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Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Angels Did Not Lie

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”                            Luke 2:14

“And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men"
 – I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I was listening to Christmas music the other day as I was making Dutch Apple Pie for Christmas, when the song, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day came on.  The words in the verse above struck me with even more force than they usually do.  I stopped my peeling and chopping for a minute to think about the seemingly insurmountable amount of division and ill will in the world right now.  The song continued to its crescendo of hope, but I was left pondering the seemingly failed promise of “Peace on Earth.”  Did the Angels lie, I wondered.  Where was this illusive promised peace?  Had it ever existed in human history?
The next day I happened to see a post where someone quoted Luke 2:14.  I stared at it and thought that it was misquoted.  I was raised with the King James translation of that verse which ends with, “And on earth peace, good will toward men.”  This English Standard Version rendering of the words jarred me.  
This peace, of which the Angels sang, was promised specifically to “those with whom [God] is pleased!”  If I didn’t know the gospel, I would have thought, ‘Well, that explains everything!  There may be a couple of people out there with whom God is pleased, but they are the only ones who have peace.  The rest of us are out of luck!’ 
I do know the gospel, however, and suddenly my spirits lifted.  The “peace” Christ came to bring is not the same “World Peace” for which every beauty pageant queen has wished.  It is the peace between God and man.  The very “Shalom” of God. 
It is the lost peace spoken of in Isaiah 48:18,                                                                                                “Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments!
    Then your peace would have been like a river
    and your righteousness like the waves of the sea….”
It is the promise of restored peace as found in Isaiah 66:12
"For thus says the Lord:
‘Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river,
    and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip,
    and bounced upon her knees.’”  
It is the peace, the reconciliation, that could only come through the one human with whom God has ever been well-pleased, his Son.  That baby, about whom the angels sang, was the only one who ever “paid attention” to the commandments of God and whose righteousness was like the waves of the sea.  His obedience alone allowed the river of peace to become an overflowing stream to the nations.  
The Angels’ song may not have promised the universal peace on this earth for which we long, but that unfulfilled longing points to its ultimate fulfillment for all who take refuge in Jesus, the promised Messiah.  First, in him, we receive, right now, our peace with God and from that peace we have the assurance that we will one day enjoy an eternity of peace in the earth made new.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Get Your Story Straight

I’m a story kind of gal.  I understand life best through stories.  Donald Grey Barnhouse reportedly said, “All of life illustrates bible doctrine.”  I have always taken that to mean that everything I experience in life can be put into story form to illustrate something about scripture.  The flaw in this reasoning is that my story will always be colored by my understanding, or lack, of the reality of what scripture actually says.

For a good part of my life, I read bible stories and most other stories, with a moral point of view.  I was either the hero or antihero.  The story illustrated the kind of person I should or should not be but, either way, it was all about me.  Then, when the gospel found me, I suddenly saw that I had been reading those stories all wrong.  The gospel taught me that Jesus is the hero of every story.  Even the best of human beings can be only a dim light pointing to the brilliant light of Christ.  The only parts that were about me were the anti-hero parts, and their purpose was not primarily to show me how to be a better person, but to open my eyes to the kind of person I really am and, thus, to my need of a savior.

We have a recliner that sits right in front of the picture window in our living room, but we seldom sit in it, preferring the sofa or the loveseat.  The other day, however, I plopped down in the chair and looked out, and there, right at eye level, was a cardinal sitting in a nest, looking back at me.  It was a relatively small bird, and, because it was hot outside, its beak was open.  “Oh, it’s a baby,” I thought, “and it’s probably waiting for the parents to come feed it. 

I was sad that I had missed the entire chapter where the egg or eggs hatched and where the babies cheeped incessantly and the poor parents had to make endless trips to meet the demands for food.  I was glad, though, that I would at least get to witness the last few days of this little one’s time in the nest.  It definitely looked ready to leave at any time. I did see a male cardinal zoom past a few times, but never witnessed the bird being fed. 

Then, a day or so later, I peeked out the window and saw that the nest was empty.  I don’t know a lot about birds, except their habits at my bird feeding station, but my husband, who knows a bit more than I do, informed me that once birds leave the nest, they do not return, so I resigned myself to the fact that the baby was gone.  However, later that day, the baby was back in the nest.  My husband was surprised, but not too worried.  I, on the other hand, immediately assumed that something was wrong.  The baby just sat there, with it’s mouth open, waiting, and as far as I could tell, no parents were coming to feed it. 

