Thursday, February 28, 2008

Mommy Guilt

When you are a mother, guilt is a state of being. I personally am plagued with guilt every time I stop and think about my effectiveness as a mother. There are a thousand things I would do differently if I were to live the years of raising my children over again. I would pray for them more often. Spend more one-on-one time with each of my precious children. Make them do more chores. The list goes on forever.

One day my daughter’s fourth grade teacher came into the teacher’s lounge at lunchtime. She sat down next to me and said, “Julie, I want to share with you what Melanie gave as a prayer request this morning.” This couldn’t be good. I braced myself for what would surely be humiliating words to hear. Doris continued, “She said: ‘Would you please pray that my Mom would cook us a homemade meal? It’s been so long.’”

The entire table of faculty members erupted into laughter. As we were mostly comprised of working mothers, everyone understood from personal experience the impossibility of being June Cleaver and a teacher all at once. That particular week, Steve had been gone on a business trip. Therefore, most nights we had stopped at McDonald’s on the way home so that I didn’t have to face cooking and homework time while solo parenting. I sat up straighter in my chair. “OK,” I promised. “Tonight I am going to make a meatloaf, potatoes, and a green bean casserole. Comfort food. My days of being a bad mother are over. At least for this week.”

That afternoon, we had a faculty meeting after school. As we were trying to choose a reading curriculum, it was long and involved. We didn’t leave the meeting until after 5 PM. I gathered up my papers from my desk and wearily headed down the hall toward the parking lot. On the way out, I stuck my head in Doris’ room. “Keep on praying,” I told her. “We are going to Wendy’s.”

Yes, guilt is a burden when you are a mom. It can also be a burden even if you are not blessed with children. Most women I know exist in a state of guilty feelings. We never can do enough or do it well enough.

What does the Bible have to say about guilt? You might be surprised.

Guilt is never referred to as a feeling. In Scripture, guilt is a condition. It is the condition into which we are born. We inherited it from our ancestor, Adam. Romans 5:18 tells us “through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men.” Thanks, Adam. One bite of the forbidden fruit and we were all history.

Of course, thankfully there is a second part to that verse: “Even so, through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.” Thanks to the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf, we were given justification from our guilty state. Justification is a legal term, meaning declared innocent. When Jesus suffered and died on the cross, the Heavenly Judge banged the gavel, and those who believed were set free. One man’s act condemned us. The other One’s act paid our debt in full.

So technically, we are not guilty any more, at least in God’s sight. Yet we do like to continue carrying the often crushing weight of guilt around on our shoulders.

One of the many benefits to our salvation is the fact the Holy Spirit resides within us as a guarantee of our salvation. He does more than inhabit us. He guides us and teaches us. This includes letting us know when we are in the wrong. Conviction for our sin is a healthy thing. It prompts us to repentance and to make peace with those we have wronged. But once we have confessed the sin, and, if necessary, have gone to those we have offended, it is over. Water under the bridge. Time to move on. Yet we hold tight to the guilt, refusing to forgive ourselves.

Satan loves this. The Bible calls him “The Accuser.” He wants to incapacitate us in any way possible. And with many of us, guilt is an extremely effective tool. It makes us focus on ourselves and our frailties, instead of on Christ and His provision for our sin. Guilt can be a paralyzing emotion. We are loathe to make the same mistake, so in our shame, we stop trying.

Once we have confessed the sin, we must place the guilt in God’s capable hands and walk away. Jesus’ shoulders are big enough to bear our guilt. And His sacrifice was big enough to pay the price for that sin.

Be wise enough to see the difference between conviction and guilt. Let the forgiveness that has been so freely given us wash over you. Bask in the grace of God. Because you are free. Even if you eat at Wendy’s.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Going for the Oreos

The art of making a homemade pie crust is slowly dying out. Probably the main reason is convenience. You can buy a ready-made pie crust in the refrigerated section. All you have to do is unfold it, lay it in a pie pan, and bake. Easy shmeasy. Even easier: buy the pie already made! But purists like me turn our noses up at commercially made pies and pie crusts. I had the good fortune of growing up with a mom who was quite a baker and who made wonderful pies. So I made it my business to learn how to make a good pie crust from her before leaving the nest.

While my husband appreciates the rare art of making a homemade crust, my children were not always so discerning in their taste of baked goods. One day I offered my son a piece of fresh, warm apple pie. He asked, “Could I get some Oreos instead?” Are you kidding me? Dry, stamped out Oreos instead of warm, homemade apple pie? Who would choose that? Apparently, my children.

We shake our heads at the limited tastes of a child. Israel had the same kind of problem. They had chosen the lesser, the inferior, to what God had offered them. “My people have committed two evils; they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13).

Water was an important commodity for those who lived on the edge of the desert. Its availability meant the difference between life and death. Roof tops were fashioned to catch what little rain fell. The collected water was stored in a cistern. There the water would sit, and without chemicals to treat it, it soon became stagnant and cloudy. The people were familiar with the difference between a fresh, clear, cold drink of water and a dirty, stagnant drink from a cistern. So this was a perfect metaphor for God to use to show the people what they were missing out on.

God had offered them a life filled with blessing and peace. The Creator of the universe was interested in sharing an intimate relationship with His people. Yet Israel had turned away from all He wanted to give them. Instead, they worshipped hand-hewn idols and listened to false prophets who told them what they wanted to hear. They went for the Oreos every time. They traded in a fresh, cold, crystal clear fountain for water from a broken, ill-kempt cistern.

We, too, pass on the best thing, and on a regular basis. How often do we turn away from doing the right thing because it doesn’t fit our agenda? We want what we want. And so we trade the tremendous blessing of walking in step with the Lord for a dry Oreo and a drink of dirty water. Once in a while, we make the right choice. And as we gulp the cold, clear liquid down, it fills our soul with a thirst quenching satisfaction. And we wonder that we would make any other choice.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Rock of Gibraltar

“You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in You. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord, is the Rock eternal.” Isaiah 26:3-4

Standing as a guardian over the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, the Rock of Gibraltar is a world-famous landmark. Its white limestone cliffs stand in stark contrast to the blue sea and sky around it. Jutting out off the southern coast of Spain, it stands 1,396 feet above sea level. The Greeks called it a “Pillar of Hercules.” The Phoenicians believed it marked the end of the known world. Its very name invokes an image of strength and endurance. When people want to describe a friend who demonstrates those characteristics, they call him “The Rock of Gibraltar.”

