moral people because I don't know any of them personally. Really, only God can look at their hearts.

The best thing we average Christians can do to stay involved in politics after the election is to pray for our government. Pray that God can work in the hearts and lives of our political figures, teaching them to rule with justice and mercy and righteousness.

The problem with taking politics too seriously beyond that is that the people we elect are just as fallible as we are. The Bible tells us that all humankind is inherently evil and can fall into sin.

When we need hope and stability, we should look for a leader who is infallible and unchanging. We need someone whose future behavior can accurately be predicted by past and present behavior, and who we can know, personally, to be good. We need the Holy and Almighty God to lead us.

God Doesn't Change

I read Psalm 93 the other day and suddenly realized that the Bible has something to say about politics, too. Let's put the entire text of the Psalm here (it's really short) and analyze it.
The Lord reigns, he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed in majesty and is armed with strength. The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved. Your throne was established long ago; you are from all eternity. The seas have lifted up, O Lord, the seas have lifted up their voice; the seas have lifted up their pounding waves. Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea--the Lord on high is mighty. Your statutes stand firm; holiness adorns your house for endless days, O Lord. (Psalm 93 NIV)

How can the world be 'firmly established' when everything in it changes constantly? People are like grass, and their comings and goings are so short. I was thinking about all of that, and realized that this is a promise that only God can truly change the world. He is the ruler who's throne (His power over all creation) cannot be challenged successfully--it never has. We can't do anything to change things without His permission.

The discussion of ocean waves sounds like a discussion of one of the most powerful natural forces the Psalmist was familiar with, but I think it could also be a poetic description of human beings. At least, that's what I've heard before. Think about it. Ocean waves pound the shore relentlessly, tearing through rock and dashing mighty warships to pieces. Nations rage constantly against the set rules and boundaries that God has established for our lives. Either one is a powerful force that can destroy land and lives. We are reassured by the Psalmist that we needn't truly fear either one, because their strength is nothing compared to God's.

What a declaration! The Psalmist ends it with a more blatant statement of his meaning, for anyone who is still struggling with the promise. God's "statutes stand firm." No one can change what God has ruled as wrong or right--not even with government action or universal acceptance of the new truth.

I wanted to leave my readers with that promise. Nothing is really going to change. God still loves us and will not relent in doing right or serving us with justice. You can trust Him, because He isn't just giving His word. He's done it. He sent His son, Jesus Christ, to rescue us from the "ocean waves." Now isn't that reassuring?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A "Sheep," on "Wolves"

What do I mean when I speak of "sheep" and "wolves" or use the expression, "wolves in sheep's clothing"?

I don't mean "wolf" in the sense of a Don Juan or Casanova type person. There may be some "wolves in sheep's clothing" that fit that description, but the Bible uses the imagery of sheep and wolves in a more general sense.

The Sheep Label

In the modern sense, a "sheep" is a person who follows blindly. This isn't exactly accurate. Sheep blindly follow instinct, and part of that is to stay with the group and run when something doesn't seem right. Humans are more intelligent, so nothing they do is completely blind or thoughtless.

"Sheep," used in the symbolic sense in the Bible, are followers of God, but this isn't a thoughtless decision, either. Christians consciously choose to obey God and let Him make the major decisions in their lives. Like sheep, Christians trust the Shepherd, but unlike sheep, humans have a choice to disobey.

In contrast to the world, God isn't calling us stupid (lacking in intelligence) by comparing us to sheep. Agreeing to follow someone who knows the future and is capable of doing anything to ensure your safety seems, well, pretty smart. No, the Bible doesn't call people stupid, but it does call some people fools. Foolishness is not a lack of intelligence. Foolishness, in the sense the Bible uses, is someone who refuses to respond to sound advice and discipline. It's a conscious decision, and fools can help being fools. Fools don't act like sheep because they refuse to follow the Shepherd; instead, they act like lone wolves.

The Wolf Label

It's pretty clear what wolves mean to sheep. Wolves are vicious, attacking some unsuspecting prey animal in the night and shredding it to pieces with their teeth. Unlike human wolves, however, they are just doing this to eat.

The Bible refers to certain people as wolves because they aggressively destroy people who obey God. Their wolf-ish behavior, believe it or not, is motivated by either a fear of giving up their hostile ways, or a hatred of God and goodness. Maybe they hurt others so their peers will approve of their toughness. Maybe someone claiming to be a Christian was mean to them, so they think God is mean and they want to protect themselves from this false perception of God. Whatever their reasoning, these wolves have set themselves up to be the enemies of Christians, just as much as wolves are the natural enemies of sheep.

Wolves in the wild would have a great advantage if they could disguise themselves and hide among the sheep, but that can't happen. People can pretend to be something they are not, because other people can't see inside their hearts and read their motives.

Recognizing a Wolf

There are still ways to sniff out the wolves. Occasionally, the people around us let slip what they are really thinking. If you want to be a Savvy Sheep, you have to watch for these glimpses and learn to spot a wolf. If someone acts like a wolf once, he or she may just be a sheep that made a mistake. If this person makes a pattern of it, however, watch out! Even if it's your best friend, a wolf is a wolf. If you don't run away, you'll end up sharing space with lettuce, tomato, and two slices of bread.

