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Friday, September 30, 2011

Thank You God for Making Things Grow

I learned, long ago, that it is possible for a "grown up" to act immature or childish (Genesis 25: 30-34), and on occasion, children can act wiser than their years (Matthew 21: 15, 16; Mark 10: 13-15) .  Age does not grant wisdom or automatically make us role models.  Height doesn't make us "bigger" people.

This was a tough realization for a kid who so desperately aspired to be "grown up."  It seemed that older people knew everything and had everything.  Was this "grown up" quality a skill I needed to master, like jumping rope?  I never was that coordinated, and I had little faith that I would remember to do the right things at the right time--there were always so many rules to remember.

What made some people grow up, while others stayed behind?

In my prayers, I've felt God telling me that humans have been given great skill to reason and teach, but that He alone can make people grow (1 Corinthians 3: 7).  God makes us grow in stature and physical maturity, but more importantly, He makes us grow in spiritual maturity.  The first is something we aren't likely to willfully resist.  It hurts to refuse to eat, or to walk around with a brick on our head!  The second can only happen if we willfully submit to it.  We don't gain spiritual maturity without making the conscious decision to obey God, no matter what.  We have to decide to let Him grow us!  That is difficult.

I am far from being as "grown up" as I always wanted to be.  First of all, I never got as tall as I wanted to be.  Now the only physical growth I can achieve is horizontal, if you know what I mean.  More importantly, I'm not as mature spiritually as I know I should be.  I still have limited faith, limited hope, limited patience, and weak perseverance.  When I forget this and believe I have it all under control, God patiently reminds me of these weaknesses and calls me again to listen to Him and trust what He says.  I know that if I go to Him, through these challenges God will make me grow--and that's what I want.  As James wrote, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything, " (James 1: 2-4 NIV).

That's my prayer for all of us today--that we will continue to be challenged by God, and bow our knee to the challenge, so He can make us grow into something we both can be proud of.  Through dying (to ourselves, and our sinful inclinations), we can grow in the Lord. 
Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds.   Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.  My Father will honor the one who serves me." (John 12: 23-26 NIV)
Can we aspire to be "grown up" in the Lord, today?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Prioritizing Prayer

In C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, the senior demon advises the novice that the best way to defeat people in their prayer life is to lead them to feel that they have to be in the right mood or frame of mind in order to pray.  It is true that I have often thought that I was too tired, overworked, or stressed to take time out of my schedule to pray, or that it was "just not the right time." As a consequence, I can confess to some dry, defeated periods in my personal prayer life.

The truth is really that we should always be willing to pray.  Always.  The Bible literally says, "Pray without ceasing," (1 Thessalonians 5: 17 KJV).  God is always ready to hear from us, whether we are in a bad mood, happy to the point of distraction, harried and scatterbrained, contentedly busy, or deeply upset about something.  He is a friend who likes to talk to us, and He always has time for us.  Honestly, we all can be hard to talk to, at times. What human friend do we have that is this available, and patient with us through our most extreme moods?

Now, that said, it is easier to quote Bible verses like this than it is to put them into practice.  Because of our human weaknesses, we often forget to talk to God.  It frequently is not meant as a deliberate slight...we just...forget. Or maybe, at the heart of the matter, we don't prioritize prayer.

Daniel had a daily routine for prayer.  Though he was one of three administrators over one of the greatest kingdoms of ancient history (the Medo-Persian Empire), he took time out of that busy office and court schedule to pray three times a day, every day (Daniel 6: 1,2; 10).  We don't know when he started doing this, but the Bible reports "he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before," (Daniel 6: 10 NIV). He already had a routine when the edict was passed.  It could be that he had specially built his house with windows that opened toward Jerusalem, so he could pray toward the temple there, as Solomon had taught, to acknowledge God's living presence among his people and attentiveness to their requests (2 Chronicles 6: 18-21, 36-39). However long he had been doing this is not as important as the fact that Daniel considered these prayer times such an important routine that he was willing to disobey a royal edict to keep to it.  He put such priority on speaking to God that he risked death to pray!

What can we derive from his example?  For one thing, the tenacity in Daniel's faith and prayer life is something I think we should try to match.  He suffered great hardship, and even the things he did well were not without their hazards.  In the midst of all of this, he learned that persistence in his relationship with God was beneficial (both to himself and to others).  Whether things were going well or going south, he was consistent in his obedience. He prayed because it pleased and honored God, who was constantly watching him.  More than once this humble but stubborn prayer habit saved his life and lifted him above disaster.  Because of what he had seen, he valued prayer and refused to neglect the opportunity, for any reason.