Isaiah used a rock as a metaphor to try to paint a picture of the enduring faithfulness of our God. Like the mammoth cliffs of Gibraltar, God is unmoving and unshakable. In chapter 25, Isaiah had just finished describing the deliverance that God had promised His people. He had prophesied: “On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, and the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces. . . In that day they will say, ‘Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and He saved us.’”

The people knew that God had unconditionally promised Abraham many generations earlier that He would take care of His people. Now here God was, centuries later, reminding them He would unfailingly fulfill His promise. When God makes a promise, you can stake your life on it. The Israelites knew this and rejoiced. So they called Him a Rock.

The verse at the top of this blog describes the man who has thrown his lot in with the promises of God. He is in perfect peace. If you translate that Hebrew phrase literally, it reads “Peace, peace.” (In Hebrew, word repetition is often used to emphasize something. You probably remember reading “Holy, holy, holy” in Isaiah 6. It is the only word in the Bible repeated three times like that. If we remember nothing else about Him, God wanted us to know this: He is holy.) In Isaiah 26:3, the word for peace, shalom, is a word which carries the idea of completeness. Every part of who we are is in total harmony with the will of God when we have shalom. Now think of this completeness times two: shalom, shalom. And that is what the man has who trusts in the Lord.

There will always be things in our lives that drive us to our knees. God deliberately places them there so that we will not become independent and abandon our relationship with Him. When we need Him, we seek Him. And as the winds of challenge in our life buffet us, we find ourselves clinging to the face of the cliff. Its solid surface reassures us and gives us a place to hide. He is the Rock who will not be moved. And the man who trusts in Him has perfect peace.

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,

But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ the Solid Rock I stand,

All other ground is sinking sand.
All other ground is sinking sand.

Monday, February 25, 2008

No Doormat Mentality

"Wives, be submissive to your own husbands . . ." 1 Peter 3:1

The word "submit" has never been a positive one for me. I grew up in a denomination where women kept their heads covered and their mouths shut. In my younger years, First Corinthians 11 was quoted to me more than any other passage of Scripture. For most of my life, I have tried to obediently swallow others’ interpretations of Scripture like the passage above. Submit meant to obey. Period.

One summer at camp, I was asked to lead the singing for the two weeks of Boys Camp. There was no one else available. As the camp director, program director, and I talked it over, we agreed that my friend Frank would lead alongside me, to keep a man up in front for the boys to see. It was awkward. While Frank had a good ear, he had only picked up the guitar that spring, and was very new to playing in front of a group. I had been leading singing for many summers and was very comfortable playing and singing in front of a crowd. So it ended up with me leading, and him playing in the background. That evening in the snack shop, I was cornered by the Boys Camp speaker. He lit into me about being a woman and taking a leadership role in a room full of men. After about ½ hour, I was just about a puddle on the floor. I had only been trying to help the camp, and had no intentions of usurping anyone’s authority. It was a devastating experience.

Was this type of thing what Peter and Paul had in mind when they spoke of submission?

Today I did a word study on the word submission, taken from the Greek hupotasso. I am working on 1 Peter 3:1-6 for my Message Preparation class. This is what I discovered:

The word originally came from a military term, which meant to put the troops into order under a commanding officer. The lexicon I read termed the non-military use as a “voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, or carrying a burden.” There are three nuances of meaning of hupotasso that I can see as it is used in the New Testament.

1. Obedience.
Luke 2:51 Jesus submits to his parents.
Luke 10:17 The “devils” submitted to Jesus’ disciples.
Romans 8:7 The carnal mind is not in submission to the Law.

2. Under the authority of position.
1 Corinthians 14:34 Women are to subject themselves and be silent in the churches.
1 Corinthians 16:16 We must be subject to those in ministry and everyone who helps in the work and labors.

3. Allowing the other’s needs to come before your needs or agenda.
Ephesians 5:21 Subject yourself to one another.
Colossians 3:18 Wives, be subject to your husbands. Children, obey your parents.
1 Peter 5:5 Subject yourselves to one another.

Definition #3 was the most challenging to figure out. If submission meant obedience, then why would Paul and Peter tell everyone to obey everyone else? That would get complicated, fast! In Colossians, Paul tells wives to submit and then children to obey. If those commands had the same meaning, why would he use different words?

Going back to that “non-military usage” I quoted earlier, that nuance of meaning begins to make a bit more sense. I like the idea of cooperation or bearing a burden. If we as wives did everything in our power to enable our husband to fulfill what the New Testament defines as his role, what would that look like? There is no doormat mentality there. Rather, it is an idea of partnering together to help each other be obedient to the Word of God.

Paul told husbands to “love their wives as Christ loved the church” (Ephesians 5:25). In 1 Peter 3, after writing to the wives, Peter addresses the husbands. “Live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.”

I went back and looked at 1 Peter 3:1-6 again in this light. I think that we as wives sometimes do hinder our husbands from obeying God’s commands. When we second guess everything he says, or contradict him in front of the children, or even show a lack of faith in his ability to be head of the family as Christ is head of the church, we make it difficult for him to obey the Scripture defining his role. Yet when we gaze on him with love, support him in his efforts, and respect him as the head of the home, he is enabled to love us as “Christ loved the church, and gave Himself up for her.”(Ephesians 5:25)

I don’t think submission in a marriage is about obedience at all. Instead, it is the decision on the part of the wife to love her husband in a sacrificial way, with no thought to herself. It is placing her husband’s needs above her own, with the thought of enabling him to fulfill his role as her husband. Unlike a traditional interpretation of submission, there is great power implied here.

So I think I can finally toss out the idea of women being doormats in the Christian world. I wish I could have that conversation over again with that zealous speaker. I think he missed the point.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Rewards of Childbirth

“He has caused us to be born again to a living hope . . . to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away . . . In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials.” 1 Peter 1:3-6

I was never a superwoman about childbirth. I have friends who swore by natural childbirth, feeling it was the only way to fully embrace the experience. Not me. I would walk into the hospital when in labor and say, “Hello, I’m Julie Coleman. I would like an epidural. Please have the anesthesiologist standing by.” Yes, I am a wimp.

