Wednesday, February 18, 2009

He's at the Helm

The world can be a frightening place for a child. My husband and I both remember the days of nuclear bomb drills at school, cowering under desks with hands over our heads. (I'm still not sure how effective that tactic would have been in the event of an actual nuclear attack!) We lecture our children thoroughly on the dangers of strangers. We brief them on escape plans for our homes should fire strike. Since 9/11, most families have emergency plans to find each other should something catastrophic happen. Even the environment is a threat. As young as in elementary school, children are taught about global warming with its resulting climate catastrophes just around the corner. Even though this is all preparation for what may never come, it can give a child the impression that things are spinning out of control.

Sometimes reading biblical prophecy can be just as scary. There is much in the future still to be played out, according to scripture. And much of that future reads more like an R-rated movie than a happily ever after fairy tale. The judgment of God will come someday on a world which has turned its back in rebellion against Him.Why does God spend so much time warning about His coming judgment? Why the chapters and chapters of prophecy about something we may never experience in our lifetime? Foremost, of course, God is concerned for our salvation. He does not want any to perish (1 Peter 3:9). Knowing what eventually lies ahead for this world is excellent motivation to reach out to God.

There is another purpose served by the writings of prophecy. When we read the plans of God, we are left with a lasting conviction: God controls the destiny of the world. Everything is going according to plan. He demonstrates this by letting us know there is a plan (and it all works out in the end!) We see all the prophecy about the first coming carefully fulfilled in Jesus Christ. What is still in our future will be painstakingly orchestrated as well. We can live our lives in optimism and hope because we live for a powerful God who holds the future in His hands. So on days when I am discouraged, feel hopeless, or wonder if the news could get worse, I count on God's promise: "In this world you have tribulation, but take courage: I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a story of a ship and its occupants moving perilously close to the rocks in a violent sea. The ship's passengers huddled together on the deck below, in terror that their lives were at an end. One brave man volunteered to go above deck to seek out the captain to ascertain the situation. With great difficulty, he made his way to the pilot house. There he found the captain, chained to his post, hands confidently on the wheel. Seeing the passenger's terror, the captain gave him a reassuring smile. The man gave his fellow passengers his hopeful news when he returned to those huddled below. "All is well. All is well. I saw the pilot's face and he smiled."

I had a similar experience once on a bumpy flight to Hartford. I sat in the same row as a uniformed pilot who had caught our flight to get to his next assignment. While turbulence usually makes me nervous, this time I watched him. If he suddenly hunched over into a crash position, I would know it was time to panic. However, while he calmly slipped his coffee and read his magazine, I knew all was well.

I believe this is the reason we are allowed a glimpse into the future. In the midst of seeming uncertainty and conflict, we as people of God can rest secure in the knowledge that He has it all in hand. Nothing happens that surprises God. Beyond the conflict and agony of this life, we have the hope of certain victory in Christ. The story is already written.

This post is the latest article from my email newsletter, Dogwood Digest. You can subscribe to this weekly devotional by clicking on the link on the right hand side of this page. Thanks!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Steadily Burning Light

When my husband and I were dating, we often took advantage of the many free things to do in nearby Washington, D.C. One night he brought me to the Lincoln Memorial, which is impressive during the daylight hours but truly awesome by night. After seeing the statue and writings of Lincoln, we stood on the steps and admired the view of the Washington Monument and Capitol Building reflected in the long rectangular pool below. Steve then took me around the back of the monument and pointed out the dark hillside which was Arlington National Cemetery, located just past the Memorial Bridge. We could see a light flickering on the hill in the distance very clearly. I asked Steve what it was, and he told me it was the eternal flame at President Kennedy's graveside.

The next day we walked through that cemetery and came to the site of the eternal flame. To my surprise, the light we had seen from a mile or so away was just a small gas flame about eight inches high. That small light could be seen from a great distance when it was surrounded by darkness.

We live around people who are living in darkness. God has called us to be light. "Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven," Jesus told His disciples. I'm sometimes tempted to believe that the opportunity to shine comes only in the infrequent great moments, like when I have a chance to share the gospel with someone or speak before a large crowd of women. Yet a light that flares only briefly in the darkness then flickers out quickly is much less useful than the kind of light that burns with a steady glow.

We are to be light in every moment of our lives. Paul wrote the Colossians: "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men...It is the Lord Christ you are serving." Our testimony's effectiveness to the world around us is determined by each small decision we make, each word we speak, and each attitude we hold.

We can have a huge impact on neighbors and friends by simply being faithful in what God has given us to do, and by being content in where God has us. People will quickly spot peace in our attitudes and joy in our hearts. For those living with an unquenchable thirst, our lives will look like a cool refreshing glass of water. They will begin to think: I want to be content in my life. Why are they different? I want what they have. Our very lifestyle will make them thirsty for the Living Water we can offer them.