By then I had done some reading on birds leaving the nest, and I now knew this was highly unusual.  I began checking throughout the day.  Sometimes the bird was gone, and my hopes would go up, but it always quickly returned.  I confess that I sometimes stood near the window and talked to the bird, who couldn’t really hear me, but always looked right at me as I spoke.  “What are you doing,” I asked.  “Are you okay?  You really need to learn to feed yourself now.  It’s pretty clear that your parents are finished raising you.  You won’t last long if you keep coming back here and sitting in the nest all day.”

You can easily see how my advice to the bird and my penchant for stories that illustrate bible doctrine was lending itself perfectly to the moral storyline: "God has given us everything necessary to succeed in the Christian life, but we can’t expect him to baby us forever.  There comes a time when we each must  learn to fly and take responsibility for our own spiritual lives.  We need to stop returning to our little nests and go out into the world sharing what we have learned." Right?

But, remember the flaw, that my story will always be colored by my understanding, or lack, of reality? 

After several anxious days, I had a sudden shift in my understanding.  “Wait a minute,” I said to the bird, “What if you’re not a baby who won’t leave the nest?  What if you’re actually a small mother bird sitting on your eggs?”  The cardinal stared back at me.

It has been about a week now.  The small mother bird sits vigilantly in her nest, leaving only briefly to get food.  Yesterday, she and the male cardinal valiantly chased off a flock of birds who dared to land in the tree.  She is protecting those eggs with her life.  The baby birds inside those eggs are contributing nothing to their growth and safety.  Their nurture and care is total.  And, even after they hatch, their every need will be met.  The babies will still be utterly dependent. 

I was reading the story wrong.  It wasn’t about me and my responsibility, or you and yours.  As always, it was about God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—who incubates us, protects us, nurtures us and nourishes us.  It is about our utter helplessness and vulnerability, and how our needs are abundantly met through his provision, not our own. 

How precious is your

Steadfast love, O God!

The children of mankind

Take refuge in the shadow

Of your wings.

They feast on the

Abundance of your house,

And you given them drink

From the river of your delights.

Psalm 36:7-8

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Solid Ground

Emotionally uprooted,
Not sure where I belong.
The things I once was sure of
Now suddenly seem wrong.

Unmoored, adrift and frightened,
No solid ground in sight.
I wonder where I'm going
And who will heed my plight.

Alone, unheard, unnoticed,
Afraid to lift my voice,
Afraid to be disparaged,
Afraid to make a choice.

Distressed, ashamed, remorseful,
Embarrased at my state.
I'm not sure how I got here
Or what will be my fate.

I lay my case before God,
And ask for his regard.
I tell him of my sorrow,
How life is just too hard.

I wonder, will he hear me,
Or will he turn away?
Will he be disappointed
At what I had to say?

I bow my head in silence
And wait for his rebuke,
Knowing that his charges
I'm too tired to dispute.

"My child," he gently whispers,
"I know you feel alone.
I know you feel uncertain
As you're facing the unknown.

"But know that I am with you,
I am your solid ground.
You feel as though you're missing,
But you are truly found.

"I see you and I hear you,
I know your every tear,
And I will never leave you,
There's nothing you need fear.

"My love for you is endless,
Dependent on my Son.
You cannot ever lose it,
That battle has been won."

Sunday, March 19, 2017

In Light of the Vertical

 Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees,
    and the writers who keep writing oppression,
 to turn aside the needy from justice
    and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be their spoil,
    and that they may make the fatherless their prey!
What will you do on the day of punishment,
    in the ruin that will come from afar?
To whom will you flee for help,
    and where will you leave your wealth?
Nothing remains but to crouch among the prisoners
    or fall among the slain.
For all this his anger has not turned away,
    and his hand is stretched out still.  Isaiah 10:1-4

Father of the fatherless and protector of widows
    is God in his holy habitation. Psalm 68:5

Do not rob the poor, because he is poor,
    or crush the afflicted at the gate,
for the Lord will plead their cause
    and rob of life those who rob them.  Proverbs 22:22-23