Because it hurts to have a baby! Childbirth is not pleasant. Many women know this because they have had a child. Most husbands know this because they have been there with their wife as she delivered. Actually, some husbands still don’t really get it. One friend of mine was in the middle of hard labor, and her husband said to her, “Oh C’mon, Deb. It’s not that bad.” Another couple we know were up front in church for their baby’s dedication. In front of God and everybody, the husband took the mike in answer to the pastor’s question and said, “It was an easy labor and delivery.” The look on his wife’s face was priceless.

I guess it’s no secret that childbirth is not something a woman looks forward to. Then why does she allow herself to become pregnant? Because the baby at the end of the labor is worth it all.

When I went into the hospital with my firstborn, I didn’t know what to expect. I had watched all of the videos in childbirth class, so I had an inkling that most of the process wouldn’t be pleasant. However, there is nothing like the real thing to blow all of our denial right out of the water. I fainted when they put in an IV line. That didn’t bode well. I was actually being induced, because Adam was nine days overdue. Once they administered the inducing drug, it was hard labor right away. I got through a couple of hours of that, and when they offered the epidural, I said yes without even having to think about it. That was some wicked pain! Adam was turned around, and there was some concern that they would end up taking him C-section. But after two hours of pushing, he turned on his own. The whole labor took about seven hours from start to finish. Finally, our beautiful baby boy was in our arms.

Even with the pain of labor very fresh in my mind, I remember thinking as I gazed into the beautiful face of my baby the next morning that I would do it all over again to have this precious bundle in my arms. The reward was worth the agony. He meant more to me than anything else, including my own comfort.

This is why Peter wrote what he did to his brothers and sisters in Christ. They were experiencing persecution because they were Christians. Nero, the emperor of the Roman Empire, was persecuting Christians with gusto. To be aligned with Jesus Christ was a life-risking association. They needed some perspective to help them through those terrible days. So Peter gave them hope.

It is interesting to see that the hope Peter offered was not in promises of a good life in the here and now. Instead he pointed them toward their eternal hope, an inheritance which would never fade away. A spot in Heaven already reserved for them.

Too often I hear preachers try to encourage their listeners with promises in the here and now. While life with Christ is infinitely better than life without Him, I don’t really see a big Scriptural premise to keep our focus on what He will do for us in this life. Jesus promised His disciples, “In this world you will have trouble.” He wasn’t kidding.

But the reward at the end of the journey will be worth it all. Like the sweet baby in my arms, which made me certain I would gladly endure labor all over again to have him, we will look at what we have endured and know it was worth it all. It will be a glorious day.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Living Hope

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” 1 Peter 1:3

When I was a little girl, our family of four bravely ventured on a trip from our home in Connecticut to visit relatives on the Gulf Coast of Florida. We Zines weren’t big travelers, so this trip was a very big deal. It was summer. We would drive for three days, stopping at hotels each night. Exciting times.

The first day didn’t go too badly. We drove as far as Washington, D.C. and took a quick tour of the sights. The second day was not so pleasant. Margie and I had already blown through the new toys my mom bought for the trip. We were tired of being in the car. Poor little Margie got carsick-- and we had to make several stops for her to be sick on the side of the road. And it was HOT. The south was in the middle of a record heat wave. Our car did not have air conditioning (few did in those days) and the constant humid, hot air blowing in on us did nothing to cool us down. By the time we hit South Carolina, every one of us was wilted and desperate to get out of that car. Dad pulled into the first decent motel and got out to rent a room. They were full up. That began a nightmarish hour of going to hotel after hotel, to no avail. Every one we tried had no room at the inn. Finally, an angel disguised as a hotel clerk got on the phone for my dad and found us a place to stay. We wearily pulled up to our hotel and just about kissed the ground of it's parking lot.

The next morning, Dad took a new tactic. Using his roadmap as a guide, he called ahead to the next planned stop location and made a reservation. We traveled that day in the security of the knowledge that no matter what happened on the road, a swim in a hotel pool and a cool, soft bed awaited us at the end of that day’s travel. It made all the difference in how we faced another day’s journey.

Peter wrote about a “living hope” that we have in Jesus Christ. It is part of the package that we received at the time of our salvation. First Corinthians 6:11 tells us we received justification. This term is a legal term, meaning we were declared innocent of all unrighteousness. We also received sanctification. The Greek root for this word means set apart for a new relationship with God. Finally, Romans 8:30 tells us we received glorification. Usually we think of our glorification as something that will be done for us in the future. Yet when Paul wrote about it in Romans, he used the aorist verb tense, which denotes an action which has already been completed.

In other words, the living hope we have for glory is a done deal. Already accomplished. Checked off the list. Our name is written in the book of life, in indelible ink (Rev 20:12). We have a guaranteed reservation for Heaven, with all of the benefits that living there will entail. Knowing this should impact how we conduct ourselves in the journey.

I wonder if that is why Peter called it a living hope. It is not only hope which affects our eternal life in the future. It is a hope that has a tremendous influence on us as we live right now. Being secure in where we will end up makes the trip through this life bearable. Hope makes all the difference.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Lucky Woman

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.” Ephesians 5:25-27

What a beautiful passage to describe the ideal relationship between a husband and his wife. Christ is our example in all things: submission, humility, self-sacrifice, wisdom, knowledge, and in this case, being great husband material. I have the good fortune to be married to a man who emulates many of the same qualities as Christ demonstrates to his bride, the church.

Two years ago I attended a women’s conference and had the opportunity to interview Carolyn Custis James, a well-known author, for my book manuscript over lunch. As we talked, she encouraged me to think ahead to when I actually published the book. “Get ready,” she told me. “When you publish, you will be speaking quite a bit. Use the time now to prepare.”

Get ready!! What did that mean? I came back to the hotel room I was sharing with my best friend, Beth, and related to her what Carolyn said.

“So I need to get ready,” I told Beth.

“What will you do?” Beth asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I wish I could go to seminary, but I can’t do that and work full time. Besides, I do already have an effective ministry as a teacher. What if God wants me to stay put?”

Beth looked at me thoughtfully. “In a perfect world, if money was no object, and you could do whatever your heart desired, what would you do?”

I sighed. “I would resign from my teaching job and go to seminary.”

Beth looked me straight in the eye. “Then do it.”

When I got home next day, I wasn’t sure what to think of this insane idea. I approached my husband, who was sprawled on our bed, working on his laptop. I told him what Carolyn said and what Beth and I had talked about. “What do you want to do?” he asked.

“My fondest dream? I would love to go to seminary and get the tools I need to be an excellent writer and teacher of God’s Word.”

