No Labels!

 Someone said in conversation this week that they consider me a “liberal” Christian, which I suspect means I practice “Christianity Lite.” This amused me. My husband is convinced I’m a natural conservative!

Actually, I’m neither. I listen to the pulpit. I think, ponder, pray, debate and study the Scriptures to see if those things are true.

So how’d I get a liberal label?

Maybe because I resist the idea that everything in the Christian faith is black and white. Obviously, the essentials of the faith are unambiguous and non-negotiable. But there also are things that are less clear cut. Not “gray” areas but things requiring wisdom and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit as to life application.

Or maybe because I’m a vocal critic of the nonsensical behavior of self-proclaimed conservative Christians:

  • Randomly cold-calling strangers at their front doors with the three spiritual laws
  • Standing outside “women’s health clinics” with bullhorns and poster-sized pictures of shredded babies shouting that abortion is murder
  • Arguing with queer theory people about whether sexual identity is fixed. (Note: Please don’t take me to task for referring to homosexuals as “queer.” My college-age insider assures me the LGBQT community now embraces the term as a means of self-identification.)

I’ve seen people do these things, and I’m pretty sure it brought no glory to Christ.

Christianity lived well, it seems to me, is not a matter of leaning left or right but of holding love and truth in a balanced tension. This is accomplished only by walking in the Spirit, something every believer is instructed to do.

We struggle because living this way requires reliance on God rather than hard-fast rules for human interaction.

I will admit that, over time, I have become more liberal in extending grace. Not because I have become soft on sin, but because I have learned this:

There is a wrong way to be right.

Nothing in Scripture instructs Christians to categorize ourselves as liberal or conservative. We are told:  “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith.” (2 Corinthian 13:5a)

THE faith is historic Christianity; not the modern-day version that is speculating about whether Jesus married and had children or rewriting gender references in hymns and Bible versions or redefining the nature of man as “basically good.”

Historic Christianity is the faith first delivered to the apostles and affirmed in the Christian creeds. A sampling:

One God, the Father, Creator and maker of the heavens and earth. Man a sinner in need of a savior whose name is Jesus, the Christ, Son of God and Son of Man. Foretold by the prophets, born of a virgin, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead and buried; descended into hell, rose bodily on the third day, ascended into heaven and seated at the right hand of God to one day return to planet Earth to judge “the quick and the dead.”

It’s possible to give mental assent to all that and still be a hard, graceless person. It’s equally possible to be a kumbaya personality dedicated to the social gospel while conveniently forgetting that our citizenship is in heaven and we await a savior from there.

The Jesus of Scripture is neither. He eats and drinks with sinners. He visits their homes and welcomes tax collectors, zealots, prostitutes, Roman soldiers, the blind, and the lame – basically, all the undesirables — into his company. His message is frank, powerful and uncompromising. Yet, He is loving, compassionate and forgiving.

He heals people who don’t even know His name. He pardons the guilty. He’s upfront about the price to be paid for following Him. If people choose to walk away, He lets them go. There’s no coercion.

I don’t know anybody else like that.

Jesus doesn’t do liberal or conservative. He came to save every kind of sinner, from the inside-out. Jesus only had issues with Pharisees, the religious conservatives of His day, who didn’t think they needed saving. Their beautiful labels spoke of life, but Jesus said they were whitewashed tombs filled with dead men’s bones.

Labels can be misleading. Intel had it right. It’s what’s inside!

 

How grows your garden?

Begonia

This is a tale of one plant in two seasons.

The wax begonia pictured above is proof that we can’t always look at a thing and tell if it’s viable: whether it will live or die, grow or shrink, strengthen or weaken.  Some things require purposeful work and the patient passage of time before you know how it will turn out.

A year ago, my begonia was looking pretty much like you see it now. It thrived spring to fall, putting out some killer blooms. It was so lovely that I decided it should winter over in my South-facing family room. It did great for a while, purposefully placed on a stand before a wall of triple-hung, nearly floor-to-ceiling windows.

Ah, but what a difference a few weeks can make. Little by little, that plant began to whither despite the sunlight, the water and tender care. I cut back the dead blooms that were dropping all over the floor. I trimmed the dying stalks. It kept dying. I finally had enough. In a fit of frustration, I took that begonia out to the deck, determined to dump it over the side.

What had I been thinking? Better to stop wasting time with this miserable specimen. Time to let it go, buy another one come Spring. I was about the hurl it into oblivion when I hesitated. I had so loved the little plant when it was beautiful; and hadn’t my neighbor successfully kept her geraniums alive through a winter? Maybe I’d give the begonia another chance.

I proceeded to hack that plant back to a few simple stalks that looked like bent fingers, not a leaf remained and there were no blooms whatsoever. I removed the naked plant from its pot, gently, but firmly displacing most of the soil, which I discarded. I repotted in fresh, fertile soil. The plant looked pitiful, but I was hopeful. I watered it well, let it drain and placed it back in its old spot before the window.

In the weeks that followed the begonia grew a few scrawny sprigs, but nothing to brag about. Those slender stems grew fatter in time and stretched out. Leaves sprouted and fanned out. When spring temperatures finally arrived, I put the plant on the deck, where it promptly wilted and nearly died again. The intense direct sunlight was not what it needed.

I remembered that its original resting place had been the front stoop, covered and providing only partial sun. Day by day, that plant perked up. What you see before you is that same, formerly dead and dying potted plant that I nearly tossed with a cry of “good riddance.”

Our lives can be a lot like that begonia’s life cycle.

We start out in full bloom. In time, we can begin to deflower, drop leaves, dry up and become a thing worthy of the trash heap. And yet God, who Scripture compares to a gardener, keeps working with us, ever committed to cultivating our growth through all life’s seasons.

Like any good gardener, God works at bringing out the best in us. He expects results, but He isn’t in a hurry. He prunes back the life-sucking dead weight. He moves us from a spot that we may consider ideal – a job we love, a relationship we started — because He knows the light isn’t right in that place. He gives us a firm shake now and then, like the North wind blowing leaves off the oak trees in my backyard, forcing us to cast off the dirt we cling to and that clings to us.

All that God is really asking of us is that we do what my little begonia did: Submit to the work of His hands. Through the painful pruning, shaking and changing, to just abide and do what a healthy plant does naturally: bloom, bear fruit.

This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15:8)

 

Love: Show More Than Tell

There’s nothing like death to give you a fresh perspective on life. And I’m recently returned from a funeral.

Everyone there seemed to know the departed in slightly different ways and even by slightly different names. Some called him by his last name, Bellamy. Others used a nickname, Billy. To me, he was Uncle Monroe, his given name and the one my mother always used.

To some, he was a co-worker. To others, a friend, a fellow church member or a relative. Some knew him on the nightshift in work clothes. Others recognized him in dapper duds at formal dinners. He’d lived for decades in an urban metropolis but his roots were rural and he never forgot.

He was a fixture in my life. My mother’s last sibling and slightly younger brother born on Christmas Eve, he was tall and well-dressed whether in plain clothes or Sunday go-to-meeting suits. Mustachioed and smelling of Aramis cologne, he’d suddenly appear in our driveway for a visit, fresh off the road from his home in Atlanta slightly more than 100 miles away.

He always drove a truck, stick shift until the knee began to bother him, with a camper top and cooler in the back full of drinks. The truck changed by the years, but the greeting was always the same, “Hey, baby!”

My uncle never talked much about himself to me. I knew his son graciously shared him with the nieces. I vaguely knew that he’d served in the Armed Forces, worked at the post office. He was a Baptist when everyone else in the family went to African Methodist Episcopal Church. He didn’t push church. When I worked in Atlanta, he invited me just once that I remember: to hear a singer with a voice fit for the Met who had grown up in the congregation.

At the funeral, I got the full resume. He’d served in the Navy. He was married to the same woman for 68 years. He worked for the post office, 36 years. He was an honorable “Deacon Emeritus” who had mentored several deacons who would mature to become chairmen of the board. He himself had devoted many years to bereavement ministry.

The details of my uncle’s life were long a mystery but his consistent, unmistakable love for me was very clear. I sat at his funeral remembering how he drove his truck from Atlanta to Raleigh nearly 30 years ago to give me away at my wedding. It would have been much easier to buy a plane ticket. The drive was a gesture of love, again. Mom needed a ride, and they enjoyed each other’s company.

I know that I’m partial, but my Uncle really was something special. Most of us Christians are the Titus 1:16 variety: we claim to know God but our actions deny him. We talk too much and live too little. We don’t cultivate real relationships. We’re plastic, chameleons who are so busy doing “church” that we’ve forgotten we are Christ’s ambassadors.

My friend, God is love. God so loved the world that He gave us His Son at great sacrifice for our good.

I know my uncle loved God, because he loved me all my life.

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35

Forget Fault

 Once upon a time, a family bought a wonderfully clean car for a steal-of-a-deal and considered themselves fortunate to have gotten so lucky… until the car had a catastrophic coolant failure at a traffic light resulting in a repair bill that cost more than the car’s Blue Book value.

These Christian folk had a choice to make: to accept the situation with grace as a “Life Happens” moment while trusting God for the next step or to do what most of us do when something goes wrong: find someone to blame.

The reasoning goes something like this: If something is wrong, it has to be someone’s fault. What we actually mean is,  someone else’s fault.

This family had several blame options. They could have blamed the guy who sold them the car, the driver for failing to check the hood, the mechanic for not pointing out a potential defect, themselves for being gullible consumers or God for not preventing the whole thing.

Needing to assign blame before we can move on is a failure to grapple with an uncomfortable truth. Sometimes things really do “just happen,” at least from a human perspective. There is no “fault.”

In the case of that family car, the cause of the problem appeared to be metal fatigue. A metal part suddenly failed.

