Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Refuge of a Name

“The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous runs into it and is safe.” Proverbs 18:10

In the late eighth and ninth centuries, men from modern-day Denmark and Norway began to sail across the North Sea to raid and pillage Ireland. At first the Viking raids were conducted by a small number of ships, which would land in a coastal community, pillage and burn the settlement, then head back to their homeland with the booty. Because of their brutality in the treatment of those they subdued, the Viking warriors terrified all who lived within their reach. Over a period of time, the intensity of the raids increased. The Vikings, encouraged by the spoils of previous raids, now brought large numbers of boats and set up camp to conduct extensive raids over the surrounding countryside for several months at a time.

Monasteries were found to be the best sources of valuable booty, both in riches and slaves. At the beginning, the monasteries were an easy mark, as they were peaceful settlements and largely defenseless. However, after suffering heavy losses during the early years of raids in both valuables and personnel, the monks began to build defensive tall stone towers, or Round Towers, near the monasteries. When approaching Viking raiders were sighted, the monks would grab as many valuables and as much food as they could carry and hurry to the tower. They would climb a rope ladder to the door, which was located one story up from the ground. Once all were safely inside, the monks would pull the ladder inside and close the door. There they would remain in safety until the threat of danger had passed.

The old hymn, “Be Thou My Vision,” was written during this time period. Verse three reflects the reality of the Viking threat and Round Tower defense:

Be Thou my breastplate, my sword for the fight,
Be Thou my whole armor, be Thou my true might,
Be Thou my soul's shelter, be Thou my strong tower,
O raise Thou me heavenward, great power of my power.

Solomon utilized the same metaphor while writing the proverb at the top of this page. He likened the name of the Lord to a strong tower, which offers protection to the righteous when they shelter within its walls.

How is the name of God a refuge to us? Romans 10:13 tells us, “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” By calling on the name of the Lord, we receive safety from certain condemnation and consequent wrath of God. Instead of an awful eternal fate, our destiny for destruction is replaced by hope and peace with God.

The name of God also is protection from an attacker who would like to see us destroyed. Revelation 12:10 reveals Satan as the one “who accuses [the brethren] before our God day and night.” His goal is to incapacitate us, and with that goal he whispers accusing words of inadequacy and shame into our ears. In this case, too, the name of the Lord is our strong tower. Our worthiness and effectiveness is in the fact God has loved us, saved us, and will enable us to live for Him. So we can answer Satan’s accusations in the affirmative. Yes, we are unworthy. Yes, we are weak. You are correct, Satan! But we have a Savior that supplies all we need. Our hope is in the Lord, not ourselves. So accuse all you want, Satan. It is not about us at all.

Like the round towers of the monasteries of Ireland, the name of the Lord is our singular stronghold while the world around us goes crazy. These days many standards are now seemingly subjective. Morality and even our ideas about the character of God are whatever one decides them to be. In a society where we are rapidly losing objective measurement, the name of the Lord offers an absolute standard. Its strong, unmovable, and unshakable walls offer stability and safety in a rapidly changing world.

There is power in the name of the Lord. When Jesus was being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Roman cohort asked Him if He was Jesus of Nazareth. When Jesus answered “I am He,” they drew back and fell to the ground (John 18:6). Just the mention of His name was enough to knock strong soldiers off their feet.

The name of the Lord was a strong tower in Solomon’s day, and continues to be our own refuge today. Its consistency and dependability stand in strong contrast to the contrary winds that buffet our lives. It is a name that will never lose its power nor fail to prove its worth. It is consistent because the God it represents is consistent. “Those who know Your name will put their trust in You. For You, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek You.” Psalm 9:10

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Uniform of Service

“And all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 1 Peter 5:5

I attended Women of Faith this summer and had the pleasure of watching a talented actress doing several monologues during the conference. She used very few props. A costume, something held in her hand, and lighting were all she needed to set the stage and help her become the character she was trying to portray. One memorable skit was when she became a diner waitress. She wore a typical waitress uniform, reminiscent of the 50's, an apron, and held a rag in her hand. But that was enough to transform her into a middle aged waitress who had watched life pass her by. Just a simple costume was enough to convince her audience that her words and thoughts were from this fictional character.

We, too, have a “costume” to put on when we prepare for service for the King. Peter tells us that our costume is humility. The Greek verb for “clothe yourselves” is a rare word in the NT. It is used to refer to a slave that puts on an apron before serving. Peter's writing indicates a necessary preparation for service is in a conscious decision to be humble.

This particular word for humility is used seven times in the New Testament. Paul uses it as an opposite to pride. It is interesting to see that Paul served with humility (Acts 20), yet did not shrink from proclaiming the truth. So we get an idea of humility which does not lack in confidence. It is just particular as to where that confidence originates. While pride is confidence in oneself, humility has no confidence other than in the Lord.

There is a positive and a negative kind of humility. Paul contrasts these two manifestations of humility in Colossians 2 and 3. He is writing the Colossians to help them guard against gnostic thought, a first century philosophy which was threatening the church with its heresy. Gnostics taught that everything material was evil; in order to become good, one must treat his physical body with contempt. The word humility is used within this context, translated by the NASB as “self-abasement.” Paul is clear: this kind of humility is not of the Lord. “These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.” (Colossians 2:23)

Paul later goes on to talk about a godly kind of humility: “So as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience; bearing with one another and forgiving each other. . .” (Colossians 3: 12-13) Do you see the difference? A person with the negative kind of humility despises himself. But positive humility comes as a result of having been chosen by God, set apart by God, and beloved by Him. With the confidence that our position in Christ gives us, we can choose to treat others as better than ourselves. Our confidence is not in ourselves. It is in what God has done for us. So we don’t need to put others around us down to build ourselves up.

When we understand how God views us, as His beloved and chosen one, we don’t have to do anything to make ourselves important. The fact is we are important to God. Therefore, we can relax about proving ourselves and concentrate instead on building each other up. We can put others first because we are already taken care of: we are His and in His hands. With such an astounding basis for security, humility is not so hard to "put on".

Jesus exemplified humility for us in the way He lived His life on earth. A memorable example is in John 13 when He washed His disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. Afterwards, He explained His actions to them: “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. . . a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him.” (John 13: 14-16) The King of Kings demonstrated humility by performing one of the lowliest jobs available. He did it to exemplify His expectations of the kind of service His disciples should give.

Without this experience, they might have been tempted to lord it over others, due to the importance of their position. After all, Jesus had chosen them to be the privileged twelve. He would entrust them with building the church. Obviously they were special. But Christ, in His actions, knocked any temptation of pride in their service right out the door. If the Master sending them out was only humble in His service, they could do nothing more than the same.

How do we cultivate humility? By understanding our position in Christ. That we are truly, unconditionally loved and valued by God. We don’t need to prove ourselves as important or significant. He has done that for us. We are then free to love others in the way Christ loved the church: sacrificially and without a care for what we will get in return. And He has promised to give us the grace to do just that.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Scared Straight

"He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness." Hebrews 12:10

Last week I had a scare. I woke up with an irregular heart beat. I mean really irregular. I was dizzy and nauseous and felt like my heart was beating out of my chest. After about 20 minutes, I woke up my daughter and asked her to take me to the emergency room. An EKG confirmed my heart was in atrial fibrillation. My heart was racing at 157 beats per minute. They put me on an IV drug to slow my heart down. The irregular rhythm persisted. I was admitted for an overnight stay.