“Then do it.”

We prayed for a week about the matter. Steve was more convinced than I was that God was leading us to make this drastic move. I wanted it too badly to trust my own judgment. After a week of seeking God in the matter, I handed in my resignation to AACS. After twenty years, I was no longer a teacher. I was once again a full time student, unemployed, and no longer a financially contributing member of our household.

In these two years, my husband has not doubted one time that I was exactly where the Lord wanted me (unlike his wobbly wife). We had to work hard to adjust our spending in accordance with our new budget. He never complained one time. When I cried over Greek, he said all the right things to keep me moving forward. He has cooked dinner, run errands, and proofread papers. No one could be a bigger support than my man Steve.

And why? So someday he could rake in the bucks when I hit it big time with a best-seller? Don’t hold your breath. Christian publishing isn’t exactly known for its financial rewards. What motivated him to give up so much? Steve loves Jesus Christ. Steve loves me. And Steve gets sincere delight in seeing me grow in my knowledge and ability to serve the God we both love more effectively.

Reading over how Christ loved the church in Ephesians 5, I am struck by Christ’s actions that proved that love. He gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her and present her to Himself as holy and blameless. His love for the church was all about making her the best she could be, at great cost to Himself.

Kind of like my husband, Steve. I am a lucky woman.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

A Slippery Slope

We don’t get to do much of it in Maryland, but where I grew up in Connecticut, winter meant sledding. There was a good sized hill out behind the elementary school in our neighborhood, where we would drag our sleds and toboggans after every fresh snowfall. There we would ride the hill, screaming in fear and delight as our sleds flew down the slope, waiting until we came to a complete stop before struggling up from our seat to lumber up the hill for yet another ride. This routine would continue until we couldn’t feel our toes, or until the sky grew dark at the cold winter twilight. Whichever came first. Those memories are wonderful to have.

But getting back up that hill was no easy climb. The surface, packed down by sledders who had gone before us, was slick and difficult to navigate. Gravity worked against us the whole way back up the hill. It relentlessly pulled our bodies and the dead weight we determinedly dragged behind us downward toward the bottom once more. If we lost our footing, it was a slippery slope on which to try to counteract our momentum once we began to slide. It was hard work to get back up that hill! But the pain of the work was forgotten in the glory of the exhilarating ride.

There is a piece of our spiritual lives that is a slippery slope for us as well. Paul talks about it in his letter to the Romans. “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man . . .” (Romans 1:21-23).

Paul is describing a downward spiral in one’s spiritual health. The descent looks something like this:

1. When we know God but do not honor Him, we begin to gradually lose ground. Something happens to taint our thinking process.
2. We have now lost the correct perspective, and our speculations become “futile,” or useless.
3. This leads to a loss of spiritual illumination, and gradually our heart, the seat of our emotions and intellect, fades to black.
4. A heart which is in the dark leads to false perception about ourselves. We become wise in our own eyes. But the reality is we are really fools. We have sold out, exchanging our object of worship away from a glorious God to something of our own making.

Do you see the step by step progression into spiritual darkness?

It’s a slippery slope. Why? Because it is so easy to begin the slide downward. Just as gravity and an icy surface can sometimes cause an unstoppable journey back to the bottom of the sledding hill, our natural inclinations can make our spiritual walk a real challenge.

Paul tells us that just knowing about God does not prevent this. Even Satan and his angels know about God! What does prevent the slide? A Positive response to the Word of God. The people Paul is talking about were not ignorant. They had enough information to respond in the right ways. Verse 19-20 tells us God made the truth evident to them and they were without excuse. But their response to God’s truth, according to verse 18, was to suppress it. They went into denial. It didn’t fit their agenda. So they failed to honor their Creator as God. And the downward slide began.

Beware of the slippery slide. Casting Crowns has a song on their latest CD called “It’s a Slow Fade.” How true! As we make small decisions to place ourselves ahead of the God who should be honored at all cost, we begin to lose our footing. A few more missteps and we find that the slide has begun.

Fortunately, we have a Savior ready to reach out His hand and rescue us from the consequences of our own making. He waits for us to call on Him for assistance. We do not need to climb the hill alone. And as He takes our hand and pulls us upward, we wonder why we ever responded to Him in any other way.

Friday, February 15, 2008

A Dot on a Line

At Annapolis Area Christian School, Grandparents Day was a highlight of the year. Grandparents traveled from all over the country to attend this event. It began with a chapel in which grandparents were honored, the children performed, and a general welcome was given. Then the grandparents came down to the classrooms. In fifth grade, we had an interview with the grandparents planned. I had prepped the kids ahead of time, and they had a list of questions ready for the occasion. We asked them about their life experiences as they lived the history we were now studying. Then there was a general discussion which I led. We went through each decade the grandparents lived, giving them a chance to share memories with the children of what life was like “back then.” Both grandparents and children alike enjoyed the morning immensely. At the end of the morning, the grandparents signed their grandchildren out and took them to lunch.

One year, the day after Grandparents Day, I arrived at school to hear terrible news. One of the grandparents who had been in my room laughing with the children the day before, had suddenly passed away. He drove into his driveway after a poker night with friends, turned off the ignition, and died of a heart attack. The principal told me I would need to talk about this with my class, since word would spread quickly among the students. I racked my brain as I walked down the hall. How could I tell the children about this death so close to them in a way that would give them hope?

I ended up drawing a line on the chalkboard. It went all the way across the length of two boards, with arrows on each end. The kids knew that the mathematical definition of a line was that it went on and on forever in both directions. I labeled the line “eternity.” Then, in the middle of the board, I placed a dot on the line. This dot represents our lives on earth, I told them. From that small point, the line extended in one direction forever. What did the ray mean? I asked. The kids knew that they would live forever because of the eternal life that had been given to them. So life on earth was just a beginning, which was dwarfed when eternity stretched beyond it as far as you could imagine. Once we understood that perspective, the end of a life on earth took on new meaning. Within that context, I was able to tell the children that a grandfather had left the earth, beginning his life in eternity.

Paul tells us that “our citizenship is in heaven.” (Philippians 3:20) Comparing the here and now to eternity is like trying to understand the vastness of space in relation to distance as we know it here on earth. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is so huge it takes the stars in it 200 million years to revolve around its center just once. It has approximately 250 billion stars. That is just one galaxy. Scientists now estimate that there are 100 billion other galaxies. It is impossible to wrap our minds around the size of the universe. In the same way, trying to understand eternity with the reference point of the eighty or so years that we exist on earth boggles the mind.

