Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Sweet Aroma

“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.” 2 Corinthians 2:14-15

Sasha the dog and I love our morning walks. This morning was especially beautiful. After an oppressively hot and humid day yesterday, Canada sent us a shot of cool, crisp air overnight. The air is refreshingly clear and clean. As we walked along, Sasha sniffing the ground and me sniffing the air, we came upon a honeysuckle bush in full bloom. The sweet scent of the blossoms made me stop in my tracks. The aroma was absolutely delicious.

One of my childhood memories is of the many bus trips we took into Hartford to go shopping for the day. Each time as we neared the Connecticut River, I would press my nose to the window in anticipation of what was coming. The Wonder Bread factory stood by the side of the road, and a delicious aroma always came wafting in as we drove by its doors. Every passenger on the bus breathed deeply as the bus lumbered on.

Smells can trigger happy memories. When my mother died, I took her perfume bottle home with me. It may sound silly, but sometimes, these many years later, I open the bottle and just sniff. It makes me remember the fun times we had together and how much she loved me. Just the scent triggers a happy emotion in my heart.

Paul spoke of himself and his fellow workers as an aroma. Two things would have come to mind for his original readers when hearing this comparison. First, the Roman army had a custom of holding a triumphal procession to honor a conquering general returning from a military campaign, who marched along with his recent captives trailing behind. Fragrant incense was customarily burned in this type of parade. The second thing that might have come to mind, at least for his Jewish readers, would have been the number of times in the Law that God described the smoke of a burning sacrifice for sin as a “soothing aroma.”

When Mary broke the neck of precious oil to anoint Jesus in the days before his crucifixion, John tells us that the aroma spread throughout the house (John 12:3). Paul speaks of Christ’s sacrifice and physical suffering as a fragrant aroma (Ephesians 5:2). Paul again uses the term aroma to describe the sacrificial giving on the part of the Philippian church (Philippians 4:18). As I looked through all the uses of this term in the New Testament, it jumped out at me: all of the aromas mentioned involved some type of sacrifice. It is costly to produce an aroma.

Paul could use the term about himself because he had indeed suffered and sacrificed much in his service to God. He wrote the Colossians: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” (Colossians 1:24) What Paul suffered for the sake of Christ was a pleasing aroma to God.

God, the conquering hero, leads those he set free in His victory in His own triumphal “procession.” But rather than burning incense, He presents his people as the aroma, to make known to all the knowledge of Himself. In other words, God uses what we who know Him have shown with our lives to bring people to Himself. I don’t know about you, but I find that thought pretty scary.

Paul urges the Romans to present their bodies a “living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God.” (Romans 12:1) How much do I allow Jesus Christ to impact my life? What sacrifices do I make for the cause of Christ? How often do I remove myself from the center of my universe? How do you rate in these things? Before you throw up your hands in despair with me, know that Paul himself knew he was insufficient in ability for the task. He cries, “Who is adequate for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16) None of us are. We are faulty, self-centered, wayward people. Left to our own devices, we will fail every time.

Fortunately, later in chapter 3, Paul gives the solution to our problem. “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant.” (2 Corinthians 3:4-6) We can’t do it. But God can do it through us. He chose to use the imperfect to display His perfect glory. It is a mystery as to how He can accomplish this. But we can rest in the fact that He has promised it is His way.

Like the honeysuckle blossoms that stopped me in my tracks this morning, our lives will cause others to pause and inhale when we are surrendered to Him. That’s all. No big accomplishments needed. Just yielding to the One who has done it all for us.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Deliverance from Ourselves

“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Philippians 1:21

When Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, he was under house arrest in the city of Rome. Paul spent his days and nights chained to a member of the elite Praetorian Guard, awaiting a trial that would determine whether he lived or died. Yet Paul never lost sight of the fact that nothing in his life happened without a purpose. In his earlier letter to the Romans (8:28), he wrote: “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”

Paul was acutely aware that his physical circumstances were not what mattered. His bonds had no power over him other than in how God chose to use them to accomplish His purposes. In Philippians 1:19-20, Paul wrote: “For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance . . . that Christ will be exalted in my body . . . by life or by death.” What kind of deliverance was Paul talking about? Deliverance from the shackles he now wore? The context does not seem to indicate this. I believe Paul was speaking of the kind of deliverance we all need: deliverance from ourselves.