Daniel was a captive of an invading enemy, living far from home in a land where his faith and lifestyle were not generally accepted (and sometimes prosecuted).  Today, most of us are not living in such times.  I know we may not have the same obstacles that Daniel faced, but I won't say that persistence in prayer will be easy.  Our flesh, our attitudes, and our schedules will constantly work to disrupt this habit, if we let it.  Prayer is not even considered politically correct, so we might encounter some persecution.  If we can overcome these things, with God's help, and hold prayer as our highest priority, we will be rewarded in our life, and most importantly, in the depth of our relationship with God.

Can we manage this?  Let's try.

"[P]ray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people," (Ephesians 6: 18 NIV).

Friday, September 23, 2011

Weekly Snippet: Humble Yourself

I have been reading Daniel again this week, studying each chapter for details I might have previously missed.  This time I found myself comparing the lives of Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar.  Neither could be called good men, but one was brought back from the brink by the decision to humble himself before God.  The other despised God to the swift end.  Can we learn something from even these atypical role models?

I can contextualize much of their thinking by pointing out that the kings of those days were often seen as gods among men--literally.  You may not be familiar with early Babylonian history, but you are probably familiar with the god-kings of Egypt.  When ancient kings (almost the world-over) spoke of carrying off the kings of a country, they were saying that they were more powerful than the gods of the kingdoms they had conquered (see Isaiah 10: 8-14).  In fact, they were exalting themselves as supreme gods among lesser gods.  No humility there!

Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar were no different.  Unfortunately, they chose to glory in their conquering power over the "little" God of Israel.  This can be evidenced by the godlike tone of statements such as this one from Nebuchadnezzar: "[I]f you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?" (Daniel 3: 15).  Belshazzar knew where those golden goblets had come from, yet he praised other gods and ignored the God of Israel (Daniel 5: 2-4). They had no respect for a God they thought they had defeated, but God wasn't playing their games. He gave them their power and all their victories; they were His tools, not His betters (Isaiah 10: 15-19).

Both men, mind you, were terrified by the power they suddenly encountered when God showed Himself to them.  Who can stand against God's wrath?  Nebuchadnezzar was warned when he saw the three Hebrew children walking in that fire, and he immediately ordered that their God be shown more respect--by others, and not exclusively, mind you (Daniel 3: 28, 29).  Later, he had a dream predicting his imminent destruction, and he heard Daniel's counsel to humble himself before God, to avert this judgement (Daniel 4: 27).  He forgot this for a year, but in the end, he learned his lesson and honored God.  How strange it must have been to his court to hear a conquering "god" praising the God of a conquered country as the "Most High," whose power even he couldn't question or deny (Daniel 4: 34, 35)!

Contrast Nebuchadnezzar's change of heart to Belshazzar's behavior on the night of his defeat.  Belshazzar, like his predecessor, was equally terrified by this appearance of God--the hand writing on the wall.  Again, from Daniel's lips he heard of his kingdom's imminent demise, and he was urged to humble himself (Daniel 5: 18-23).  Though the Bible doesn't explicitly say that Belshazzar scoffed,  we get the idea that he did.  Though Daniel had asked him to keep his gifts and give his high appointments to others, he ordered the fine robes and the proclamation anyway (Daniel 5 : 29).  I see a mockery here that is parallel to the mocking of Christ before the crucifixion (Matthew 27: 27-31).  That very night (as secular historical records corroborate), Darius of the Medes disguised himself as a palace guard and killed Belshazzar while his men took the rest of the capitol.

Fatal Hubris

I have spoken before of the tendency in all people, since the days of Adam and Eve, to be filled with the kind of pride that causes us to aspire to godhood.  The Bible is full of so many examples of these so-called "gods" who dared to challenge God, saying, "By the strength of my hand I have done this, and by my wisdom, because I have understanding," (Isaiah 10: 12 NIV).

Today, I don't think I need to rerun the facts.  We should read the stories of Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar and take heed of the lesson.  Shall we be like Nebuchadnezzar, who needed seven years of Divine punishment to drive him to repent?  Worse still, will we scoff at God's power when He sends us a warning on the eve of our demise?  I would personally rather humble myself before blows or final warnings have to come.  How about you?