We must think of our time here as temporary. Our reality for the overwhelmingly vast majority of our lives will be the life we live in Heaven with Christ. We need to live with an eye on the city yet to come, as Abraham did according to Hebrews 11:10.

The decisions we make in how we live our temporary life here on earth should be a reflection of that reality. It is a waste of time to build up temporary treasure that can be lost or stolen, as Jesus told his disciples. We must instead invest our time and our energy on the things that will impact eternity. This will mean spending money in ways other than indulging ourselves in temporary pleasures. It will affect the ways we choose to spend our time. Our relationships will become about what we can do to help others along in their journeys. Because someday we will be looking back on that little dot and wish we had done more.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Flattering Write-Up

By faith, Abel offered a better sacrifice . . .
By faith, Abraham, when he was called, obeyed. . .

If you read through the Hebrews 11 “Faith Hall of Fame,” you will immediately see that each person named and described has one thing in common. They are commended for their great faith. The author lists stellar accomplishment after accomplishment of people who believed what God said and acted accordingly. Not one flawed person in the bunch! Just life after life committed to the faith.

Yet when you go back and read the actual accounts given to us in the Old Testament, a different picture emerges. Abraham is given credit for great faith in Hebrews 11. A closer look at his life, however, found in Genesis 12-25, discloses several times when Abraham’s faith is less than stellar. Twice he lied about Sarah being his wife to save his own skin when other men grew interested in her. Had he trusted in God’s promises, he would not have been so driven to protect himself (and leave poor Sarah hanging out to dry!). Abraham also went ahead of the Lord and produced an heir with the handmaiden, Hagar, disregarding what the Lord had promised. Most of the Faith Hall of Famers were in the same boat. Yes, they believed God. But they also had sin in their life and sometimes serious doubt issues.

So when we covered Hebrews 11 in class today, I asked my professor: “Do you think that this is how God views us? Even though I fail God and do not trust Him on a regular basis, am I going to get a stellar write up like they did?”

The short answer is: Yes. Certainly no sins we commit in this life will be brought before us as we stand before God someday. Psalm 103 tells us that our sins have already been removed from us “as far as the east is from the west.” In Jeremiah 31:34, God makes a promise to His people: "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." Christ paid for our sins with His blood. That sacrifice was made once, and covers our sins for all time (Heb 10:12). Our debt is paid in full.

So what kind of a judgment will we experience? Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:10 that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” The Judgment Seat will be a time of rewards. Please understand, I am not talking about salvation here. Our eternal life is secure in Jesus Christ and had nothing to do with any effort on our part from the beginning. The Judgment Seat will be a judgment of works.

While it will be a time of rewards, the Judgment Seat of Christ may not be all laurels and pleasantness. We are told frequently that we will be rewarded for our perseverance and for what we do for Christ (James 1:12, Matthew 19:29, etc.). So what will be unpleasant about that?

We may experience a real loss when God judges our works in righteousness. At the moment, we are very tainted in how we view ourselves and our efforts. The things that we might feel merit reward may not be rewarded at all. And conversely, small things we did without forethought, out of love for Christ, like denying ourselves for the needs of another, may get top billing. First Corinthians 3 tells us “each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work . . . remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved.” The wood, hay and straw will be burned, and only what’s truly done for Christ will survive the fire of judgment.

I think that the writer of Hebrews is giving us a post-Judgment Fire description of those who lived lives of faith in chapter 11. Because after the Judgment, when all is said and done, we will be left with two things: 1. eternal life, and 2. rewards for the times we managed to be faithful. And that’s not a bad write up after all.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Do the Next Thing

When I began seminary, by far the biggest obstacle standing in the way of my actually getting a Masters degree was Greek. I learned the alphabet and its sounds the summer before my classes started, as per the advice of my wise husband. So that put me one week ahead of the rest of the class. But once that week was over, I was to barely survive the frantic pace we determinedly set as we raced through the whole of Greek grammar and vocabulary in four very short months. Every Tuesday and Thursday night (the nights before Greek class), you could find me at my desk, tears of fear and frustration falling on my enormous stack of vocabulary cards. Childbirth was nothing compared to learning Greek that first semester.

One thing that did help me was a CD included with the Greek textbook. It was created by the textbook author, William Mounce. On it he would reteach the chapter for the poor slobs like me who needed lots of repetition after class. The CD also contained a helpful hint which served to encourage me greatly. Mounce labeled the lack of comprehension we might be experiencing as the “Greek Fog.” He assured us that as long as we understood what was covered two lessons back, it was OK to be in a “fog” on the current material. That was great news to me, because I lived in the “Greek Fog” zone.

My husband gave me the other great piece of advice. “Just keep plugging away,” he would tell me, “One vocabulary word, one verb parsing at a time.” This reminded me of another time when I needed similar advice.

I was overwhelmed one June. In the space of five days, I was to entertain out of town family, attend my twins’ high school graduation, host a party of 60 people for said graduation, including making all the food, finish report cards, pack up my classroom for the summer, and get ready to fly to Europe for a 10 day excursion with my boys' Madrigals group. As I sat at the kitchen table the night before the graduation, I knew I could not do it all. I was overwhelmed. Hearing my discouragement, my dad gave me a great piece of advice. “My friend has a sign in her kitchen,” he told me. “It says: Do the Next Thing.”

It was a eureka moment! I picked my head off the kitchen table and made a list. Every time the “next thing” was accomplished, I crossed it off. I only allowed my mind to think of the task at hand. And one by one, the tasks were completed. The party was a success, my grades got finished and my classroom packed away. Five days later I was on a plane to Europe. And I didn’t even forget my toothbrush.

Colossians 3:17 tells us: “Whatever you do , whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” It is difficult for us to do each task in the name of the Lord Jesus if we are too busy feeling overwhelmed about what needs to be done next. We need to slow down and stop to ask the Lord to enable us to bring glory to His name in how we complete each thing on our list. Then we need to do them, one thing at a time, to the best of our ability, and hopefully in the process bring glory to God.