It’s the rare person who can simply accept something like that and move toward a solution without bitterness, ranker and causing a helluva stink. In corporate-speak, such stinks are known as “venting,” translated as having a fit just to make yourself feel as though you’ve done something. Nothing good ever comes of it, of course, which brings me to the next point.

From a Christian viewpoint even when we can find the smoking gun, what does it really matter? Being able to point to someone and say “whodunit” may make a nice wrap for an Agatha Christie Poirot mystery,” but it doesn’t fix problems, heal relationships or promote spiritual growth.

Maybe the question isn’t  who is to blame but “What can I learn from this?” God always wants us to “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  (2 Peter 3:18)  And He uses all of life to accomplish this end.

Our persistence in placing blame is really pointless. (It hasn’t done anything constructive for me.) We’re all guilty of being human. We are faulty creatures who make mistakes, despite our best intentions. When things go wrong, as they sometimes do, my challenge is to take it personally, to see it as opportunity to press into God a little closer, to listen more intently for His voice, to become more God-focused and less self-reliant.

Ultimately, we Christians are called to put our trust in God, not in our circumstances whether they be good or bad. Life really does happen in unpredictable ways, and we can make ourselves crazy by demanding to know the why.

As time goes by, I am learning to leave the mysteries of life in the hands of a faithful, all-wise God, believing that through life’s struggles He is “working in me both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” (Phil 2:13)

Got Gifts? Thank the Giver.

Ever stop to think that everything you have is a gift?

I have. Each of my children was born into the world naked, screaming, filling their little lungs with free air. They are a gift to me, not something I crafted with my own hands and certainly not something my doctors created.

They never expected me to have children. Yet, I have them, each one born in a hospital birthing room with those amazed doctors attending.

After the Apgar scores, they were washed, diapered, heads topped with little knit caps and their little bodies tightly bundled in those pink-and-blue striped blankets that made them look like little sausages.

From the beginning, everything my children have had has been a gift:

Blankets, onesies and toys and all that would come later: a multitude of meals, museum visits, picnics, voice and ballet lessons, T-ball, soccer, basketball and countless uniforms, haircuts and hairdos, truckloads of clothes, birthday parties with armloads of gifts, braces, vacations, plane tickets, medical care, hospital stays (only a few, for which we are thankful) and camp and college fees. Our continual presence, protection, provision.

All of it a gift.

No strings. No price. Just: Because we love you, we are freely giving you what you need and some of what you want. Enjoy the gift.

This is actually my story and yours, too.

Think of it. We are naturally selfish, greedy, all-about-me creatures. We like to take credit for our successes, blabbering about pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps and being self-made men and women.

Nonsense. We’d all be nothing if Someone hadn’t been generous with us.

The apostle Paul wrote:

“For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive. And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (I Cor 4:7)

 

  • Smart? Have a mind for high level math… facility with languages… musically gifted? You had nothing to do with that. Some gifts are hard-wired. You might have been born with a deficit of some kind, a learning disorder.

 

  • Beautiful? Be thankful instead of vain. You could just as easily bare an unsightly deformity. Though society elevates the “beautiful,” being unattractive doesn’t diminish one’s worth. Believe it or not, God actually takes responsibility for the less than perfect people among us. (Exodus 4:11)

 

  • Born to wealth? So what? You didn’t earn it. None of us choose our parents. You could have as easily been born into Third World poverty.

The older I get, the more I am aware that we make too much of ourselves. We so easily forget from whence we came, or what might have been, and to whom we owe a great debt.

Our pastor recently ended an eloquent sermon about the life of Noah with a point that has stayed with me: No matter where we go, no matter what we achieve, no matter who we become, we ought never to forget God.

God alone is the author of Life. It is He who made and formed us. (Deu 32:6) And it is God who makes possible every good thing we enjoy: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father…” (James 1:17)

Enjoy the good gifts of life, but don’t get twisted about their source. I didn’t do it and neither did you. God did.

What God Wants

 

Been thinking about some situations in which I find myself. Let’s call them relational difficulties that never seem to quite resolve themselves. Perennial problems that present me with immediate issues that must be faced and deep wells for future contemplation.

Most people have no problem articulating what they want. When I want something different, it’s easy to tell them where they’re wrong. In the midst of these tangled discourses, we seldom stop to ask: “What does God want?”

 

Does He want me to go along to get along, to keep the peace at any cost? If questioning is viewed as contrary, do I not ask questions that ought to be asked just so the other person isn’t made to feel uncomfortable?

It can be easy to say nothing. It’s possible to bully another person into silence. But can there be any real relationship if people can’t openly talk to each other about the hard stuff? If there is repeated disagreement over the same, unavoidable stuff maybe there needs to be a deeper conversation. Maybe a counselor would help.

Sadly, many of us avoid biblical counseling out of pride and self-sufficiency: “I don’t need that!” We’re quick to make a dental appointment if we have an unrelenting toothache. But we’ll suffer for years in a broken relationship refusing to seek help. Doesn’t a painful relationship warrant as much attention as an aching tooth?

It is possible to please – or placate – another human being. They get what they want – agreement, silence, control, whatever – but you are left to answer to God for a violation of conscience, for failing to do what you knew to be right simply because you were pressed by another human being. Have you ever been in that place: where someone is repeatedly behaving in a way or asking you to do something that is clearly wrong to you, but they won’t listen or they insist that your lack of cooperation is un-Christian? You want to talk but they keep saying you want to fight because you disagree?

In relational conflict between Christian believers, disagreements don’t usually involve black-and-white matters about which the Bible is clear. The issues tend to be more nuanced, where you have to apply biblical principle while taking into account our human tendency to do what is comfortable and to avoid dealing with our “stuff.” We are good at justifying ourselves; at conveniently excusing our personal issues while magnifying the other guys’ struggles.

So what does God require of His followers, of those of us who are learning to walk with Him in a world soaked in sin?

Micah 6:8 sums it up very simply:

 

He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the LORD require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?

 

Justice. Mercy. Humility.

God wants me to do the just thing. Not the expedient thing or the selfish thing. Show mercy. Where would we Christians be if God gave each of us what we deserve? Mercy is not deserved; I’m guilty, but mercy gives probation instead of jail time. Even though I committed a capital crime mercy commutes the death sentence to life imprisonment. Pride and self-assertion is our natural, carnal state. It always leads to a fall. The devil’s own rebellion began with a declaration of “I will…” God asks me to lay pride aside and to humble myself.

Being in relationship with people, Christian or not, tests my willingness to do what God requires. I struggle with it.

Doing justly may mean denying myself. I love mercy for me, but not necessarily for someone who hurts me. Once upon a time, before I really cared much about what God required, I went three years without speaking to a relative who wounded me deeply. I wanted them to feel my pain. God wasn’t in that, but I thought it was right. Humility doesn’t come easy, but it is rewarded. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. And I need a lot of grace.

If you struggle in relationships as I do, join me in refocusing on what God requires. People will pull us in many directions. We all need to keep our eyes on Jesus. His word to every believer is the same one He gave to the early disciples who entered into relationship with Him: “Follow me.”

 

 

Honor Where It’s Due

   My son asked me the other day why someone we know routinely mispronounces the word “sword,” opening with the sound of the Nike symbol “swish.” The guy has an earned PhD and still doesn’t know that the “w” in sword is silent?

My guess is he learned to say “sword” as a child by repeating the way someone close to him said it, maybe a parent or grandparent. As a full-grown, well-educated man that pronunciation has stuck with him as part of his family fabric. His wife, who also holds a doctorate, is probably the only one close enough to him to correct him. She probably won’t, out of love and respect for him.

Then I told my son a story from my own childhood.

When I was growing up my Mom would come home from the beauty shop or grocery store and mention that she saw someone we knew, only she didn’t use the word “saw.” Typically, she’d say “I seed” so-and-so. As long as I can remember this was Mom’s way of expressing the past tense of “see.”

Mom was an intelligent and resourceful lady with beautiful handwriting and a love of newspapers, magazines and Paul Harvey. She’d left the South before graduating high school to go north for better opportunities and returned years later to work long hours in a textile mill.

In spite of all that (or maybe because of it), Mom valued and encouraged education. To her credit, all the girls who grew up in her home graduated from college and went on to earn advanced degrees. We never scrubbed toilets, did laundry or kept house for anyone but ourselves.

I’ll tell you something else we never did. We never corrected her when she said she “seed” someone.

I learned the English language well enough to earn a living as a writer, but I knew better than to tell my Mom how to speak. Some things are sacrosanct. My relationship with my Mom was one of them. What I am today, I owe in large part to the foundation she laid. Out of respect, I understood that it was not my place to correct her.

My place was to honor her. Not because she was perfect. Not because she was always right. She was neither of these things, but she was my mother. The position alone afforded her a respect that was inviolate.

 

The Bible says (and yes, I still believe the Bible is right):

 

“Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise—so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” Ephesians 6:2-3

 

To honor someone is to recognize their value. We may have many friends, many mentors. Parents stand alone. We ought to appreciate them, to hold them in high regard.

Do I even need to say that biblical honor is all but dead?

Children routinely return from college to shove their “enlightenment” in their parents’ faces, rejecting and ridiculing everything their parents’ hold dear and everything they were taught to respect. The children feel smug in being liberated from their parents’ so-called ignorance and antiquated ways.

These “smart” young people are ignorant of a truth I learned early in my marriage: To honor your parents is to bless yourself.

I learned this after my husband took me to task for my being rude and disdainful toward my father. I justified my behavior by rehearsing how he was biologically my father, but never had assumed a father’s role in my daily life. So what did I owe him? My husband bluntly reminded me that wasn’t the point.

As a Christian, out of love and respect for God, he said, I had an obligation to honor my father for the position he held in my life. He was my father, period. Simple, but very hard to accept. I understood that my mother should be respected. She’d raised me. My father never had been a real father to me but was my “father” nevertheless. God’s clear command was to honor him for that alone. I could not escape that.