Something to think about over the weekend.  As always, thanks for reading!  This is my reminder to stay savvy and bow to the Most High, before He humbles us.

"Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.  By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear. They will say of me, 'In the Lord alone are deliverance and strength.'"All who have raged against Him will come to Him and be put to shame." (Isaiah 45: 22-24 NIV)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Footprints in the Garden

My dad had an elevated flower bed behind my house, next to a handmade compost pile, where he experimented with raising different kinds of vegetables.  It was edged in wide wooden slabs of tree trunks, called railroad ties, because they are the sort of thing the metal tracks are laid on. One year, when my sister and I were still very young, he took the two of us went out to spend an entire afternoon tilling and loosening the soil, removing weeds, fertilizing and leveling the ground, and preparing it for seeds.  By the time we were ready for the planting stage, it was very late and Dad was tired.  He went inside to rest, leaving us with a simple but firm injunction, "Don't play in the flower bed or step in it.  If I catch you throwing dirt or undoing all of this work, I'm going to punish you and you won't be allowed to help me plant the seeds tomorrow."

It wasn't as if there was nothing else to play with.  We had a swing set, a sandbox, and plenty of other toys to string out, and since the sun was going down, we weren't going to be out there much longer, anyway.  However, the seriousness of Dad's command quickly wore off, and I (being the oldest and the leader) said, "If we walk on the edging, we won't really be playing in the flower bed.  It's like a balance beam in gymnastics!"  Very quickly we were walking around the U shape.  When we got to the top part of the U, we jumped across to the other side and went around again.  The first two times were fine, but the third time I jumped across, I slipped, and my foot sank deeply into the soft tilled earth.

"Dad said not to step in the garden!" my sister reminded me.

"I know.  I'll get the rake and fix it up again in a minute," I said.  She was confident that I knew what I was doing, so the game continued.  Then she lost her balance and put both feet in the garden, leaving two more distinct footprints.

"I can fix that, too," I assured her, and we continued circling, each tripping a few times on the way around.  Soon, there were lots of footprints everywhere.

"Girls, dinner time.  Come inside!" we heard mom call from the back door.  I jumped down and started hastily scratching the dirt to try to loosen it, but I only managed to cover up one small footprint before I heard Mom's voice, much closer now, saying, "Hey, I don't think your Daddy wanted you to mess around in there.  Come."

It was so dark that I realized she hadn't seen the footprints in the garden.  I cast one more anxious look that direction, and went inside.

I worried about those footprints all through dinner, and even when I was being tucked into bed that night.  My plan was to go out, somehow, before Dad got up in the morning and try to fix that mess before he saw it.  I had to--I so badly wanted to help plant the seeds!  But my conscience was so deeply pricked that I couldn't sleep.

I finally had to admit to myself that I was definitely going to get caught.  It was only a question of when.  If I told my dad now, I knew I would probably get punished, but maybe he would go easier on me, or even let me help plant the seeds.  I got back up, ignoring my sister's angry protests against "telling,"  and went alone to the living room.

Dad looked a little stunned at this sudden midnight confessional.  He listened to the whole story (told through tears), and finally said, "Rachel, I'm proud of you for being a grown-up and telling me the truth.  You do know that I still have to punish you.  I told you what I was going to do if you did that, and you did it anyway."

I nodded my head and submitted to the punishment.  No, I wasn't going to get to help plant the seeds, and yes, I was going to undergo a spanking--a very brief, light-handed one that was more ceremony than anything else.

When I went back to bed, I felt better.  What a weird thing, considering that I had just been punished and banished from the garden.  As I lay awake, I started thinking about my Sunday school lessons and how Adam and Eve did something very similar when they ate the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3).  I realized that even if they had immediately confessed, God would have had to punish them for what they had done, in the same way that He ended up doing it.  Adam and Eve had broken a direct command, and confessing, or giving God all the reasons why they did it, wouldn't have undone the damage.  He had to punish them, or His rules weren't really rules to be respected, and His threatened punishments would have been lies.  God isn't a liar.  He keeps His word, even when keeping that word hurts Him.  That is justice.