Spotting the Fangs Beneath the Wool

Malicious Gossiping
malicious gossiping is a clear sign that this person doesn't respect the feelings of the person he or she is talking about. A gossip doesn't care if he or she brings the blood, in other words. If this person is talking about someone else this way, what makes you think you aren't getting the same treatment when you aren't around?

"Jesus said, 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14: 6, emphasis mine). Jesus' very nature is truthful. If this person has rejected truth and gone a different way, he or she has rejected the example of the Shepherd. This person isn't obeying, and isn't following. What is this person?

Rejection of Advice
"The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice" (Proverbs 12: 15). We've already gone over the Biblical definition of a fool. If this person can't even listen to you, a friend, how can he follow God and listen to Him? *I will qualify this by saying that anyone can (and should) reject advice if it will cause chaos, contradicts Scripture, or could get someone hurt.*

"We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, 'I love God,' yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother" (1 John 4:19-21). The Bible promises us that people who hurt us will be punished for what they did. Since God has forgiven us for many things, why can't we forgive those who hurt us, too? A sheep lets God be angry for him, but don't have anything on his conscience concerning this other person. A wolf wages war on his own.

I could make the list longer, but this post is already huge. Do you want me to discuss any of this further? Just leave me a comment and I'll do my best to answer your questions.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A Christian's New Definition of Healing

For those of you who don't know me personally, my aunt passed away this week from a brief battle with multiple myeloma (a cancer that affects bone marrow). The experience took me back to memories of my granddad's battle with mesothelioma (asbestos-linked lung cancer), and a conversation that kept coming up during his 8 month battle with the disease before it took his life in May of 2005.

Close relatives and well-meaning friends prayed for my granddad's complete, miraculous healing, right up until the day he died. They based their faith in his healing in scripture. One of the main verses I heard was Isaiah 53: 4, 5, emphasizing the part I'll put in bold for you:

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows .... But he was pierced for our transgressions,he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,and by his wounds we are healed. (NIV)

People told me that this verse meant that because Jesus died for our sins, if we claimed that healing in Him, we Christians don't have to suffer and die from traumatic illnesses.

I want to make it clear that I don't believe anyone who said this to me had evil motives in insisting that my granddad was going to be healed completely of his cancer. However,I think what they said could destroy people, because when it didn't come true, it seemed to prove that the Bible lies. My granddad's death must have come as a shock to them!

This actually drove me to examine the scripture they cited a little more closely, and I realized that the verse does promise healing, but not necessarily physical healing. If they were right, that means the apostles should still be walking the earth, because nothing kills Christians!

So here's what I think the scripture actually says. My granddad, and lately, my aunt, were healed, even though they died. I believe the healing the verse promises is a spiritual healing--their souls were healed and rescued from the spiritual death that sin brings.

Do you agree? Does this mean that Christians cannot ever ask God to miraculously heal them from a terminal diagnosis?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

God's Kids Don't Groupthink

I heard about a term in one of my senior classes in college--Groupthink. Groupthink is a sort of abstract concept that has its roots in secular sociology and psychology, but I thought it might be good to talk about it here.

"Groupthink" happens when everyone in a group has pretty much the same background, outlook on life, etc. In such situations, they all tend to think alike and are afraid to say anything that might make them unpopular with, or different from, the group. In this situation, creativity and productivity drop. Disasters happen because no one was brave enough to warn the others about potential problems.

Leadership studies suggest that if you get a variety of people, all with different backgrounds and perspectives, who are not afraid to offer a different opinion, even if it disrupts the peace in the group, you can overcome Groupthink and have a more creative and productive workplace.

Something made me think about all of that again, the other day. Do churches have problems with Groupthink? Yes, I think sometimes they do. Unfortunately, sometimes they do the wrong thing to overcome it.

Recently, I've heard of a campaign to overthrow anything rated as old or worn-out. In churches, that may mean hushing up or purging old and accepted traditions, and replacing them with new ones.

One problem, though. Doesn't that just mean replacing one peer group with another, and thus one kind of Groupthink with another?

The Bible's Answer for Groupthink

Okay, so non-religious people have studied groups and have noticed that diversity causes a more productive and original-thinking group. If we have everything in common, we are afraid to venture out or challenge the consensus, for fear of becoming a pariah. Add someone to the group who's totally different from us, and is willing to say so, and he or she can share new information--can teach us.

So maybe out with the old and in with the new is not such a good idea. The old has withstood many challenges--that's why it's old. Why don't we just mix the two? In essence, I mean letting older people use their experience to challenge the consensus of the young, and letting younger people suggest new perspectives that challenge the consensus of the old.

This is a revolutionary idea, apparently. American culture dictates that classrooms and friendships be segregated by age group, and now even Sunday school classrooms have followed suit. Still, is this what the Bible tells us to do?

