Archives for the month of: April, 2014

Church

Lots of people never go. Lots more go only rarely. Many claim to have a “good” relationship with God outside the church, but very few actually find spiritual growth or strength in that kind of isolation. Most want the church to somehow be involved when they get married or die, but don’t see a real need for it during the rest of their lives. They want the freedom to call on God to rescue them when they’re in trouble, and the freedom to ignore him when life is going their way.

The world accuses the church of being full of hypocrites and says that only weak people need the church as a “crutch”. As I looked around the sanctuary of my church last Sunday, I saw no hypocrites. I saw ordinary people facing the good and bad of real life. Everyone in that room had a load of sorrow or pain or frustration or disappointment. I saw one couple in their 80’s still holding hands after 60 years of marriage. There was another man there, attending for the first time since he buried his wife. One newly divorced woman had come trying to make a new start. There was a high school senior devastated that she did not get into the college of her choice. One proud grandma was flashing pictures of her new grandson. A new college graduate facing the uncertain job market sat next to a woman who is desperately looking for a job so she won’t lose her house. Another learned this week that she’d been promoted in her job. One is facing a terminal illness; another was back at church after a long confinement due to illness. All ages and stages of life gathered together to worship God and find fellowship with his people.

Church is not about “fire insurance” to keep us out of hell or doing enough good things to earn God’s blessing or avoid his punishment. Church is where we find fellowship and relationship with other people who are struggling to make sense of this life and learn about our eternal one. Church is for people who are more interested in doing the right thing than in protecting their politically correct image. Church is for people who are willing to admit they don’t have all the answers.

Some want just enough of God to stay out of hell. Some want to be spoon fed some positive thoughts, but they certainly don’t want to become involved or be inconvenienced by needy people. Some hope their good intentions will earn them God’s favor, but aren’t really interested in agreeing with him about their sin. I’ve found that the more I learn about God, the more time I want to be in his presence. I’ve found that the more time I spend learning the stories of the people in my church, the easier they are to love and understand. We’ve all got stories, and God wants to be a part of the story of the rest of our lives. Our need for relationship, with God and with each other, is what the church is all about.

Christians are not perfect, but neither is the rest of the world. The Church, with all its imperfections and imperfect people, is precious to God. If you do not have a church home, I encourage you to ask God to help you find the right place to belong and share your gifts. If you do have a church home, encourage others to share in the sense of belonging that you have found there.

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Resurrection

Most people believe in life after death. Religions throughout the world and history have taught that death is not the end. Witches and mediums claim to use séances to speak to the dead. Many entertain themselves with stories, movies, and video games built around characters like ghosts, vampires, and zombies who “come back from the dead”. Millions believe in reincarnation, the idea that how you behave in this life will determine what kind of life form you become next. There is almost something innate in humans that leads us to believe that death is not the end.

When God sent his son as the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of his people, his purpose was not just to die to atone for the sins of his people; his purpose was resurrection – to give them eternal life. Jesus’ resurrection is the defining concept for Christianity. If it didn’t happen, he is nothing more than a great prophet and teacher…but if it did, it is evidence that we worship the God who is more powerful than death, who is defined by love and mercy for his children, and who provided the means for them to spend eternity in his presence. His resurrection makes all the difference.