On the other hand, when Adam and Eve didn't immediately confess to their crimes and submit to the punishment, they were adding some extra sins to their record.  They had enough nerve to think they could trick God out of punishing them, which is the sin of lying, and they tried to accomplish that by covering themselves with leaves.  Later, they tried to hide from God, which is an insult to God's all-seeing power and His justice.  Then, when God found them, they had the nerve to lie to God and blame others for their own actions.  They never apologized, and never seemed to be sorry about what they had done, throughout the whole exchange.

So what would they have gained from telling the truth from the start?  One, giant thing, only.  Their relationship with God would not have suffered so badly.  All those delays and additional sins compounded the problem, and didn't avert punishment, really.  These additional sins also disappointed and hurt their closest Friend, and fostered in their own hearts an unreasonable resentment against a punishment they brought upon themselves.  If they'd gone immediately to God and confessed, they would have found approval for that honesty, and they would have understood the mercy of God, which is even seen in the way He punishes sin.

Confessing to sin and taking responsibility doesn't make the need for punishment go away, and it doesn't make punishment hurt less.  However, it does positively change the nature of the relationship between us and God (or us and our fellow man) going forward.  This is why confession is good.  It brings an understanding of justice and the truly loving nature of God--a God who simply keeps His word, even when we make choices that bring the promised punishments upon ourselves.  If we understand justice, it opens the way for total reconciliation and healing through God's Son, Jesus Christ.
Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.--Proverbs 28: 13 NIV
Today, if you have some dirty footprints hanging over your head, and you are dreading the revealing light of day, I beg of you, for your own sake, to confess quickly, before the sun comes up.  You won't gain anything by staying silent, but you will find mercy and approval, leading to reconciliation with God, if you make amends quickly.  Don't wait.  Don't hesitate.  Get up and settle this now!

Do you have any stories like this one?  I welcome you to share in the comments section, or write about it on your own blog and share the link in the comments so I can go read it.  As always, thank you for reading!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Weekly Snippet: The Passing of the Seasons

Fall has arrived, according to the rainy view out my window today.  Where I live, summer bakes the earth dry and dead, until the leaves turn brown around the edges and the sky takes on a faded appearance.  Then fall sweeps in and temporarily revives the world with constant, cold rain.  The last green things and all the colored leaves and fall flowers stand out brightly against a foggy gray sky, darkened, weathered wood, and damp earth.  It's a beautiful picture, and my favorite season of the year.

I see that every season has a purpose, although the hardships of each sometimes make the reason hard to see.  Without the baking heat of summer, we would have no sun-sweetened fruit to enjoy in the fall.  Without the falling leaves, the tender roots and bulbs would have no blanket to cover them until spring.  Winter snows enrich the soil with water and minerals (a little-understood fact), and sharpen our anticipation for spring.  Where would we be without spring?  Those lovely flowers and leaves are too young to bear fruit or bring shade, but they lift our spirits for another year, and signal the return of the sun.

Still, there is a deeper testimony in all of these seasons.  As Paul testified to the Greek crowd at Lystra, "In the past, [God] let all nations go their own way.  Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy," (Acts 14: 16, 17 NIV 2011).  These seasons testify to God's existence and proclaim His power, while at the same time, they show the kind and giving nature of God.  Now who wouldn't want to know a God like that?

The seasons of nature often parallel our own lives--an endless parade of planting, harvest, endurance, and hope. Sometimes we find it easier to see the hand of God than at other times, but in every season, God has brought us lessons to learn.  If we trust in Him, we know we will find in Him just what we need.  Today, let's rejoice in the promise we see outside our windows.
May the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you [God] rule the peoples with equity and guide the nations of the earth. May the peoples praise you, God; may all the peoples praise you.  The land yields its harvest; God, our God, blesses us.  May God bless us still, so that all the ends of the earth will fear him. (Psalm 67: 4-9 NIV 2011)

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Error of Thoughtlessness

A wicked man puts up a bold front, but an upright man gives thought to his ways. --Proverbs 21: 29 NIV 1984

There is tremendous pressure in today's society to make quick decisions, act fast, or speak up. This is a recipe for disaster when coupled with the human tendency to avoid asking ourselves probing, reflective questions like, "Where did I learn this habit? How did I come to believe this or do that? Are my reasons sound?" Ultimately, it is very easy to go through life without thinking very deeply about our ways, and even easier to fall into sin without noticing how we got there. Even the most careful, introspective people can be guilty of this.