Earlier in his letter, Paul had assured the Philippians that “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” This “work” had already begun yet would not be completed until time on earth was finished. Therefore this “work” couldn’t be their salvation. Their salvation was already a done deal, purchased and paid for by the blood of the Savior. So what was the work God continued to do in them and in all of us?


God was and still is in the process of changing, or transforming, all believers into the image of Christ. Paul understood that suffering would bring about this desired change. Peter wrote of this same idea in 1 Peter 4:1: “He who has suffered in the flesh has ceased to sin.” Suffering difficult circumstances, especially to the extent that Paul did in his lifetime, has a way of allowing us to zero in on the main thing.

When my mother was sick with leukemia in the hospital, she sent me a card I will always treasure. In it she told me she was not sorry for this illness that threatened (and eventually took) her very life. Her circumstances had allowed her to gain a perspective she had never had before. She now clearly understood what was important and what must be brushed aside in her priorities. She had gained an intimacy with the Lord she had never before experienced. In her mind, it was worth it all.

Less of me. More of Christ. For Paul, the deliverance was worth the suffering he endured. That Christ would be exalted in his body, by life or by death, was Paul’s greatest desire.

Two things enabled Paul in this process. “This will turn out for my deliverance through [1.] Your prayers and [2.] the provision of the spirit of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:19, numbers added) We, too, have the same resources available to us. I am blessed to have several people that are committed to pray for me on a daily basis. My Aunt Margie lifts me and my family up to the Lord each morning, as do my mother and father-in-law. Those that pray for us are an important part of our enablement. Not everyone is as fortunate as I am to have family members committing them to prayer. Lest you worry that no one is praying for you, think again. Hebrews 7:25 tells us that our Great High Priest, Jesus, lives to intercede on our behalf. You have the King of Kings and Lord of Lords praying for you. Be assured, you are covered in prayer.

Secondly, all who have believed in Jesus as their Savior have another enablement as well. God’s Holy Spirit dwells within us (Acts 2:33), teaching us (Luke 2:26), empowering us (Acts 1:8), guiding us (Acts 16:6), and renewing us (Titus 3:5). Our “deliverance” is a sure thing, and all has been provided to bring it to pass.

When we look at what we are being delivered from: destructive attitudes and thoughts, pride and a self-serving agenda, corruption, greed, and a host of other faults imbedded in our old nature, we welcome the change God is bringing about in us. Deliverance from things such as these is a deliverance from a slavery to sin to absolute freedom in Christ. We are being transformed from a grotesquely corrupted caricature of what God intended us to be all along. He is changing us into what will best reflect His glory. It is a welcome deliverance. Even when done through sometimes painful circumstances.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Perfect Father

“How great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are.” 1 John 3:1

My husband is a wonderful dad. While our children were little, we held completely different roles in our household. I was always bustling around preparing meals, cleaning up messes, washing clothes, and meeting physical needs. Steve, on the other hand, was working toward making our children’s childhood all it could be. He made up games that furnished hours of fun. He thought up trips and outings that gave them wonderful experiences away from home. He played football and catch and soccer with them out in the front yard. When the need arose, He disciplined with a firm but gentle hand. Steve was a nurturing, affectionate dad. I am thankful for what my sons were able to observe with a dad like Steve, so that in turn they, too, will be wonderful dads like my husband.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to have fathers who loved us in our childhood have an insight into the character of God. The Lord refers to Himself as a father many times throughout Scripture. A particularly touching passage that touches on this is Hosea 11. My NASB translation entitles the passage “God Yearns over His People.”

The Lord recalls His relationship with Israel as a nation, which began when they were in bondage as slaves. Using Moses as His unlikely spokesperson, God called His people out of slavery into freedom. It was not a picture-perfect beginning. For before long, the people began to doubt their Heavenly Father. Like unruly small children, they were bold enough to test the most patient of benefactors. But God patiently dealt with all of their foolishness. “It is I who taught Ephraim to walk. I took them in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.” (Hosea 11:3)

The Heavenly Father continued to patiently meet the needs of His children, gently guiding them much as a father who takes his toddler by the hand. “I led them with cords of a man, with bonds of love.” Consistent with His gentle guidance, the Lord supplied Moses to lead the nation. The opposite of a stern dictator who gloried in the forced submission of his people, Moses was the most humble man on the face of the earth (Numbers 12:3).

God did more for them than call them out and give them a leader. He lifted the heavy burden of slavery off of their backs and delivered them into freedom. He then supplied all of their physical needs. Water and bread were faithfully provided in a barren and unforgiving desert. The Father provided every need for the children He loved.