A lifetime’s bad habit is not easily broken. But I repented; and I worked at it .

Before my father died of lung cancer, less than a decade ago, I had the privilege of spending the better part of day with him at his home in the Bronx. We poured over pictures from his youth, his service photos, and neighborhood snapshots. I listened to his stories. It was awkward, but worth the effort. When he died, I had far fewer regrets than I might have.

Honor belongs to parents, but the blessing goes to children: “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”

As we approach Mother’s Day on May 11 and Father’s Day in June, consider that parents have a short shelf life. Both mine are gone. Honor yours while you can, even if they haven’t been what you might have hoped. Without them, there would be no “you.”

In an age of easy abortion, that your parents gave you life is blessing enough. If they loved and cherished you, were real parents despite their frailties, you are blessed indeed!

Lies We Believe

  On the eve of Resurrection Sunday, the climactic triumph of Holy week, I am not feeling particularly holy. It has been a rough week, and I feel my need of a Savior. That’s probably a good thing.

 

People who are in good health need no physician, but the sick do. And we are sincerely grateful when we are made whole. Easter is that kind of celebration. The dead rising, the spiritually sick recovering their health!

It’s fair to say that the person who tells me I am well, when I am sick unto death, does not love me. To pat me on the head and tell me everything will be all right, when I need emergency surgery, is to do me no favors.

We all should be glad for people who love us enough to tell us the truth, even when it cuts like a knife. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” (Proverbs 27:6a)   Our tendency is to prefer lies that encourage us to follow our own path. Below are three lies we believe to our own destruction.

  • It’s enough to go to church: Some of us will be at church tomorrow for the first time since Christmas. It’s good to go to church and to hear sound Bible teaching. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:17)

But what real difference does church attendance make in our daily lives outside the pew: the choices we make, the company we keep?

There’s a danger in hearing God’s word again and again and refusing to obey it. The danger is that we develop callous hearts that cannot hear the truth; our consciences become “seared with a hot iron.” (I Tim 4:2). Think of scar tissue, so thick that it’s impermeable.

God holds us accountable for what we know. Hebrews talks about those who have experienced the good things of God “and who then turn away from God. It is impossible to bring such people back to repentance; by rejecting the Son of God, they themselves are nailing him to the cross once again and holding him up to public shame.” (Heb 6:6)

  • Jesus is always with us: This sounds sweet and biblical, but it’s not quite true. God is omnipresent, technically everywhere at once. But God “with us” implies more than His simply being in the neighborhood; God with me involves His personal care-taking, protection, provision, intervention.

In that sense, the question isn’t whether God is with me but whether I am with Him. The distinction is an important one. Christ is called “Emmanuel, God with us.” (Matt 1:23) Who is “us”? God’s own people.

God is particular about who He “hangs” with. He is not everyone’s homey.

When Joseph was in prison through no fault of his own, Scripture repeatedly says “the Lord was with him.” (Genesis 39) God was not with everyone in that Egyptian jail. God was with Mary and Joseph at Jesus’ birth. He clearly was not with Herod or the populace at large. God was not with Judas, Pilate, the High Priest or anyone who condemned Jesus to death on the cross.

Then, and now, God is with those who are with Him.

Study the Old Testament battles Moses and Joshua encountered. God did not go with them to battle when there was unrepentant sin in the camp. Even when they greatly outnumbered their enemies, they were forced to turn and run because God did not fight for them. God is not “with us” when we are in sin. He calls us to repent, to come out of sin, to enjoy His fellowship and blessing.

  • I can always get back to the place of blessing: Maybe not. When Esau sold his birth right for a meal, he didn’t think much of it. The sacredness of the blessing meant nothing to him… then. When he later sought to regain what he had so thoughtlessly tossed aside to satisfy a fleshly appetite, he couldn’t get back to that blessed place.

Esau didn’t foresee the ramifications of his careless choice. Yet Scripture records it as character-defining, describing Esau as a “fornicator or profane person.”

“For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears.” Heb 12:17

Take no comfort in lies. The devil is the father of lies (John 8:44) and uses them to destroy us. Christians serve a God of Truth. Our embrace of truth is a barometer of our spiritual health.

Happily Ever After?

“This better work into a happily ever after.  I’ve put a lot of work into this son of a bitch.”

Now that’s some statement on which to build a life.

I overheard it while working out the other night. Two twenty-something girls were chatting obliviously beside me as I pounded the treadmill. The black-headed one was eager to share with the blonde the details of a lusty encounter with Mr. Right, who apparently was living with someone else.

She explained that he was “so sweet.”  He’d said how much he cared, how he’d been thinking about her all day. He  was not sleeping with this other female; they weren’t intimate, he insisted. He said it was “complicated.” He needed time. She believed him.

“He is such a nice guy” they agreed. He wouldn’t lie. Miss Black Head said she trusted him, and she was willing to wait.

While she apparently was willing to wait for Mr. Right to move out, move in, marry her or whatever, she hadn’t been willing to wait on the sex.

In an eager whisper, she described to Miss Blonde on the treadmill beside me how she’d ripped off her clothes in a moment of abandon and the two had gone at it. When he called later and “emotionally vomited” all over her, she’d thought: “You gotta be kidding. It was just sex.”

She wondered aloud: maybe she should have waited at least another day for them to get together? Clearly, he had  not been ready.

Miss Blonde, the confidant, was sympathetic. Ponytail swinging as she picked up the pace, she acknowledged that “the only thing that’s  kept me is my religion.”

Miss Black Head giggled at that, congratulating her friend on her self-control and adding that she had none.  “I just go for it!”

Pausing briefly, she motioned toward a boy across the room. “Isn’t he cute?! He has a nice butt.”

I did not make this up. Actually happened within ear shot,  actually within reach-out-and-touch distance of me,  a complete stranger.

No shame. No worries. No morals.

It made me sad. These women are nobody’s marriage material. Clueless pawns of culture, they probably consider themselves liberated feminists, free to have sex with whomever they choose, “just like men.”  Naive and nauseating.

Marriage and family were God’s idea, but few people have any regard for marriage’s sacredness any more. Girls routinely “hook up” and still don a white dress on their wedding day, a fashion statement rather than a symbol of any purity. Increasingly, marriage is shunned altogether in favor of cohabitation. The Spring 2014  issue of Duke magazine quotes sociology professor Christina Gibson-Davis as saying:

The emergence of cohabitation as an acceptable context for childbearing has changed the family-formation landscape. Individuals still value the idea of a two-parent family but no longer consider it necessary for the parents to be married.

I soon will have been married 27 years and can testify that marriage is tough even with God in the mix. No self-control, no sensitivity to the emotional consequences of intimacy or concern for the other person beyond getting your own needs met is not a recipe for a happy marriage.

Without God, these young women may get a man to the altar, but they will never have a real marriage no matter how hard they work at it.

“Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” Psalm 127:1

Kiss Ishmael Goodbye!

I’m kissing Ishmael goodbye.

You know Ishmael. You probably have one yourself.

Ishmael is my attempt to get what I want on my schedule because I’m not willing to wait for God to act. Practically speaking, Ishmael is a manifestation of my own self-will, impatience and unbelief. Ishmael is me saying, “Okay, God. Since you won’t, I will.”

Historically, of course, Ishmael is Abraham and Sarah’s solution to a problem created by God. The Book of Genesis introduces this childless couple, past the age of childbearing, with no heir in a culture where male offspring meant something. God, of His own volition, promised Abraham a son. Independent of anything Abraham would do, God said here is what I will do.

But God did not say when. And waiting is always the hardest part.

As years passed, in the minds of Abraham and Sarah, time was running out. They began to write their own script.

Scene 1: Sarah gives Abe her handmaid Hagar; who gets pregnant and gets an attitude. Sarah gets offended, takes her hurt out on Hagar, who runs away. Fast forward, Hagar returns, gives birth to Ishmael. Abraham has a son!  And so begins the resulting family drama.

Scene 2: Eventually, Sarah does become pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. Now Abraham, age 100, has two sons. Ishmael: the son of Abraham and Sarah’s presumption. Isaac: the son of God promised. Abraham is on cloud nine, but not for long. Their improvised solution now presents an unavoidable problem. Ishmael and Isaac cannot coexist, no matter what the bumper sticker says.

Abraham’s story is my story, our story.

In our early years, life stretches before us, a blank canvas. As years pass, we don’t always like the scene we’ve painted; our hopes and dreams aren’t realized. We wrote The Great American novel, twice, and no one will publish it. We married Prince Charming and are now living with Homer Simpson. We got an MBA and still got passed over for promotion.  The prodigal we’ve prayed for is at home in the Far Country with no plans to move.

Ishmaels are conceived at this intersection of disappointment and disillusionment:

  • a cross country move for a “dream job” that uproots the family and almost destroys a marriage
  •  an ill-timed and under-financed business venture;
  • divorce and/or marriage to a trophy spouse or newly discovered “soul mate”
  • etc., etc., etc.

Ever birthed any Ishmaels? I have. Unwilling to wait, I’ve struck out on my own. When God finally did what He said He would do – as He always does – I couldn’t enjoy His blessing the way I might have if I’d waited. Ishmael complicates things. Ishmael, as Abraham’s history reveals, is a complication for my children and their children for generations to come. That’s why he has to go.

It’s not easy to send him packing. Ishmael is my baby, a part of me. Abraham invested 14 years in Ishmael, pouring himself into that relationship, before Isaac came along. But that didn’t change God’s perspective. Ishmael was Abraham’s idea, not God’s.  And God will not abandon His plan to sanctify the result of my carnality. He won’t kill Ishmael either. I have to deal with the monster I created.

God gives us the choice. Ishmael or Isaac? Your plan or mine; what’s it going to be?