Speedy Decisions Sometimes Mean Impulsivity and Thoughtlessness

It is very difficult to get into the habit of thinking about your motives before you act. I speak from personal experience. I think I was one of the most impulsive kids you could meet, and that was a lethal quality when paired with my tendency toward thoughtlessness. My repertoire of impulsive and thoughtless mistakes included an incident in which I participated in a rock throwing game that sent one flying through my parent's bedroom window. If only I had thought about what might happen when the game got started. Hadn't I been taught not to throw rocks? If I had really looked at myself at the moment I was asked if I wanted to play, I might have seen that my desire to be likeable to my friends was outweighing all other concerns and everything I had been taught. If I had thought about it, I think I still could have had fun, just without all the trouble.

There are widely-accepted cultural proverbs that seem to pressure us not to think too long before we act, like this one, attributed to sixteenth-century writer Joseph Addison: "He who hesitates is lost." The Biblical proverb at the beginning of this post seems to directly contradict this idea on first glance. Are we to believe that the Bible tell us to hesitate before everything we do? Isn't it also wisdom to act quickly before opportunities are lost?

Did Jesus Model Impulsivity?

If I just focus on the life of Jesus, I see plenty of examples of unplanned behavior. Jesus turned water into wine at Cana ( John 2: 1-11); spoke to the sinful woman at the well when she walked up to draw water (John 4: 1-26); and healed a blind man on the way into Jerusalem for the last time (Mark 10: 46-52 please note as well that Bartimaeus was rewarded for his impulsivity). I gather from these and many other examples that Jesus modeled impulsive, that is, unplanned, spur-of-the-moment decisions, as long as they proved righteous both at the time and later, upon further scrutiny.

When Jesus did something that seemed unplanned, both the action He took and the results were righteous, and that is a good Scriptural test for our own lives. We can learn from Him that seizing an opportunity is good, as long as the decision can stand up to rigorous testing and reflection long after the moment is past. At the same time, we recognize the challenge--we can't reflect on the goodness or badness of an issue for long, or the whole situation will pass. If Jesus had thought about the wedding couple, the woman at the well, or Bartimaeus for too long, these miracles would not have happened, and many would not have been saved.

Because of this, I see a careful line being drawn in Scripture between impulsiveness and thoughtlessness. You can be impulsive, but thoughtful, and do what is right. Alternatively, you can be hesitant, but thoughtless, and do what is wrong. The awareness of good and evil in everything you do is critical for a good outcome. You have to have that awareness before the situation arises, or you could end up doing the wrong thing (2 Timothy 2: 15; 2 Timothy 4: 2).

Strange as it sounds, the key to making a good impulsive decision is, well, good planning. Returning to the verse at the beginning of this post, we see that Proverbs 21: 29 is a not as much a commentary on impulsiveness as it is about this kind of moral planning. It is urging you not to put on a "bold front," that is, appearing to be so secure in what you are doing that people are afraid to challenge you or your actions. Rather, this proverb urges readers to do what they know for certain--through study and self-analysis--is a righteous action.

This is my challenge for you today: Plan ahead by knowing what the Bible says is right before leaving your home in the morning, so you don't have to hesitate and wonder about it when some situation arises during the day. That way, when evening comes and you are reflecting on your own behavior (a thing you should do regularly), you can say, "Yes, I made the right decision, and the reason why I acted that way is because the Bible told me so."

Until next time, this is me, reminding you to stay savvy and go out and put what you've learned into practice. God bless!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Weekly Snippet: The Contents of a Shaken Heart

My sister's college pastor once illustrated one of his sermons in an unusual and memorable way.  He brought out a half-empty water bottle, removed the lid, and proceeded to shake it around vigorously.  Water splashed everywhere.  Finally he asked his audience, "Why did the water come out just now?"

Several people raised their hands and said, "Because you shook it."  A few said, "Because you took the lid off."  He didn't accept any of these answers.

At last, one person raised a hand and said, "Because there was water in the bottle."

"Right," he said.  "Water came out because I shook it without the lid on it; that's true enough.  But nothing would have come out at all if there hadn't been water in there in the first place.  The human heart is the same way; what comes out when we are shaken is what is inside us."