Yet the nation persisted in going astray. Once settled in the land, their hearts quickly turned toward the gods of the Canaanites. God knew that their sin could not remain unjudged, because He was holy. Yet even in the face of their stubborn, wicked rebellion, God reveals His agony over what must be done: “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I surrender you, O Israel? . . . My heart is turned over within Me, all my compassions are kindled.” (Hosea 11:8)

Anyone who has been a parent can relate to this kind of agony. Discipline is often as painful for the parent as it is for the child. Do you remember hearing “this hurts me more than it will hurt you” before a spanking as a youngster? Once I became a parent, I understood the reality of that statement. When you love your children, their pain is yours as well. Yet love without discipline is not love at all. It is self-indulgence. We go through the pain of disciplining our children because it is in their best interest, not ours.

God’s dealings with the nation of Israel were but a foreshadow of what would be accomplished through His Son, Jesus Christ. Matthew demonstrates this when he attributes Hosea 11:1 as a prophecy that would be fulfilled in Christ. (Matthew 2:15) Jesus came as a humble servant, truly the meekest man to have walked the earth. He boldly led His people out of the slavery of sin into glorious freedom. The yoke of trying to please God was taken off of our shoulders, and Christ provided everything that we needed to live lives of service for Him. 2 Peter 1:3 tells us this: “His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness.” All that God did for Israel as a nation was accomplished exponentially through Christ for us.

God remains our Heavenly Father. Jesus told His disciples to pray to the Lord as Father (Matthew 6:9) Paul again emphasized the Father-child relationship in Romans 8:15: “You have received the a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.”

As wise children we listen carefully to the instruction of this parent who loves with a perfect love. We endure the discipline because we know it is in our best interests. And we glory in the relationship that has been freely given to us, especially in light of the kind of rebellious children we have been and will continue to be. He is truly the perfect dad.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Redefining Failure

“As for them, whether they listen or not-- for they are a rebellious house-- they will know that a prophet has been among them.” Ezekiel 2:5

Things were bad. The entire nation had abandoned the God who loved them, turned their backs on a covenantal relationship, and were worshipping idols made of wood and stone. Over the years God sent prophet after prophet to urge the people to turn from their sin to avoid certain judgment, but to no avail. Instead of repenting, they stoned or persecuted the men whose spoken words were from the Lord Himself. The Lord had already brought judgment down on the kingdom in the north. Ezekiel was living proof of that-- he had been taken away to Babylon already. Judah was running out of time. Yet still they stubbornly persisted in their evil ways.

The Lord already knew there was no hope of turning these people around. Yet He prepared Ezekiel to prophecy yet another message of coming judgment and Judah’s need for repentance. Perhaps He did not want Ezekiel to go in with unrealistic expectations. He knew how discouraging it would be to speak the truth and have it thrown back into his face. So the Lord told Ezekiel: “Son of man, go to the house of Israel and speak with My words to them . . . yet the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, since they are not willing to listen to Me. Surely the whole house of Israel is stubborn and obstinate.” (Ezekiel 3:4, 7)

Yes, Ezekiel, I am sending you to a people who will not listen. You will fail in your mission. They haven’t listened to Me, and they will not listen to you.

So why was God bothering to send poor Ezekiel? When you read what misery God required of him during his ministry, it gets even more perplexing. Ezekiel had to spend 390 days lying on his left side. Then he would turn over and lie 40 days on his right side. He would eat bread cooked in cow dung. Worse yet, Ezekiel would be asked to make the ultimate sacrifice in the days ahead: his wife would die on the first day of the siege of Jerusalem as a sign to the people. Yet Ezekiel would not be allowed to mourn. All of this would be a sign to Israel that their judgment was from God. All that suffering, for a godly man, with seemingly no reason since the House of Israel would not turn back from their sin. Why bother?

We are results-oriented people. Our society measures the importance of a person by their position or their wealth. This obsession with visible success has influenced how we view things. In a church setting, we judge the “success” of a ministry by numbers or growth. If we are doing things right, then we should see growth. I just read a chapter today in a book on the spiritual disciplines that claimed if we are not seeing answers to prayer, then we are praying wrong.

I wonder how Ezekiel would have responded to that idea.

When God sent Ezekiel to the people, He sent him to fail. Ezekiel would do everything by the book. He would follow the Lord’s instructions carefully and completely. But the people would not respond.