That strategy got me through three semesters of Greek. I’ll let you know if it works for the fourth one as well.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Diamond in the Rough

Diamonds are the hardest natural substance found on the earth. They can only be scratched by other diamonds and hold a polish indefinitely. For this reason they are valued highly as gem stones as well as for their industrial use. Their ability to reflect light has always made them highly desirable for use in jewelry and in religious icons. Since early human history, diamonds have been used in engraving tools because of their hardness. And of course, diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

Diamonds are formed under intense pressure and heat for a long period of time, usually about 100 miles below the earth’s surface. They begin as a carbon-bearing material and undergo a chemical change while under this heat and pressure. This means the atoms which formed the original substance are all still present in a diamond. They have moved around to form new chemical bonds within molecules. This chemical change is permanent. Many diamonds have imperfections in them, which are pieces of carbon which remain unaltered from their original state.

Scripture tells us that at the moment of our salvation, a tremendous change takes place in us as well. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17) We have been permanently altered from our old state. We used to walk according to the flesh, but now we walk according to the Spirit, because He dwells within us. We went from slaves to sin to adopted sons of the Living God (Romans 8).

But God is not finished with us. The point at which we became a new creation was only the beginning. Paul told the Philippians, “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). Like a skilled diamond cutter, God is continually chipping off the rough edges of His “diamonds in the rough,” cutting facets in His precious stones to allow His glory to be reflected in ever-increasing volume.

Sometimes those cuts are painful to us. We don’t like the process. But we eventually can look back to the circumstances which contributed to our sanctification and marvel at how God worked to change us. “He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:10-11).

And the beauty of what He is creating far surpasses even the most brilliant of diamonds, because we begin to reflect the brilliance of His glory.

Monday, February 11, 2008

When the Horse Is Blind

John Madden is my husband's and sons’ favorite network football game commentator. This is a football family, and they know of whom they speak! What makes John Madden so good at what he does is his experience. He has dedicated his life to professional football; first as an NFL player, then as an NFL coach of the Oakland Raiders. Now he entertains fans everywhere with colorful commentary and unsurpassed knowledge in the sport as the game is played.

In the years he coached professional football, John Madden’s players would occasionally question him on what he told them to do. They didn’t see the logic in his instruction. They wanted to know why.

John’s response to a questioning player was always the same: “It doesn’t matter if the horse is blind; keep loading the wagon.”

I love this quote. Aside from its enchanting whimsical quality, there is a nugget of truth in it for the Christian as well. When God instructs us in His Word, whether we understand the logic or wisdom in that instruction is kind of a moot point. We just need to be obedient. There is so much that we cannot understand in God’s purposes and workings in the world. Isaiah tells us His ways are higher than ours. So we need to trust Him at His word. And respond in obedience.

So much of what the world tells us is contradictory to what we read in the Word of God. Therefore, obedience sometimes takes a “rewinding” of the tape which has been prerecorded in the earlier years of our lives. The world tells us: Don’t be a wimp. Stand up for your rights. Sometimes God’s name is even invoked in the world’s wisdom: God helps those who help themselves. But Jesus told us: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:5, 39-44).

We live in a society that prizes ambition and self-made men. The fact is, no one had to train us to think “Me First.” That attitude arises naturally out of our sinful nature. None of us has to struggle to make ourselves our top priority.

Yet Jesus calls us to a different path. When we think of meekness, or putting God and ultimately others before ourselves, we might be tempted to think these commands are asking us to be weak. I don’t know about that! It takes a tremendous strength of character to put aside our own agenda to obey the Lord. This is not instruction for the weak at heart! In fact, it will be impossible for us to obey the commands of God without His assistance.

So He gives us power. Paul wrote the Ephesians that this power is “in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:19, 20). We have resurrection power at our disposal! And we will need it, because our obedience will require superhuman strength.

I once heard the kingdom of God referred to as the “Upside Down, Inside Out, Backwards Kingdom.” It is true-- what the world values is oftentimes opposite to God’s heart. So we must turn away from what we thought was truth to the truth of God’s Word.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not talking about “blind faith.” I don’t think there is any such thing. We place our faith in a God we know to be faithful, good, loving, wise, and righteous. There is nothing blind about that! Yet there will be times when He asks us to do what does not make sense to us. When that happens, just keep loading that wagon.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Remembering What Might Have Been

We don’t get a lot of snow in Maryland, but when a big storm comes, life shuts down for a while. Maryland drivers are not known for their skill in dealing with snow. So I generally burrow down at home and wait for it all to pretty much melt before venturing out again. Back in 2003, we had a particularly good storm that left almost two feet behind. Daniel had come home from the University of Maryland to enjoy the beauty of the storm from his own bedroom window. School was cancelled for a day or two. When it was time for him to return to campus, he and I bundled up, spent ½ hour cleaning off the car, and hit the road to get him back to school.

Driving was still a challenge. The highway lost a lane unexpectedly here and there, and ice coated many sections of road. We passed several accidents, two with cars which had flipped over. So I drove with my heart in my throat. It was a dark, bitterly cold night.

When we reached the Capital Beltway, we discovered that not too many Washingtonians were worried about snow. The highway was packed with evening travelers. The traffic was thick as pea soup. Pea soup that was zooming around at 70 MPH. As we merged in with the traffic, I adjusted my speed to fit in with the surrounding cars. After traveling several miles, Daniel suddenly gave a shout. “Mom! He’s going to hit us!” To my horror, I saw a car which had spun out on ice and lost control heading straight for the passenger side of our car.

BAM! He slammed into us. I struggled to keep control of my minivan but was pushed into the next lane. The SUV driving on my left was forced onto the shoulder. All I could hear was tires squealing on the road as we all tried to come to a stop. Shaking, I eased my car over to the right, finally slowing to a stop on the right hand shoulder. The other cars involved were still on the left shoulder, five lanes apart from us. Almost without a pause, traffic began sailing by us again. Daniel and I sat in the car, trembling.

When something like that happens, it is very difficult to think clearly. Daniel opened his door. “I guess I’ll cross the road and talk to them,” he told me. I eyed the copious traffic in my rear-view mirror as it flew by.

“No, Daniel, wait!” I said in alarm. “Let them drive over here—no insurance information is worth risking your life!” Of course, he never would have considered trying to cross thick, speeding traffic in the dark on the Beltway under normal circumstances. My son has an excellent head on his shoulders. It was the shock of the event affecting his judgment.

Even now, remembering his intention of crossing the Beltway at night makes me shudder. What if I wasn't there to stop him? He surely would have been killed.

