Archives for the month of: February, 2014

Place matters

The home I grew up in. My elementary school. The homes of my grandparents and great grandparents. Eagle Eyrie. The basement of the library at Baylor University and the Brazos River. My first apartment . The classroom where I taught my first high school English class. The sanctuary at my church. My current home. The bench by the creek in my front yard. The park where I taught my children to ride their bikes. My father’s grave.

These are the places of my life. Not the huge moment places, but the places that sustained me, shaped me, changed me, nurtured me, still affect my soul. These places will always matter to me, no matter how they have change, no matter how far I am removed from my connection to them.

Place also matters to God. God has always prepared a place for his people before he leads them there. God didn’t ask Abraham to be faithful in Ur; God insisted that Abraham move to a new place that would become the Promised Land for his people. When famine hit Israel, God already had Joseph in place in the pharaoh’s palace with extra food stored. God called specific people to build ebenezers in the place where they had “met” him. God’s glory dwelled in the Temple and the Tabernacle. The Old Testament said that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem and come up out of Egypt. Judas knew the exact place to find Jesus and betray him. Jesus promised that he was going to prepare a place for us.

My church has a strong ministry to the refugees in our city. One Sunday after church I took one of those refugee families home to their apartment. The 20 year old son had been born in a camp. He had never known life outside that environment. When his family learned that they would be relocated to America, he set about learning the language, culture, economy and history of America. If you know that you don’t belong in the place where you are, you study the place where you are going so that you can be better prepared when you get there. Hear that idea from the heart of Moses. He was a Hebrew living in an Egyptian palace, a prince living as a shepherd on the back side of the desert, and a spokesman who stuttered. He said in Ex 2:22, “I have been an alien in a foreign land.” The eleventh chapter of Hebrews is like the Bible’s Hall of Fame. It mentions so many of those who stood firm in their belief in God during their time on earth. Heb 11:16 says of all of them, “They were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”

That place is real. It is not a “cosmic oneness”. It isn’t just light or a feeling of well being. Heaven is an actual place. In Revelation 21 John described watching as an angel measured it. It has walls and gates and streets. The Bible compares it to a kingdom, a city, and a garden. Learning about the place God has prepared for you can give you better perspective on the circumstances of the place where you are. Heaven is not the place you look back on, it is not the place that shaped you; it is the place that can begin to shape you now, that can give you the courage to overcome the temptation and the suffering of this life because you know that this life is not all there is. May God give you a vision of the place he has prepared for you. May that vision sustain you until it becomes the place where you spend eternity.

Right and Wrong

I saw a movie this weekend that will most probably win at least one Academy Award. The story was well written, the plot was tight and creative, the characters were well developed, and the lead actors certainly gave Oscar worthy performances. The problem is there was nothing and no one in the movie that was remotely admirable. None that was respectable or set a good example. Not once was I inspired because a character made the difficult choice to do the noble thing. Not one saw marriage or integrity as sacred. All were perfectly willing to cheat and lie and destroy others so that they could have what they wanted. The closest character to respectable went to jail, while those responsible for the chaos and destruction went scot free. No character in the movie had the slightest sense of right and wrong. And the producers of the movie missed any chance of reminding the viewers of what is best in people by focusing on what is worst in people.

I don’t think that this movie is unique. Several very successful TV shows in the last few years have praised those who enjoy the blessings of our country while plotting to destroy it, who allow their revenge to dominate their politics, and who allow their anger and hopelessness to be a justifiable excuse for their depravity. An actor from one of these series actually said that they had intentionally blurred the lines between good and evil until you couldn’t tell them apart. As clever as that may be, it is evil.

Right and wrong are not ambiguous, abstract ideas that are based on our convenience or change with our circumstance. If we don’t have a clear understanding of right and wrong, we may find ourselves somewhere we don’t want to be, because we didn’t realize where the boundary was. If we don’t teach our children and youth right and wrong, they will learn those definitions from our culture. And our culture is far more interested in profit and power than they are right and wrong. We don’t teach them about God because we want them to make up their own mind, we don’t want to offend those who believe differently than we do. We tell our children to be “good”, and give them no indication of what that looks like. Our inability and choice to take a back seat to self-indulgence and cultural influence leaves God out of our culture.