Jewish authorities wanted to destroy the Christ because he threatened their power. Roman authorities wanted to keep the peace during Passover. Both groups needed Jesus to be dead and stay dead. Rome posted additional guards at his tomb to make sure that he didn’t leave the tomb. (Mat 27:62-66) Lots of “experts” (including the History Channel!) have gone to great lengths to offer some explanation of what happened on Easter morning that doesn’t include resurrection. Some say he didn’t really die on the cross, that he just swooned and they thought he was dead. Seems to me that Roman guards who regularly handled crucifixion detail would have known a dead body when they saw it. It also strikes me as incredibly unrealistic that a man who was beaten so severely that he couldn’t carry his cross, who then was nailed to it for hours, who had his side pierced with a spear, would have, from that weakened state, suddenly stirred to unwrap all his grave clothes, paused to fold the cloth around his face, and then summoned enough strength to move a 2 ton stone. Other “pseudo” experts have conjectured that the disciples actually stole his body just to perpetrate the myth of his resurrection. Why would they have taken the grave clothes off and left them in the tomb so they could carry a naked, dead body through the streets? And there is still the problem of the guards outside the tomb! I believe that the strongest validation of the resurrection is the total change in the behavior of the disciples. They ran from the guards at Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested, Peter denied even knowing Jesus in the courtyard of the trial, and they hid behind locked doors in fear of the authorities that might come for them next. And yet, after Easter and Pentecost, they became bold and outspoken about Jesus, especially with the leaders they so feared before his death. There are very few people who are willing to be persecuted and martyred for what they truly believe in; I know of none that have been willing to die to perpetrate a complete hoax. Their experience with the risen Christ changed their fear, their expectations, and their future.

Jesus’ body was physically resurrected. His soul didn’t just abandon a body he no longer needed; his tomb was empty. Many of the post resurrection accounts give evidence of a very real physical body. Mary mistook him for a gardener, not a ghost. Jesus’ hands and feet and side showed scars of the crucifixion. He offered to let Thomas touch his scars (John 20:24-29), he ate fish (Luke 24:49), and he eventually took that body with him when he ascended to heaven (Acts 1:8-9).

Anyone can throw away what is old and broken. Anyone can walk away from what is painful or hard and replace it with something that is shiny and new and easy. But God’s character consistently shows that he is all about redemption, not replacement. He doesn’t give us a list and say, “When you’re qualified, I will bless you.” He never says that anyone is too sinful, too far gone, too much of a mess for him to resurrect into a new creation. He consistently takes broken people who have a broken past, whatever that looks like, and make them into something new and better. He specializes in taking broken things – dreams, hearts, hopes, promises, and relationships – and remaking them into something with new purpose and power.

God’s power is most apparent when he brings new life to what we thought was dead. I suspect that he does this to remind us that resurrection is real. God put reminders of resurrection into his creation so that we wouldn’t forget that death is not the end; it is the beginning of new and different and better. Seasons consistently change showing the cycle that brings “life” after “death”. The barren bleakness of branches in winter become budding color palettes that signal spring. There is life within a seemingly dead seed. Landscapes ravaged by fire bloom and bud with new life within weeks. Decaying plant matter fertilizes soil for new growth. The caterpillar seems lifeless in the cocoon, but emerges as a symbol of spring and hope when it transforms into a butterfly. Baptism symbolizes dying to a life of sin and rising to a life of obedience.

God wants me to recognize this resurrection power in his world and in my life. Hopelessness and death are not the end. There may be times when God wants me to let go of what should be in my past and move forward to what will come. But sometimes he wants to bring new life to what seems dead. Situations or relationships that I’ve given up on as a lost cause, can suddenly become something new and better if I trust God to transform them, rather than manipulating to impose my will. My God is powerful enough take the broken pieces of this life and rebuild them into what will last for eternity. Let us worship the God who defeated death, and trust him to rebuild all that sin has destroyed.

Redemption

I wear a cross around my neck. My husband gave it to me 25 years ago, and I’ve worn it ever since. It is a beautiful piece of jewelry, but it is special to me because it is a cross. It doesn’t make me a better Christian or give me some sort of magical protection. It is my choice to be associated with what became the symbol of Jesus.

The earliest reference to crucifixion dates to the 400’s bc when a Persian general was crucified by the victorious Athenian army after defeat. But it is the Romans who made crucifixion common. It was designed to be a humiliating, torturous execution that could be public to deter any others who might be tempted to test the strength of the Roman government. This form of execution was intentionally demeaning and allowed passersby to heap scorn and derision on the suffering, dying man. Emperors would often line the street into a city with bodies hung on crosses; Nero even set them on fire to light the street.