I’m kissing Ishmael goodbye.

When the tears dry and the dust settles, I expect to find what Joshua found after the battles beyond the Jordan. God will have kept His  promise, in His time.

“Not a word failed of any good thing which the LORD had spoken to the house of Israel. All came to pass.” Joshua 21:45

The Great Car Debate

My teen-aged son is desperate to have his own car now that he’s a worker bee. Realistically, we parents expect him to put up his own money. He doesn’t see why we can’t “just buy” him a car.

It’s pretty simple to us. Nothing in life is free. Nobody “just bought” us cars. I got my first car courtesy of an enlisted brother-in-law whose friend was deploying to Germany and couldn’t take it with him. I got a big-engine, leather interior Cutlass Supreme with power everything for a couple hundred dollars. The rear windshield leaked. My husband got his first car, an oil-burning Vega, for a few hundred as well.

Being almost free meant, these cars weren’t expected to be in mint condition. We were happy just to be riding. Our son considers our first cars clunkers. His friends, after all, drive the coveted Mustang, BMW or Lexus or lowly but new Hondas. And so we’ve been inundated with an email stream of acceptable luxury models: Volvo 850s, SAABs, Acura. On the advice of our trusted mechanic we’ve steered clear of these high mileage potential nightmares.

Our latest suggestion – an affordable, American-made, one-owner only driven to church on Sundays by a little old lady (not exactly but close!) – has been rejected as not “stylish.”

The “Great Car Debate” continues, reminding me of something I heard a preacher say: “It is possible to be madly in love with someone you should never marry.”

Men fall in love with cars as well as women. And it’s a good thing to avoid “marrying” a lemon no matter how lovely. Automotive lemons can be detailed to look pristine even after floating through a New Orleans flood or surviving a frame-bending wreck. CarMax showrooms like to display these beautiful wrecks – the kind they pledge not to sell – and to reveal their cleverly disguised flaws.

While there are lemon laws for cars, when it comes to women, there is no legal protection for unwise choices. Whether it’s women or cars, we hope to teach our son that it’s wise to consider the end from the beginning. So what if he can swing a car payment or buy the car outright? What matters is whether he can maintain it over time: pay the insurance, make the repairs.

The Bible says, “Count the cost.” (Luke 14:28)

Just as a car’s value is under the hood, a person’s true value is revealed in character. Like a rust bucket polished into showroom brilliance, people show well when we want to make an impression. Time tells the real story. Keep a car through a few oil changes and its quirks begin to show: the leaks, the squeaks, the controls that are a little wacko. In time, people reveal their true colors, too.

The message to our son: Avoid “buyers’ remorse.” It’s what happens when we’re sold on the sparkle, the new smell and the performance. We drive home and the reality of 48, 60 or even 72 months of payments sets in. We can’t believe we bought it! Can we take it back?

This doesn’t just happen to young boys. I heard a middle-aged caller to a financial radio program confess to being mesmerized by a new car she purchased in a whirl of emotion. She later realized that she works two full weeks of every month to make the payment and barely is able to cover other bills. She was looking for a way out.

The way out, of course, is to do what she obligated herself to do: pay the price. Here’s hoping we can convince our son to first, count the cost.

God Wants You to Live

  • A pregnant mother is brutally murdered in her suburban home, teeth fragments scattered around her room, blood puddling so that her toddler, left unharmed by the assailant, tracks crimson footprints through the house. The convicted killer: her husband.
  • A woman is shot dead in her employer’s parking lot by the father of her children in the midst of a protracted custody battle that ends as a murder-suicide. Their children: orphaned. 
  • A young man is stabbed to death in his own apartment. Police arrest his live-in partner amid rumors of domestic abuse.

These are not random plot lines from an episode of CSI or, my personal favorite, The Closer.

These are real life tragedies involving flesh-and-blood people whose names and faces I knew. Not characters in a Hollywood drama. These were neighbors, fellow church members, co-workers.

No one ever expects to actually know somebody whose life ends in homicide. But what used to be the stuff of screenplays or page-turning novels has become the scenario of everyday life.

Relationships matter.

The people with whom we choose to enter into intimate relationship can alter the course of our lives for good or ill. The right relationships with the right people can be a blessing, life-giving. The wrong relationships with the wrong people in the wrong circumstances can be deadly.

How do we know which people can be trusted? We don’t. Ultimately, those who have a relationship with God, must choose to trust God. Through Jeremiah, the prophet, God said this:

“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?” He added: “I, the Lord, search the heart…” 

Whatever else may be a mystery to you about God, know this:

Now, be honest. Do you see yourself or someone you know living a plot line with the potential to end badly – in bruises, body bags, morgues?

Resolve to do something: To get help, To get out.

No one has to die. You can walk away. You can start over. God makes all things new.

* Are you in Wake County, NC and need safety, support, aware in a domestic violence situation?  Interact offers a 24-hour crisis line: 866-291-0855 Toll-Free or visit http://www.interactofwake.org/

No magic: You can face Tomorrowland

2013-12-28 17.58.55 It’s Day No. 1 of a new year, and I am getting back to reality after a holiday sojourn at the Magic Kingdom. It was great fun, but truth is it wasn’t magic. I got tired walking through the crowds, irritated at standing in long lines and hungry for food with unbelievable price tags.

Disney runs on money – and the labor of a gazillion hired hands – not magic. And like those hirelings, I will be back at work in the morning to earn what I need to fund my everyday life. New year, but same old responsibilities.

I’ll be facing the same kitchen frig that needs filling, meals that need cooking and laundry that needs wash/dry/fold. I’ll return to the same work environment with the same personalities, to the same church drama,to the same school carpool schedule and to the same unending PTSA appeals to “write a check for… .”

There is nothing magical about getting back into the work/life groove after a summer- in-winter vacation filled with sleeping in and ordering off the menu. For me, this is where the message of Christmas gets real: Emmanuel, God with us.

Not God floating around in space somewhere. Not God waiting for me to die and be received on high. No, the Christian God, the Christ of Christmas, is God right here, right now in real time.

God with me in the I-40 traffic when some nut cuts me off and gives me the finger. God with me when the “Check Engine” randomly pops on after I’ve already dropped a few hundred with the mechanic. God with me when I arrive home exhausted and wondering what I can possibly make for dinner in the hour I have before soccer practice. God with me when people are talking to me a mile a minute and I’m already on system overload.

What I love about Christmas is that its real “magic,” if you will, doesn’t end when the ornaments are packed, the lights are unplugged and the tree is tossed. The power of Christmas is having Christ with me, in me, enabling me to deal with everyday stuff. My pre-holiday frustrations and troubles are unchanged. But so is my God. He is unmoved by the calendar.

Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever.

So as we head back to the office in the morning, let’s remember that God is with us right in the frustrating, irritating thick of everyday things. Because He lives, we can face tomorrow.

Happy New Year!

Looking for life in dead things?

 

Vultures.

Wherever there is something dead you’ll find these carrion-eating carnivores feasting on putrid flesh.

I was running the other day and noticed the wide wings of a group of these scavengers circling overhead. The closer I got to their position, the more I wondered just what what had caught their interest. Eventually, my run took me past two squirrels flattened to the pavement dead ahead – no pun intended!

The vultures, flying high above the trees, had spotted those poor creatures and apparently were planning when to swoop in and enjoy the road kill.

By the time I passed that spot a few minutes later on the return run, two of those dead-eyed, bald-headed birds had made their descent and were chomping away at each of the departed squirrels. As I approached, I tried to calculate how long it would take them to abandon their dinner and take to the skies. Neither seemed to be in any hurry. I was close enough for them to hear my foot fall. Neither looked up.

The one closest to me waited until I could have hit him squarely in the head with a rock before he finally took flight. The other, however, kept right on eating until I was beside him. Even then, he refused to leave the ground, reluctantly flying almost directly into me as I passed and settling a few feet away on the side of the road, keeping a wary eye on the meal.

No sooner had I passed than this nasty bird went right back to eating, head down in a mass of bloody tissue.

Vultures love dead things. That is just their nature. They feed on it. They have internal radar, it seems, to help them find a constant supply of the next dead meal.

Ever known people like that? People who are attracted to dead things? I don’t mean corpses necessarily. I’m talking about people who seem to be captivated by things that have no life in them?

  •  People who are serially attracted to dead people – same type with a different name – only to find that this relationship, too, is lifeless.
  • People who keep doing the same dead things expecting them to one day produce life: looking for love in dead zones – bars, raves, blind dates – hoping to find a life-giving soul mate.
  • People who fill their minds with death-soaked music, books, movies and art and wonder why they are depressed and suicidal.

People are not meant to find sustenance in dead things. In fact, God wants us to put distance between ourselves and dead people and things. The Old Testament, for example, commands God’s people to separate themselves from dead things lest they be made “unclean.”

When the disciples made their way to the tomb where Jesus’ dead body had been laid, they were met by angels who asked them a question:

 “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” It’s a question still worth asking.

Jesus came that we might have life. So why do we keep trying to suck life out of spiritual carrion?

Looking for life? The Psalmist said you’ll find it by seeking the Lord. And you will lack no good thing.

O taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in Him. Psalm 34:8 (KJV)

Give Thanks

It’s early the morning hours of Thanksgiving. The last pie is baked and all the side dishes refrigerated. I’ve just turned out the lights and climbed the stairs, thinking how truly gracious and trustworthy God has shown Himself to be since another Thanksgiving a decade ago in this same place.

Just before Thanksgiving 2003, my husband came home early and announced that he had been “selected” to be part of a resource action. If you are unfamiliar with this bit of corporate speak, it has nothing to do with winning the lottery. My husband had been chosen for layoff after 15 years of award-winning service.

The family breadwinner had lost his job. Happy holidays!