When the cardiologist arrived, he went over my medical history. I asked him what would cause a heart to do what mine was doing. He said it could be stress or even sleep apnea. He gently said, “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but . . .” I knew what was coming. The weight pronouncement. I needed to lose. It was affecting my health. I’d heard it before, and believed it. But I hadn’t ever been disciplined enough to follow through. I am a procrastinator. I was going to start dieting tomorrow. Always tomorrow.

But the cardiologist shocked me out of my complacency. He continued “ . . . but you are morbidly obese.” Morbidly?? Did he have to use such a nasty adjective?? I was mortified. If I died of a heart attack, I had no one but myself to blame. My obituary would read: she ate herself to death.

Finally, around two in the morning, my heart kicked back into a normal sinus rhythm. They sent me home in the morning, armed with prescriptions and instructions. I started Weight Watchers point counting immediately. I started walking. It was time to get serious. Tomorrow was here. My sister told me, “You now have a new life. It was fun while it lasted. But you now are looking at life-risking habits that have to change.”

I am scared straight. A brush with a possible heart-attack or stroke in my future will hopefully be enough to motivate me to do what my doctor has nagged me about for years. My family is coming with me to walk every night after dinner. We are all determined to make this thing happen.

The writer of Hebrews was trying to scare his readers straight. They had received the good news of salvation and experienced new life in Christ. Now some of them were considering going back to the old Jewish system. They missed their old community. They missed the traditions. They were experiencing persecution from their families and the community at large. So the writer (we don’t know who wrote the letter) spends a great deal of time demonstrating to them the superiority of Christ over anything else they have known. By the time he gets to chapter 10, he has laid out all the information they need. Now it’s time for the motivation.

“For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries . . . it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10: 26, 31) He was trying to scare them straight.

Was their salvation in jeopardy? No. They had been bought with the blood of Christ, declared innocent of their sin. They had been adopted into the family of God and had a secure future inheritance waiting for them. The Holy Spirit permanently indwelled them as a seal, or guarantee, of their eternal life. So what was the writer talking about?

God will not sit idly by and watch us self-destruct. We are His. He paid dearly for us. And He is faithful. So He does what it takes to bring us back into the fold. The measures can be severe. Paul tells us that some Corinthians were sick and some had actually died because of their sin (1 Corinthians 11:30). Our life here on earth can become a living hell, should we turn away from the God who saved us.

Our salvation remains unaffected. But He will get our attention, one way or another.

Hopefully we will never come to that point of wondering whether following Christ is worth the cost. But should we decide that we want our own way and begin to live for ourselves, the cost will be higher. “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” (Proverbs 16:25) Grave consequences may follow our actions should we choose to abandon the God who loves us.

We don’t like to think of this side of God. We like the part of His loving kindness and compassion. But He is more than a genie in a bottle to us. And He will take care of His own. If you ever think about abandoning the faith, be sure to read Hebrews 10. It will scare you straight.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Irony of the Cross

"Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." 1 Corinthians 15:57

In the states where the death penalty is still legally in place, inmates often spend nine to ten years awaiting their fate on death row as the appellate process is worked to its conclusion. Death row is a part of the prison system reserved for the worst of all criminals. Their actions have caused death and pain to many others. Now they themselves are condemned to die. There is great shame in having landed on death row. No one is proud to live there. To die by capital punishment is to be included among the most notorious group of criminals in our country’s history.

The cross was regarded by those living in the Roman world to be the punishment reserved for the lowest of the low. Only slaves and the worst types of criminals were punished in this way. It was the cruelest and most degrading form of punishment that existed at the time of Christ. Paul expressed the deep shame of Christ’s death by crucifixion when he wrote to the Philippians. As Paul lists the rungs down the metaphorical ladder Christ took from glory to utter humility, the last step down was this: “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:8)

It was the most despicable, shameful way to die. Yet that was the punishment God chose for His Son to endure in order to pay for the sins of the world.

The cross is one of the many ironies we see in the Scriptures that contrast what the world would instinctively choose as a better way.

Have you ever tried to accomplish a task by using a mirror? When I taught school, the overhead projector was a piece of equipment I used in nearly every lesson I taught. I liked it because I could write on the board while facing my students-- a teacher never likes to turn her back on a class. I often used transparent math manipulatives or prepared overhead sheets. It was always a challenge to move things around on the projector while looking at the screen where the image was projected. Because the image is a product of a mirror, it goes against what your brain instinctively tells you. In order to move something to the left on the screen, you must move it right on the projector. It is a truly counterintuitive process.

Much of how God has chosen to work seems counterintuitive to us. He uses the weak over the strong. The more humble we are, the more usable. The rich and the privileged of this world are at a disadvantage when it comes to eternal life. Their very independence and strength threatens their capability to put their trust in a Savior to save them. The most expensive price possible was paid for our sin. Yet the resulting salvation is offered to us as a completely free gift. The Bible is full of ironies. Yet the greatest irony of all is the cross.

It was a place of ultimate suffering and shame. Yet it was the place where God was glorified the most. From all appearances, Christ’s death on the cross was His ultimate defeat. Yet in fact it was really the place of His ultimate victory. The most appallingly violent death possible became the source of our peace. God hanging like a guilty criminal produced for us a verdict of innocent.

We wear a tiny replica of a cross to symbolize belonging to Jesus Christ. In a way it is a little like wearing a charm of a hangman’s noose or an electric chair around our necks. First Corinthians 1:18 tells us the cross is “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” The cross was always a symbol of shame. But for the Christian, it is a symbol of victory and the glory of God revealed. And we rejoice in the irony.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Struggle to Believe

“Behold, I lay in Zion a choice stone, a precious cornerstone, and He who believes in Him will not be disappointed.” 1 Peter 2:6

I had the privilege of spending some time with one of my former fifth graders the other evening. I am always interested to find out where my students have gone in their spiritual journeys after leaving my classroom. It seems like so many students who have graduated from our school abandon their faith when they head out into the world. So I am interested in what made the difference for the ones who have remained committed to Christ.

In this case, the woman I spoke with went through an intense struggle of faith shortly after beginning her college education at a secular university. At one time or another, all children who are brought up in Christian homes must face the same struggle she did: deciding if the faith they were taught by their parents can become their own. This woman went through several years of inner turmoil as she struggled to discover if what she had believed for most of her life was the truth. In the end, she threw herself on the mercy of the Lord. “I prayed Psalm 119:31 over and over again,” she recounted. “I cling to Your testimonies, O Lord, do not put me to shame.” Her plea was a simple one: I will remain faithful to what I know to be true. Please don’t let me down.

Her experience echoed my own journey as a young girl. My loyalties toward the Lord had remained unquestioned until my junior year of high school. But during that particular year, I was dating a guy who was not a Christian and had attended several fraternity parties with him at his university. The fun of the life and social opportunities there at his school attracted me. My head was turned toward what that lifestyle had to offer. And away from Christ.