The point to what God asked of Ezekiel, I think, is that God wanted the witness to be there. They would be without excuse. God had warned Ezekiel: “As for them, whether they listen or not-- for they are a rebellious house-- they will know that a prophet has been among them.” God was giving them every last chance to turn from their sin and back to Him.

It had to be that way, because God is who He is. 2 Peter 3:9 tells us God is not “wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” God is good, and His actions toward His people are good. So He provided every means to receiving a positive response from them.

We are results oriented. God just wants us to be faithful. He has called us to live lives which are light to the world around us living in darkness. Year after year, decade after decade, even when we never see positive results from our testimony.

To God, the process is more important than the product. He wants us to keep our eyes on Him, and not on the results of our attempts at following Him. He has His purpose for our lives. We just need to keep our focus zeroed in on Him, and resist the temptation to tally up the numbers or other man-made indicators of success. We just need to remain faithful.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Celebrating God's Faithfulness

“The Lord’s loving kindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness.” Lamentations 3:22

The unbelievable has happened. I am walking across the stage on Saturday to receive my Master of Arts in Biblical Studies from Capital Bible Seminary. I can hardly believe it. I lived.

When I started the journey two years ago, it was with fear and trepidation. I left a successful teaching career behind to journey out into the unknown. It was one of the scariest things I have ever done. When I told people what I was doing, I knew they would think I was crazy. Heck, I thought I was crazy. But the pull was strong. There was little doubt in my mind it was what I was supposed to do. And so I took the plunge. I walked away from my best friends in the world, my support, my community, at AACS. Since kindergarten, I had wanted to be a teacher. My career was more than a job to me. It was an identity. That, too, I regretfully abandoned in pursuit of this new road.

I’ve never been a strong student. I am better at teaching than I am at learning. But I attacked my courses with determination. If hard work was what it took, I was ready.

It did take hard work. But seminary demanded so much more. And soon it became apparent that it was demanding more than I had to give. Not far into the first semester, I realized to my dismay that the work load was more than I could handle. It wasn’t humanly possible to do what I needed to get done.

One day, a guest professor quoted from 2 Corinthians 4:7: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.” As I sat in that classroom, the truth of this passage hit me over the head like a ton of bricks. I was the earthen vessel. A cracked pot. Imperfect, weak, fallible. Undeserving of the privilege of containing such glory. Anything good that came out of me was a result of what I had inside me. Like an old, cracked cup containing the world’s finest wine, it wasn’t about me or what I could do. Instead it was all about what dwelled within me.

Here was the amazing truth: the bigger the cracks, the greater chance of His glory shining through them. I had plenty of those! So I began to pray. Not me, Lord, You. Less of me. More of You. You will have to pick me up and carry me through this. I can’t. It is just too hard. No thunderbolt came down from the sky. But for the first time, I was at peace with my situation. I couldn’t do it. But Jesus could do it through me.

And that, my friends, is how Julie Coleman made it through two years of seminary. Not by her power, but by the mercy of God. Oh, I continued to work hard. But everything I did, I did through the empowerment of the Lord. And the Lord was faithful to provide. He gave me great ideas as I wrote papers. He helped me recall those vague or obscure facts as I took exams. He increased my understanding as I worked through ancient Greek.

He also brought people alongside me to cheer me on. My husband never once doubted the course I was on. He kept urging me to just work on the next thing. My kids were awesome, frequently expressing their support and pride in what I was trying to do. Beth Smith became my dearest friend as we met for lunch once a week. She lifted me up countless times when I became discouraged. I look at each individual encourager, and there were many more than these, as a direct provision from the Lord. They were wonderful expressions of the faithfulness of God in my life.

Now, two short years later, it is finished. Exams are over. Papers are written. It’s all over but the celebrating.

But I won’t be celebrating my accomplishment. Because I know from the bottom of my heart this has not been my accomplishment. I stand in awe of what God has been to me and for me as I struggled through the journey. I didn’t deserve what He did for me. I’m not even sure why He wanted to-- except for the fact He is good, all the time.