Selfish, deceitful, evil people were threatened by the power of Jesus. And they should have been! He had the power to call down fire from heaven and take them out, but instead he chose to withhold his power and allow them to execute him. He willingly endured the agony and shame of the mock trial and beating and crucifixion because he wanted us to know that sin has a price….and he was willing to pay it for us. God made it clear to Abraham that sin required a blood sacrifice; Jesus provided it for all of humanity.

The contrast between Jesus and the leaders of the Jews and Rome during Holy Week is stark. . They wanted the acclaim their positions offered and sought to destroy anything that threatened it. The leaders chose to lie and murder to protect their jobs and their power. They used what little power they had to destroy what they feared. Jesus already had all power on heaven and on earth. He used that power to save what he loved. What Jesus wanted was for us, not to just avoid the punishment of hell, but to have fellowship with God, unhindered by the shame and consequences of our sin. He chose to become that blood sacrifice on Passover so that his people would be spared eternal death.

Crosses then were made from wood. Not polished beautiful wood, but rough hewn wood. Mine is made from gold. And in that comparison I find the symbol of the power of my Savior. His love changes what is intended for evil, something crude and shameful and ugly, and transforms it into the symbol of salvation. His cross became my redemption and my hope. His sacrifice is the ultimate symbol of intentional, sacrificial love. What began as humiliation and suffering became power over death and access to heaven, freely given by Jesus who used his power to redeem those he loves. There is no evil intent, no sin, no pain so great that it cannot be transformed into healing and power by the God who loves you, who has all authority in heaven and on earth. He can be trusted with the crude sin of your past and transform it into a brand new future. God redeemed the despair and horror of the crucifixion of Good Friday into the miracle and glory of Easter morning.

Be assured of his love for you. Seek his presence and forgiveness this Easter. Find a Christian community with whom you can worship the God who can redeem crosses and people and make them beautiful and holy.

Snuggle Time

My “to do” list is long this morning and my time is short. There is much I want to accomplish today, and I’m sure there will be interruptions and changes of plan that may prevent completion of that “to do” list. I “showed up” (see yesterday’s blog!) for quiet time with God this morning, and my mind is in a thousand different places rehearsing “woulda, coulda, shoulda” options. But my biggest problem is that my dog is in the mood to be snuggled. The house is quiet, but the dog is determined.

I went through the obligatory belly rub and ear scratch. I held him for a minute then got him a treat. He wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to touch me. He wanted me to “love on” him, and he batted me with his paw each time I stopped. So I gave in. I put the computer down and just held him. Suddenly I noticed the sound of the rain on the skylights and the new colors that have bloomed outside my window. I began to feel peace settle over me, not because of check marks on my to do list, but because that to do list suddenly wasn’t my number one priority. I shared a precious moment of unconditional love.

And then it occurred to me. This is exactly what happens between me and God. I show up to spend time with him, but I’ve got a preconceived list of what I need to do and accomplish for him. Sometimes my time with God needs to include repentance. Sometimes God uses that time to hold me accountable for disobedient, unkind choices I’ve made. Sometimes he uses that time to plant his scripture in my heart or give me guidance for what is to come. But sometimes, he just wants me to pay attention to his presence. Sometimes he just wants me to find peace and take delight in the fact that he loves me. I have no idea why the God of the entire universe who is all knowing and holy would ever choose to show up for quiet time with children who are so unlike him, but this day, I began my day in the presence of two who insisted that I take a moment to snuggle and love on them, to ignore everything else and remember how precious and necessary snuggle time is.

The dog is now much more interested in the squirrel at the bird feeder. But we had a sweet moment that reminded me of something that should always be on my “to do” list. How would my quiet time each morning be different if I approached it with determined expectation of finding God’s presence? How many times have I struggled through frustration and crisis, not because I didn’t have the answer, but because I hadn’t let God love on me enough to let that love spill over into the lives of those around me?