My father worried as he watched me gently drift toward the world and away from the faith I had always so staunchly held. So he made a deal with me. My dog had recently died and I desperately wanted a new puppy. He told me I could get a new dog if I read How to Be a Christian Without Being Religious from cover to cover. I felt angry that he was pressing his faith on me. But I wanted that puppy. So I sat down to read the book.

I didn’t get too far into the book when I put it down in disgust. I already knew all the answers this author offered. My problem was I had lost the feeling in my heart. What I knew had become dry, unaffective knowledge. So I challenged the Lord. “If you are real, I need you to show me,” I prayed. “I will remain obedient to what I know is true for now. But somehow, God, I need you to demonstrate to me that you truly exist.” I waited in silence for something big. I got nothing.

Several months passed by. The Lord faithfully brought people and events into my life which sparked my interest and enthusiasm for Him. Eventually, I looked at my faith and realized that God had proven Himself to be alive and real in my life. There had been no thunderbolt from the sky. Instead He had quietly and gently answered my desperate prayer over time. And I knew without a doubt that He really was whom the Scriptures claimed He was.

God is faithful. He will not put us to shame. When we cast ourselves on Him, determined to live out what we believe, He will meet our need and give us assurance that we are not doing so in vain. We possess a living hope, Peter told his writers. Our hope is in our salvation, bought with the precious blood of Jesus Christ. Those who earnestly seek Him will not be disappointed.

Doggedly cling to what you know to be true. Even in the times when He seems silent and distant, He will not let you down. He cannot: His faithfulness is a part of His very nature. He cannot be untrue to who He is. “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we possess,” the writer of Hebrews urged. “For He who promised is faithful.” (Hebrews 10:23)

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Preventing What Seems Irresistible

“Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” James 1:17

I need to lose weight. Ask my doctor. She has made it her personal crusade to get me back down to a healthy weight. Her goal is not to make me beautiful. It is to keep me from having a heart attack. I am no stranger to the necessity of losing weight. It has been a constant struggle for me for my entire adult life. Apparently I have an excellent metabolism. Not one calorie wasted. My fat storage capability is a virtual steel vault. Sigh.

It is not a case of ignorance. I have given enough money to Weight Watchers over the years to look like Paris Hilton. I know how to diet. Eat less, exercise more. My problem is willpower. I absolutely love food. Anytime I deny myself food, it is a fierce inner battle. One thing I have found is that allowing myself to feel too deprived is a sure ticket to failure. This is key to long term success for me.

My hardest time of the day is the hour before dinner. I am hungry, and in my weakest state I am expected to stand in the kitchen, the dream room of all overeaters, and prepare dinner. Without snitching. Well, forget it. It can’t be done. So I have come up with a strategy. I have a little snack with a hot cup of tea just before preparing dinner. The satisfaction of a “full” feeling keeps me from temptation as I cook. Most of the time, anyway.

James wrote to his readers about temptation in the first chapter of his epistle. He had just encouraged them about the trials in their lives. Then in verse 13, he clarifies the idea of trials a little more. “Let no one say when he is tempted, I am being tempted by God, for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.” Both trial and temptation are translated from the Greek word peirasmos. When James used peirasmos the first time in verse 2, he was writing about outward circumstances. Now in verse 13, James wrote about temptation which comes not so much from outer circumstances but from within ourselves. He clarifies: “Each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lusts.”

Don’t ever confuse your inner desire to sin as coming from the Lord. James tells us this is impossible. While outward things such as persecution or other trying circumstances come along, we can look at these as an opportunity from the Lord to persevere in obedience. Yet they are not what tempts us to sin. That desire comes from within ourselves.

So how do we keep ourselves from obeying the inner call to sin? James tells us in 1:17: “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” If we want to avoid sin, we must fill our minds with the only thing that truly satisfies. We need to spend time in God’s Word and absorb the truths within its pages. Our priority must be to love Him with all of our mind, heart, and strength. When we are walking with Him, both in heart and action, we are filled to satisfaction. Suddenly the sin which was so tempting doesn’t look so irresistible.

Conversely, if we allow ourselves to become “hungry” or to feel “deprived,” suddenly that sin looks too good to resist. Our good intentions only last so long. (For me, on a good week, about three days.) Yet if we take the time for some preventative measures, by filling ourselves with the “good things” God continually offers in His outstretched hands, the appetite for sin will diminish. Just like a cup of tea and a few crackers before dinner.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Evidence Tells the Story

“Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.” Galatians 5:24-25

Last night we had quite a wind storm. I know this because when I pulled up the shade of my office window this morning, an assortment of twigs and branches littered the porch rooftop below. A tree in our backyard lost a rather large branch as evidenced by the fresh hole in its upper trunk. The yard has debris in it that did not exist yesterday. It must have been an impressive storm.

I slept through the whole thing. These past two weeks in seminary have been grueling. As it is the mid-point of the semester, there was a flurry of exams, papers, and assignments all due in a very short time span. I worked ceaselessly for several weeks at trying to stay caught up. Sleep had to become a low priority. Last night I fell into bed exhausted. I never heard a thing.

Yet while I did not hear the storm, I know it happened. Because the evidence was plain to see when I pulled up the shade.

The Holy Spirit is described in the Old Testament as a wind. The Hebrew word for spirit is ruach. It is translated as either wind, spirit, breath, or life. Although it can be used of a gentle breeze, most often it refers to power. The New Testament Greek word for spirit is pneuma. In Greek thinking, the word also took on and idea of a source of energy. The Bible does not spend very much time talking about the person of the Holy Spirit-- at least as far as in describing Him.

We know He is a person because He can be obeyed (Acts 10:19-21), He can be resisted (Acts 5:3), and He can be grieved (Ephesians 4:30). We know He is distinct from the Father and Son because at the baptism of Jesus, we see the three persons of the Trinity represented: Jesus the Son in the water, God the Father’s voice from the clouds, and the Holy Spirit coming to rest on Jesus like a dove (John 1:32). He is distinct from Jesus because Jesus promises to send Him when He returns to Heaven (John 16:7).

We can understand about the Person of the Holy Spirit from how he works. In the Old Testament, He often gave power for demanding acts of service to God. Joshua had this source of power (Numbers 27:18, Deuteronomy 34:9). The judges received a temporary filling of the Spirit for their calling (Judges 3:10, 6:34, 11:29). King David knew the power of the Spirit (1 Samuel 16:13) and when he sinned, begged God to refrain from taking it away (Psalm 51:11).

In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit was given as a permanent indwelling to all believers at Pentecost (Acts 2). His presence in our lives is a seal, a guarantee of the eternal life which God has given us (Eph 1:14). He sanctifies us (1 Corinthians 6:11). He teaches us about truth (John 16:13) and equips us for service (Romans 12:6).

He is invisible. Yet we can see His presence in our lives by the fruit we bear that marks us as His. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control all demonstrate the Spirit at work in us. Some bear more fruit than others. The amount of fruit we bear is in direct correlation to how much of ourselves we have yielded to His presence in our lives.