This was about the scariest news I could have imagined. I’d been a stay home Mom for a decade. I did freelance jobs from time to time. But it was a hobby, nothing like the career I’d left behind to parent my own children. (This wasn’t exactly an heroic decision on my part. I couldn’t afford daycare; and could never get comfortable with the idea of giving strangers that much face-time with my offspring.)

After my husband shared his news and handed me a thick severance package filled with legalese, I still remember the frightful possibilities that jumped into my mind like a leapfrog: foreclosure, tax liens, homelessness, possibly facing a health crisis with no health insurance, having to make a long distance move to a job far away from aging parents. There were other questions: How would our marriage weather the stress? Would our family survive this?

That was just the major stuff. Later, myriad small worries crowded my mind, like which “nice but not necessary” things would have to go: my daughter’s ballet classes, the lawn service or maybe the garbage service?

Somewhere in there I was reminded that we were believers in Christ. And this crisis was an opportunity to see if my Christianity was real or just for show. Was I going to believe God or not? Could I count on Him when everything familiar moved? Did I really trust Him like that?

Ten years later, I am thankful that by God’s grace, we weathered the storm. We still live in the same house where I got that terrible news just before Thanksgiving so long ago. I’m still married to the same man. He still works in the same industry. Those children whom I worried might be homeless have spent the intervening years sleeping in their same beds, driving to see their grandparents in the same city. Our health is good; our minds are peaceful.

God has proven Himself faithful.

When we sit around our home and talk about Christianity and why we trust Christ for time and eternity, as we sometimes do, I honestly tell my children that I know God is real because we have history together.

I am thankful that, if you walk with God, you will find that He is just who He says He is. And He will do just what He says.

A God like that deserves my undying gratitude, love and obedience.

As our family sits down to dinner this afternoon and passes the acorn to share what we are thankful for, join us in following the instruction of Psalm 100:4

 Enter His gates with thanksgiving; 

go into His courts with praise.

Give thanks to Him and praise His name.

Are you sure God’s Not Mad?

God Is Not Mad at You.” That’s the catchy title of the 100th book recently published by Joyce Meyer. It caught my eye while strolling the aisles of Walmart.

My first thought was, “Really?”

Psalm 7:11 says something quite the opposite:

 God is a just judge,

And God is angry with the wicked every day.

So whose report will we believe?

I’m not hating on Joyce Meyer. I’ve listened to her teaching, been to her conferences, bought her tapes. I even own a leather bound signature Amplified Bible translation from back in the day when her ministry was known as “Life in the Word.” (The ministry now broadcasts as “Enjoying Everyday Life.”)

The truth is whether God is angry at you depends on you. Romans 8:1 tells us there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. 1 John 1:9 says if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us. We don’t need to wallow in guilt and shame.

If we happen to be disobedient, unrepentant, and rejecting God, however, the unvarnished truth is that God is angry. The Bible clearly says so.

I know the idea of an angry God is not good marketing strategy. We live in the age of “God is Love,” where even Christians try to make God look good by sometimes shading the truth. An angry God, after all, doesn’t play well to crowds. An angry God is dangerous.

Listen to Jeremiah 15:6 “You have rejected me,” declares the LORD. You keep on backsliding. So I will reach out and destroy you; I am tired of holding back.”

Personally, I think a holy fear of an angry God is a good thing. There was a time when Americans were moved to repentance to know that God was angry at sinners. The great preacher Jonathan Edwards, preached a now famous, unemotional sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” that prompted many to seek salvation.

Today, in our desire not to offend, we sometimes give people a less than accurate impression of God in an attempt to make our message more palatable. Scripture explicitly warns us not to add or subtract from God’s word. Unrepentant sinners are guilty before God and should be ashamed. God hates sin; and He will judge it, if we do not repent. It’s an uncomfortable truth.

The central message of Christianity can be summed up in John 3:16, which simply states that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son to save us. Ephesians goes on to say, “By grace you have been saved…”

Ever ask yourself, just what is it that we Christians are “saved” from?

The Bible answer is that we are saved from “the wrath of God.” The Book of Revelation, in which the long withheld judgment on an unrepentant planet is finally unleashed, makes particular reference to “the winepress of the wrath of God,” and to “bowls full of the wrath of God” being poured out on the disobedient, the unrighteous, the unbelieving.

God is not one-dimensional. He is both a God of Love and a God of Wrath. By definition, wrath is “extreme anger.” It is God’s great love that, for a time, restrains His wrath. “He is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”

We can’t fully appreciate God’s undeserved love toward us until we acknowledge the very real wrath that He will one day justly unleash on those who reject His offer of rescue. Paul, writing to Christians in Colosse, admonished them to “put to death sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.”

When Christ returns to Earth, He is not coming as a meek, suffering servant. He is coming the Second time to “rule with a rod of iron” and to “dash in pieces” the wicked.  

We can escape the wrath of God to come by accepting His gift of love today. John 3:36 says: “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

As Jonathan Edwards said in one last appeal to listeners of his famous sermon, “Therefore let everyone that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come.”

Make the Turn

Ever been driving and suddenly realized you didn’t know where you were?

You thought you were going in the right direction. The music was cranked; you were having fun. Now nothing looks familiar. No landmarks, no streets you know.

It happens…. People get lost.

I’ve had some truly lost moments of my own creation.

  • We were driving to Florida. I put the address into the GPS on what I thought was Florida State Road A1A and we set off to St. Augustine Beach. That road is nearly 330 miles long. I should have entered St. Johns County Road A1A, a roughly 3-mile spur route of SR A1A. My mistake added more than an hour to an already long trip.
  • I drove to dinner in Fayetteville, again blithely relying on the GPS to direct me. It took me to the middle of an apartment building parking lot and announced “You have arrived!” The street address was right, sort of. Someone had built the apartment building in the middle of the street, cutting off access from one end to the other.
  • On a soccer trip to Virginia we were trying to get back to our hotel after dinner one night. It seemed like the right way until the lights of the city began to recede, becoming a fading flicker in our rear-view mirror. Clearly, we were driving away from the city, into the darkness.

And these are just “lost” moments that happened while driving.

Thank God that we can never go so far in the wrong direction that we can’t make a correction. All we need to do is turn. My Garmin says: “Make a U-turn, when possible.”

The Bible is equally blunt when it comes to making spiritual turn-a-rounds.

God tells Ezekiel: “Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the Lord GOD, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel? 

Turning begins with admitting we are lost.

Everyone in a car may know they’re lost, but the driver must agree and make a decision to turn the wheel. As we sit in the driver’s seats of our lives, however, we resist making U-turns even when we know we’ve lost our way. And we all have at one time or another.

All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)

Yet, pride keeps us going in the wrong direction. If anyone tries to correct us, we:

  1. Get defensive. How dare anyone question my judgment, my sense of direction, my preferences?
  2. Question motives. Why are they trying to control me? How do they know the way? Even if they are more familiar with the road ahead, things could have changed.
  3. Listen politely. And just go harder in the wrong direction convinced that if we just keep going, it’ll be all right.

It won’t be. Pride leads somewhere, but nowhere you really want to go. 

Honest to God now: are you on a road in life that just doesn’t look or feel like where you ought to be? Accept the advice of someone who has been there: Stop wasting time and making excuses. Swallow your pride. Make the turn. You can still get home before dark.

No Boundaries?

We are not free to do as we please. Boundaries, limits, standard requirements are a reality of everyday life. These are necessary evils for the sake of law, order and public safety.

Before 9-11, I could pick up people arriving at the local airport directly at their gate, embracing them moments after they stepped off the airplane. No more. Security checkpoints keep me at a distance. I’m lucky to be allowed near baggage claim.

When I visited the hospital during a friend’s cancer surgery, I was not free to barge into the operating room for a firsthand look at the procedure. I had to sit in the waiting room until someone emerged to share the outcome. To do otherwise would have meant risking eviction.

I can’t drive any way I want.  On American roads, I’m required to “keep right.” Sure, it’s possible to ignore the road markings, be a non-conformist and drive left of center. It’s also potentially fatal. There are posted speed limits, too. I can drive faster and, regrettably, sometimes do. I don’t recommend it.

Boundaries are not crossed without penalties: tickets, lawyer fees and, occasionally, morgues.

Knowing the consequences of disobedience, most of us respect imposed limits as the rules of the game. So why do we normally law-abiding people live like outlaws before God, rejecting the notion that He has any right to set boundaries for our lives?

The answer, as I see it, is that we have no fear of the Lord. We give grudging respect to civil authorities, which are actually established by God,  and conform as necessary. Biblical authority, on the other hand, has become meaningless – even to so-called Christians.

I had coffee with a young man the other night who is a poster child for this pervasive yet cancerous attitude. He’s a “nice guy,” educated, gainfully employed, decent looking, polite, a church-goer. He also is willfully disobedient to Scripture, by his own admission, and quite probably lost.

This guy dates my daughter.

He considers himself a Christian even though he is not willing to live by biblical truth, an historically contrary notion which he considers a small thing.

With his head, he agrees that the Bible is right, insists that he “respects” God and biblical values. With his heart, however, he refuses to respect the boundaries God has set for Christian living when they conflict with what he wants to do.  Indeed, he rejects the notion that he has any obligation to do so.

The times in which we live are not unlike the book of Judges in which it is said, “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25)

We attend church, crack our Bibles now and then and mouth the occasional prayer. But none of that has any relationship to how we live or make decisions. We know where the boundaries are drawn, but persist in living outside the lines. This has been done before.  Ezekiel 33:31 says: “My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. “

Hearing but not doing is hypocrisy.

“The Lord says: ‘These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.’” (Isaiah 29:13)

As I reminded the young man at coffee, Christians are not free to live as we choose. We live in committed relationship with a holy God who loves us and desires to make us holy.  God has established standards, boundaries, limits for His children. These are for our good. If we love Him, we conform our lives to  His wishes.