He knows what your day will bring. Seek his presence and know the unconditional love and peace that he longs to give you. God will never grow tired of his children’s attention. You were created for relationship with him.

Psalm 131:2 But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.

Showing Up Counts

We use all sorts of excuses to avoid doing what we know we should do. We’re too tired, too busy, too stressed, too lazy, too old, or too young. We rationalize non-participation by saying maybe next time, or maybe if circumstances were different. We miss out because we fear we might not fit in or it just looks too hard.

Jesus is God incarnate, Immanuel. He left the glory and holiness of heaven to show up here on earth so that he could be God among us. He loved the commoners and sinners that the religious elite of his day chose to ignore. He showed up at the favorite fishing hole of Peter and John, at the well of the Samaritan woman, and under Zaccheus’ sycamore tree. He showed up in the middle of the Sea of Galilee during a storm and at Lazarus’ tomb. He intentionally went to the place where he knew Judas would look for him in the Garden of Gethsemane and betray him to the authorities. He showed up on the Damascus Road and behind locked doors when his disciples were afraid. He is the God who keeps showing up, even when we least deserve his presence, especially when we least deserve his presence.

As Jesus traveled around Galilee, crowds began to show up. Some of them came because they were truly looking for the messiah. Some came because they were looking for some free entertainment and a day off. Some came because their friends did. Some came because they’d heard about miracles and were out of other options.

This is an amazing verse to me:
Mark 6:34 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.

He didn’t judge them for selfish motives. He didn’t complain that they had come unprepared or used him as an excuse for a day off. He didn’t condemn their sin or fuss at their lack of faith. He looked at the crowds and felt compassion. Whatever their reason for showing up that day, when Jesus saw them, he felt compassion. He taught them truth, he fed them – body and soul, and he no doubt healed many of them…body and soul. None of them earned his compassion or deserved his mercy. He freely gave of himself because he had compassion on the ones who showed up.

This is Holy Week. It is easy to celebrate the Hosannas of Palm Sunday and the Hallelujahs of Easter morning. But you can’t ignore the humiliation and shame and physical pain and emotional torture of what Jesus faced all alone during his trial, beating, and crucifixion. This God intentionally showed up on earth to offer himself as a sacrifice so that we could avoid the punishment our sin deserves. His sacrifice allows you to know him now so that when you show up in heaven, he will be able to claim you as his precious child and share eternity with you. It is my prayer for you that you will set aside at least a part of this holy week to show up in his presence. You need to show up…for quiet time with him, in study of his holy scripture, and at corporate worship in the Church that he established. For him you are not part of a crowd; you are his chosen one. When he sees you, he feels compassion. Whatever your motives, whatever your needs, whatever your capabilities….just show up. He’s already waiting for you.

Become Like a Child

Children mattered to Jesus. He made them a priority. Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 18:3) When the disciples tried to keep the children from distracting Jesus so he could talk to the adults, Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth; anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:15) What did he mean???

The transition from childhood to adulthood includes learning new information that changes behavior. Disobedience brings unpleasant consequences. Not all strangers can be trusted. Some things won’t come easily and will require hard work. Life is not always fair. Always getting what you want is rarely a good thing. Hard work does not always equal success.

But there are some other things that we choose to give up as we grow up, and I wonder if these are some of the things that Christ is referring to in that passage…the things we will get back in heaven. Children find utter joy in the simplest of things – stomping in rain puddles or spinning in circles. They are curious about things adults barely notice – they chase bubbles and are surprised every time they pop. They sample dog food and put food and fingers in places they don’t belong; they take things apart, and their favorite question is “why?”. They are exuberant about things adults take for granted – they can entertain themselves for hours with boxes or find delight in blowing dandelions. They can lose themselves in a song or a story. Children absolutely trust those they love. Children are spontaneous with their songs and their delight. Children are uninhibited by what their peers might think. They still believe in happily ever after and that anything is possible. They laugh easily and sleep deeply. Maybe it’s that kind of focus and single mindedness that Jesus is referring to. Jesus wouldn’t ask us to become like children if he didn’t want the passion and emotions that come with childhood.