We had a family rule that everyone must come to the dinner table with clean hands. This was an important rule because my kids loved to play outdoors in the mud and dirt! I didn’t need to stand over them at the sink to watch them wash. All I needed was a quick glance to know whether or not soap and water had been given a chance to do their work. The evidence told the story.

Like the wind storm that left branches and debris to be seen this morning, we can see the Holy Spirit evidenced by the results of His work in our lives. Paul tells us in Galatians that since we have life by the Spirit, we should also be walking by the Spirit. The walking he is referring to is a yielding of our desires for His, putting our agenda in submission to what God wants for us. This is an hour-by-hour process. We daily make decisions which will impact how much the Spirit’s presence in our lives will be evident. And as we yield to Him, our lives will reflect that determination by the fruit we bear.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Catch the Vision

I love to visit model homes. Of course, no one lives there. Which explains why they are so clean. A professional decorator has come through and used all of her creative resources to make the home elegant and inviting. The furniture all matches and looks plump and comfortable. There are no crooked pictures, no spots on the rug, no dirty dishes, no sneakers by the door.

It’s called staging. The goal is to enable you to get a vision of where you could be living. They don’t need a fancy salesman. You don’t need anyone to list reasons why you should buy the house. No one needs to tell you about the good school district or the neighborhood playground. The vision of elegant living they have provided is enough to make anyone sign on the dotted line.

When God called Isaiah, He did not sit Isaiah down and make him understand all of the logical reasons he should be a prophet. He didn’t appeal to Isaiah’s heart for his people. He didn’t offer him great reward. What God did to call Isaiah was to give him a vision of His holiness. Isaiah saw the Lord sitting on the throne, lofty and exalted. Strange winged creatures called out to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. The whole earth is filled with His glory.” The ground shook, and the temple filled with smoke.

Isaiah was overwhelmed. When in the presence of perfect holiness, suddenly he saw himself for who he truly was. “I am a man of unclean lips!” he cried. “I am ruined!” A winged creature flew to him and touched a hot coal to Isaiah’s lips. “Behold, your iniquity is taken away and your sin forgiven,” he was told.

The Lord finally spoke. “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?”

Isaiah’s response was immediate and firm: “Here I am. Send me.”

When Isaiah got a glimpse of God in His total holiness, there was just no other option but to give his life into God’s hands. Do you lack motivation for spiritual things? Start seeking out the parts of the Bible which give you a vision for God’s glory. Watch Him create the world in Genesis. Notice how He righteously deals with an unfaithful people through Exodus and Numbers. Observe His faithfulness to every generation. Note how He never wavers from the plan to bring redemption to all men.

Then go to the cross. Watch God hanging like a common criminal. Understand that love keeps Him there. See Him give up His life for you. Then finally, witness the stone rolling away from the empty tomb. Know He conquered sin and death forever. For you.

Get a vision of the greatness of our God. Motivation will not be a problem any more.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Great Exchange

Several years ago, I had the privilege of traveling through parts of Europe with the AACS Madrigal Singers. It was the hottest summer ever recorded in Europe’s history. Europeans are not typically prepared for hot weather. In fact, I was told to pack spring rather than summer clothing, since early summers were typically rather cool. Big mistake. The heat never ended. It was hot all day and into the night. The hotels were not air conditioned. Neither were the places we visited. There were no fans. There were not even screens on the windows.

And there was no ice. Not one cube on the continent. At least that I saw. Not even at McDonald’s!! One evening while we were in Bern, Switzerland, I came down with a stomach flu. Sick as a dog, I lay on the hot bed in the hot room with only a lukewarm wet washcloth to help keep the fever down. I was miserable. Finally in desperation, I limped down to the lobby to beg for ice. I would have sold my firstborn for a measly bucket of ice. I asked the girl at the desk. She said, yes, of course they have ice. She would have to go down to the basement to get it. After finding someone to cover the desk, she disappeared for 15 minutes. I didn’t mind. It was worth the wait to finally have those precious squares of frozen water in my possession. She came back all smiles. Then handed me two ice cubes in a paper cup. They were melted before I even got back to my room.

With all of the heat, water was very important. Many of the public faucets had signs that we were not to drink the water. So we paid the price of bottled water to stay hydrated. Two of my sons were with me on the trip. I was providing all three of us not only food money but bottled water money as well, which turned into a respectable sum by the time the trip was over. My husband emailed me about half-way through the trip. Online he had been watching our bank account shrink as our days in Europe continued. “What in the world are you spending so much money on?” he queried. I emailed him back that we were drinking a lot of water.

The real problem was that the exchange rate for the American dollar vs. the Euro was $.85 on the dollar. So even though I would electronically withdraw $100, I would receive $85. Prices were not cheap, either. So financially, it was a lose/lose situation.

We celebrate Easter this week. What we commemorate on Resurrection Sunday is another uneven exchange, much more lopsided than a Euro for a dollar. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). In this exchange, God swapped His righteousness for our sin. A pretty great deal, if you are the sinner. God definitely got the short end of the stick.

Once we received righteousness from God, we got quite a few other benefits in this exchange. We exchanged our slavery to sin for freedom in Christ (Romans 6:6-7). Our fear of God’s wrath was traded for perfect peace (Isaiah 26:3; Romans 8:6) The certainty of spiritual death was exchanged for eternal life (Romans 6:23). Christ became poor so that through His poverty we might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).

Sin for righteousness. Slavery for freedom. Wrath for peace. Death for life. Poverty for riches. For us, a win/win proposition.

But unlike the exchange of currency in Europe, dollars for Euros, we brought nothing to the table. We could try on our own to be righteous. No good. Isaiah 64:6 tells us that our attempts at being righteous are like a filthy garment to God. Like old, smelly gym socks stiff with grime and sweat. Fortunately for us, God saw our predicament and provided a way out. And so we have the Great Exchange. A great deal for us. But it cost God everything.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Ministering in Pain

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

Standing in stark contrast to the beauty so characteristic of the Hawaiian Islands, the leper colony Molokai was home to some of the most deplorable and wretched conditions on the earth. Missionary Father Damien arrived on the scene in 1873 to spread a message of hope and to minister to those who had been sent to the island to die. He erected a church and worked tirelessly to provide decent shelters and improve the quality of life for the lepers who dwelled on the peninsula. People politely attended the church services, only out of respect for this man who selflessly gave of his life for them. In their minds, religion remained something for those who did not suffer from the disease. Damien began every sermon the same way: “My dear lepers . . .”

Years passed. One morning as Damien prepared breakfast, he accidentally spilled boiling water on his foot. There was no pain. Damien realized that the dreaded had happened. He had finally contracted the disease. That Sunday morning, he began his sermon differently: “My fellow lepers . . .”

The news that Damien was now one of them spread like wildfire throughout the leper community. As the curious lepers watched, Damien continued to live out the rest of his life in dedication to the God he trusted. Religious revival swept the colony. God had suddenly become very real to the lepers while displayed in the life of one who suffered as they did.

God can turn our pain into an avenue of His grace and mercy.