The most cursory glance at history shows that when a culture loses its sense of right and wrong, it begins to die. Classes on bullying, stricter gun laws, and warning labels will not save a people who have no basic understanding of right and wrong. God gave us his laws, not so he could be in charge…he’s in charge whether we obey him or not…but because there are moral absolutes that don’t change. Ever since Eve ate from the tree of “the knowledge of good and evil”, God has held us accountable for our choices. We don’t get to blame our sin on ignorance and laziness; we are responsible for the choices we make. His law is designed for our good, to help us choose right and avoid wrong. What our culture needs isn’t more laws; what our culture needs is God.

We’ve depended on Hollywood and Washington to make choices for us that are not theirs to make, and allowed them to diminish us into less than God intended us to be. Both have made very clear that they are not bound by God’s law. I’m going to choose my entertainment more carefully in the future. I can’t change what Hollywood is producing, but I can refuse to let their celebration of depravity change me.

Control/Alt/Delete

The default settings on my computer were probably meant for good, but they have been a huge source of irritation and frustration to me. They do correct spelling and typing errors, but they also change settings I don’t want changed. I have to be meticulous and intentional in order to override what my computer does.

Habits, both good and bad, become default responses for us. Favorite phrases, bad language, food and drink choices, driving routes and so many other things begin as a choice and end as a default response we don’t even really have to think about.

Jesus identified Satan as the “Father of Lies” in John 8:44. Anytime Satan speaks, you can be sure he is not telling the whole truth…or any of the truth. He makes sin attractive so that we will want it; then he uses that choice to entrap us into a lifestyle that becomes our default response. One bad choice leads to another until we have formed habits that make us less than who God intended us to be. Satan’s first lie was to Eve in Eden when he tells her what God said isn’t true. Satan convinced her, and still tells our culture today, that sin brings fulfillment and that being good is boring, when sin actually steals our fulfillment and makes our life empty.
How many people have said they want to wait to become a Christian and have a relationship with God because they want to live their life and have fun first? Those people are missing the very best part of their present and creating a past that will scar them. Those who seek worth and purpose and happiness in disobedient sinful behavior will be destroyed by it.

Hell is a default destination, but heaven is a lifestyle choice. Satan wants to make sure you don’t choose heaven. Satan’s lie to us is grows into the belief that since being good is boring, heaven will just be more of the same. If he can make us believe heaven is boring, we do not feel compelled to share the good news of Jesus Christ and the hope of heaven. Christians who don’t learn what the Bible says about heaven dangerously ignore what God taught to help us have his perspective on our past, present, and future. Understanding the truth about heaven will help us make better choices here on earth.

The promise of heaven is a problem for Satan and the plan he has for your destruction. He lies to us when he makes us believe that being good is boring. He says we’re not loving or we’re judgmental if we talk about hell. He says we’re fanatical and narrow minded if we insist that the Bible is true. Our ignorance of God’s word, the weakness of our flesh, our desire for acceptance and pleasure and control, the power of Satan: all of these lead us to default to sinful choices.

When my computer defaults to something I don’t want and I don’t know how to change it, I have the control/alt/delete option. Notice that the default button requires no effort on my part; changing it is a three step process. I will be intentional, or I will end up with what I don’t want.

God sent his son and his spirit and left us his word so that we would not just stumble through life, defaulting to the things that will entrap us and make us less than who he created us to be. Changing habitual responses, changing course, changing how things are into how they should be will never be a default; it will always involve self-control, alteration of the choices we make, and deletion of the sin that separates us from him.

Building a Home

My next door neighbors are renovating a larger home at the end of our street. They have three kids and both sets of grandparents live out of town. They love the house they live in now, but it is not big enough to accommodate their family’s needs. Their address is still next door, but their focus, their plans, and their future is now is at the end of our street. They live in one place, but they are building a new life somewhere else.

