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Friday, April 29, 2011

Another Royal Wedding

It seems as if most of the world, if not the whole world, is thinking of marriage at this time of year, from young people dreaming of marriage someday, to young people in love, to older people celebrating their anniversaries or remembering the spouses they have lost.   Today has certainly not been an exception from this mood.

Today, I wanted to talk about marriage from a spiritual angle.  I believe in marriage!  I think it's a beautiful thing, ordained by God, for the benefit of mankind, since the days of Adam and Eve.  I see it as another way that God teaches us about Himself.  He is the origin, Creator, and epitome of all types of intimate relationships, from the closeness of siblings, to parent-child relationships, to the closeness of marriage.  Each type of relationship illustrates a different quality of the closeness God seeks with us, but none of them approaches the full beauty of what we can have with God.

I was trying to think of an appropriate text for today, and I can't think of anything better than the imagery of Psalm 45.  I know this is a long passage, but I'm sharing it anyway.  As you read it, remember that it is a prophecy about the wedding of the Lamb.  The groom is a symbolic depiction of Christ; the bride is a symbolic depiction of Christians.  The setting is the castle of the King, that is, the throne room of God in Heaven.

Some day, rather than watching on the sidelines, or even participating as the bride or groom in a human marriage ceremony, those who have chosen to devote their lives to Christ will be led into the throne room of God to begin a new life, a purified and joyful life, with God in a new earth.  It will be better, closer, and more true than even the closest human relationship.  What we have known in part in the people in our lives, we will know in full in the presence of God!

My heart is stirred by a noble theme
   as I recite my verses for the king;
   my tongue is the pen of a skillful writer.

You are the most excellent of men
   and your lips have been anointed with grace,
   since God has blessed you forever.
Gird your sword on your side, you mighty one;
   clothe yourself with splendor and majesty.
In your majesty ride forth victoriously
   in the cause of truth, humility and justice;
   let your right hand achieve awesome deeds. 
Let your sharp arrows pierce the hearts of the king’s enemies;
   let the nations fall beneath your feet. 
Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever;
   a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom.
You love righteousness and hate wickedness;
   therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions
   by anointing you with the oil of joy.
All your robes are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia;
   from palaces adorned with ivory
   the music of the strings makes you glad.
Daughters of kings are among your honored women;
   at your right hand is the royal bride in gold of Ophir.
Listen, daughter, and pay careful attention:
   Forget your people and your father’s house.
Let the king be enthralled by your beauty;
   honor him, for he is your lord.
The city of Tyre will come with a gift,
   people of wealth will seek your favor. 
All glorious is the princess within her chamber;
   her gown is interwoven with gold.
In embroidered garments she is led to the king;
   her virgin companions follow her—
   those brought to be with her.
Led in with joy and gladness,
   they enter the palace of the king.
Your sons will take the place of your fathers;
   you will make them princes throughout the land.
I will perpetuate your memory through all generations;
   therefore the nations will praise you for ever and ever. 
                                                 --Psalm 45 NIV 2011

What other King would love us, even when we didn't know or love Him?  What other king would love us enough to leave all that He had to purchase with His life the most extravagant of wedding gifts for us--the purification of those who are dead in their sins?  Let us "forget [our] people and [our] father's house," that is, the corrupt way of life we have learned from Adam, and Satan, and seek the presence and the favor of the perfect Bridegroom!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Don't Grumble Before Dawn

Yesterday, I heard a great sermon focusing on the symbolic significance of Jesus' resurrection before dawn on the third day (John 20: 1).

I find myself reflecting more on that topic today.  It seems that with God, there is always something new and beautiful planned for the morning, to be revealed dramatically like the rising sun.  The Bible is sprinkled with such stories, from the morning Joseph was summoned after Pharaoh's bad dream, to the manna in the desert that settled with the dew, to the besieging Arameans who abandoned camp when the footsteps of lepers sounded like approaching chariots (Genesis 41; Numbers 11: 7-9; 2 Kings 7: 3-16).  In each situation, God turned what seemed like a hopeless situation into an almost unbelievable surprise.