I don't know about you, but when I think of what the inside of my heart must look like, I feel ashamed.  I can look back over my life and see the kind of nonsense that has come out of it before.  I remember telling lies when I was caught doing something wrong, or put on the spot by peers I was afraid to displease (Leviticus 19: 11); I have disobeyed my parents and elders when I really wanted to do what they had forbidden (Ephesians 6: 1); I have refused to share my faith, for fear it could jeopardize my job, my life, my friendships, or other things I valued, or because I found the other person unlovable (Matthew 10: 33; Matthew 23: 13).

The Bible says, "A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of," (Luke 6: 45 NIV 2011).  By this verse, and the whole weight of Scripture behind it, all human beings, including myself, are judged and found lacking.

I am not a nice person who has merely an imperfect heart.  I am evil at the core, and riddled with weakness and a tendency toward sin!  If you only saw me when I was at ease, you might be deceived, and of course I would love you to think I am better than I am.  However, the way I behave when I'm shaken--when I'm angry, frustrated, afraid, intimidated, sad, or defeated--is the way my heart actually looks.  If something ugly percolates out of me in these extreme situations, it is because it was there in the first place!

That's a grim statement, and I'm not proud of my weakness, but I am glad to say that Jesus redeemed me when I believed in Him, and by His guidance and conviction, He is uncovering these imperfections and sins and refining me.  I believe that He is making me more like Himself--good, not inclined toward evil--with each passing lesson.  He is purifying the contents of my heart.

This religion I follow does not require merely an outward goodness, because that is falsehood.  If it only required goodness during times of peace and safety, when the foundations of our world are not being shaken, then it would be a false, farcical thing that no one should believe.  Instead of that, God requires fresh and pure things to flow from poison springs inside of us (Matthew 25: 24-30), an impossible thing within the power of human beings.

God takes a heart of stone and makes living water flow from it, not by human physical effort, but first by the discipline of the law, and secondly by the Word of God, who came to us in the flesh as Jesus (Exodus 17: 1-5; Numbers 20: 6-11).  By the Holy Spirit we are enabled to produce this pure overflow from our hearts, when we believe in Jesus and open ourselves to His cleansing power (John 7: 37-39).  This way the good things inside us neither came from us nor were put there by our efforts.

In practice, this means that when we are shaken, we have to willfully obey and believe in the power of God, and let His power be shown through our words and deeds.  That means that when we are afraid, we have to willfully, at that moment, believe that God is greater than the things we fear, and do what we know He would have us do (contrary to our human impulses)(Psalm 91: 4-8).  When we are angry, we have to willfully, in the moment, submit to God's ruling that we cannot commit sin and use that anger as an excuse (Ephesians 4: 26).  When we are frustrated or defeated, we are not to give up on what is right, despite the odds (Galatians 6:9).  When we are sad, we cannot blame God and curse Him for our grief (Job 2: 9, 10).

At the core of me, there is no stable thing, so I know that I will crumble when I am put to the test.  The only way I can be good when my heart is shaken is to let God put a new heart and a new Spirit in me (Ezekiel 11: 19, 20).  He is stronger than my weak heart, and I know He can help you, too!

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Thanks to the Laborers in the Field

Today is Labor Day in the U.S., a special holiday to recognize workers in their work.  I just wanted to drop in here on a holiday evening to thank God's laborers in the field, from the missionaries to the regular people who testify daily about the power of the Lord in their lives.

Thank you for pressing on, through hardship and persecution.  Thank you for sticking your neck out and speaking the truth, because it was necessary, even to those who didn't want to hear it.  Thank you for putting your whole life on the line for the kingdom of God.  He will richly reward you--I have no doubt about that--so please hang in there and keep glorifying God in your words and deeds!

Here are some of Paul's words, from a missionary and written to the next generation of missionaries.  He couldn't have said it better:
We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers.  We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.  For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.  You know how we lived among you for your sake.  You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.  The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath. (1 Thessalonians 1: 2-11 NIV 1984)

Friday, September 2, 2011

Weekly Snippet: Light and Dark at The End of All Things

Last night I read Isaiah chapter 2, which is a prophecy about the end of the world.  Many of the scenes depicted in that chapter are mirrored by prophecies in Revelation, Daniel, Jeremiah, and others. After reading this passage, as sometimes happens, I fell asleep and dreamed about end times events.

That dream brought some insight into one symbolic thing that we see often in end-times prophecies: light and dark.  What does light symbolize in Biblical prophecy?  What is the significance of the absence of light?  It's a rather deep and general concept, so today I'm centering in on the significance of the moon and stars in these prophecies.