For two years, my husband has been working through clinical depression. It has become his constant companion. Most days are a battlefield for him, as he struggles to fight thoughts which are not based in reality, but instead are a result of a brain which, in effect, is malfunctioning. He has been a true warrior, determined to cling to God and trust in the midst of his pain. But much of what he has endured has been an internal, solitary, and silent struggle.

Last week, we got a call from an old friend. Someone close to her was struggling with depression. The situation was getting desperate. They needed help. Why would she call us? Because she knew we had faced (and continue to face) their exact struggle. We understood what others could not.

So they came over. And as Steve and this young man talked, they realized that their symptoms were identical, even down to the thoughts of despair and failure which plagued them. They had found a lifeline in each other. While they were both in the midst of rampant pain, they could encourage each other by providing companionship through the journey. Knowing you are not alone is a balm to one who suffers.

When painful circumstances strike, our first prayer is for the Lord to take them away. Much of our prayer times sound like a Christmas wish list, as we tell God what to “fix” in order for life to be more comfortable for us. While there is nothing wrong with bringing our concerns before the Lord, we should also be praying about our own response should the Lord choose to allow that circumstance to remain in our lives. We need to pray for endurance and grace. Our goal should be that God might be glorified through us and that we would remain faithful to Him through the trial.

One of the reasons God brings painful circumstances along is so we can effectively minister to those around us. After walking through pain ourselves, we can listen and respond with an understanding we could not have had without going through the experience. Having been there gives credibility to our spiritual counsel.

Knowing this should revolutionize our prayer lives. In the midst of the pain, we should be looking for ways God makes Himself real to us through the struggle. We must ask God to make us sensitive to what He is endeavoring to teach us. Because one day we will be given an opportunity to pass what we learned in the experience on to another who is in the midst of the battle. And they will need what we can give them.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Gentle and Quiet Spirit

“Let [your beauty] be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God.” 1 Peter 3:4

This has always been one of those annoying verses in the Bible I've had to struggle not to take personally. I am the loudest one in my family. I was the loudest person on the faculty at every school where I taught. Loud is practically my middle name.

And my laugh is even louder. My kids used to tell me they could hear me laughing all the way across the football field as they took their places on the competition field in marching band. Today the entire bottom floor of AACS knew I'd come to visit because they heard me laughing in the teacher's lounge.

I had a close friend who lived in Virginia when our kids were little. We had a routine for several years of visiting each other every other month, taking turns in making the drive to spend the day at the other’s home. One day I was on my way over to Dawn’s house. As she prepared lunch, she told her little boy Justin that I was coming over with my kids to visit that day. Justin scowled up at her. “I don’t like Julie,” he told her. Dawn was astonished. She asked him why in the world he would not like her dear friend, who was always kind to him. “She scares me when she laughs,” he explained.

So it is disconcerting for someone like me to hear that God values a quiet and gentle spirit. Is the Bible really telling all of the enthusiastically loud people like me to pipe down and keep quiet? Is this really about personality type? Or do quiet and gentle, as the Bible defines them, go deeper than that? Let’s take a look at these two words.

1. Gentle: Greek = praus
The Greek word for “gentle” is also translated “meek”. It is used two other times in the NT.
Matt 5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
Matt 21:5 “Behold, your king is coming to you, gentle, and mounted on a donkey.”

Meekness is not weakness. Jesus may have been meek, but He had power enough to calm a storm or raise the dead.

In the Old Testament, people who are described as gentle or meek were the ones who wholly relied on God rather than their own strength. Moses is described as the “meekest man who walked the earth.” This was no false humility. He totally relied on the Lord for his strength and power. He trusted God to defend His people. He trusted in God’s goodness and believed in God’s control over every situation. Moses was not preoccupied with himself at all. It was all about God getting glory.

2. Quiet: Greek = hasukios
The idea conveyed by this Greek word is a kind of peace and tranquility. The only other time it is used is in 1 Timothy, where it is translated “peaceable”.

Both of these words carry with them the idea of a confidence and trust in the Lord. We can be at peace when we know God is in control. He is totally good. Therefore we can rest and trust Him in every situation. Our hope must rest in the Lord alone.

To further illustrate his point, Peter reminds his readers in the next few verses of a well-known biblical figure: Sarah.

Sarah had that same kind of gentle and quiet spirit. This was demonstrated in her submission to her husband, Abraham. On two different occasions, when she and Abraham were living in a foreign land, Abraham told her to lie when asked about their relationship. “Tell them you are my sister,” he instructed her. Abraham did this out of a motive of self-preservation. He was concerned that someone would see Sarah in all her beauty and want her for his own. Abraham was afraid that person would take his life so he could then have his wife.

Sure enough, Sarah caught the eye of powerful men on both occasions. She was hauled off to the men’s harems and awaited her fate. We have no reason to believe she did anything other than what her husband told her to do. Why would she be so willing to trust God with this? Sarah knew that God had promised Abraham a son who would be born of her womb. God would not go back on His word. So she trusted in God to take care of her in the situation she was in.

Sarah was a woman with a gentle and quiet spirit. Hebrews 11, the faith hall of fame, includes the names of very few women. But Sarah’s name is up in lights as one who trusted God. It says “she considered Him faithful who had promised.” (Heb 11:11) Sarah put her hope in God alone.

A gentle and quiet spirit is a heart attitude. It says "I trust God to be totally good and totally in control." A heart that possesses this attitude can be at peace, because the focus and the responsibility is not theirs. It is on God alone.

Even loud people like me can cultivate a heart that trusts God.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Welcome the Weakness

This week is the annual missions conference at Washington Bible College and Capital Bible Seminary. We have had the pleasure of sitting under the teaching of Dr. Lewis Sutton for the first part of the week. Today he told a great story about something that happened while he was in college.

Dr. Sutton had committed himself to getting up early each morning to spend time in God’s Word as well as in prayer with his Lord. Being a typical college student, he was not very disciplined about getting to bed at a decent hour. So the early risings were often difficult to manage. One morning, after too little sleep the previous night, Dr. Sutton sat at his desk, trying to focus on his Bible propped up in front of him. His brain too foggy to think clearly, he decided to spend the rest of his time in prayer before getting ready for class. With his roommate still asleep in his own bed, Dr. Sutton rested his head on his folded hands on the desk, started to pray, and promptly fell asleep. Two hours later he awoke with a start to find himself late for class.

A few weeks later, Dr. Sutton and his roommate were at a Christian fellowship. His roommate was asked how things were going. “Just great!” the roommate enthused. “I’ve been having great quiet times with the Lord and my prayer life has been really taking off.” When asked what had happened to make the difference in his life, the roommate gave a ready answer. “The other day, my roommate Lewis spent two whole hours in prayer. I was so impressed I decided to do exactly what he was doing. And the Lord really turned my life around!”

Of course, Dr. Sutton later shared exactly what had gone on during that “prayer” session his roommate had observed and together they had a good laugh over it. But he had discovered an interesting truth about God: He can use even our greatest weakness or failure in a good way in us and in the lives of others.