Don't Be Caught Grumbling Before the Sun Comes Up
Somehow it seems that most of the time, people didn't want to believe how God was going to fix their problems.  They looked at how they would correct it, and overlooked the fact that God doesn't have to operate by their rules.  Even the most vigilant and faithful were asleep when the decisions were being made or the miracle was happening.  And in every situation, God's solution was out-of-the-box creative, like He is.

When the sun comes up, are we going to be caught grumbling?  How strange our words will sound on our lips when we discover we were upset about nothing, and our problems have already been dealt with while we were sleeping.  Can we stay silent and hold on to hope while we wait for God's next creative solution to unfold?  Because it will come.

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him. (Lamentations 3: 22-24 NIV 2011)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Passing from Death to Life

Today is both Earth Day and Good Friday.  This coincidence is to me very significant, perhaps even ironic.  On Earth Day, we are supposed to focus on preserving the earth for the next generation, while gatherings honoring Good Friday are talking about how the entire world threw away an even more irreplaceable gift one evening, thousands of years ago.

Let me make one thing clear:  I am not opposed to conserving resources and minimizing waste on this earth.  I think God gave human beings an extravagant "wedding present" when He made this planet, and I believe that we blew it when we sinned and brought a curse to it.  The decline and end of earth was long ago predicted, not as a result of our industrial revolution, but more directly as a result of our sin.  Earth's days are numbered, and its destruction is assured (Psalm 102: 25-27; Isaiah 51:6).  Nevertheless, we ought to take good care of what we have been given.  It is foolish not to do so.

So we definitely should do our part to take care of the earth.  On the other hand, we should know that by taking care of the earth, we cannot prolong our lives or improve our fortunes.  We will all die, whether we die in a smoggy city or a beautiful forested landscape.  Our lives are ultimately in God's hands, but the quality and content of our lives has been left up to us.

This is why I'd rather focus on the other holiday we observe today: Good Friday.

Now, fairly recently I have observed a strange phenomenon in churches in my area.  It seems that Good Friday is greeted as a day to mourn Jesus' death.  It troubles me when I see this, because I don't believe Jesus died today.  I mean, Jesus endured one Good Friday, to put an end to all Good Fridays.  He is not crucified again today, and He is not dead any longer (Matthew 28: 5-7).  His sacrifice was the last one, putting Death to death (1 Corinthians 15: 54-57).  Why the mourning and the tears?

Is it a sense of shame over the great sin that was committed on that Good Friday, so long ago?  I believe Christ prayed over all of us on the cross, asking God to forgive us of that sin (Luke 23:24), or else the whole world would have been judged because of God's anger.  As it was, the earth itself trembled when Christ died, but God's great love for us held back the full violence of His wrath (Lamentations 3: 22-24).  Because I believe Jesus forgave us for the crucifixion, I believe we should put that condemnation behind us.

So what is Good Friday?  I think it's a day to share with the world what Jesus did for us long ago.  It's a day to share the life that Jesus won for us!  On this day, thousands of years ago, Jesus passed from death to life, but we didn't know it at the time.  The perishable things about Him passed away, but God honored the imperishable things in Christ--His righteousness and obedience.  Because Jesus had fully obeyed God, even to the cross, God raised Him up three days later.

Now, despite all we can do, and every honorable thing we can do on this earth and concerning this earth, we cannot do what Jesus did.  We cannot earn eternal salvation.  The best we can do is to fall on Christ's mercy.  Those who humbly ask for Christ's forgiveness are forgiven, and Jesus welcomes them to share in the life that He earned.  In Jesus' words:
Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.  Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. (John 5: 24-25 NIV 2011)
Today, may they hear and may they live!  There is no better way to celebrate Good Friday.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Denominational Differences and Dealing with Heresy the Biblical Way

Earlier today, I got up, switched my computer on, as I always do, and within a few minutes I was checking my news page on Yahoo, Facebook, and so forth.  There was more church buzz than usual today.  Apparently a famous minister has published a new book that many are calling heretical, and after reading explanations of the content, as well as snippets of other books from this minister, and so on, well, I think I would have to agree.