I liken the Christian life to a marathon race. I ran the Outer Banks Half-Marathon once. Training required a lot of personal discipline, self-denial, patient endurance. To be competitive, I did things I normally would not choose to do: changed the way I ate, ran at odd and inconvenient times and for longer distances than I ever imagined possible. I did this, not because I liked it, but because my goal was to run well and finish the race.

The race had an established course with a starting line and a finish line. On race day, I was required to run within clearly marked boundaries.  I couldn’t make it up as I went along and veer into the finish line at the end. I would have been disqualified.

Similarly, Christians enter into a relationship with Christ and run the race He sets before us.  Paul encouraged his fellow believers to have the disciplined commitment of soldiers and athletes who respect the boundaries imposed by their office:

“Anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules.” (2 Timothy 2:5)

Beg Your Pardon

When was the last time you apologized?

I don’t mean the last time you choked out an “I’m sorry” after somebody confronted you with what you’d done wrong.

I’m not talking about the last time you “apologized” for something that actually was not your fault just to keep peace with someone you knew would be angry for days if you didn’t take responsibility.

I’m asking when you last sincerely owned up to having been truly wrong without first being confronted with that fact by another human being? In other words, when did you last respond to the Holy Spirit unmistakably showing you your wrong and prompting you to apologize for it?

Last week, last month, last year?

We are all guilty of sometimes saying the wrong thing, or maybe the right thing but in the wrong way, at the wrong time, in the wrong tone.

Most of us know when we’ve done wrong. But we are loathe to actually go to the human being we wronged and own the fact with six simple words: “I am sorry. Please forgive me.”

You’d be surprised how many hurt feelings, broken relationships and lawsuits could be solved with those words.

Our problem, Christians included, is that we are too filled with pride to admit that we have made a mistake. Oh, we will own that “Nobody’s perfect.” We don’t mind admitting that “We all make mistakes.”

But we draw the line at getting specific about the wrong we have done and actually going to the person we hurt, looking them in the eye and saying, “I did this. I was wrong.” In the age of remote communication, we are even too proud to tweet, text or email the equivalent apology.

Instead, we go on just as if nothing happened. We mouth hymns seated beside the person we wronged. We talk about other things over lunch. We don’t apologize. We move on. But the people we hurt do not. They may not say a word, but the wounds we caused are real and lasting.

I am reminded of the Bible’s recounting of Absalom’s concealed hatred of Amnon after he raped their sister Tamar. Amnon never confessed the wrong he’d done. Absalom never forgave him but bided his time to avenge the matter, waiting two full years to have Amnon murdered. 2 Samuel 13

Resentment, bitterness and hatred grow between people when there is  unconfessed sin and a refusal to forgive.

The Bible says, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:16)

Confession brings healing to the soul that has wronged another.  Forgiveness brings healing to the soul that is wronged. Even when a wrongdoer won’t confess and repent, true believers have an obligation before God to forgive them.

The Lord taught us to pray, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” (Luke 11:4a)

Biblical Christianity is not for wimps. Christians suffer many wrongs and cheerfully put up with a lot of crap. We do this out of love for God, entrusting ourselves to him.

“So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” (1 Peter 4:19)

We all wrong people. If you are the wrongdoer, admit it. If you are wronged, forgive. Pride goes before destruction; and life is too short to hold a grudge.

Keep the faith ’til the finish!

Only God knows the end from the beginning. He is, after all, the Alpha and Omega.

We only see what happens in between. Because what we see is not always what it seems, the Bible counsels believers to walk by faith and not by sight.

Imagine Samson’s family traveling to Gaza to retrieve his broken body from the rubble where he’d brought down the house on the Philistine lords. If his mother made the journey, she probably passed the time rehearsing Samson’s life (Judges, chapters 13-16).

No doubt her mind went back to the day she’d learned she’d be a mother.

She and husband Manoah had been childless. She was barren, unable to bear children. Then an angel appeared and announced she’d have a son, a Nazarite: one consecrated or dedicated to, separated for God’s service. He would begin to deliver Israel out of the clutches of the Philistines.

I know the excitement of a moment like that. After six years of marriage, that included fertility treatment, doctors offered little hope that I’d have children. A group of Christian women began to pray for me.

One day, I got the news I’d be having a baby!

In my first trimester, I visited the remaining Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem with my husband. I wrote my hopes, dreams and prayers for that child on a piece of paper, folded it tightly and stuffed it into a small crevice between ancient stones.

In time, I’d have not only a daughter but two sons as well.

Manoah and wife had a son they named Samson. He was blessed by the Lord. The Spirit of God moved him.

When Samson came of age and began to desire a wife, his parents hoped he’d choose a God-fearing Hebrew girl who would help him fulfill God’s purpose for his life. Doesn’t every believing parent want: a helper suitable for their son; a husband who will love their daughter as Christ loves the church?

Samson, however, demanded a “daughter of the Philistines.” His parents protested, but he was adamant. “Get her for me for she pleases me,” he said.

The marriage ended before it really began. Loyal to her unbelieving kinsmen, the woman betrayed Samson by revealing the answer to a riddle he’d proposed (with a wager). Samson had his revenge, but the woman was given to his best man.

Samson didn’t pursue another marriage. He visited a Philistine prostitute and came to “love” a Philistine woman named Delilah. His association with Delilah is what brought his family to Gaza to claim his body.

Delilah was paid to entice Samson and to learn the source of his strength so that he might be captured. She finally wore down Samson’s resolve with her persistent questioning. When he had told her “all his heart,” the Philistine’s fell on him. He didn’t know that the Spirit of God had left him, that he had no supernatural strength to prevail.

The Philistines put out Samson’s eyes and set him to grinding grain in the prison, like an animal. He was brought out to entertain a Philistine “Who’s Who” gathered to praise their god for bringing Samson into their hands.

By this time, Samson’s hair – a symbol of his Nazarite vow – had grown and with it his faith. He prayed, the first prayer Scripture recorded from his lips. God answered that prayer as Samson grabbed the building’s supporting pillars and brought the house down, literally.

The writer of Proverbs asked, “Can a man take fire in his bosom and his clothes not be burned. Can one walk on hot coals, and his feet not be burned.” Proverbs 6:28-29.

Samson was burned. It may have looked to his family like his whole life had been reduced to ashes. He’d died in the enemy’s camp, blind and broken after judging Israel 20 years.

That, however, is not the end of the story.

God is merciful and forgiving… else we’d all be lost.

We are reintroduced to Samson in Hebrews 11:32, where Samson is expressly named as a person of faith.  God never changed his mind about Samson. He was indeed “a Nazarite to God from the womb to the day of his death.”

And somewhere between Delilah’s bed and that last appearance before his enemies, Samson got it together with God. His last act demonstrated what the psalmist wrote, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word.”

As Samson’s family came to Gaza to claim his body and plan a burial, things didn’t look good. All his mother would have had was God’s promise at the beginning of Samson’s life and the knowledge that God is faithful.

If you find yourself somewhere between the promise and its fulfillment — and things just don’t look good — keep the faith. Remember, Jesus is both the author and the finisher of our faith.

Have Anything That’s Fireproof?

We spend years and sometimes a great deal of money accumulating stuff: cars, homes, furniture, clothing, gadgets. And we can make a great fuss about what we “own.”

But what do we really have that can’t be taken away?

Some of us go for antiques, spend our Saturdays wandering small towns and flea markets looking for the odd piece to fill just the right nook. I have a neighbor who is into roosters. House is filled with them, every size and description.

Some of us are blessed with heirlooms: I inherited a carefully folded flag that was presented to my grandmother at the military funeral of her husband, a World War I veteran, in 1963. He died before I reached the age of two so this possession holds great meaning for me. I have a friend whose grandmother’s hand-made Christmas ornaments are a treasure her family enjoys each year. The grandmother wanted her to have them while she could see her enjoy them.

Maybe you inherited an original painting that has hung in your family’s homes for generations. I have two small pictures of flowers in vases that hung in the modest home my grandfather built for my grandmother with its tin roof and pinewood paneling. They are inexpensive prints but priceless to me because they connect me with my family’s past.

We all have irreplaceable family photos. I inherited my mother’s photo albums and those of my childless Aunt Margie, who knitted her way through her daily commute between Bronx and Long Island. These photos were collected over the decades before digital imagery, when picture-taking was rare and people dressed for the occasion and sometimes posed in a studio. There are even a few photos taken by my great Aunt Mary, for whom my mother was named, with the brownie camera that hung ‘round her neck on the Greyhound bus rides South from Pittsburgh.

These thick photo albums are filled with the faces of family, shielded by plastic sheets, living in the far-away lands of Chicago, Detroit, New York. Familiar people and nameless babies, old men, young women and longtime family friends are captured on glossy, square black- and-white photo paper with decorative edges and simple date stamps in black, some dating back to the 1940s.

And, of course, there are my own wedding photos, nearly 26 years old now, and pictures and negatives of my own children as they have grown through grade school, athletic competitions, state fairs, vacations, proms and graduations. Their baby books – they each have one – are filled with a lock of their baby hair, their first ultrasound views, their early footprints and congratulatory cards at their birth.

Then there are the childhood keepsakes: kindergarten drawings, that first wrestling trophy, the high school wood shop piece, the change maker from the first paper route, the winning pinewood derby car, first pair of ballet slippers, the signed high school annuals and trunks full of our own college books and journals that marked our passage to adulthood.

Now imagine all that stuff, those memories, those milestones… going up in flames.

All of it.

Ashes.

Not one solitary piece remaining except in memory.

Gone.

That imaginary moment may be your worst nightmare. But it’s no dream.

This actually happened to my neighbor’s daughter. A fire in the middle of a February night burned their Georgia log cabin home to the ground, even melted the siding on their car.

