Alright, maybe not that long. Anyway, my ministry pals have been gently encouraging me to keep this blog up to date, so I’m going to try again. It will be relevant stuff, biblical, short, and as life allows. So here we go…
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A Golden Disclosure
“Jed Harris, producer of Our Town and other plays, became convinced he was losing his hearing. He went to a specialist, who gave him a thorough checkup. The doctor pulled out a gold watch and asked, ‘Can you hear this ticking?’ Harris said, ‘Of course.’ The specialist walked to the door and held up the watch again. ‘Now can you hear it?’ Harris concentrated and said, ‘Yes, I can hear it clearly.’ The doctor walked out the door into the next room and said, ‘Can you hear it now?’ Harris said, ‘Yes.’ The doctor said, ‘Mr. Harris, there is nothing wrong with your hearing. You just don’t listen.’”1
If that seems a little funny, it’s because it’s such a common condition. As with all the rest of us, the problem is usually not with hearing, but listening–the deep, considerate exercise alluded to in 1 Corinthians 14:29 (where it is called judging, discerning, etc.). Without this kind of focus, we miss game-changing pieces of revelation–something that might have become spiritual food for us in years to come, or even a word of rescue. Elihu was the source of such a word. The man literally disclosed to Job God’s operational principle upon mankind. It would have gone a long way toward making sense of Job’s sufferings. However, this disclosure was embedded amidst other words, and we don’t know if Job was listening anymore at that point. If he wasn’t, he missed pure gold.
Worth the Price of Admission
The disclosure of how God works in our lives is worth the price of admission. The details of His work are different from person to person, but the overarching principles are the same. Once you learn them, you can begin to recognize them even if the names and circumstances are all changed.
First, God speaks. He does so even as we swear in frustration that He doesn’t. In fact, He does in multiple ways (33:14). But we generate a constant level of ambient noise through excuses, evasion, and dismissals that actually silence those words. That is why “man does not perceive it.” Our refusal to listen might mean it is all over right there. God would be fully justified in saying, “I’m done with you; you beg incessantly for answers that you don’t want and direction that you won’t take.” He could do that, but He doesn’t. Instead, He tries to open the ear of the heart (33:16).
If Lines Are Out…
If communication continues to be out, God does not stop. He simply starts speaking another language–that of suffering. You might claim confusion with His former attempts, but this dialect is understood by all. The message–”the rebuke”–is pain (33:19). Ignore words all you want, but you won’t be ignoring this one. You will pay it a premium of attention. Sometimes even if you’re listening well, situations come along that teach in a way that words never could.
What’s the Urgency?
What’s with all this divine urgency? For sure God doesn’t speak in order to generate pleasant religious background noise. His words are calculated to save us from “the pit” and “the sword” (v. 18, 24, 28, 30)–dangers that threaten our spirit, soul, and body in various ways. Things that we are tending toward because of dumb decisions, foolish neglect, and bad attitudes. Yet there is more at stake than preventing ill-effects. God’s kind work restores us to a vigor that we did not previously have (33:25). It stimulates a celebratory joy (33:26-27) and enlightenment (33:28-30) unknown to us before He went to work in our lives. None of His work leaves us the same way as He found us. None of His children are poorer after encountering His hand.
Elihu’s disclosure is often overlooked as life goes upside down, but without the principles contained in it, we would all be both stuck and doomed.
The famous hymn “Just as I am” highlights a wonderful truth: that we can come to Christ just as we are. A further truth is that God will not leave us the way He found us. We all must eventually expect change. As we view spiritual maturity through the lens of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we consider the life of Jacob. Jacob represents natural strength, that is, talents, intellect, and force of personality without God. The work of God related to him then, is to make the godless spiritual.
Struggling from Birth
No life presents us with a better picture of transformation than that of Jacob. He was always struggling to get ahead, even from birth. As he was being born, he reached out and grabbed the heel of his twin brother’s foot. That one innocent little reflex was a sign portending his stormy future. For Jacob’s life was characterized by struggles and anxieties of every sort as he tried to forge a life of success without God.
Struggles with People and with God
A quick survey of Jacob’s life will reveal a career of manipulation and negotiation. Though he sometimes managed to prevail and get his way, he also spent a lot of time reaping the ferocious side effects of that kind of life. The trail of disillusioned, angry people he left in his wake provided the most toxic forms of drama. Yet Jacob always escaped. It took no less than a personal encounter with God to change him–a wrestling match with a “divine Man” (c.f. Gen. 32:24, 30) that lasted all night. At some defining moment, the Man touched Jacob’s thigh (often said to be the strongest muscle in the human body). This one move threw Jacob’s hip out of joint, reminding him that God has more power in his finger than we can muster in our whole body. The wound led to no less than a change of name (from Jacob to Israel), deeply signifying a change of identity. Nowhere was this change more evident than the limp Jacob always bore after the encounter, a sign of one who had wrestled with God.