But I'm not talking about that book, or the minister, today.  I want to talk about the underlying issues, because as far as I know, this particular debate will also pass away, but the issues are eternal.  What is heresy?  What should we do about it?  Should we get upset by it?  This, and not the particulars, is what most people need to know, so they know how to react the next time, and the next, and the next...

So let's take a quick look at debate and heresy, denominational versus core teachings, and how the Bible tells us to deal with these two kinds of differences when they arise.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Weekly Snippet: Saving Face and Sharing Faith

I spoke earlier this week about what saving face is, and how it can't really relate to the Gospel message.  Those who know God and have chosen to associate themselves with Him have decided to sacrifice their public esteem for a greater prize, the salvation of their souls.  The truth is so much more important than a bit of popularity.

Lately I've been hearing a new teaching that says that people hearing the Gospel will not accept it, or remain with it, if it appears it will cause too much hardship, or damage their rep (reputation).  The solution, this new teaching says, is to make becoming a Christian an easier transition by putting fewer demands on the new converts.  The problem that is holding back conversion numbers, or so we must deduce, is that Christianity is too confrontational, "legalistic," or demanding.

Well, is Christianity confrontational?  Does it contain rules?  Does God expect something new from His followers?  I say, yes to all of that.  Jesus Himself said,
"“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
"Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.  Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it." (Matthew 10: 34-39 NIV 2010)

 What Jesus was saying here is that the decision to follow Christ is a divisive one.  If you want to become a Christian, you have to be prepared to lose everything else, including the love and support of those closest to you.  It might even result in having violence done to you (thus the mention of a sword).  All of that comes because Christianity doesn't allow for compromise or duality.  You can't follow God and anything else, and you can't raise anything else in life to a level equal to, or higher than, the importance of obeying God.

This kind of uncompromising belief draws enemies, especially those who feel guilty when they realize that you are right, or that you are succeeding in your obedience.

Conclusion:  Christianity demands a lot.  In fact, Christianity demands everything. 
Should all of this scary talk about the hard-hitting seriousness of the Gospel make us run from it?  Absolutely not, but too often it does.  The problem is not that these things are not true statements; it's just that this is not the focus of Christianity.  If Christianity was only about what we stand to lose, of course we ought to flee from it.  It's just that this is not what Christianity is about.  We become Christians because of what we gain.

Perhaps the breakdown is not in the hearing, but in the message.

What do we gain?  We gain a Friend who not only hears our problems but takes action against them (Exodus 3: 6-8).  We gain an Advocate who is on our side, negotiating the best outcome in every situation (Job 16: 19-21).  We gain a Teacher who warns us of danger we may not even see ahead of us, and instructs us on how to escape it (Proverbs 2).  We gain a Buddy who personally sympathizes with our troubles instead of telling us our tears are meaningless, and who challenges us to higher things (Hebrews 4: 14-16).  Finally, we gain eternal freedom and new life--a fresh beginning!--which we didn't earn and couldn't buy--a priceless, unmerited gift that no one can steal from us (Romans 5: 6-10; Romans 8: 38-39)!

When I became a Christian, I was young, and perhaps I had less to lose than some who come to follow Jesus.  I didn't want to give up my so-called "inalienable rights" to sass my parents, to take what I wanted, to slip unnoticed from one rotten deed to the next, or to defend belligerently what I reasoned was fair and right against all comers.  Still, there was something that attracted me to Jesus.  It wasn't a promise that my life would be easier--only that it would be completely secure.  Nothing I had done before had any foundation to it;  there were people who had more power than me, and people who had less.  This made the whole outcome of everything I did pretty much random, and even after I gained something, it could be taken away from me.