Sometimes remembering the "what might have beens" in our lives is a good thing. Paul wrote the Ephesians: “Remember that you were at that time separate from Christ . . . having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace.” (Eph 2:12-14)

It is a good idea every once in a while to look back at the bleak picture of our “before” screen. We were spiritually dead (Eph 2:1), slaves of sin (Rom 6:17), enemies of God (Rom 5:10), without hope (Eph 2:12), and condemned to an eternity of suffering and spiritual death (Rom 5:18). All of us were under the wrath of God.

If the thought of walking across a busy Beltway at night scares you, this “might have been” is enough to make anyone shudder. Paul tells the Ephesians to remember. His reminder in this epistle is to actually help them focus on their future. They were to remember what might have been if it hadn’t been for Christ Jesus shedding His blood on their behalf. That remembrance would help them come alongside the Jews who were saved from the same terrible fate. And together they would become the Church. So they needed to remember.

Thinking about “what might have been” is helpful in cultivating a grateful heart and a love for Christ. Understanding what we have been saved from allows us to more fully appreciate the lengths to which God went to rescue and restore us to a right relationship with Him. Remembering promotes unity within the body of Christ.

So don’t forget to remember.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

No Matter What

When my children were little, we moved into a larger home. It was not only larger in size, but larger in mortgage payment. In order to survive the first couple of years until our income caught up with our purchase, we rented a room. Our first renter was a college student who attended a nearby school. He was very artistic, and made ends meet while in school by making wedding cakes. Big, towering, beautiful wedding cakes; they were truly works of art. Since I had no furniture in our dining room as of yet, I allowed him to use that room for the construction and decoration of the cakes. The children were under strict orders to not step one foot in that room, for obvious reasons.

Well, as you can imagine, with small children in the house, one day the inevitable happened. My renter came out of the dining room with murder in his eyes. “Someone has ruined my cake!” he roared, giving my children the evil eye. It wasn’t hard to find the culprit. My daughter still had traces of frosting on her cheek.

We took the infraction very seriously. Melanie was sent to her room after a spanking and not allowed to watch TV for the rest of the day (which is a long time for a five year old!). Her dad and I accompanied her to the renter’s room where she apologized for her actions, and he told her that he had forgiven her. Afterward, we had a serious talk with her about the incident. She was truly sorry, and shed many tears for her actions. In the long run, as embarrassing as the whole thing was (from a parent’s perspective), it only took about 20 minutes total for the renter to repair the cake. As far as I was concerned, the incident was over.

Two days later, I heard the renter talking to Melanie again. He was bringing up the incident, once again chastising her for what she had done. In fact, he was getting down right nasty about it all over again. I rushed to my daughter’s aid. In no uncertain terms, I informed this college student that forgiveness meant not bringing it up again, at least in a hurtful way as he was doing. It was time to let it go.

What made the difference between how he and I viewed the incident? He was renting a room. He had no emotional investment in my daughter. She was just a necessary part of the household in which he was living. I, on the other hand, loved my daughter more than myself. I would do anything to serve her best interests. I delighted in her intelligence, humor, and the adorable way she looked at life. She meant everything to me.

So it should come as no surprise that while our renter struggled to forgive Melanie, it was no big struggle for me. I loved her.

If we can possess that kind of love as parents, why is it so hard to believe the same kind of love exists in our Heavenly Father? In our head we often link obedience with His approval. When we blow it, we fear that He will not forgive, at least not until we have somehow made it up to Him. Our concept of being loved by God too often seems to hang on our actions.

Bad theology. (I am in seminary, so I know this for a fact.) God’s love for His people has never been conditional. While blessings sometimes are connected to obedience, His love for us never is. Ever. John wrote, “We love Him because He first loved us.” Did you catch the order? He loved us. Then we responded by loving Him. Paul told the Corinthians: But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Paul goes on two verses later to use even stronger language. “For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”(Romans 5:8, 10, italics added)

So if His love for us, demonstrated by His sacrifice and free gift of salvation, was not conditional, why would we try to make it conditional once we have been saved? God does not change. Nor will His love.

A wonderful example of God’s unconditional love is found in Numbers 14:11. God had been working with His chosen people, patiently demonstrating His power and tender care. Yet they continued to be a stiff-necked people, refusing to live in submission to the God of the Universe. Wouldn’t you think that at some point God would have given up on them in disgust and turned away? Instead, He grieved. “How long will they not believe in Me? Despite all the signs I performed?” In spite of their unfaithfulness and lack of response, God remained in love with His people.

He loves us the same way. He can’t be anything less than God. And John tells us “God is love.” Certainly our sin does disrupt our fellowship with Him as we draw away from Him in our disobedience. He loves us perfectly, which means He will not allow us to charge down a path to our own destruction. So He lovingly puts up obstacles to get our attention and get us back on the right path. But while He does so, it is all done in love, with our best interests in mind.

Before the world began, you were on his mind
Every tear you’ve cried is precious in his sight
Because of his great love, he gave his only Son
And everything was done so you could come.
There’s nothing you can do to make him love you more
And nothing that you’ve done can make him close the door
Because of his great love, he gave his only Son
And everything was done so you could come.

Come to the Father, though your gift is small
Broken hearts, broken lives, he will take them all.
The power of the Word, the power of his blood,
Everything was done so you would come.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Desert Perspective

I was headed for a writers’ conference in northern Philadelphia last August, when I realized I had better start thinking about stopping for gas. I have a strange gas gauge in my car. It stays on full for a long time, then starts a rapidly accelerating descent on its way to empty. By the time it hits ¼ tank, I have very little gas left; I think I probably get twenty miles from ¼ tank to empty. On this trip I had been very preoccupied with all of my conference preparations and hadn’t given much thought to the car. Now I was driving on the Maryland eastern shore, No Man’s Land, with the gas light lit up. Not a good situation.

Normally when I get gas, I am fussy about where I stop. My gas stations of choice are well-lit, clean, possess a dependable brand name, and let me pay by card at the pump. A nice place to buy a Diet Coke doesn’t hurt, either. But as I drove the lonely stretch of road, I began to feel desperate. Mile after mile passed without a sign of human life. I was in trouble. It was a wickedly hot day, the hottest it had been all year. I turned off the air conditioning to conserve fuel. Now I was sweating. And more nervous by the minute. Lord, please, a gas station, I prayed. Any gas station.