 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.  Deuteronomy 10:17-19

Since the election, many of my friends, and even family, have wondered if I’ve ‘done gone and lost my mind’ because I have posted numerous articles and opinions which are critical of the current administration’s actions and policies. It has been suggested that I am off topic, the only real topic of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Some have thought that I am putting my trust in politics and politicians instead of God, expecting our nation and its leaders to fulfill the directives of scripture.  Others have made it clear that they believe taking a public political position will alienate people and might close their minds to anything “spiritual” I might have to say.  And, many think that I just can’t get over the fact that my candidate did not win the election and that I simply have a bad case of “sour grapes.”  (To that last one I have to say that I did not really have a candidate that didn’t win, I had an anti-candidate who won.)

Because I have never been particularly political, I am not bold by nature, and I care more than I really should about what others think of me, I have been brought up short by these criticisms, and have regularly retreated to ponder the truth of what was said or implied. 

For many years, I have had only one message, that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in the finished work of Christ alone.  I was highly suspicious of any talk, not just political, that hinted at how Christians should live, because I had been blinded for half my life by churches whose primary proclamation was Christian Living, where Christ was merely a footnote in the prequel. That deadly emphasis had kept me from having any assurance in Christ.  It kept my focus on me and left me either feeling, self-righteously, that I was doing pretty well, or, despondently, that I was a failure and a fraud. 

God’s revelation to me that my obedience did not save me, but, rather, that it was Christ’s obedience and his punishment for me, in my stead, which saved me, changed my entire life!  I was not willing to be confused again, or to risk confusing others, by engaging in any conversation about living in light of the cross. 

Then, two things happened.  The first was that I began to grasp the idea of the vertical and horizontal planes in relation to God and humankind.  The vertical plane is my relationship with God.  It represents the It-is-finished standing of salvation, accomplished by Christ for me, to which I contributed nothing but my sin.  It is a completed, historical fact.  I am secure in Christ.

The horizontal plane represents my relationship with those around me.  The way I relate to the world flows out of my vertical, settled relationship with God.  The vertical plane has an effect on the horizontal (the way I live).  The fact that I am secure in Christ and have been given undeserved grace and mercy will generate in me a desire to show that same grace and mercy to those around me.  The horizontal plane, however, does not in any way affect my settled relationship with God in the vertical plane.  My behavior in the horizontal will not “unsave” me.  God still watches over me, guides my feet, leads me, convicts me and sometimes disciplines me in regards to my behavior, but that is because I am his child.  My place in the family is not threatened.

The second thing was the election.

I have already mentioned that I have never been very interested in politics.  I’ve had my views which I almost never expressed, and I always voted my conscience; but, when every other election was over I paid little to no attention to what happened after I left the voting booth.  I’m not suggesting that’s a good or a bad thing, it’s just the truth.  But, for me, and for many others, this election was different.  I can’t explain it necessarily, but I haven’t been able to ignore it either.  It has created in me a sense of urgency, a need to speak up, to sound a warning.  No matter how hard I’ve tried to “let it go”, I can’t. 

I have been told that the policies this administration is proposing are not very different from previous administrations, from both political parties.  My research tells me this is, to some extent, true. I have been told by many who voted for this president that they felt the same urgency regarding the previous administration, and I believe them and respect their experience.  I know that some who voted for Trump are greatly encouraged by his seemingly miraculous win and have found hope, in that win, that his presidency will be a blessing for our country.  I have also heard many say they were so distressed by the choices they had in this election that they cried as they cast their votes.  Feelings are on the surface and are raw in a way that I have never before witnessed.  Regardless of how things may have been in the past, for me, things are different now.

I cannot answer for what anyone else believes they must do or not do in regards to living horizontally in light of the vertical.  I only know that as I watch my country moving in the direction of self-protectionism and pursuing fiscal policies in such a way that widows, orphans, the poor, afflicted, and even sojourners are being put and/or left in harm’s way, I cannot be silent. I must speak up for them, I must stand with them, and I must do whatever I can to help them. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Pursue Freedom

I had a realization today. Strong negative responses are attached to actual occurrences, events, things that happen to us. We, therefore, might assume that we will have strong positive feelings about the lack of a negative occurence, but that is not always the case.