As I walk across that platform on Saturday, I will give the honor and glory to the One who has proved Himself above what I could ask or think. I am grateful beyond words, and humbled at His faithfulness. Is it any wonder that I love Him?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Passion for God

"How precious are Your thoughts to me, O God!" Psalm 139:17

Have you ever been passionate about something? I have been known to have strong opinions on things, on occasion. My friend Suzanne will roll her eyes when she reads this blog. When I was working for Annapolis Area Christian School, I was totally sold out on the education we were offering. My kids attended and I taught there, and I loved the school with a passion. As I shared with Suzanne about the school, she became sold as well. Once her children were enrolled, Suzanne started to volunteer in the office. Her excellent work led to a job offer. As she interviewed for the position, the superintendent asked her how she originally got interested in the school. Suzanne told him we were friends. “And you know Julie,” she told him. “She is passionate about EVERYTHING she is involved in. She talked me right into putting my kids here, and the rest is history.”

When I was in high school, my passion was all about our football team, the Penney Black Knights. It was an unfortunate passion, because we were a losing team. Our season stats my freshman year were 1-10. But I never gave up on my team. Never. I cheered them passionately from the stands when the score was 0-40, with gusto and heart, coming home each Saturday afternoon with hands sore from clapping and no voice left. A loss (though common) was a true heartbreak for me. My extended family will tell you that each Thanksgiving I arrived in time for dinner with tears streaming down my face, coming home from a disappointing Thanksgiving Day morning loss to the other high school in town.

The things we are passionate about drive us to go further than we normally would. I can’t tell you how many late nights I have kept nor how many tears have been shed these past two years in striving for excellence in my seminary classes. I had a sense of purpose in every class I took, and knowing I was working toward something I had a passion for, which is speaking and writing, I drove myself harder than any outside force could have driven me.

We gladly give our time and energies to what we are passionate about. It does not seem like an effort at all when we are working on something that we love. The time flies, and we are astonished when we look at the clock and know it is time to stop. Scrapbooking is like that for me. When I get going on a page layout, I have been known to stay up half the night to finish it. My sister Margie shares my passion. When she was in a terrible car accident in February, hit head-on by a Chevy Suburban, she asked the ambulance attendant if he could snap a few pictures of the accident scene for her. “I want to put this in my scrapbook,” she explained.

Some people are passionate about their pets. Others, their career. My boys were passionate about video games and chess in their younger years. My friend Dawn’s husband Ed would spend every waking minute aboard his boat on the Chesapeake if he could.

David was passionate about God. 1 Kings 11:4 described Solomon as turning away from the Lord in his later years because “his heart was not wholly devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been.” Can you imagine being described in Scripture as someone whose heart was wholly devoted to the Lord?” I would love for that to be written on my tombstone, but I am not sure I would ever deserve it. Too many things still compete for my devotion, and my head is too easily turned.

One of the best psalms David (in my opinion) wrote demonstrates his passion for God. Psalm 139 is a meditation on both God’s omnipresence and His omniscience. God is everywhere at once, and knows all. David delights in the intimate way God knows us. He is aware of every move we make, and every word we speak. His presence is with us no matter where we can go-- to the highest of heights, to the depths of the sea. Even in the remotest place, His hand will guide us and hold us safe. God’s knowledge of us extends to before we were even born, and in His creativity and skill He made us into whom we are today. “Wonderful are your works, and my soul knows it very well” (Psalm 139:14).

Once David has reminded himself of the amazing qualities of God, he then responds in the way a man whose heart is passionate about God would. In the latter part of the psalm, David tells God, “Do I not hate those who hate You, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with the utmost hatred; They have become my enemies.”

Do you hear the passion in David’s voice? Anyone who hates the Lord is no friend of David’s. He loathes them. He hates them with the utmost hatred. David is passionately on the Lord’s side. An enemy of God is an enemy of David’s. The fierce loyalty and devotion David is trying to express is a direct result of his earlier meditation on the greatness of God.

David takes his response one step further. The whole way through the psalm, David demonstrated his awe of the knowledge of the Lord. But he emphasized that God’s knowledge was not something God held in an aloof sort of way. He doesn’t just know us-- He is actively involved with us as well. “You have enclosed me behind and before and laid your hand upon me . . . even there your hand will lead me, your right hand will lay hold of me.” David glories in the intimate involvement of God in his life.

And David’s response to that involvement is to want his heart to be involved with God as well. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts. And see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

In short, Psalm 139 is a wonderful example to us of how to build passion for God in our own hearts. Do you want to be sold out for the Lord? Start by meditating on His astounding character. Use a concordance and look up verses about His knowledge, His wisdom, or His power. But don’t stop there. Respond to what you have learned. Write out or pray your desire to be more devoted to Him in light of who He is. David gave us a great template in building a passionate heart for God.