One Sunday after church I took a refugee family in our church home to their apartment. The 20 year old son had been born in a refugee camp. He had never known life outside that camp until he moved to my city. When his family learned that they would be relocated to America, he immediately set about learning the language, culture, economy and history of America. He knew they were going to leave that camp eventually, and he wanted to be prepared for where he was going.

This earth, our temporary home, is an incredible place with indescribable beauty. Our lives here can bring us delight and joy and fulfillment. But it was always meant to be temporary. Heaven is not just a place; God also wants it to be your heart’s desire. Heaven isn’t just your future home; it’s your current home; you just don’t live there yet. The pleasures of this world can be good and can serve as a foretaste of heaven. God himself has prepared a home for all of eternity there for you. Let this understanding embed itself in your understanding and expectation of heaven. The same God who carved out the sea and formed the mountains and spread out the sky is designing a new city for you to live in. The architect of that city will be the same one who created Mt. Everest, the Sahara, Niagra, the rainforest and the tropical island. The same hands that formed rocky cliffs, dragonfly wings, clouds, tree bark, precious stones and flower petals will build that city for you. The same God who designed all the colors in the rainbow will be the interior designer of your new mansion. The same God who put delight in the heart of a child, playfulness in the mind of a monkey, grace in the fins of a fish, power in the bulk of an elephant, and speed in the limbs of a cheetah is designing a new body for you. The same God who put music in Mozart’s head, a song in Pavorotti’s throat, put color on Monet’s brush, put a story in Shakespeare’s pen, the one who taught David and Barishnikov and Astair to dance – that God will equip you to praise him perfectly.

Most of us spend way more time and effort planning for our next vacation or our retirement than we do for our eternity. Our view of God and heaven is often so small that it allows us to get lost in and disappointed by the mundane of this life and miss the delight of understanding what God has planned. My neighbors are making plans and decisions and investments based on where they are going to live. May we do likewise as we plan for the new home God has prepared for us.

John 14:1-3 Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. My house has
plenty of room; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to
prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back
and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

Intention

God was clear and simple. It wasn’t complicated or confusing. It wasn’t an accident or a mistake. It was an intentional choice.

Gen 2:16-17 And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will certainly die.

Eve decided to trust the lies of Satan and indulge her temptation, rather than obey God, and Adam to join her in rebellion. Each of us faces the same choice they did. We now have the knowledge of good and evil. We now know the difference between good and evil, and God holds us accountable for that knowledge. We try to hide our choices behind fig leaves, but God already knows the answer when he asks us “Where are you?” The older I get, the more I suffer from the consequences of my sinful choices and the pain of the sinful choices of those I love, the more I sense the pain in that question. God’s power in our lives and in our world is not limited by his capability; it is limited by our choice to disobey.

Satan is the epitome of evil. Satan is a bully who doesn’t fight fair, who intentionally attacks us at our weakest, most tender place. We aren’t fighting against flesh and blood; we are fighting evil itself. Satan seeks our destruction, but will settle for our shame. He would love for us to worship him, but will settle for our ignoring God and the specific instructions he has given us. Shame is his signature, and our destruction is his goal. Temptation always looks attractive, and it always costs us more than we intend to pay.
The holiness of our God and the power of our enemy require that we take our sin seriously. Those of us who have been scarred by or survived a season or moment of sin know its power. Any victory we have over sin will only come from intentional choice.