First Corinthians 1:27-29 tells us: “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong . . . so that no man may boast before God.” We worry about “having it together” before we try to serve God. But God doesn’t tend to use people who have it all together. He wants people who again and again curl up at His feet, aware of their sin and begging for the grace to carry on.

When we blow it, we are suddenly once again aware of the ugliness that still exists inside us. The fa├žade is shattered, and we come face to face with what really was true all along: we are too needy and unworthy to deserve to be used in the service of the King. Yet amazingly, God actually delights to work through those who are a big mess (like me). After a failure, we are suddenly aware once again that we are in need of grace as much as ever. God’s response to that awareness is to compassionately wrap His arms around us. Psalm 34:18 assures us: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

The world considers things like self-sufficiency, confidence, and competence to be worthy and admirable. These are not what God desires for us. Instead, He wants us to be dependent on His strength, reliant on His power, and wholly leaning on Him for all aspects of our life. The more aware we are of our faults, the more we understand if we were left to fend for ourselves, it would not end well. That is what our weaknesses do for us. They keep us grounded in the truth. When we understand the reality of the situation, God can do His most mighty work through us. And in the end, His glory shines out through the cracks in the vessels He has chosen to use.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Navel Gazing

“Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13-14

Self-esteem has been a big buzzword in education for several years. Parents are concerned that their child be made to feel good about themselves. Teachers are warned not to do anything that might damage a child’s self-esteem. In our county’s public schools, the children even recited a mantra every morning several years ago, along with the pledge of allegiance. The chant was all about themselves, their value as people, and their uniqueness as individuals.

The problem with the idea of encouraging self-esteem is that the focus is all wrong. Coming from a Scriptural perspective, life is not about US at all. In the real estate market, a home’s value is the price someone is willing to pay for it. We have worth because God loves us and paid the highest price possible for us: the precious life of His Son. We were created in the image of God, which also gives us value. And we increase our value when we take on the characteristics of Jesus Christ, steadily whittling away the remains of our sin nature. John the Baptist said, “He must become greater, I must become less.” It is not about us.

I read an article this morning out of the St. Petersburg Times (March 2, 2008) written about Anita Renfroe, the Christian comedienne. In the interview she was asked about the “empowerment” that her organization promoted, urging women to “step into life and refuse to be defeated.” Wasn’t that just feminism?

Anita’s response is outstanding. This is what she said. “I think it depends on what you are empowering them toward. If it is just to believe in themselves more, then it’s pretty much like any other navel-gazing activity-- you know, the kind when you get a really clean navel but don’t really get anywhere. I heard someone say that it’s like trying to steer your ship by looking at the deck instead of the stars. I think the difference . . . is we are pointing women to a source of power outside themselves, toward a faith that has not only informed our lives but transformed them.”

Much of self-esteem instruction urges children toward “navel gazing.” This is a dangerous place to land. Last week I wrote about the sailing practice of finding a focal point on shore to fix your gaze upon while steering the boat. The boat is moving; the shore is not. Finding a stationary point keeps your perspective from getting out-of-wack. When life is about us, we quickly lose reality with such a limited inward focus.

Paul urged the Philippians to fix their gaze on a point outside of themselves. He really gave them two directions to look. The first was straight ahead. Not backwards at who we were before Jesus changed us. We are told to leave the past in the past and fix our eyes on the goal-- becoming more like Jesus Christ. The second place we are told to look is heavenward, toward the One who will empower us to finish the race. Not downwards at our own two feet and our own limitations.

When our gaze is fixed on the Lord, we have found a stationary Rock that will not move. He will remain consistent because that is who He is. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. . .We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” Hebrews 6:19; 13:8

We do our children no favor when we encourage them to focus on themselves and their own capabilities. Instead, we should encourage them at an early age to look beyond themselves to serving One greater than them. We need to teach them about the power available to them instead of relying on their own inner strength (Philippians 4:13). Above all, we must teach them that they are loved and cherished by the same God who created the universe. Every detail in their lives matters to Him.

We will come to the end of our own power all too quickly. Empower your children with a fuel that is eternal. Equipping them with a godly perspective will supply a child with a life-long tool. Better than self-esteem any day.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Functioning Within the Culture

“But Daniel made up his mind that he would not defile himself with the king’s choice food or with the wine which he drank . . .” Daniel 1:8

In 605 BC, the Babylonians besieged the city of Jerusalem. They hauled off the temple treasury as well as a group of young men, some of whom were of royal descent, off to Babylon to be trained and educated in Babylonian ways. The process was to take three years. At the end of their education, the men were destined to enter the king’s service.

The young men (some of whom were as young as 15) were immediately submersed into the Babylonian culture. The Babylonian goal was to indoctrinate the men, remove their distinctive Jewishness from them, and make them Babylonian citizens in every way. This effort at transformation was so thorough, they even changed the names of these young men. The four specific men spoken of in Daniel 1 all originally had the name of God in their Hebrew names. Their new Babylonian names invoked images of the heathen gods instead.

The first big issue that came up for Daniel and his friends as they struggled to survive this new setting was food. God had laid out very specific laws as to what a Hebrew could eat. The king provided the best that Babylon had to offer for the trainees. Unfortunately, much of what was served was inappropriate and violated the dietary laws of God. Daniel set out to do what must be done to keep from disobeying God’s laws and defiling himself with the king’s food.

It is interesting to see Daniel’s plan of attack as laid out in Daniel 1:8-15. The first step in Daniel took is in verse 8. He made up his mind. This is always the first step when preparing for action. We need to prayerfully determine the path we will take, and resolve ourselves to doing whatever is necessary to achieve that goal.

The second thing Daniel did was to work within the authority he was under. He approached the commander of the officials in respect and humility. Not once did he appear rebellious or angry. Daniel quietly requested permission to make a change.

Next we notice that Daniel had a plan. His plan was to eat only fruit and vegetables for a period of ten days. At the end of the time period, the officials would examine Daniel and his friends to see if their dietary changes would have an adverse affect on his appearance. Daniel’s plan was sensitive to the needs of the overseer, who was in fear for his life should he allow harm to come to these chosen young men.

Finally, Daniel and his friends followed through. They did exactly as they postulated and ate only fruit and vegetables. Daniel 1:15 tells us that after the ten days, the young men actually looked better than those who had been eating the king’s choice food.

And God blessed them in their obedience. He gave them “knowledge and intelligence in every branch of literature and wisdom.” Daniel was even given the special ability to interpret dreams, which would come in handy in the very next chapter.

We, too, are living in a culture which demands a plan, lest we succomb to the temptation of giving in to the parts of our culture which are seductive to fleshly desires and deadly to living obedient lives for Christ. We live in this world, and those around us who need the Lord live in this world. If we remove ourselves too far from the cultural norms, we begin to look too quirky to be taken seriously by those who need the message we bear. We need to present Christ in a way which will be relevant to the every day lives of the people around us.

With that in mind, there are hard decisions to make. How do we handle money? How do we dress? What music do we listen to? How big a house do we buy? How do we fit in without becoming just like the world? Just like Daniel, we need a plan.