Give Psalm 139 a read today. You might find your passion for God swell as you understand a little bit more of the greatness of God’s knowledge and intimate involvement with you. He is worthy of being our all-consuming passion.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Dog Whisperer

“My son, do not reject the discipline of the Lord or loathe His reproof. For whom the Lord loves He reproves, even as a father corrects the son in whom he delights.” Proverbs 3:11, 12

In a few short episodes, I have become a huge fan of “The Dog Whisperer.” The man’s name is Cesar Millan, and he is a behavior psychologist for dogs. And he is amazing.

Our new dog Sasha has become a challenge as she seems to be getting more and more aggressive the more comfortable she becomes in our home. Being only a year old, she still has plenty of puppy left in her. She would rather play than eat. But her most favorite thing of all in the universe is to take a walk.

I am the one responsible for Sasha’s walks for the most part. However, with every morning and evening walk we have taken, it has become harder and harder to control the dog. She is extremely strong and pulls me along just as fast as she can. When we have the misfortune to pass a jogger or heaven forbid another dog, Sasha goes wild. She fiercely barks and runs circles around me in frenzied excitement. It is all I can do to hold on. Then for the rest of the walk, she is out of control. She drags me along, wheezing and choking on her restraint in her efforts to move forward in her continued excitement. We both get quite a workout.

I didn’t have the heart to do much about it. I didn’t want to spoil her fun. I wanted her to be free to experience the outdoors, sniff trails to her heart’s content, and enjoy the experience. Yet it is downright embarrassing to let others see my incompetence as a dog owner. I keep calling over to Sasha’s latest victim, “Sorry! She is new to the family and we haven’t trained her yet.” Obedience school is two weeks away. It seems like forever.

So my kids set me on to The Dog Whisperer. He can get an aggressive dog to fall into line while walking in about ten seconds. It is amazing to watch. One of the first things he does is get the dog in the correct frame of mind before even opening the front door. The dog is made to sit. Stay calm. And wait for the command to get up after the door is open and the owner has gone through first. Once walking, the dog remains either by the owner’s side or behind him and is corrected every time she begins to pull away. The leash is kept short, keeping the dog close by the owner.

The big challenge, of course, is when another dog appears on the scene. The dog tries to go wild. But the Dog Whisperer does not allow her to stay worked up. He immediately gets the dog to sit and keep her attention on him. Sometimes he must make the dog lie on her side in a totally submissive position. Once the dog has calmed down and relaxed, he then allows her to continue on in the walk. The dog is no longer stressed by the presence of another dog. She is free to enjoy the walk once again. No longer is she under obligation to prove her superiority over all other animals in the neighborhood. She has allowed the owner to be in charge, which is actually a big relief to her.

You probably have already guessed where I am going with this metaphor. Our Heavenly Father corrects us and disciplines us because He delights in us. He wants us to be free to enjoy our lives here on earth. We might mistakenly interpret that as being given free reign. Yet ultimately, that would not be good for us. In our zeal to move ahead, we would pull ahead of Him, choking ourselves in our efforts and losing sight of who is in charge. The tugging war would begin. And we would quickly become worn out at the effort it would be just to walk. Furthermore, like any dog that is not shown her place, we would eventually come to despise our “owner” by refusing to obey or heed. Then when things did not go as planned, we would stomp around on earth, angrily shaking our fist at a God who was supposedly all powerful.

God loves us far too much to allow us to choke on our own efforts. So He quietly and consistently puts things in our lives that keep us on our knees. We are drawn to Him by need, and remain by His side through the circumstance, learning to be submissive to His will as we walk with Him.

Ultimately, in that state of mind, it is where we can find peace and relax. It is a relief to let Him be in charge! He always was all along. We just needed to be reminded. When we again acknowledge this, we are free to enjoy the walk once again.

I’ll let you know how things go with Sasha. Tonight we took a very nice walk, following all the rules of the Dog Whisperer. She came home relaxed, happy, and in a great state of mind. I’m thinking this is going to do wonders for our relationship.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Missing the Point

“Evangelical preaching that implies we are saved by grace but kept by our obedience not only undermines the work of God in sanctification but ultimately casts doubt on the nature of God (i.e. he loves us only when we are good enough) and thus makes salvation itself suspect when we honestly assess our imperfections.” Brian Chapell, Christ Centered Preaching

When my daughter was little, she was quite a storyteller. She could invent the wildest lies you could imagine. Pretty soon the lying became a solid habit with her. It got to the point I was unable to believe anything that came out of her mouth. Part of the problem was my fault, I am sure. I have always been such an exaggerator in my storytelling, she was just emulating another fish story queen.