My dream began in my back yard, looking up at the night sky.  The stars looked like rhinestones that kept popping free of the velvety black sky, falling, and vanishing.  It wasn't a meteor shower, because these were stars I recognized from constellations like Orion, and when they fell, the constellations vanished.  Meanwhile, the moon was full and the sky was cloudless, yet it was getting darker and darker outside.  The face of the moon had turned a dark shade of charcoal, until it was barely distinguishable from the dark sky around it.  The overall effect of a darkened full moon and the loss of all of those stars made it very dark outside.  Very, very oppressively dark, until even someone who doesn't scare easily would be troubled by the almost-tangible darkness.  It was frightening to be outside, like a huge hand was pressing down on the world.

The Absence of Light

When I woke up I finally understood why this phenomenon--the stars falling and the moon being darkened--appears so frequently in the Bible as a sign of the end of the earth (Isaiah 34: 4; Matthew 24: 29).  Light is a symbol of God's presence, favor, and sovereign rule.  The loss of that light is the signal that God is turning away from the world because the offense of sin has finally driven Him to judge and punish it.  It's a symbol that few will misunderstand, even if they have never heard the words of Scripture.

The Bible starts out with a description of the creation of light and darkness (Genesis 1: 3-5), and the heavenly bodies come later in creation, in verses 14 through 19.  The emphasis in the creation of the moon, sun, and stars, is that they are "governing" bodies, and even in the darkness of night they are present and governing the world.

Besides things like controlling and timing tides and seasons, the moon and stars are there to represent God's justice, and His continued attention.  You see, sin loves the cover of darkness, for fear that it will be exposed by the light (John 3: 19-20).  The moon and stars are light even in the midst of darkness, showing to those who lurk in darkness that God is still watching and seeing everything, and comforting those who follow Him with the promise of God's constant presence, even in dark, seemingly-godless times.  There is another positive message that they send: Even those who live in rebellion against God still benefit from His mercy for now, as they wait for God's complete justice to come (like Cain in Genesis 4: 13-16).

The removal of these stars and the moon is a signal that even that mercy--delayed punishment--is being removed.  Though sin loves darkness to cover it, the need for the protection and guidance of light is still felt.

The Presence of Light

The symbolic representation light as God's presence, justice, mercy, and guidance is also very prevalent in end-times prophecy.  Isaiah 2: 5 says, "Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord," (NIV 2011).  This parallels the Revelation passage that describes the New Jerusalem and the new earth with these words, "There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever," (Revelations 22: 5 NIV 2011).

God's presence is light in a literal sense at the end of things, even as it is now dimly symbolized by the moon and stars at night.  Meanwhile the absence of light is justice and judgment felt and seen, as Jesus described Heaven and Hell when He said, "I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.  But the subjects of the [sinful] kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” (Matthew 8: 11, 12 NIV 2011; see also Matthew 22: 8-14).

The evil people in Isaiah's day benefited from the delayed mercy and continued presence of God in Israel, until the day that God turned away from the nation of Israel and cast them completely into the "darkness" that they had chosen, which brought their destruction at the hands of invading armies (Isaiah 2: 6).  Similarly, evil people to this day benefit from God's mercy (not to be confused with approval for their sins), but one day the whole world will be judged.  On that day, God will turn away, and the absence of that presence will be tangibly felt.

This, I believe, is why people will seek the cover of caves when all of this comes to pass.  They will be searching for a place where God's light (judgement) will not go, where they will be safe, yet they will not find it.  Wherever they go, they will need light to travel; wherever they hide, God's presence can go.  There is no depth where God's presence can't be felt.  As Isaiah wrote, "Go into the rocks, hide in the ground from the fearful presence of the Lord and the splendor of his majesty! The eyes of the arrogant will be humbled and human pride brought low; the Lord alone will be exalted in that day," (Isaiah 2: 10, 11 NIV 2011).

My prayer today is that even in the darkest of times, we will see and recognize the presence of God, and at all times we will search our hearts for evil, so we will not be afraid to walk in God's revealing light.  He doesn't want to cast us out of His presence!  He sent Jesus to be our light, as it is written, "The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him, " (John 1: 9, 10 NIV 2011).  May we see and recognize that light, and cling to Christ, who can save us, so that we will never have to suffer the crushing judgement of the darkness!