Adults make religion complicated. We struggle to believe that the powerful God of the universe unconditionally loves us. We choose trust our imperfect judgment and frailties, and we find ourselves separated from the protection and power of the God who sacrificed his son to save us.

Perhaps what Jesus is asking us is to rediscover the simple trust and unconditional love a child has for a parent he trusts. Perhaps he is asking us to believe that his power in us can achieve anything. Perhaps he is asking us to take delight in the eternal home he is preparing for us, no matter what our current situation looks like. Perhaps he wants you to seek his face and learn to love him as you mature in your understanding of his character. May you rediscover great joy and peaceful rest as you learn to trust the one who utterly loves you.

The Best Things on Earth

Favorites are subjective. Mine and yours aren’t necessarily the same. What would you add to my list??

To eat – chocolate, cheese (not goat!), fresh strawberries, tomatoes, banana pudding, a perfectly cooked steak, nearly anything Mexican or Italian

To see – the faces of my family and friends, my home, a warm smile, a sunset, a puppy, an approaching thunderstorm, open spaces like the Grand Canyon or west Texas, cool colors, gardens with multicolored blooms

To hear – happy birds in the morning, the laughter of a child, classical music, rain on a tin roof, incredible vocal harmony, utter silence during a snowstorm, waves washing into the shore, a voice I’ve missed on the other end of my phone

To smell – fresh coffee brewing, bread baking, fresh cut grass, the ocean, Oscar perfume, gardenias, outside after a spring rain, most any dinner I don’t have to cook 🙂

To touch – my dog’s fur, a baby’s skin, silk, a hug from a friend, cold on my cheeks on an early Autumn morning, the feel of sun warming my skin, a breeze in my hair

The best things of earth, our very favorite things, will bring us temporary delight. God commanded that his people build him a Tabernacle and the Temple so that he could dwell with them here on earth. Both of those were temporary, but they were built with the finest components available to man. What God created in Eden was perfect, but also temporary. One day our lives on this earth as we now know it will end, and we will enter heaven, designed and built by God himself. I suspect that we will find the very best things of earth there, along with some surprises that we can’t even imagine now that will fill us with exuberant delight and deep peace.

In his book Heaven Randy Alcorn imagines that the best things of earth will be in heaven…
“So look out a window. Take a walk. Talk with your friend. Use your God-given skills to paint or draw or build a shed or write a book. But imagine it – all of it – in its original condition. The happy dog with the wagging tail, not the snarling beast, beaten and starved. The flowers unwilted, the grass undying, the blue sky without pollution. People smiling and joyful, not angry, depressed and empty. If you’re not in a particularly beautiful place, close your eyes and envision the most beautiful place you’ve ever been – complete with palm trees, raging rivers, jagged mountains, waterfalls, or snow drifts. Think of friends or family members who loved Jesus and are with him now. Picture them with you, walking together in this place. All of you have powerful bodies, talking, and reminiscing. You reach up to a tree to pick an apple or orange. You take a bite. It’s so sweet that it’s startling. You’ve never tasted anything so good. Now you see someone coming toward you. It’s Jesus, with a big smile on his face. You fall to your knees in worship. He pulls you up and embraces you. At last, you’re with the person you were made for, in the place you were made to be. Everywhere you go there will be new people and places to enjoy, new things to discover. What’s that you smell? A feast. A party’s ahead. And you’re invited. There’s exploration and work to be done – and you can’t wait to get started. I (Alcorn) have a biblical basis for all of these statements, and many more. After examining what Scripture says, I hope that next time you hear someone say, “We can’t begin to imagine what Heaven will be like, “ you’ll be able to tell them, “I can.”