When she was in third grade, she had the misfortune of several broken bones. The first happened when I was away, when she fell off a bed and apparently broke her wrist. It never discolored or swelled, so we ignored her complaints, chalking them up to another big story. After two weeks had lapsed, one day I grabbed her hand to cross the street, and she yelped in pain. Knowing that this was certainly not a calculated response, I took her straight to the doctor. The nurse and doctor looked at me sternly. “Do you see this lump?” they pointed out. “That is her wrist bone.” At that moment I knew I was the worst mother in the universe.

Later that school year, we were celebrating Easter with our friends, the Shandys. The four of us sat on our front porch drinking coffee and watching our children play and ride bikes on the cul-de-sac. Melanie rode up on the front lawn with her bike, lost her balance, and took a tumble. Her finger immediately began to swell. The next morning, I sent her off to the school nurse to evaluate whether or not I should take her for an x-ray. Marie came down to my classroom to talk to me. “I think it is broken,” she said. “And I told her, no more doing flips off the curb on your bike. It is too dangerous.” I rolled my eyes. Another big fish tale had been invented.

As Melanie and I drove to the doctor, I gave her a stern warning. “No more big stories about your finger,” I told her. “Just tell them exactly what happened.”

The doctor and nurse were already regarding me suspiciously when we explained the reason for our visit. Another broken bone? Was this mother some kind of child abuser? Ignoring me, they focused on the poor abused child. “Tell us how you hurt your finger,” they coaxed my daughter.

“WELL . . .” I held my breath. Here it came. “I was riding my bike, rode up on the front lawn, and fell over. And that’s REALLY what happened. Right, Mom?” She gave me a big wink.

Oh, brother. I went home and told Steve, “I am expecting social services momentarily to come and take our children from us.”

Melanie had missed the point. I was trying to give the doctor the true story and at the same time allay any fear that my daughter might be experiencing parental physical abuse. In her effort to obey me, she ultimately defeated the intent. She actually cast more doubt on my parenting than she would have had she stuck to the story of doing flips off the curb.

In the same way, I have seen preachers miss the point of the great truths contained within the Word of God. A former pastor of mine got stuck in a bad place. In his sincere effort to persuade his congregation that their salvation should result in a changed life lived for Christ, he got sidetracked. Gradually his messages became all about how we should live. And if we weren’t living that way, then we should doubt our salvation. He began to pull verses out of context, arguing that Paul himself worried that he might not really be saved. It was all about perseverance of the saints. The grace of God slowly faded out of the picture.

Steve and I worried over this turn in his teaching. Our objection was simple. Our approval from God never was and never will be about our actions or obedience. The Savior had to die because we could NEVER please God with our actions. Not before or after the point of our salvation. The point or theme of Scripture revolves around this idea. Chapell puts it this way: “Scripture seems to take great care to demonstrate how deeply flawed the entire human race is so that all will acknowledge dependence on the Savior for justification, sanctification, and all spiritual blessing. Preachers who ignore the human flaws in biblical characters out of deference to the reputation of past saints or out of a desire to hold a moral example before present believers unconsciously distract attention from the only hope of true faithfulness.”

When we as teachers begin to sing the song of obedience, but leave out the fact that our acceptance comes through Christ alone, we are missing the point. It has never been about us. It has always been about grace. In His great mercy, God provided a way for us to be right with Him. And that provision continues to be our source of life and peace with God, even after salvation. Chapell writes, “Righteous standards become spiritually deadly when they are perceived or honored as the basis of God’s acceptance.” Amen to that!

When I teach women, my ultimate goal is to give them hope. When we look at the standards of God’s holiness, it can be a source of great discouragement. We can never measure up, no matter how hard we try. The hope comes as we get our eyes off of ourselves and on to the Savior who has done it all for us. Our godliness can only come as a response to God’s unconditional love. His Holy Spirit is the enabler. It is not about us.

We will never be changed by our own efforts. Jesus forever took the burden of pleasing God off of our shoulders. We must be careful not to snatch back that responsibility as we attempt to live lives of obedience in response to His great love for us. Certainly we experience God’s blessing as we seek to obey Him. But the relationship with Him has never been nor ever will be about what we can do. It has always been about the grace and mercy of God.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Bridegroom

“Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready.” Revelation 19:7

May and June are popular months for weddings. We have received several invitations this year, mostly from friends of our children, who are getting ready to tie the knot. May is a beautiful month in Annapolis. Everything is green and lush and flowering. And it is still cool. I can understand it being such a popular month to have a wedding.