Our plans will be personal and individual, because they are for individuals placed in unique settings. Everyone needs to personally struggle with these issues and purposefully decide how they are going to present Jesus Christ to their neighbors, friends, and family as they live out their every day life. St. Francis of Assisi once wrote, “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.” Our very lifestyle will be sending a message to those who live in darkness. We are called to be the light of the world. If we live obediently to the truth of God’s Word, we will shine out like a flame surrounded by darkness. Somehow this needs to happen within the context of the culture that we live.

Daniel was effective because he kept obedience to God as his top priority. He then worked within the system God had placed him. He stuck to his guns. And God rewarded him by keeping him healthy and strong, and further blessed him by making him wise. Daniel remained and functioned within the culture, but continued to shine out as a testimony of a man who kept the Lord at the forefront of his mind and priorities. And the impact he was able to have on the kings and officials he served is proof positive that his plan of obedience within the culture was blessed by God.

Friday, March 7, 2008


About a half-dozen years ago, my friend Daza and her husband Jack decided to adopt a little girl from Russia. This involved two separate journeys to Russia: one to get the legal paperwork completed and meet their new daughter, and a second journey once the paperwork was approved by the Russian government to get the child and bring her home. On the first trip, they spent as much time as possible with their little girl. She had been living in the orphanage for about a year after losing her mother. Daza and Jack bonded with the five year-old child immediately. The language barrier seemed not to matter as they spent time blowing bubbles and playing with her in the orphanage yard. Daza brought a picture book with photographs of her two boys and other extended family members to leave with the little girl to help her learn the names of her new family. It just about broke their hearts when the day came to leave. They left her with tears and promises to return just as soon as they could.

Several months passed as they waited impatiently back in the States. Finally the day came when they received notice the adoption had been approved. As quickly as it could be arranged, Daza and Jack made the journey back to the other side of the world. As they drove toward the orphanage, they worried that their new daughter would not remember them. What if she didn’t want to go with them? Would she be willing to leave everything familiar to go to a new home?

As they approached the orphanage door, their little girl burst through it from the inside. “Mama! Papa!” she cried. And she rushed into their waiting arms. It was an unforgettable moment as all three cried tears of happiness that they were finally together again, this time for good.

As we listened to Daza recount the story days later, I was awestruck with how much she and Jack had already fallen head over heals in love with this little girl. The bond between them was as strong as any natural parent has with their child. She had moved into the home and hearts of her new family and already had her two big brothers wrapped around her little finger. No one could imagine life without her. She was a full sister and daughter in every sense of the word. Her parents would provide for her until she was an adult. Someday she would inherit one third of her parents’ estate along with her two brothers. Her rights and privileges as a family member were secure.

The word “adoption” is used five times in the New Testament. Paul’s usage of the term came from Hellenistic usage and Roman law. In Roman times, adoption was serious and permanent. An adopted son was considered the same as a son born into a family. He could no longer inherit from his natural father. As far as his former family was concerned, he was dead. His new relationship superseded all former family ties.

Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:5-14 that we have been adopted as sons of God through Jesus Christ. Along with that special family status, we have obtained an inheritance. The Holy Spirit was given to us as a pledge to our future inheritance, a guarantee to reassure us that our adoption is permanent and secure. It is a beautiful metaphor for the new relationship we have with God which begins at the time of our salvation. The paperwork is finished-- it is a done deal. While the inheritance is in our future, the family tie has already been made. No one can undo what God has accomplished. Our position is secure.

Like most out-of-country adoptions, our adoption came at a great price. Our heavenly Father had a debt to pay before we could be legally His. We were in slavery to sin. His payment set us free and enabled us to become a part of His family. God gave what was most precious to Him to pay the adoption price: the life of His Son. “Therefore, you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.” (Galatians 4:7)

We were as helpless and without hope as a little girl wishing for a mommy and daddy to take her in as their own. He reached out His arms and pulled us into His warm embrace. We now enjoy the privileges of sonship as we live here on earth, with the knowledge that an inheritance awaits us in the future. All through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

A Chip Off the Old Block

“If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of Him.” 1 John 2:29

We, the Coleman family, are a family of giants. My husband, sons, and daughter are all six feet or taller. I am the shortie in the family at 5’8”. Everyone looks up to us. I mean that in a purely literal sense. Whenever a line is made from shortest to tallest, a Coleman always stands at the rear. We are in the back row of all group photos. Purchasing long enough pant legs and coat sleeves is a never-ending challenge. And our shoe sizes are equivalent to small canoes.

So you can imagine our relief when our son Adam brought the love of his life home to meet the family. Ruth is a good foot shorter than most of us. We are delighted to know her shorter genes are now added to the family DNA. Maybe my grandchildren will stand a chance at normal height. Be in the middle of the line instead of at the end. Be able to buy clothes in a regular store.

The fact is, children’s physical characteristics are directly inherited from their parents. When I was teaching, I could almost pick my students’ parents out of a crowd. It was always fun to meet the parents after getting to know the child for several months. Mannerisms, facial expressions, and even the way a parent laughed were often already familiar to me as seen in their offspring. I can certainly see my husband and myself in different ways in each of my own children.

In addition, many of our traits get echoed in our children’s behavior as they strive to imitate us. My daughter wanted to do everything I did when she was little. She wanted to wear my makeup, use my soap, and do my chores. Once, when she was two, I came into the bathroom and found her brushing between her toes with my toothbrush. My husband consoled me, saying, “Julie, she just wants to be you.” Great. I just wished she wanted to be me with someone else’s toothbrush.

In Matthew 5:48, Jesus told His disciples: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The above passage from 1 John is just one of five in that epistle that give us a clear picture of what the offspring of the Father should look like.

1 John 3:9 No one who is born of God keeps on habitually doing sin.
1 John 4:7 Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
1 John 5:1 Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.
1 John 5:4 Whoever is born of God overcomes the world.
1 John 5:18 No one who is born of God sins.

Look at the positive verbs. Loves, believes, and overcomes. If we are born of God, we should be displaying those characteristics. None of them are easy to do. Yet if we have been born of God, they should begin to come somewhat naturally to us. We have been made a new creation.

While we remain in our physical bodies, our sin nature coexists with the new creation. So it is a battle to imitate our heavenly Father at times. Yet something mysterious has taken place in us. We are not the same. We may retain the old sinful nature, but we are no longer slaves to it. Instead, we consider that part of ourselves dead. Romans 6:6 tells us that “our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.”

As we learn to crucify who we were before our salvation, we gradually take on more and more likenesses to our heavenly Father. Out with the old, in with the new. It is a bit like the process in which petrified wood is formed. As molecule by molecule of the organic wood is replaced by molecules of inorganic rock, the substance is gradually transformed. Its appearance is very similar to the original. But in reality, it has been totally altered. What was once a piece of wood has become a chunk of solid rock.