For example. I looked forward, in retirement, to enjoying not having to do certain things, like not having to work on weekends and holidays, or when it snowed, or when I was sick. And while I experienced fleeting satisfaction as the workless weekends and holidays came and went, for the most part, my life as I am now experiencing it, simply went on as per the new "usual". I merely gave a passing nod to the non-event.

This explains to some extent, I think, why, for many, after suffering all of the misery in an unhappy marriage, the freedom of divorce may not seem to deliver on its promise. The absence of the misery doesn't automatically produce equal and opposite feelings of relief or happiness.

This also relates to why the absence of a catastrophic event can never come even remotely close to having the same impact as a catastrophic event does. People, if told that a massive terror plot was just uncovered and thwarted, will give a relieved and grateful sigh, then go on about their day. Even if they are told that this event could have been of the same magnitude as 9/11, an event which they might have experienced to one extent or another, their response will naturally be minimal in comparison.

The negative feelings from experiences in the past are not erased or replaced with joy engendered by the cessation of those experiences; and negative things that never happened leave little to no imprint at all.

While we may receive actual benefits as a result of distancing ourselves from misery or narrowly escaping disaster, we may not experience emotional benefits.

So, if escaping the negative is not enough to produce the positive, what is? For me it is intentionally exploring what it means to live fully in the freedom found only in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Knowing that I have nothing to prove or earn, I can seek new experiences, create new life events, find things which give me a sense of purpose, that bring me excitement and get my creative juices flowing.

You can too!  We can find ways to replace the end of misery or the escaping of death with new life, new adventure and fresh hope. We can dare to pursue things with enthusiasm; dare to speak our minds and hearts. We can love. We can be pot-stirrers. People may think we're crazy, but let's go ahead and live boldly. Let's not just escape the negative, let's pursue the freedom we've been given in Christ. Let's dance!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Faith, Contamination and Belonging

After I posted my last blog based on the first part of Matthew 3 which, among other things, dealt with what “bearing fruit in keeping with repentance” might look like, a friend pointed out that I had not included faith in that list of fruit.  I chewed on that for a while.

Those baptized with John’s repentance-baptism were not professing their faith in Jesus.  They were not baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  John’s was a different baptism than that with which we, as Christians, are familiar.  In fact, it was different from anything with which the Jews were familiar as well. 

Prior to this time, there were primarily two situations where Jews would have experienced something akin to what we consider baptism.  One was for those who became defiled by coming into contact with something that was considered to be contaminating, e.g., a dead body.  In order to cleanse themselves of their defilement, they were required to immerse or “dip” themselves in water collected in a pool.

Water purification was also one of the three requirements for the conversion of a proselyte to Judaism.  In that sense, it was a membership ritual.  Converts had to be immersed before they could “belong”.  

The individuals themselves performed both of these ritual cleansings.  John’s repentance-baptism, by contrast, was administered by John, who acted in a priestly role, and seemingly in competition with the temple rite of purification through sin offerings. 

In the instituted sacrificial system, the person bringing the sin offering would confess to the priest the specific sin for which the offering was being made and then he would place his faith in the sufficiency of the sacrifice for the forgiveness of his sin.  I can’t say with certainty, but I can imagine that, despite the fact that its intention was the opposite, this system, because of the fallen nature of mankind, would foster the belief that one was paying for his own sins.  ‘I committed a sin for which I am bringing one of my own possessions as payment.  I, therefore, can have faith that God will accept this transaction and forgive my sin.’
John’s proclamation of repentance-baptism took the people out of the familiar and gave them a completely new perspective.  All sin was now placed in the context of contamination.  They were all defiled—as unclean as if touched by death.  Their sin also placed them on the outside, looking in, as surely as if they were foreigners.  They could see that their ancestry did not ensure their belonging.  Forgiveness of sin could no longer be viewed as a pay-as-you-go transaction.  Repentance could not be a public apology for show.  It was now permanently fused with the need for water cleansing, which must be administered by another.   Repentance called for a complete change of everything they had ever understood about themselves and about God.  Their faith, at that point, was temporarily placed in the sufficiency of John’s repentance-baptism, in preparation for the coming of the one true object of faith.

When Christ came, then, to receive this repentance-baptism from John, John rightly understood that Jesus should be the one administering and he should be on the receiving end.  There stood Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God, not provided from the flock of a sinner, but provided by God as the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of the world.  Jesus had nothing for which to repent, nothing that necessitated water purification.  This repentance-baptism was not even a feature of the law that God had commanded all to fulfill; but, by submitting to it, Christ did two things. 