Successfully confronting and defeating sin in your life is rarely an accident. You can achieve almost nothing without a plan and some sacrifice of all that doesn’t conform to that plan. The world teaches that we should take the easy way out – that’s why gambling and the lottery and entitlement programs so rarely lead to progress and so often become a trap . Those plans rarely satisfy. Social Security has not become a tool that people use temporarily to get themselves out of poverty; it has become a snare that has lured more and more people into it. The disproportionate numbers of people who worked hard for their riches and those who got rich by gambling are odds no rational person would bet on….yet so many do. Long term success requires strategy and sacrifice, whether you want a diploma, the top score, a gold medal, a new title, or just a promotion. If you want to win the contest, the game, the battle, or the election, you will have to exert intentional effort. A successful athlete, candidate, or soldier will sacrifice ease and indulgent leisure in order to win. Battling sin is no different. Our relationship with God becomes carnal and ineffective when we acknowledge the power of sin, and have no plan beyond some really good intentions to have victory over it. Really good intentions rarely produce results. Not obeying is disobedience; partial obedience is disobedience. You will either consistently choose obedience, or you will be scarred or destroyed by disobedience.

The amazing thing is that God wants us to choose obedience. He’s not hoping we’ll fail so he can zap us; our disobedience breaks his heart and cost him the suffering of his only son. We will not defeat sin with good intentions; we will find relationship with God only by intentionally choosing him. May God give you the desire to seek him, and may you know the comfort and power of his presence, and may the power of his presence give you the strength to intentionally choose obedience, rather than the lies of the one who seeks to deceive and destroy.

Happily Ever After

As a child, I dreamed of the happily ever after that I hoped would be mine. I loved the concept of the mighty prince on the white horse whose love for the princess led him to rescue her at any cost. I wanted right to win and wrong to be revealed. I wanted to be chosen and special and loved and live my life free from fear and injustice and disappointment. When the reality of adulthood replaced my childish expectations, I felt that Disney had lied to me.

As I shared this with a friend, she pointed out that Disney stories always have a monster that threatens the “happily ever after”. That monster can be named “Ursula”, “Maleficent”, “Jafar”, or “Gaston”. It might be a Big Bad Wolf or your run of the mill wicked stepmother. But in this world and in Disney stories, there is no shortage of villains to threaten our “happily ever after”.

As I prepared to teach a series of lessons on what the Bible teaches us about heaven, I was brought to tears as I saw that this desire for “happily ever after” is absolutely God given. When evil entered our world, it threatened our “happily ever after” and separated us from the one who utterly loves us. God sent his son, at great cost, to rescue us from the evil that seeks to destroy us and separate us from the God who loves us. His desire is to take us with him into an eternity that will have no more “death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev 21:4). His goal is for us to seek him in this life so that we will know the “happily ever after” he has prepared for us.

And then I realized it. Disney didn’t lie; Disney just managed to capture that longing in us that is God given. That desire to know a higher being than ourselves and find purpose and meaning outside of what we currently know is hard wired into us by God himself. This life gives us bodies that will deteriorate and forces us to work through pain and war and fears and tears. It is natural for suffering to lead us to look beyond the here and now. God intentionally put a glimpse and longing for eternity into all humans so that it would lead us to seek him.

The problem is that so many have sought understanding and answers apart from God, and that has led to perversion of the truth and futility and evil. The Egyptians built pyramids and stocked them with all the necessities and luxuries of life in hopes that they might have them after they die. Many Eastern religions believe in reincarnation to give purpose to their life and hope for fulfillment after this life. Mormons believe they will inhabit other planets; Native Americans believed their spirits would hunt the spirits of buffalo or that they would become stars. Aborigines believe after this life they will live again on another island on the western horizon. Many spiritualists believe their spirits will be absorbed into energy or light or a collective cosmos after they die. Only Christians worship the God who comes to them. He shows up wherever his people are. He entered history to live among them. He seeks relationship with them in this life and has prepared a place for them in eternity. When he comes back at the end of time, he will be riding a horse. Revelation 19 tells that Jesus will return riding a horse, to defeat Satan and the evil that has oppressed and aggrieved his people. Jesus will win, and evil will lose. And the people who love God will go with him into heaven, the happily ever after God has prepared for them.

We all want a “happily ever after” because God wants us to desire the eternity he has planned for us. I challenge you to study what God’s word says about what he has promised for your “happily ever after”. What the Bible says about heaven is as true as what it says about everything else. Our understanding of what is to come will help us keep this temporary life in proper perspective.