Everyone – both parents, two kids and a dog, plus some house guests – got out alive.

They have their lives, their love and each other. With that they can rebuild.

Relationships are fireproof because love never ends.

We need stuff: food, shelter, clothes. Extra stuff is useful; it makes life comfortable. It provides continuity and a sense of connection across the generations. But stuff is temporary. It comes and goes.

Better to treasure the people in our lives, and keep stuff in perspective.

“For we brought nothing into [this] world, [and it is] certain we can carry nothing out.” 1 Tim 6:7

Asking the Right Questions?

Voltaire is quoted as having said, “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.”

Jesus asks a lot of questions. Direct, bold questions with seemingly obvious answers. I read them and think: why would He ask that?

  • He asks a man who has been sick 38 years, “Do you want to get well?” Could anyone possibly not want to get well after suffering for that long?
  • A couple of John’s disciples begin to follow Him and Jesus asks, “What do you want?” I thought Jesus wanted people to follow Him. The question sounds almost like a challenge.
  • The disciples are describing how other people characterize Jesus. Then He confronts them with this: “Who do you say that I am?”
  •  Jesus and the disciples are out on a mountainside with a crowd of hungry people. Jesus asks: “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He is the Son of God, and He is asking them?

 Children ask questions the way most people breathe. Naturally curious, they want answers. Adults often ask questions because they want to debate.

Why do you suppose Jesus asks questions? He’s the God of the universe, maker of all things, knows what is in us intimately, our very thoughts and intentions.

And yet, He bothers to ask.

Obviously, Jesus is not trying to learn something. His questions, I think, are meant to teach us something. Could be we have all the right answers to the wrong questions.

Maybe better questions would include:

Do I ‘Want To’?

 In life, we sometimes assume too much. For example, we assume that a sick person wants to get well. Jesus assumes nothing. He asks: Do you want to get well?

Maybe what happened to this guy was directly related to his refusal to stop sinning in some area of his life; (later, you’ll notice that Jesus warns the guy to stop sinning lest something worse happen to him.)  Maybe Jesus was really asking something like, “Do you finally want to get well bad enough to let that thing go?”

It all boiled down to this guy’s willingness to obey God. Jesus said, Pick up your bed and walk. The guy obeyed; and as he was doing it, he found that he could do it.

We whine about what we can’t do, blame other people for our impotence, for being stuck. But what it really comes down to is: Do you want to? When push comes to shove, we can obey God – if we want to.

What Do I Want?

When we come to Jesus, what are really looking for? What do we want from Him? If we are seeking something that is out of character for Him, not in sync with Who He is, we’re going to be disappointed. That’s what always comes with wrong expectation.

In Jesus’s day, people followed Him for many reasons. Some wanted deliverance from Roman rule, a Hebrew king. Others wanted a Healer to bind up their broken bodies and make them well. Still others were just looking for a Magic Chef who would produce a miraculous meal to fill their empty bellies; they never really discerned the supernatural, eternal value of Christ’s message.

We moderns have the same tendency to think materially rather than spiritually, often coming to Jesus with “A Shopping List” that begins with make me wealthy and ends with keep me healthy.

Jesus never promised His followers lives of wealth, health and ease. Instead, He said, “In this world you will have trouble.” (John 16:33) Historically, Jesus’ disciples have been persecuted: fed to lions, sent to prison, into exile, tortured and executed in unimaginable ways, according to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

Jesus didn’t heal all the sick while He lived and the ones He did heal eventually departed this life. Even Lazarus — whom Jesus famously raised from four days dead, buried and stinking — died again.

Obviously, Jesus cares about real pain, need and human suffering. His real mission, however, is dealing with the root cause of all our misery: sin. We sinners who come to Jesus should be looking first for a savior. The very name “Jesus” references His primary role:  “You shall call His name Jesus for He shall save his people from their sins.” (Matt 1:21)

What Do I Say?

In our “Talking Heads” generation, we’re accustomed to cable news and talk radio offering constant comment about what “they” said and what “they” should do. Commentators tell us what people around the world are saying about how every problem can be solved by some anonymous, collective “them.”

When the spotlight is on “them,” I become a mere observer with no personal responsibility for outcomes.

Jesus, however, makes everything personal. He always brings the conversation back to “us.” It’s all very well to talk about what Mom, Dad, my neighbor, my co-worker think about Jesus. But what they say really has nothing to do with me.

Jesus is a personal God who wants me to make a personal decision. What I say about Jesus – believing in my heart and confessing with my mouth — is what counts. (Romans 10:9-10)

Who Do I Rely On?

 In the middle of nowhere with no grocers or food stand for miles, Jesus asks where they are going to get food for a crowd of 5,000. The disciples must have thought, “Good question.”

I am equally sure that Jesus did not expect them to provide a real answer. It was a test. (John 6:6) How would they approach a problem that was so obviously beyond human means to solve?

What most of us do is: a) completely give up because we focus on the impossibility of our situation or b) try to come up with a solution on our own. When neither approach works, we come to Jesus with that original problem and whatever mess we made while trying to solve it.

Jesus wants us looking to Him as our solution source. When we face some beyond-human-ability issue, God is not asking us to solve our own problem. He wants faith in action, our bringing what we have to Him as inadequate as it may be – like five loaves and two fish for feeding 5,000+ — and trusting Him to figure it out.

We are all about answers. Jesus starts with the right questions. Maybe we should follow His lead?

Let’s Eat!

Bread and water are life-sustaining… but only if eaten.

My favorite local bakery is La Farm in Cary, where the smell of French breads and pastries can literally make the mouth water – never mind the soups and sandwiches and fresh-brewed Counter Culture Coffee. This is the kind of place where you have to arrive early if you expect to see, let alone sample, the full day’s selections.

It opens at 7:00 every morning of the week. By 9:30 on Saturday mornings, the stacks of scones, croissants, tarts etc. have severely dwindled and there is nary an empty chair in the house.

(Yes, I know it’s Lent, when people are abstaining from delicacies, but trust me. I am going somewhere with this!)

As much as I enjoy simply being in this place and taking in the aroma, being there is nothing if I don’t have something to eat. The beautiful breads and carefully-crafted pastries are a feast to the eye, but La Farm bakers intend their work to be eaten and enjoyed.

I am happy to oblige. For bread or water to do me any good, I have to take it in. It’s not enough to surround myself with it. Nourishment comes from eating and drinking.

In the book of John, crowds were following Jesus around because he had miraculously fed them. He confronted them about being more concerned about filling their stomachs than about being spiritually nourished. They didn’t get it. They reminded him of the manna from heaven their forefathers ate in the desert.

Jesus replied: “I am the Bread of Life.” Then he explained:

Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.  For my flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed. He who feeds on Me will live because of Me…. He who eats this bread will live forever. (see John 6:53-58 for full text)

They were talking natural bread, a one-time meal that would need repeating to address their continual hunger. Jesus took it to a spiritual, eternal level.

To experience true life that never ends, He said they needed to do something more than just passively stand in the crowd and look, listen and wait for a bread basket to come their way.

Jesus says life is experienced by the one who: Eats, Drinks, Feeds. These are verbs, action words. Seems to me, He essentially is telling a bunch of spiritually starving people:

Look, you are following the only truly life-sustaining Bread there is, but you haven’t been eating. If you want life that does not end, you have to act. You have to take me in. I have to become a part of you. I have to nourish you from within.

The problem with church-people, I think, is that many of us are habitually coming to God’s House of Bread and leaving hungry because we aren’t eating.

We enjoy the aroma from the oven and the sound of living water as the Bible is taught and worship songs are sung. But we aren’t really ingesting Jesus’ words and allowing Him – the Living Word – to transform us from the inside out.

Some of us are just following Jesus for the loaves and the fishes – for the  quick fix to a material and sometimes momentary need — when He wants to fill us up with Himself so that we are never hungry again.

I wouldn’t dream of leaving the local bakery hungry. (I always eat plenty at La Farm and usually take a little something home for later!) Think about that next time you’re in church… and be sure to eat.

 

Who do you love?

It’s not surprising that we should love God.

We breathe His air, bask in His sun and enjoy the life-sustaining water He created. Without these things we would cease to be. We owe Him our very existence.

That God would love me is inconceivable. What is there to love?

People, at our best, are not lovable creatures. Oh, we have our moments to be sure. But most of the time, we have attitudes, dispositions and quirks that make us very unappealing. We are self-centered, unthankful, moody, insatiable, unholy creatures who are drawn to the very things that would destroy us.

The more we have, the more we want, the less we give. Denied something, we willing forsake all else to possess that one thing. As soon as we grasp it, we complain about what we lack in some other realm.

We Westerners whine about what a friend described over dinner as: “First World problems,” things like not having enough clean towels at the gym or the water not being hot enough; being served a restaurant meal that’s not quite what we’d hoped, valet parkers who don’t bring the car ’round precisely when we exit.

Nauseating stuff… when you consider people routinely are going to bed hungry, sleeping outdoors and walking miles for clean water.

In a perfect world, a holy God would have nothing to do with us. He would long ago have wiped clean the planet of any trace of our contaminating presence and started over.

In fact, God told Moses He would do that very thing and start over with him when the people continually complained about the hardships of freedom and insisted on returning to the slavery of sin and Egypt. (Deu 9:14)

But God relented, and here we are.

As we contemplate love in the wake of Valentine’s Day, let’s stop to consider that it is because of self-sacrificing love that we enjoy the blessing of being (John 3:16-17).

Personally, I tire of bearing with other people’s faults and shortcomings.  Yet, God just hangs in there with me and my messes. Love suffers long and is kind. (1 Cor 13:4) I still have much to learn about real love.

Jesus repeatedly asked a repentant Peter one question: “Do you love me?”

Many of us really don’t love God. We ought to.

Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. (Lamentations 3:22)

What Do You Like?