What a comfort it was to know that those who cling to God are holding on to a foundation that doesn't move!  No one will overpower us and completely destroy us, because no one could overpower God, and He is our defense.  No one could rise up and take what we really value (our souls, our integrity, our hope) because no one can take us from God, and no one can do anything outside of God's notice.  Those who hurt us can bring us sorrow, but never doubt; no lie can deceive us once we have known the truth.  Heaven and earth fall away in unimportance when we've found this, which we know we need, and have reached for it.

When we become Christians, the whole world we have known, falls away from us like something dead.  We don't look back, because who would want to go back?  Instead, our focus is on the life ahead of us; seen and tasted in part here on earth, and known fully in Heaven.  Paul wrote:
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3: 10-14 NIV 2010)
When will we share the real message with the world--not the death of our lives, but the resurrection of the dead?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Saving Face vs. Saving Grace

Have you ever heard of the socio-linguistic concept called face?  Today, I want to briefly talk about it--what it is, who has it, and how it can affect religion.  This discussion may sound really academic and abstract at first, but please bear with me.  I'll try to get past all the fancy names and get down to the basics, because I think it's a big issue for modern Christians.  Curious?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Weekly Snippet: Our Daily Bread

Do you ever find yourself worrying about the future?  I know, dumb question, right?

The world tells us to plan for the future, to store away nest eggs and so forth, and I agree that this is a good idea, even a responsible and godly idea.  However, it isn't always possible.  Sometimes all we have is enough for today, and though it worries us to face a future that is all up in the air, this is right where God wants us.  He wants to test us, to see if we can trust Him and rely on Him for our security.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Stranger in my Inbox

I got an unusual email through the Facebook messaging system this morning.  Using very poor grammar, a complete stranger suggested to me that it was good to have "friends from all over" and asked me if I agreed; then he acted as if he knew me well and really wanted to hear from me.  When I stepped over to his profile to look (I wanted to make absolutely sure I didn't know him), I saw that his profile was poorly filled out with strange and vague responses.  He had few friends, mostly female and most with eastern European names (I didn't know any of them, either).

I went back to the email and reread it a few times.  I could think of a million ways to respond, but each of them seemed either very rude, or very paranoid.  I have been taught by society that a person can't be too cautious, and when you suspect the worst, you are probably right.  My profile is locked down with the maximum security settings for this reason, and it is out of mercy that I allowed this person the ability to contact me at all.  Honestly, I believed the worst, and nothing had been done to change my mind.

The best response is probably no response, I thought.  That is the recommended response from the world.  It is certainly the safest in the impersonal online world.  Still, I doubt that this is all that God wants from me today.

I don't believe God has called Christians to be naive and walk into traps.  I also don't believe God has called us to suspend the good judgment He gave us.  On the other hand, God has called us to "entertain strangers" and openly broadcast our faith, given the opportunity.  So where is the middle ground between being a Christian misanthropist and being a Christian witness?

I think we can answer that by examining the life of Jesus.  He took interesting questions from people who acted friendly but had unfriendly motives, and He always answered them--only He answered them with a truth that cut to the heart of the matter.  If we read through the questions and their answers now, and really analyze them, we come to understand that Jesus' answer always called sin into the open and demanded repentance and honor for God (see Matthew 22: 15-22 for an example of Jesus' convicting truth).  Truth is so much more clever than all the wit and rhetoric in the world!

I think that really answers my question.  If I should decide to send any kind of answer to this man, I can only answer with words I know God has given me; I cannot answer with my own human wit, based on speculation about a heart I do not know.  I believe the only effective witness is an answer based on "inside information,"  the specific, unspoken needs of an individual, which only God knows.  Because of this, I have to pray and ask for God's guidance, and only respond if He tells me to do so.

I only brought this up because it has become a trend in the Christian community, lately, to blindly take in strangers, overlooking any risks involved.  In fact, we are often made to feel guilty for being cautious, because we sometimes let caution hold us back from taking any visible action.  A popular song on the radio tells Christians to roll down our windows and give money to beggars at the traffic lights, but even those who don't serve God know that this could be a dangerous practice.