First, he affirmed and established the pre-eminence of baptism, this means of water cleansing for the forgiveness of sins, over the specifically Jewish sacrificial system of purification via sin offering. This repentance-baptism became the foundation for the baptism Christ later established.

Secondly, and most importantly, he fulfilled through his righteousness on our behalf the requirement of perfectly turning to God in full submission and completely turning away from all wickedness, which is the true meaning of repentance and something that we can never fully do on our own, no matter how hard we try. 

Because of what Christ completed at the cross, this perfect repentance and cleansing are gifted to us; as is the faith we receive from him to believe and accept those gifts.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Straight Paths, Good Fruit and Unquenchable Fire

Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet when he said,

The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
Make ready the way of the Lord,
Make His paths straight!’”

Now John himself had a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. 10 The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:1-12 (NASB)

Today when I read this passage in Matthew, a few questions came to mind: 

1.  How was John the Baptist supposed to make God’s paths straight? 

2.  What does “fruit in keeping with repentance” look like?  

3.  What is this very disturbing picture of Jesus with something akin to a pitchfork and hell fire all about (All that’s missing are the horns, right?!)?

My initial research took me to Isaiah 40.  Verse 3 is quoted in Matthew, but, for context I began with the first two verses and read through the two following verses: “Comfort, O comfort my people”, says your God.  “Speak kindly to Jerusalem; And call out to her, that her warfare has ended, That her iniquity has been removed, That she has received of the Lord’s hand Double for all her sins.” A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.  Let every valley be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; And let the rough ground become a plain, And the rugged terrain a broad valley.  Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, And all flesh will see it together; For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 40:1-5

What I first realized is that the ultimate message was to be one of comfort and tenderness.  The people were to be told that their warfare had ended and their iniquity had been removed.  This was not meant to be a message of condemnation, as it is often pictured, but one of hope!  Not only that, but I saw that it was not John the Baptist’s job to clear the way for the Lord, or to make his paths straight; rather, his was to be the voice calling the people to clear the way for the Lord and to make his paths straight.  So, how were the people supposed to make God’s path straight?

In all four of the gospels, we read that John preached to the people the message of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.  The passage in Matthew has John calling the religious leaders of the day a “brood of vipers”, and asking them who warned them to flee from the coming wrath.  He also told them not to rely on their credentials as Abraham’s children, since God could turn the stones into Abraham’s children if he wanted to.   Luke goes even further, and applies those words to all who came out to hear John’s message and then details the different groups, such as tax collectors and soldiers, who asked John what behavior was required of them.  John answered each of them with specific instructions. 

From these passages of scripture, I began to see that the way the people were to prepare a straight path for the Lord was by squarely facing the reality of their sin.  They needed to stop thinking they were acceptable to God because of their personal goodness or their ancestry.  They needed to examine their specific behavior requirements and find themselves wanting.  They needed the law to be laid down, to show them that they actually needed a place to run, to escape the coming wrath.  They needed to see their need, so that nothing would impede their grateful acceptance of rescue when it arrived.

This understanding also answered my next question about what “fruit in keeping with repentance” looks like.  It looks like humility.  It looks like shedding all dependence on my own goodness.  It looks like recognition that I am no better than anyone else, that we are all in the same boat and that boat is sinking. It looks like desperate longing for rescue and, ultimately, great relief and joy when the good news is revealed.

But, what about that picture of Jesus with the winnowing fork ready to clear his threshing floor; gathering his wheat into the barn but burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire?  This is a picture of the harvesting process where the wheat is tossed into the air with a fork so that the wind can blow away the worthless parts such as the husks, hulls, shells, etc., leaving only the grain.  The chaff is then burned. 

Some consider the wheat to represent those who recognized their need for a savior and accepted the offer of rescue through Christ, with the chaff representing those who saw no need for rescue.  I prefer to picture Christ taking all of those who believe in him and tossing us into the air so that the wind gently blows away all of our worthless and even damnable efforts to be good enough, until all that remains is wheat, made perfect in his righteousness.  Then, all of the evidence of our fearful and fruitless struggle is burned with unquenchable fire, because, finally, we are eternally safe in Him.