Soon the gas gauge was resting solidly on empty. Any minute now, and I would feel the motor down-shift and my car coast slowly to a halt. I would be stranded on a deserted road in the hot afternoon sun, which was baking the air to one hundred plus degrees. I didn’t even have a water bottle.

Suddenly a small sign appeared on the horizon. As I drew closer, I saw to my extreme relief that it sported a gas station icon. I took the exit. There was a sign to point me in the right direction, or at least what I hoped was the right direction. I drove several long miles of a deserted back road (by now in sheer terror) until I came to a tiny crossroads. Four houses, and . . . a gas station! Was it open? It was! I almost wept with relief. It looked like Joe’s Gas Station and Storm Door Company, but I didn’t care. I was so happy to see that pump.

I probably would have turned my nose up at that station if my options were open. But clearly at that moment this little station was the best thing I had seen in a long time. Funny how our circumstances can totally dictate how we feel about things!

David, in fear for his life, spent years hiding in the desert from his enemies. At some point he penned Psalm 63: “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” You have to wonder if David would have been able to seek God with such intensity if he had been resting on pillows in the cool palace, surrounded by servants, food, and drink. The sparseness of his supplies, the fear of being killed, and the discomfort of forever sleeping on the ground in the elements wore on him. He was in need, so he sought the Lord.

Isn’t that true for us, too? How quickly we forget to seek God when things are going well. How easy it is to rely on our own strength! Yet God desires an intimate relationship with us! So He brings things into our lives that remind us we need Him. And we are drawn to the Throne of Grace, forced to acknowledge we only thought we were self-sufficient. And as we once again hand over the reins, we are right where we should be once more.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Ear-Opening Pain

Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying,“Whom shall I send, and who will go for me?’

Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
Isaiah 6:8

Isaiah had been given a glimpse of the Lord of Hosts. As anyone who has stood in the presence of God, Isaiah had been devastated by his own unworthiness and sin. He had confessed and been forgiven. Now he stood ready to bring God’s message to his people.

So far, so good. Yet the message God gives Isaiah is a bit perplexing. “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand.’ Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their hearts dim, Otherwise they might see with their eyes, Hear with their ears, Understand with their hearts, and return and be healed.”

Wait a minute, Lord. Do you want the people to repent or not?

The nation of Israel had a long history of being unfaithful to their God. Following “the greatest generation” of Joshua’s day, who conquered the land, the nation quickly spiraled downward into idolatry and wickedness. The Lord got their attention with oppression from neighboring peoples, and when Israel repented and cried out to Him, he sent judges to lead them to victory and peace. But again and again the same cycle repeated, each time worse than the last, until the time of Samson, when even the judge was of dubious character. Then came the rule of the kings. While there are glimmers of glory throughout that period of Israel’s history, the overall theme of the three hundred plus years of human dynasties continued to be disobedience and unfaithfulness. This was a people set in their ways.

It was a nation of hardened hearts. They were not ready to receive the message. God knew what it would take. They would need to experience complete devastation before they could be spiritually awakened. “Until . . . the land is utterly desolate,” God told Isaiah. They would be wisked away by the conquering nation of Babylon and held in captivity for 70 years before they would be ready to really hear what God had to say.

Any repentance before that experience would have been shallow and temporary.

As God faithfully worked in the hearts of His chosen nation, He works in you and I. There is spiritual truth that we need to be made ready to hear. So He brings circumstances into our lives to prepare our hearts. Those kinds of circumstances are rarely welcome. Our first response is to pray for them to be removed.

But God has the big picture in mind for us. Like the artist who begins with a hard lump of clay, who bangs it on the table and kneads it with strong hands, God is at work in us, using our circumstances to soften our hearts, so that we might be ready to be molded into the image of Christ.

Peter wrote, “He who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” We need to face the pain in our lives with the realization that God will use it to change us for the good. “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.” (2 Corinthians 4:17)

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Crowd of Witnesses

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” Hebrews 12:1, 2

The writer of Hebrews penned these words just after describing the faith of numerous Old Testament heroes. The many men and women who have completed their time on earth still stand as examples to us all of living for something beyond ourselves. What is striking is that now that their journey is over, they continue to function as an encouragement to those of us who are still in the race.

A young talented athlete named Derek Redmond entered the 1992 Olympic Summer Games in Barcelona with hope in his heart. Four years earlier at the previous Olympics, Derek was forced to withdraw from the 400 meter race when he sustained an Achilles tendon injury just ten minutes before the starting gun. Now, after five surgeries and grueling hard work, Derek was ready to race again. His father stood in the stands, heart thumping, watching his beloved son take his mark.

As the semi-final round runners took off, Derek pulled to the front of the pack. Things were looking good as they rounded the backstretch until he suddenly heard a pop in his hamstring muscle. His leg collapsed, and he fell to the track. Tears streaming down his face, he quickly realized that his dreams of an Olympic medal were gone. As medical personnel rushed to put him on a stretcher, he lifted himself to his feet. He was going to finish the race.

The other runners had long crossed the finish line. When the crowd began to realize what Derek was attempting to do, they rose in disbelief. Slowly, they began to cheer. The cheer quickly turned into a deafening roar. Tears streamed down faces as they witnessed Derek’s pain and determination to finish the race. 65,000 fans were on their feet, screaming their encouragements to the young athlete hopping the final 175 meters to the finish line.

Derek’s father could stand it no longer. Bursting through the crowd and security personnel, he leaped over the railing and ran down the track toward his son. He put his arms around him and told Derek, “I’m here, son. We’ll finish this race together.” As they made their way toward the finish line, arm in arm, there was not a dry eye in the stands. Crying, clapping, cheering, the 65,000 witnesses urged the pair toward their goal. Derek crossed the finish line on his own, his father by his side, to the delight of the frenzied crowd.

We, too, are in a race. The writer of Hebrews tells us that a cloud of witnesses surrounds us. I like to think they are cheering us on. Why would they do so? Because they have already crossed the finish line. And they know that it is worth it all. The writer tells us, "All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance . . . They desired a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them" (11:13-17). The witnesses of Hebrews 11 had run their own race. They had persevered. And when their lives were over, they found it was worth it all. So they cheer us on to our own finish line. Keep going! Don't give up! You won't believe what is waiting for you on the other side.

With every step, the finish line and its rewards is that much closer for those who walk with the Lord. We go down the track one step (or stumble) at a time. And our Heavenly Father is by our side, supporting us, enabling us, with love in His eyes.