Ecc 3:11 “He has set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done for them from the beginning to the end.”

WORDS

I suspect our ability to use words is at least a part of what God meant when he said that he would make man in his image. The ability to express information and our thoughts in words is one of the things that distinguishes humans from the rest of creation. I’m not talking about communication. Scientists have documented evidence of communication between members of animal and insect species. Sometimes their communication comes through color or dance in mating rituals where they communicate “I am available.” The organization of an ant colony or a beehive, animals who hunt in packs or who flee from a predator all demonstrate that there is communication between the members of the group. Sometimes there even seems to actually be a sort of language. Whales and dolphins have been recorded making consistent sounds in similar situations. I can listen to the birds in my yard and know whether they are just having a happy day, or whether the neighborhood hawk is back. I can listen to the bark or whine of my dog and know whether the kids next door are playing in our yard, whether the squirrel is in the bird feeder again, or whether the cute little female Bichon across the street is out for a walk. My dog can even understand certain words that I speak to him – “car”, “walk”, “toy” and “treat” all get enthusiastic responses – not so much for “brush” or “bed”. He even responds appropriately to one word commands like “up”, “sit”, “down”, or “paw”. But he can’t reproduce them. Animals can sometimes communicate basic information with each other, but they don’t have language and words like humans do. History changed for each civilization as it developed and began to use written language. Whatever being “made in his image” means includes our being able to communicate and use words.

Genesis 1 gives the account of God’s creation of the world. Creation began with “And God said…”. He didn’t have to do scientific research or build a special machine; he didn’t form a committee or sketch out a model; his spoken word resulted in creation of something new. When Jesus battled Satan in the wilderness, he didn’t argue or philosophize; he quoted scripture, God’s written word. Jesus didn’t calm the storm or heal or cast out demons or summon Lazarus from his tomb with meditation or a dance; he simply spoke commands, and it happened. Don’t miss the fact that the power of his word required that Jesus remain quiet during his trial.

God’s word can be his spoken word, his written word of scripture or his living word in Jesus Christ. All have incredible power. God gave us some of that same power when he gave us words and language. May the words we speak reflect the image of our heavenly Father in us.

Called to Speak

Doing good deeds is not the same as serving God. Having compassion and the commitment to serve is not limited to Christians. Even people who do not believe in God do good things. They help raise money or go to areas devastated by war or natural disaster and serve the needs of people in trouble. They invest their personal time and wealth in the educational and health and safety needs of those in crisis all over the world. But the motive of their service is personal preference and agenda, not obedient service to God. Good things become godly things only when they are a result man’s obedience to God. Our service must be accompanied by our continual effort to acknowledge God as the source of any good we do and to lead others to him.

Jesus met the physical needs of those who came to him. He fed and healed and cast out demons, but then he taught them about God’s love and forgiveness. He did not use his power or authority to build a fan club. He didn’t dole out miracles to those he liked the best. He used who he was and what power he had to bless those God put in his path and make sure those people knew that the purpose for his service was his love for them and his obedience to God. If our service to others is not grounded in our relationship with God, then we are not serving him by doing those things. Whatever your service looks like, the ultimate purpose of your service to others should always be to lead them to God.

Our service should always be accompanied by our testimony. God doesn’t call all of us to explain complicated theology or preach or even teach; he does expect us to tell what we do know and have experienced in our relationship with him. We, as Christians who know even just a glimpse of the goodness and power of God, have good news that most of the rest of the world either ignores or doesn’t believe. Once God’s word takes root in our hearts and begins to grow, we find healing and protection and power in God’s word that ought to be so exciting that we just can’t stop talking about it.