The End Product
When we flash forward to Jacob’s deathbed, we see the final fruit of his remarkable transformation. It is here that he no longer covets blessing, but freely blesses everyone else–first Pharaoh of Egypt (Gen. 47:7), and then the twelve tribes of Israel (Gen. 49:1-28). At this point the man’s word carries so much spiritual weight that whatever he pronounces upon his sons becomes an absolute and enduring legacy. It is the apex of Jacob’s life and a testimony of the relentless transforming work of God.
Meanwhile, In the Present…
When the New Testament speaks of us today, it says, “We all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18). What is going on in your life at any given time? Transformation. Don’t mistake interpersonal conflicts as bad luck. Don’t think sufferings are pointless. There is a measure of godless energy in us all and God will never allow it to go untouched. The glorious result is well worth the trouble. As He works in our lives, God’s environmental arrangement and personal encounters with us do not merely give us things, but make us into something–the blessed image of the Son of God and a blessing upon the lives of others.
Verses (New King James Version)
Gen 32:24 Then Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day.
25 Now when He saw that He did not prevail against him, He touched the socket of his hip; and the socket of Jacob’s hip was out of joint as He wrestled with him.
26 And He said, “Let Me go, for the day breaks.” But he said, “I will not let You go unless You bless me!”
27 So He said to him, “What is your name?” He said, “Jacob.”
28 And He said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
29 Then Jacob asked, saying, “Tell me Your name, I pray.” And He said, “Why is it that you ask about My name?” And He blessed him there.
30 So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”
31 Just as he crossed over Peniel the sun rose on him, and he limped on his hip.
2Cr 3:18 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.
May is spiritual maturity month in our church. That means we’re going to eliminate all the wild guesses about what God is trying to accomplish in the typical Christian life. Instead, we’ll be working with certainties. No one needs a crystal ball to do this. Spiritual growth principles are surprisingly universal from one believer to another.
One God, Three Lives
For the sake of a picturesque and vivid study of these principles, we’re going to start from the Old Testament, where God identifies Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Ex. 3:6). The title is quite telling, especially when we consider the particular men whom He chose to identify Himself with. Each of those ancient lives tell a story of how God worked in them. Together all three form a composite picture of divine work in total. With Abraham, God mightily operates to teach the lessons of faith. In Isaac’s life He demonstrates inheritance and resting grace. In Jacob’s life He displays the divine work of transformation. Hence, referring to “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” is virtually the same as saying, “the God who calls a person into faith, establishes him in grace, and works to change him from within.” Actually, this threefold operation is the typical work of God in every typical believer in Christ.
Abraham as Object Lesson
First of all, take Abraham. Paul says in Romans 4:12, we “walk in the same steps of the faith which our father Abraham had.” His individual experience contains, at least in principle, the faith template for us all.
The First Step–Getting Out
As an initial step, God told Abraham to “Get out of your country and from your family and from your father’s house” (Gen. 12:1). So, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out” (Heb. 11:9). Where the Christian is concerned, this has everything to do with departing our past Christless life and its entrapments. The largest part of our fallen human nature truly thinks that there is something juicy back there in our darkened past. Only a growing measure of faith can move on, believing that better things lie ahead in God’s plan.
Another Step–Believing More than You Can See
God also told Abraham, “I will bless you…and you shall be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2), yet, Abraham dwelt not in a palace, but a tent (Heb. 11:9). His humble estate reminds us that there is often tension between faith and what we see. God must train us all to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7).
A Further Step–It’s Not About Your Strength
At another key point, God promised Abraham a child, although the man was nearly 100 years old. Romans 4:19 says to Abraham’s credit that “He did not consider his own body.” That’s an extremely important lesson to learn–how not to spoil the joy of God’s promises by looking at what you can or can’t do.
Finishing the Walk–All for God
Eventually, the pinnacle of Abrahamic faith rolled around–the final exam, so to speak. God told him to sacrifice his son. In this case, Abraham wasn’t asked to sacrifice beer or R-rated movies. He was commanded to place a good, God-given blessing on the altar. And he did it. The knife was falling on Isaac when God halted the whole thing. Thus Abraham’s willingness to give all was the seal on a lifetime of learning. Ours will be no less dramatic.
A Friendly Reminder
These are the steps of the faith Abraham had. Rest assured that whatever is going on in your life has to do with learning to walk in those steps. God is, after all, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Verses (New King James Version)
Rom. 4:12 [Abraham], the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.