God talks a lot about heaven in the Bible because he wants us to desire what he has planned for us. Studying God’s word and knowing his heart is the opposite of how things usually work here on earth. Here when you eat, you get full. But when you are fed by God’s word, it makes you hungrier for more. Ps 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Ask God for enough of a glimpse of heaven to make you hungrier for his presence. It is the desire of his heart to dwell with his children.

“In between” times

We may mark our lives by the big events, but most of our lives are lived “in between” those times. Most of our days are not exceptionally wonderful or awful. Each of us can look back over our lives and see some incredible highs and painful lows; there have been life changing turning points and moments of great clarity. But those are not the norm for me. And I suspect it is how we choose to live in between that prepares us for our highs and lows and turning points.

What do you choose to do with your in between times? When you’re in between appointments or jobs or relationships? When you’re out of the pit, but can’t quite see the mountaintop? When you feel that dis-ease about where you are, but don’t really have a plan for whatever is next?

It is easy to be passionate about my relationship with God during the times when I see him at work in my life. It’s easy to be intentional about seeking God when he’s answering my prayers with the answers I want, or when things are hard and I realize that he’s my only hope. But what about the in between times? In between celebrations or crises? When I’m just trudging through the mundane and the necessary, hoping for a glimpse of the eternal? When I feel like I’m just “putting out fires”, rather than making actual progress? When I want to be obedient, but I have no idea what that looks like right now? Those moments when I’ve had that “mountain top” experience or that overwhelming sense of God’s presence or guidance were more often the exception than the rule.

The Bible is full of the stories of people who were at the highs and lows of their lives. We study their successes and failures, their turning points, and their reactions to crisis and victory. But plot summaries usually skip over the “in between” times of their lives. Joseph spent many years in slavery and prison before God raised him up to power in Egypt. Moses spent 40 years shepherding in the desert before God met him at the bush. Daniel spent decades in captivity in Babylon….and we only have three big stories of his encounters with God during all those decades. We’re not sure how many years Anna and Simeon waited in the Temple to see the Messiah. What we do know about each of these is that their faithfulness during their in between times prepared them for their defining moments.

Joseph can’t have enjoyed slavery or prison, but it is obvious that his attitude in both created relationships that enabled him to rise to power. Moses’ learned some practical things during his years as a shepherd in the desert; he also learned enough spiritual things to chose to obey God when he confronted the burning bush. Daniel spent a lot of years being obedient in the everyday things, even when he didn’t face God’s handwriting on the wall or a den full of hungry lions.

When I was in school, I learned that my study habits in between tests made all the difference in my ability to study for that test. I took the kind of courses that lasted an entire semester, but usually only had two or three assessments that the professor used to calculate my grade. Most days, I wasn’t graded. But when I was, it really mattered. When I took good notes every class, when I did the readings and assignments, I had what I needed to be ready for the tests that would determine my grade. What I did in between major grades determined what my grades were.

Right now I am in a time of my life that is “in between”. I’m in between growing kids and grandkids. In between youth and old age. In between my last success and my next victory. In between deep pain and however God is going to heal it. In between striving to be obedient that I may bear abundant fruit and a plentiful harvest of my efforts. And how I choose to be obedient in the mundane, daily, seemingly unimportant details of my life right now are equipping me for whatever is to come. How I seek and obey God in these in between times will, to a large extent, determine my strength and peace for the next high/low/crisis/turning point of my life. My daily choices and habits during the in between times will teach me what I need to know about myself and God and will strengthen my faith so that when my burning bush comes, I will be ready to choose obedience.

Right now, what are you recovering from? Learning to live without? What are you hoping for? Preparing for? Afraid of? Trying to survive? Whether your life is marked by celebration or desperation, God is present. Make quiet time for him this day so that he may prepare your heart and your mind for whatever is to come.