The Apostle Paul wrote about instruction and organization in the early church. He didn't let the spiritually immature teach the spiritually immature. He also specifically told people who were older (chronologically) to lead, because their more advanced lives offered more examples that others could learn from.

Older women were to teach younger women how to behave in a way that was both moral and acceptable to the surrounding culture (Titus 2: 3-5); older, married men with families were supposed to be the spiritual leaders for the whole church (1 Timothy 3: 1-5). New converts could not lead, because they lacked the knowledge of the scriptures that told them to respect their elders, and they became conceited with their new power (1 Timothy 5: 1,2; 3:6). So far, however, that only covers older people teaching younger ones. Does it work both ways?

There were cases when younger people were put in charge of older ones--case in point, Timothy, who became a pastor over a congregation that included some elders who despised him because he was younger (1 Timothy 4:12). Older people, then, can learn from younger people, provided that these younger people have enough spiritual background that they are qualified to teach. See 1 Timothy 3: 1-5 again if you need specifics on a church leader's qualifications.

Jesus Himself also said, "I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it" (Mark 10: 15). In other words, even those with mature faith can learn about genuine faith from children.

When You don't Take the Bible's Example Seriously

Problems result when kids (those lacking spiritual maturity) only minister to kids. King Rehoboam is an excellent case in point.

His father was the wisest man who ever lived, although even King Solomon didn't take his father's (David's) example, and ended up following after other gods.

His son, Rehoboam, also didn't learn from his elders. When his kingdom complained to him about his merciless labor requirements, he went to his experienced elders, his father's advisers, and asked for advice.
They told him to be compassionate and give his subjects a kind answer, so they would love him (1 Kings 12: 6,7). Instead, he went to his peers who had grown up with him and shared his background (uh-oh, Groupthink!) and took their advice (ignore his subjects' concerns and speak harshly to them), which resulted in civil war (1 Kings 12: 8-19).

Solving It

The lesson we can learn, as Savvy Sheep, is that we should never dismiss someone or something (such as a church elder or a church tradition) just because we don't like what it has to say about us. Rehoboam wanted to look tough, like all the surrounding kings. He also wanted the approval of his friends. Perhaps he rejected the elder's advice because he didn't like what it revealed about his own character (petty and mean, not kind at all), or perhaps he just thought it was too conventional. Whatever his reasoning, he got disaster.

So, how can the church overcome Groupthink? We can start with the good foundation of faith and holiness that our elders have laid for us, and to that we can add the knowledge and perspective of our own experience. Disaster comes when we completely throw out the old and do our own thing. How could Rehoboam, with his unique and up-to-date knowledge of politics, have used the situation to unite his people and built up a favorable reputation for his kingdom? How can we use the old teachings and the experiences of our elders to address the problems this generation is facing?

Come on, folks. Let's all put our heads together and come up with creative ideas for our churches that capitalizes on diversity. It works better that way.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Sheep's Testimony

Ahem! Is this thing turned on?...

This first post is like talking into a microphone on an empty stage in front of empty auditorium seats. The silence is rather awkward, right now, but I'm sure once we discover each other and introduce ourselves, everything will work out just fine.

Let me begin by introducing myself. I am a sheep. No, not literally. My name actually means "Ewe Lamb," but beyond that, I'm all human. I'm not dumb like sheep, but I do follow leaders I feel are trustworthy. I am a follower of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.

My history isn't all that unusual. I was the stupid sheep that wandered away from the flock, causing the Shepherd to leave the 99 other sheep in the fold so He could go and find me (Matthew 18: 12-14; Isaiah 53:6). Even after that dramatic rescue, I've still been pretty guileless, like any other sheep, and I've been taken in a few times by smart-talking wolves (i.e. people who pretend to be Christians so they can ruin real Christians after earning their trust). That wasn't pleasant, but God has promised to straighten things out in the end (Isaiah 23: 1-4).

I'm not telling you all of this to be silly. The Bible compares everyone to sheep because, like sheep, we have the urge within us to trust a leader to protect us from harm and introduce us to good things.

Maybe you've been taken in by a few sheep-leaders who turned out to be wolves in sheep's clothing, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't trust God. He's neither wolf nor sheep, and He's looking out for you. Choose your shepherd wisely. Don't let your shepherd be death.

Human beings, despite their wealth, do not endure; they are like beasts that perish. This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings. They are like sheep and are destined to die; death will be their shepherd... Their forms will decay in the grave, far from their princely mansions. (Psalm 49: 12-14 TNIV from Zondervan ).

This blog is about rescuing sheep from false shepherds and wolves, who only want to tear them apart. It's about making them wiser than the average sheep, so they can't be taken in. It's about teaching them to know the Good Shepherd's voice, so that good things can come to them.

I'm just another sheep, but I know a little, and I want to pass that on to you. I'll be posting regular entries about how to live like a sheep among wolves and emerge without a scratch. If you want to add something wonderful to this discussion, please feel free to drop a line. I'd love to hear from you!