Gen 12:1 Now the LORD had said to Abram: “Get out of your country, From your family And from your father’s house, To a land that I will show you.
2 I will make you a great nation; I will bless you And make your name great; And you shall be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Heb. 11:9 By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as [in] a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise;
Rom. 4:19 And not being weak in faith, he did not consider his own body, already dead (since he was about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah’s womb.
I finally broke down and visited the newest, biggest, slickest Giant Eagle of them all–so big that they have to call it a “Market District’ rather than a grocery store. I felt obliged since it’s right down the street from me. There were people from all over Greater Columbus in
there–no more just the local crowd that used to frequent the former, puny Giant Eagle. The parking lot was packed even though it was 7 p.m. on a Tuesday night and already days past the grand opening.
The place was alive with buzz. There were pricey, exotic food products that one in five hundred people might be looking for, like air-dried sides of beef in a special glass locker and brussel sprouts still on the stem. Little booths and kiosks made caramel apples while you waited, or grilled steak or cooked pizzas.
At first glance everything was so…perfect. Even more importantly, it conformed to the American expectation of big. I must confess that I was entertained. Wowed. But after ten minutes or so, my sense of awe subsided. Some of the lettuce in the salad bar was brown. The humus sitting in the tubs looked dry from having sat there all day. And the fried foods–I would have chosen Rooster’s or Cane’s any day over what I saw there. I had been so impressed with the ingenuity of an in-house cafe that I hadn’t noticed how much it resembled the public school lunch room I had eaten in as a kid–trays, tables, etc.
All of this, yet people swarmed the place. What was it? Maybe it was the marketing magic of something big and new that made people overlook the obvious, which was, “Dude, you’re having dinner out at a grocery store!” or, “Congratulations, you just went a hundred dollars over budget, buying stuff like canned blue crab meat and chocolate-drizzled toffee in designer bags.” Maybe folks were drawn because of the allure of finding everything they could ever need under one roof.
All I really needed, though, was a couple of small things, normal necessities that seemed lost amid the store’s obsession with size and eclectic items. I almost didn’t find them. We did get a pizza that night, but not from the in-store guy who was preparing something that looked like flattened hats with melted cheese on top. We went a few miles down the street to a tiny shop where I knew it tasted good–and was cheap.
The whole experience reminded me that as the pastor of a small church plant, I shouldn’t covet big stuff too much. Otherwise I might be tempted to pour on a bunch of artificial growth stimulants and get a Market District church, complete with tubs of institutional religion. My church might grow and mutate into some kind of uber-religious mall, where celebrity Christians, life skills classes, and ski-trip missions predominate, while Jesus and His bareknuckle truth occupy an obscure shelf on aisle 37. In speaking of the church in Jerusalem, James told Paul, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews who have believed and they are all are zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20). That large church had become a place known for its enthusiasm over the religious culture of the day, and not much for the grace of the carpenter-become-Lord of the universe, Jesus of Nazareth. That’s a shame, because He is what makes the church the church.
So that was my education for the night, courtesy of Giant Eagle. I’m not saying I won’t go back. There’s no telling when I might need banana roots or hot lobster bisque. Who knows? I might get seized with a desire to eat in the lunch room there. So, Giant Eagle itself is immaterial. My bottom line takeaway is I want my church to grow. But I want our chief product front and center.
Dave Gibson, Religion editor for Politics Daily, reported the other day that conservative Christians might shift from combating gay marriage to fighting a foe that is more common–divorce among Christian straights. I think he’s on to something. Sins of the backyard variety are especially embarrassing. There’s a list of behaviors the New Testament brands as sin that not only have been ignored by Christians today, but are treated as typical, and in some cases normal. Ever heard of Matthew 5:32–prohibition related to divorce except on the grounds of adultery? Ever read Hebrews 13:4 that deals with fornication–sex outside of wedlock? How about looking at a woman to lust in Matthew 5:28, a standard that nails the entire pornographic industry and its consumers? And yet these have all been minimized, for no other apparent reason than that they’re popular. Leaders in the church have been divorced and remarried and some not on biblical grounds. Virginity until marriage is as scarce in some church circles as Wooly Mammoths. And pornography is epidemic, especially among young males. Preach on these passages and see how long you last. Everybody seems to have a way out–special circumstances to the point that the verses in question really don’t apply to anybody. But taken at face value, they are challenging. They say that we’ve sinned or that we’re currently sinning. Now what will we do? Rather than confess our sins like in 1 John 1:9, here’s how we often deal with the whole uncomfortable mess–go back to the verses themselves and try to explain them differently than a direct fair reading would have us understand them. Put a stretch interpretation on them. Spend ten minutes parsing Greek words and giving historical context that make the verses say the opposite of what they say. But if you’re pulling those monkeyshines, then you’re not explaining the Bible, you’re explaining it away. Gay apologists try to do the same things when they re-read the Bible’s prohibitions of homosexuality. It seems that we’re all involved in the same self-deception. What Shakespeare said is probably true: “Few love to hear the sins they love to act.” Personally, I’m tempted to prefer hearing the ones that others act, too. Those dirty rotten scoundrels. They deserve the wrath of God.