Don’t be discouraged if you still see too much of the old you and not enough of your Father in yourself. Just keep taking the baby steps of making daily decisions to die to yourself and live for Jesus Christ. His desire is to make you talk, live, love, and act like one of the family. So He will put circumstances into your life to bring about that change. Eventually people will be able to look at us and see Jesus. And they will know exactly who our heavenly Father is.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Resisting the Devil

“Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” James 4:7

There are not too many episodes recorded in the Bible that show us a one-on-one conflict between Satan and another person. That is because the Bible is not about Satan, but instead is a revelation of God’s glory. I believe Satan was allowed into the story revealed in Scripture to demonstrate God’s glory by contrast. He is the opposite of God in every way. While God loves to create, restore, and heal, Satan loves to destroy and devour. God works only toward our good, making us effective servants for the kingdom. Satan wants to incapacitate us.

After the fall of Adam and Eve, we don’t see Satan in the Bible again until the story of Job. Satan approaches the throne of God and makes a heavenly wager. Job does not worship God because He is worthy of worship, he accuses. Job only worships God for what blessings he gets from the relationship. So God allows Satan to take away every blessing in Job’s life. Yet in spite of Satan's efforts, Job remains faithful. Satan’s response? He slips away, not to be heard from again for a very long time.

Jesus went head-to-head with Satan at the onset of His earthly ministry. Three different times, Satan tried to tempt Jesus, attempting to goad Jesus into proving His Sonship. Each time, Jesus thwarted Satan’s attempts with Scripture. Jesus was not on earth to prove Himself to Satan. He came to die for the sins of those He loved. Defeated, Satan again flees.

What can we learn about resisting Satan from these two stories? Let me suggest one more anecdote to help us reason this out.

Some of my favorite childhood memories are of sailing Bolton Lake with my dad. He had purchased a Barracuda sailboat when I was in middle school. It was a two-man boat, which we hauled over to the lake after dinner many summer evenings for an early evening sail. Dad was a patient teacher, and I loved going out with him to skim together over the water as the sun sank toward the horizon. One thing I had to learn from the start was to pick a point on shore as a focus when steering the boat. You didn’t look at the boat, nor did you look at the water around you. Instead, you picked a goal on shore, and kept your eyes pealed on that point. That way, as you steered, the boat would stay a steady course and keep a direct route toward where you were headed.

What do these three stories have in common? Hebrews 12:1-2 tells us to run the race with endurance, “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” Just like when steering a sailboat, fixing our eyes on a focal point will keep us headed in the right direction. Satan would like us to instead keep our gaze on the “sin that so easily entangles.” But that would be counter-productive to winning the race. Instead, our focus must remain constantly on the finish line.

Job’s focus was set on his God. He knew God to be faithful and good. Therefore, the circumstances that Satan set around him could not deter him from his course. His eyes were on the finish line. Jesus came to the earth for a specific purpose. Revelation tells us that the Lamb “was slain before the foundation of the world.” Jesus knew why He was here and what He had to do. Satan tried to entangle Him, too. But the focus Jesus had on his purpose never once wavered. And so Satan slunk away.

How do we “resist the devil”? We keep our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. Our focus must not waver from the finish line we are striving toward. What Satan lays at our feet to trip us up will not keep us from where we need to head. Not if our gaze is trained on the focal point.

Last week some circumstances in my life threatened the course I was running. All too quickly I allowed my focus to veer off of the One I was running toward. I had lost my bearing. I actually became physically ill from the stress of the situation. Because I began to look at what was around me, instead of the God who saved me and already had my course planned out, my world began to wobble. Only when I got my eyes on Jesus again, and focused on who I was in Christ, was I able to gain my equilibrium back and continue down the track. Satan would like our failures and shortcomings to incapacitate us. But it is not about US at all. When our eyes are trained on Jesus, Satan loses his influence. And as God has promised, that is when he will flee.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Family First

“But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” 1 Timothy 5:8

Paul wrote these words to Timothy after leaving him to serve the church at Ephesus. The letter is all about matters concerning the church. It gives very specific instructions to those who are serving in a leadership capacity. Overseers’ and deacons’ qualifications are carefully laid out. As you read over these instructions, you get the general overall gist that these men were to be godly and faithful both to the Lord and to their ministry. What is especially interesting to note, however, is the emphasis Paul places on the men’s actions within their own families. Apparently, Paul felt that it would be within their own family circles that their true colors would ultimately be exhibited. How they operated with their families was a telling characteristic that should be taken into consideration should a man be considered for a leadership role.

I can tell you that this principle was true in my life. Not once in all my years of teaching did one bad word escape my lips. In the car on the way home from school, unfortunately, I was not so careful. I was also patient to the extreme with my students when they misbehaved or needed help. But at home, after dinner, as we sat around the table doing homework, it sometimes took everything within me not to murder four Coleman children before bedtime.

I can also tell you that my children operated under the same double standard. My husband and I would sit with our jaws hanging open during parent-teacher conferences as the very same children who threw temper tantrums at home were lauded for their self-control. The brothers who frequently resorted to physical violence to settle arguments were the same children whose social skills apparently were exemplary. And respectful? They were virtual saints. Nothing like the children we knew who talked back to their parents and had to be sent from the dinner table in shame. My husband often said during the parent-teacher conferences: “Are you sure you have the right child? C-O-L-E-M-A-N?”

Why do we set such a double standard in our actions? Why do we view what we are perceived as in the public eye as more important than those who are the most important to us might think?

I think it is largely because we feel safe in our families. We know we are loved and accepted. No small sin will keep our parents from loving us, our husbands from being loyal to us, our children from adoring us. And so we feel free to be less careful in our actions around those who ultimately mean the most to us.

When we studied the above passage in seminary, several of the men in the class shared memories of when their father-the-pastor never made it to a single Little League ball game because of the demands of their ministry. It was a sad commentary of how we can become out-of-balance even in something as worthy as serving the Lord and His people.

I was guilty of this crime. At one point in my life, I was teaching school full time, teaching two women’s Bible studies, directing a children’s choir, making meals for people in need, and entertaining as often as possible. This was in addition to the challenge of raising four elementary age children. I slowly began to realize that something had to go. I was doing a lot of things, but I was doing none of them well. So Steve and I sat down and listed out all of my commitments. Each one was examined as to my spiritual gifts. Each one was also examined in light of whether others could do the task equally well. My children only had one mother, so that one had to be the top priority. Steve only had one wife. Again non-negotiable. Others could cook or even work with the children’s choir. I kept one Bible study and turned the other over to a friend who was also gifted in teaching. In going through the evaluation process, I gave myself freedom to do a few things well and still be a good wife and mother. Because my family needed me more than any ministry ever could. Just because something has the word “ministry” attached to it does not make it impossible to refuse.

I used to think of myself as irreplaceable. To my surprise, the ministries I gave up didn’t lose a beat. God used others to fill the gaps and used those very opportunities of service in the lives of those who gladly served in my place. Apparently I was not as indispensable as I thought.

Paul knew it would be a temptation to go for the public ministry and lose sight of one's own family. And so he wrote the warning in 1 Timothy 5:8. It is a good passage for us to read on a regular basis. It is too easy to neglect the ones who need us most. So we must guard ourselves from losing the balance in our lives. We never want our children to perceive that we must make a choice between God and them. Because the impression that would leave, of a God who greedily pulls mom or dad from the family, will taint their ideas of who He is for the rest of their lives.