Steve and I weren’t so smart. We got married in mid-July. Even in New England, where we were wed, it is hot then. Older buildings are not air conditioned, either-- including the church in which we got married. I remember being hot the whole day. However, the weather did not dampen our spirits. It was a joyful day, the first day of our lives together. Many details from that day remain in my memory like it was yesterday, 28 years later. Most girls dream of that day when they walk down the aisle. Dressed in the most beautiful dress she could find, makeup and hair done to perfection, she is the picture of youth and beauty. The wedding is all about the bride.

My friend Clifford pointed out in class yesterday that we have gotten weddings backwards here in the U.S. My professor was telling us the wedding traditions of the first century Jews. The prospective bridegroom came to the home of the bride to request her hand in marriage. He met with the father of the woman and made a legal agreement to become betrothed. Once that was complete, the bridegroom went back home to his father’s house to make preparations for when he would bring the bride home to begin their life together. He would build a room on or finish a space in his father’s house that would be for them to live. The bride to be, in the meantime, did not know when the bridegroom would appear to take her home. So while she was in waiting mode, she did what she could to make herself beautiful and to prepare to be a good wife. Finally, the bridegroom had all in ready. His father gave permission and sent the bridegroom out to get His bride. The bridegroom marched through the town in a procession and appeared at the door of his beloved. He wisked her away to her their new home. There they stayed in private to consummate the marriage. After an appropriate amount of time, the bride and groom made their public appearance as man and wife. A wedding banquet was given in their honor. There the bridegroom proudly showed off his beautiful bride. Clifford had it right. The weddings were not about the bride back then. They were about the bridegroom.

Paul repeatedly compared the relationship of the Church to Christ with a bride and her bridegroom (husband and wife). He didn’t make that up. Jesus Himself made that analogy several times. He called Himself the bridegroom in Matthew 9:15. He told a parable later on during His ministry of ten virgins waiting for the bridegroom to appear in Matthew 25. The bridegroom was taking a long time to come. All of the virgins got drowsy and eventually fell asleep. Finally, at midnight, the bridegroom came knocking at the door. You can imagine the flurry of activity inside the house when the newly awakened women realized it was the moment of truth. Some had come prepared for a night arrival and had oil in their lamps. Some did not. The latter were left behind, running out to find a merchant at that ungodly hour who could give them what they needed. The wise and prepared women, however, were free to follow their bridegroom to the marriage feast. When the foolish, unprepared women finally showed up, the door was shut to them. It was too late.

Jesus told this story during the Olivet Discourse, which was a message He preached telling about His future return. He warned the disciples that the precise time was unknown to all but the Father. It would be easy to become complacent and lose sight of the day that would change everything. “But be sure of this,” He warned His disciples, “that if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. For this reason you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will.”

We, as the Church, are in our earthly home awaiting the long-desired arrival of our Bridegroom. The arrangements have already been made with our Father-- the Bridegroom paid the price to make us His. After completing that earthly mission, He went home to His Father’s house to make preparations for His bride’s arrival to her new home. He promised the disciples, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.” (John 14:3) Someday, with great joy, we will hear His voice as He arrives to take us home as His bride.

So how do we get ready? Many commentators see the oil in the bridegroom parable as representative of the Holy Spirit and His work in salvation. While some might profess to be Christians, the ones who are really saved will have the Holy Spirit living within them. He comes and dwells within us at the point of time when we understand and believe that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was made to pay for our sin. We were helpless to make amends, because even the best of our efforts are tainted with sin. So the Sinless One paid the ultimate price and gave up His own life, buying our freedom. When that is a reality for us, when we understand our own helplessness and His sufficiency, and we place our trust in that truth, we are saved. The Holy Spirit indwells in us from that moment on, as a seal and guarantee that someday we will go home with the bridegroom as his beloved.

Of course, even though we can be assured of our promised wedding, the bride still wants to make herself beautiful for the Big Day. So we yield ourselves to the Spirit living in us. We cultivate attitudes and actions that reflect our status as the bride of Christ. These “beauty treatments” serve to make us display the kind of beauty that is valued by the Bridegroom. And on that glorious day, our hearts will pound with excitement and joy when we hear the voice of our Bridegroom calling us home.