And as for me? Well, you see, I’ve got a special situation…
The question keeps emerging on how Christians ought to engage Islam. Within American churches, there’s a cauldron of emotion that has churned together freedom of speech, remembrance of 9/11, freedom of religion, righteous indignation, and disgust for Islam, a world religion that often expresses itself in acts of violence. The product is an inseparable blend of issues. How do you handle all of it? Let’s set aside for a minute how America ought to deal with it as a nation and just try to ask the question from a purely spiritual perspective, free of politics or military. One Florida pastor has an idea: burn the Koran. That might sound radical, but I suspect that the man is a lightning rod for a lot of frustrated Christians who don’t know what else to do.
The problem is that the proposed burning (which has been suspended as of this writing), is a token action. Token actions never deal with substance. In fact, they are a favorite of Islamic fervor. Check out how many times you’ve seen American flags or mannequins burned on television by Muslim mobs. Productive outcome for their religion: zero. We might want to learn from that. (more…)
I’m not usually interested in posting anything political, so I’m not going to. But where faith intersects Capitol Hill and teaching moments arise, obviously this blog will have something to say. At issue: what religion is Obama? There are a couple of reasons for the confusion among Americans over this subject.
1. We have bad information and are going on hearsay. It is possible. Ever have someone circulate a rumor about you? A damnable piece of gossip takes twenty-two men with fire hoses to put it out.
2. We hate the person so badly that we can’t see straight. That is possible as well. Obama has fierce detractors who can’t stand his skin or his politics. So they’re willing to believe anything about him. I’m wondering when someone’s going to start saying he’s responsible for the sinking of the Titanic.
3. This third possibility is my talking point: if someone is confused about what you are, is that necessarily their fault? Could it be that you are sending mixed signals? I thought this over last night, as the NBC nightly news reported that 18% of Americans wrongly believe the President to be a Muslim. I wondered what I would personally learn if I discovered that almost twenty percent of the people in the fringes of my life thought I was a Muslim. Should they be lambasted for their stupidity or should I sit down and think over what kind of testimony I have?
Yeh, I know. We didn’t elect a preacher. We elected a President. Who wants someone wearing their religion around on their sleeve? Well, maybe it shouldn’t be on the sleeve, but at least somewhere.
Let me ask you to consider, just as I considered for myself: do people know what you are? And have you given them a good reason to come to that conclusion?
I promise you this, at the end of this age in the Judgment, every professing Christian will suddenly want to be known as a full-out disciple of Jesus. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). Doesn’t sound like something you’d want to leave vague, does it?
I really don’t want to eulogize my pet but I’m going to push the envelope here and post one more realization about Rowan’s passing.
I typically go about my day enjoying and basically taking for granted everyone whom I love–my wife and daughter, siblings, parents, etc. And then Rowan. Rowan, you see, was just a cat. I paid her special attention every now and then, singing silly songs to her (yeah, I know that’s weird), but for the most part she was just part of the backdrop, the “furniture” of my life. Then she was gone.
I’ll never forget the first time I called her name and there was no response, no back-call from her. I stood there at the door calling for a pet who, unbeknownst to me was laying on the front curb, dead. Her name just seemed to go out and land in nothingness. (more…)
When we first got Rowan, it was clear that she was a different kind of cat. I even invented a new taxonomy for her–”Upper Arlington Streaked Coat Toy Panther.” She continued being a kitten past her official kitten-hood, digging in people’s purses and taking bites out of unguarded sandwiches. Rowan was also the most affectionate cat we ever had and our favorite pet ever, counting childhood. That made it all the harder to find her dead early one morning, stretched out on the grass where a motorist had laid her. She had only lived a few years.
Rowan had a habit of living free and breaking the rules. That meant not being very afraid of the vacuum cleaner or the lawn mower. Yes, it also meant taking chances with cars. Sometimes she would run in front of them, relying on her little cat speed to cheat death, if only by a few inches. It was just a matter of time before her luck ran out. (more…)