J. Gregory Mantle, a preacher who lived in the late 1800's in England and America, once wrote: "It is far harder to live for Christ moment by moment than it is to die once for Him; and if we wait for great occasions in which to display our fidelity, we shall find that our life has slipped away, and with it the opportunities that each hour has brought of proving our love to the Lord, by being faithful in that which is least."

We don't have to be Billy Graham to be used to inspire others to seek God. Just by being faithful to what God has called us to do, whether it is driving a truck, teaching school, or mothering small children, God can use our determination to serve to glorify him. And you can be sure our faithful obedience to him will be seen and noticed by others still living in darkness.

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Friday, February 6, 2009

From Caterpillar to Butterfly

In the fall that I was a student teacher in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a kindergartner carefully brought a monarch chrysalis to school. He had found it attached to a milkweed plant in a field by one of the seaside marshes that dotted the coastline. His teacher put it into an aquarium, and over the next few days, the class excitedly observed the changes that were visible within the semi-opaque cocoon. All eyes were on the chrysalis as time moved on, waiting for the special moment when a beautiful butterfly emerged from its cocoon.

One Monday morning, as we all converged on the coffee machine, the kindergarten teacher shook her head in disgust. "It hatched over the weekend," she sighed. "The kids are going to be so disappointed."

While in this case a bit uncooperative, the life cycle of the monarch butterfly is a science lesson most elementary school teachers have taught sometime in their career. The insect begins as an egg, laid on a milkweed plant, which hatches into the larva stage (what we call a caterpillar). This little guy goes on an eating rampage, chewing through every milkweed leaf he can find. After a few weeks of this, he forms a cocoon around himself, a bright green hard shell dotted with markings that look like pure gold. This chrysalis hangs from a milkweed for several days while astounding changes occur within its walls. Finally, the metamorphosis is complete, and a beautiful Monarch butterfly emerges.

Paul uses that same word, metamorphosis, to portray what is happening to us as believers. He describes this ongoing process in Romans 12:2. "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. . ."

Paul puts the idea of transformation in contrast to the idea of conformity. The world claims to offer individuality, touting its value for the independence and rights of the individual. But in reality, following the world is a walk away from freedom. Trying to remain conformed to the world after becoming a child of God is like putting clean, fresh water into a dirty, contaminated container. Instead, Paul urges, leave the world behind. Something miraculous and astounding has happened to you. You are a new creation. Don't go back to your old habits and ways of thinking. It doesn't make sense in light of your new identity.

Paul then offers an alternative. Be transformed. The verb is in the present, passive tense. It would be more accurately translated keep on being transformed. It is God who is doing the transformation within us. This is an ongoing, continual, and lifelong process. The Greek metamorphosis conveys the idea of a radical reversal in our thinking, our values, and in our methods in expressing these things.

Transformation can require a complete destruction of what was in order to build what will now be. A home on our street, owned by a reclusive old lady, was showing serious signs of neglect and ruin when we first moved into our home a few doors down. Raccoons had invaded the attic and for many years had made themselves at home. The construction company that eventually bought the home told us the wild animals had nested there, chewing electrical wiring and staining the interior walls of the upstairs floor with their urine and feces. In order to make the home habitable again, the builders completely gutted the home. The whole house's interior was stripped down to studs. Only then could it be rebuilt into a beautiful new home, with new wiring, drywall, and flooring.

Sometimes our transformation involves demolition in our lives as well. This can be a painful process. But it is a necessity to make room for the ultimately superior new. Where sin once dwelt will eventually be inhabited by godliness. Foolishness will be blasted away to make room for wisdom. A life made helpless by out of control desires will be transformed to allow the peaceful control of the Spirit. The process may not always be pleasant, but the outcome outshines any temporary discomfort that may be necessary.

In contrast to the conformity demanded by the world, this transformation takes place within the parameters of the individual person God created us to be. He carefully crafted us with specific gifts, strengths, and weaknesses. Following Christ does not require becoming a "Stepford" Christian. The opposite is actually true. The verses immediately after Romans 12:2 are focused on the individuality of the church body's members in terms of exercising the spiritual gifts we were given. Metamorphosis is not the process of being squeezed into a mold. Rather, transformation only makes us a new and improved version of what we were when He saved us.

Each of the stages in a monarch butterfly's life is a movement toward the final mature phase. God has the same purpose in our transformation. He is interested in making us "perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (James 1:4). Out with the old. In with the new. It is a process which may at times be distressing. Yet the final results are worth it all.