So what should we do?  There is no question that we ought to love the strangers Jesus died for, but let's be careful about how we do that.  The Bible instructs us to measure every step with the truth, and obey only God's directions, not basing our actions on what we think is right and good (Psalm 119: 105; Proverbs 14: 12).

We can be certain we have overcome the world by the power of Jesus' sacrifice (John 16: 33), and that we have been empowered to do God's will, despite the risks.  However, as long as we live in this world, our bodies are still subject to troubles and harm.  Therefore, God has taught us prudence to protect us from unnecessary trouble (Proverbs 16: 22; Proverbs 21:16). There is a difference between boldly taking on trouble because God told us to, and boldly getting into trouble because we think God will bail us out.

In all cases, He has told us to pray (Romans 12: 12; Ephesians 6:18), so this should be the starting point, and the first, if only, action that we take (Matthew 5: 43-44).  Beyond that, sometimes God instructs us to pass up "witnessing opportunities," because the time is not right and the person is not receptive to the message (see Matthew 7:6), while on other occasions He tells us to speak His words with boldness, even when we don't feel we've adequately prepared (Matthew 10: 18-20).  Only God knows which situation we are in, so let us listen closely to Him.

Now, as for my own situation, I am trying to balance prudence with my witness, and waiting on God before I dash off an email response.  I've prayed for this person, and about this person, several times today, and this blog post will remind me to keep praying for years to come.  Maybe that's all God wanted in this situation, or maybe there is more to be revealed.  I don't know.  I'm still waiting.

How about you?  Can you think of any further instructions that Christians should keep in mind when they meet strangers and wish to share their faith?  Looking forward to your comments.  Until next time, this is me reminding you to stay savvy, and stay in God's will.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Weekly Snippet: Wise Joking

Today is April Fools Day (April 1), the day when everyone plays tricks on everyone else.  If you hang out with the right kind of people, whatever tricks they decide to play on you today should be relatively harmless (if they are cruel friends, today you will learn).  The laughs you share today might even make lifelong memories for everyone involved, or give you a bright idea for a future project or career (who knows?).  After all, truly good jokes are uniquely creative, filled with good humor, and enjoyed by all parties.

Bad joking, on the other hand, is full of things displeasing to God and disquieting to our fellow man.  We are cautioned to avoid the kind of joking that ruins reputations and job opportunities, does physical or emotional harm, tempts individuals to sin, or causes onlookers to despise Christianity and Christians as hypocrites.  In Paul's words, "But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.  Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving" (Ephesians 5: 3-4 NIV 2010).

The point is not to destroy Christian's fun or freedom, but rather, to set us apart and hold us to a higher standard than everyone around us.  If we truly wish to be like a city on a hill, or a light that cannot be hidden, we should recognize that with this responsibility comes a certain loss of anonymity.  The world notices the light, and the slightest dimming of that light makes what we say seem like a mockery.  They want us to fall, so that we will cease to make them uncomfortable.  Shall we welcome that outcome?

We say we follow a perfect God, who judges the whole world and punishes sin always; we say we have been redeemed and changed; we say we have become dead to sin.  If the world hears this, and sees that we live as if God doesn't punish sinful behavior, or as if nothing changed in our lives and our priorities, or as if we are comfortable with rebellion--well, why wouldn't the world laugh?

Christians still commit sins from time to time--but they repent, and they cease returning to them.  Because we have not been fully made perfect yet, we might despair that we would never represent God properly, except that we know that God has always, and will always, represent Himself.  The most we can do is represent the nature and the quality of our own faith.  With experience, the world learns the difference. Because of this, we should try, every time we have the opportunity, to show the world how our perspective has changed, and how God has made us different.  His power is real.  Let's show what He can do, even today.

Until next time, this is me asking you to be wise, not foolish, when choosing your steps; God will make the way easy for you (Proverbs 3: 5-7).  Thanks for reading!