When you serve God, you will get a story. Your story may include acknowledgment that your victory in a hopeless situation came clearly from God. It may be testimony of his presence throughout a crisis or protection in the face of great odds. It may be an answer to a prayer or tangible evidence that he has heard your prayer. It may be an awareness that God has knit seemingly unrelated parts of your life into what he is now calling you to do. Your testimony may be as simple as “I know that God loves me and led me to serve you”. It may be that simple, but it will never be more profound. Of all the things we speak, “God loves you” is the most important. God may ask you to tell the stories of the people in the Bible who had an encounter or an adventure with God, but their stories will not sustain you during your times of doubt and crisis. Your story will increase your faith, and your story will have meaning to the one you serve.

We love stories. Children ask to be told stories and make up their own. Families rehearse the stories of their lives at reunions. “Once upon a time” and “Remember the time when” can help us rise above the mundane and enter the life of a princess or a hero, or it can remind us of our connection to each other.

The stories of our relationship with God give us perspective on our future, but they also can encourage or inspire others who are struggling with similar things. Those of us who have any experience with God can speak hope and healing and direction into the lives of those who do not know God. If you have believed and followed and known and loved and served God, you must tell those you serve what you know. Those you serve may admire your passion or your conviction, but if you don’t speak to them about God, they may never know the same healing and hope that has saved you.

John 8:28 So Jesus said, “…I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.

May God give us opportunity and courage to share what we know with those who need to hear.

Called to Serve

“There are some doctrines in the Bible that can be difficult to truly understand. Being a servant is not one of them.”

Christ lived the life of a servant to give us an example of what our service should look like. If you’ve ever loved anyone or anything, you know that serving it is the natural response to that love. Jesus, God himself in the flesh, came to earth to serve. He hid his glory beneath the frailty of our flesh and met our needs. “Christ set the example of service because our service to God is manifested in our service to each other. He not only provided our sacrifice, he served people while he was on earth, especially the unlovely and the outcasts. He fed, healed, taught, forgave, and washed feet, even the feet of Judas.“ He did not require pomp or fawning. He didn’t seek out the most powerful or noteworthy who might help his cause. He is God; he doesn’t need our help. He came to serve because of his great love for people who didn’t know or love him.

There are lots of reasons we serve. Those who have broken the law are described as “serving their time” in jail. Certain careers, like policemen or firemen, are categorized as public service. The reputation of a restaurant can be made or broken by the quality of its servers. You can serve for a paycheck or for the attention or favor that service might give you. But when the goal of your serving is what you will receive, your service becomes self-serving. The kind of serving Jesus modeled was selfless service to people that he chose to love, many of whom were rejected by their society.

“While the world disparages servanthood, God requires it. Jesus said that our ‘greatness’ comes only from serving (Mat 20:26, Mat 23:33), and that he will judge the way we serve him by the way we serve others. Serving those he loves is like serving him.”

I find it easy to serve people I love or people who are pleasant and kind. But it is another story when I’m called to serve the arrogant, the difficult, or the demanding. My pride starts to get in the way when those I serve treat me like their servant. The gap there is remembering whom I actually serve.

My service to others may be as simple as letting them go in front of me in line, or as time consuming as listening to their story. My service may be choosing a kind response to their rude or selfish behavior. It may be investing what comes easily to me in the life of someone who needs it. It will always be choosing to share all that God has given me with the people that God so desperately loves. They deserve my service, not because they’ve earned it, but because I love the God who loves them. God loved us and sent his son (I John 4:10). When we choose to behave as his children, our love for him requires that we love and serve those he loves.
“There is an important purpose for training classes and internship programs. Serving under those from whom we need to learn gives us information and experience we can’t learn from a book. Serving God’s people allows us to see and know the ways of God. The way we serve God indicates the truth about our character and becomes our testimony. The odd thing about God’s economy is that our humble service gives us honor.”

“May what we learn in our service teach us the things of God. May we have opportunity to share those things of God with a world that so desperately needs to be served. May God grant us the thrill of a life lived in mutual agreement with our master who seeks eternal relationship with us.”

Quoted portions come from my book “He Wants You to Know” available at barnesandnoble.com or amazon.com.