Facebook is one of those places where I occasionally learn very surprising things about people I thought I knew.

A number of my Friends, for example, “Like” Mitt Romney and have declared their intention to support his candidacy for President of the United States in the November election.

This is a rather curious revelation, given that these people are quite fundamental in their Christianity. Romney, you may recall, is a Mormon. And there is some controversy about whether Mormons are Christians at all. 

Generally speaking, I like Mitt Romney, too. He seems like a clean-cut, family guy, John Q. Citizen. He’d probably make a great neighbor.

Yet, it strikes me as incongruous that Bible-believers “Like” a guy whose religion may not even line up with the Bible. Mind you, these are people who have made religious positions a litmus test for determining a candidate’s suitability for office.

That said, let me make a couple of things clear.

  •  I don’t hate Mormons. I’ve had Mormon family members. My children’s Mormon school friends have slept-over at my house and vice versa.
  • I don’t fault Mitt for being a Mormon. We have religious freedom in this country. We are free to practice any religion we choose or no religion at all. That’s the American way.

The real issue is this: For Christians, Christianity is supposed to inform our politics, not the other way around. My Facebook friends seem to have put their “Like” of Romney’s politics ahead of their love of traditional Christian belief, which contradicts core Mormon tenets.

Consider three points of disparity, corroborated by the official site of The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints:

Baptism in the Bible is said to depict our identification with Christ’s atoning sacrifice, signifying our death to sin and resurrection to new life in Christ.

  • Salvation: Can we choose to follow Christ after death? Mormonism teaches that after death and judgment “those who never learned about Christ’s teachings or received his ordinances will have an opportunity to do so.” (see Postmortal life (Afterlife) topic).

The Bible teaches the decision to accept Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice for sin must be made on this side of  the grave. “Now is the day of salvation, now is the accepted time.” (2 Corinthians 6:2) After death, our fate is sealed. “It’s appointed to man once to die and then the judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27)

  •  Marriage: Mormons believe that temple marriage “seals” families for eternity. In contrast, Jesus considered marriage temporal. Confronted with a woman who had married seven husbands, Jesus was asked whose wife she’d be in the resurrection. He said the question revealed error and ignorance of Scripture and God’s power.

For when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven.” 

We Americans are free to support the political candidates of our choice. Christians, however, have dual citizenship and a higher allegiance. Our responsibility, as Christ’s ambassadors, is not to represent ourselves but to “Like” what Jesus likes — even on Facebook.

 

God The Father, not The Bodyguard

 Whenever there’s a natural disaster or a man-made catastrophe such as the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colo., or the shooting of Sikh worshipers in Wisconsin, invariably someone asks: “How could a loving God allow this to happen when He could have protected those people?”

Fair question, but I think it’s the wrong one. Most of us live our everyday lives independently of God. Aside from mouthing an occasional “God Bless America,” we want God to mind His business while we mind our own.

My question: Why do we expect a God we ignore to come running to our defense when all hell breaks loose?

The God of the Bible does not obligate Himself to act as a universal bodyguard. God loves the world (John 3:16) and is rich in mercy to all His creation. He rains on the just and the unjust, extending common grace to us all.

Yet, God specifically reserves His protection and deliverance for a subset of humanity:

  •  “The righteous cry and the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles.” Psalm 34:7
  • “The Lord watches over all who love Him….” Psalm 145:20(a).
  • “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him, and rescues them.” Psalm 37:8

God knows if we love Him based on whether we do what He wants.

Jesus told the story of two brothers whose father asked each of them to go work in his vineyard. The first initially refused to go, but he finally did. The other said he would go, but did not. Jesus asked: who actually did the will of the father? The one who did what the father asked.

Think of God’s care as a kind of umbrella. When we rebel, we step into the rain. God’s love is unchanged; we just don’t experience its benefits. “Your sins…. have cut you off from God.” (Isaiah 59:2) If this sound unfair, I hear you. But it’s simple family dynamics.

I take responsibility for nurturing and protecting my children. They are a part of me; we have a blood tie. It’s not that I have no concern for my neighbors’ children. If they have a need or are in danger, I can help. But I am not obligated to do so. We don’t have that kind of relationship. Even my own children can refuse my help; and I cannot make them accept it.

Similarly, the Bible says, “I will be a Father to you, And you shall by My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Cor 6:18)

A Father is responsible for His own children; obedient children submit both to their Father’s loving care and His correction. Yet, we expect God to intervene at crisis points in the lives of people who may want nothing to do with Him.  This is a wrong-headed expectation for two reasons.

First, our safety isn’t God’s only concern. He wants to make us holy, which sometimes means allowing us to suffer. Life happens to us all. God has not promised all rainbows and roses. He simply has said He will never abandon us.

Secondly, while God’s explicit protection is a family privilege,  the Good News is we can be adopted into His family. Whether we start out near to God or very far away, through Christ “we have access by one Spirit to the Father.”(Eph 2:18)

My challenge, perhaps yours too?, is to let God be my Father when there is no crisis – when I like it and when I don’t. No one can invoke God’s favor as some kind of force-field against the vicissitudes of life, but we can choose to trust Him day by day. He obligates Himself to us only when we commit ourselves to Him.

Willing to trade?

Passed a church marquee that read, “Jesus takes trade-ins.”

A trade-in is a transaction. Both parties have to be willing to do business. Jesus will exchange my rusty, wreck of a life for a brand-new one free of charge. He already paid the price in full.

It’s a great deal, if I can get past the notion that I’m giving up something worth keeping.   Not recognizing the old life for the decaying wreck that it is, the human tendency is to try to salvage parts we consider still valuable.

But Christianity is an “either/or” proposition. If I’m in Christ, the old has gone, the new has come. The Bible says, If I try to hang on to my life, I lose it. If I lose it for Christ’s sake, I preserve it. (Luke 17:33)

My candy-apple red Volvo V70 provides an excellent auto object lesson. It’s an old car. I need a new one. I’m thinking trade-in…maybe.

My Volvo is about the age of my youngest child. (To be totally honest, it’s not “my” car. Technically, it  has morphed into the “new driver safe car.”) I love the red wagon. It shines like new, despite its full sun parking space. It has buttery leather upholstery (the driver’s seat is a little worn, but the rest is pristine) and heated seats that still heat. It has a sunroof, too, and a good audio system.

The best part is the Volvo sports suspension and peppy zip! When I need to kick it, say to get out of the path of an 18-wheeler on I-40, it’ll flat out go. Need I say more?

Why get rid of the car, if it’s so great?

Time takes its toll. Parts eventually wear out. Recommended repairs amount to more than Kelley Blue Book value. I could make the investment, but one collision with some texting-while-driving dimwit and I could lose the car in a junk yard total.

Gas is another drawback: Premium grade only, currently priced at more than $4 a gallon and climbing. A newer, greener car would practically pay for itself in better gas mileage and warrantied repairs.

In my head, I know hanging on to the old car is blocking a new purchase. In my heart, however, parting with the Volvo is like leaving a dysfunctional relationship. I know there’s no future in it, but it’s familiar like an old pair of slippers I should have tossed long ago.

To go forward, like Paul, I have to start  “Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead…” 

Sooner or later, everyone who is confronted with the Gospel of Jesus Christ has to make a similar decision. Stick with the old life with the hidden issues under the shiny hood or  – in an act of faith  – trade it for the new life Christ offers?

Embracing change means accepting sacrifice, including parting with things we’ve loved. Trade-ins, after all, are package deals. All or nothing. Just as no car dealer is going to accept my Volvo piecemeal  (unless he’s a junk dealer), Christ isn’t looking for partial surrender. He wants it all.

Are you willing to trade?

Think Outside the Bag

My son went to school without a lunch one day this week. It wasn’t that we didn’t provide food or didn’t care whether he ate.

He left his brown-bag, home-made lunch in his chair at the kitchen table. We made the lunch. It was his responsibility to take it with him to school.

I saw that lunch when I returned home after driving my 8th grader to school. I put it back in the refrigerator and, after a brief confab with his dad, determined to leave it there.

Thus began a hard lesson: sometimes we have to go hungry in order to learn. Pain is a powerful teacher. We seldom forget what we learn the hard way.

My son needed a nutritious lunch that day in particular. He had a full school day ahead immediately followed by a tough soccer game with him playing striker. Because he’d also left his wallet he had no money to buy lunch. 

I had breakfast, said a prayer and drove to the office.

You might think I’m a horrible parent. You’d be right. (There are times when I wonder why God ever entrusted me with children!) But this was actually one of my better days. That left-behind lunch became one of the things I pray for – a teachable moment!

You see, our son isn’t a “morning person” and routinely forgets things. We’ve tried to teach him a get-ready-the-night-before process, but he prefers to do things his way. (Don’t we all, even when our way doesn’t work?)

I could have driven the lunch to his middle school. I’d delivered something a day earlier. Soccer team photos were scheduled; my son forgot his uniform. He phoned. I drove it over.

Our rule is one Parent Delivery a year. After that, you’re on your own. It doesn’t matter whether it’s forgotten homework, sports equipment, allergy meds or ortho devices. Our theory is children learn more by working through the problems they create than they do by being rescued continually by well-meaning parents.

The lessons have been hard – for him and for us: zeros for missing homework and a lower GPA, for example. The feedback has been brutal: “This is all your fault.” “You don’t love me!”

Actually, allowing children to experience the consequences of their actions can be the most loving thing we do as parents, especially when those consequences are small compared to the larger lesson. God deals with His children in a similar way.

The Bible says that Jesus “has given us everything we need for life and godliness.” 2 Peter 1:3 He’s made it available, but he doesn’t cram it down our throats. If we don’t use what He’s given, it’s our decision. 

When we lack what we need and become weary, frustrated or broken, God does not say: “I told you so.” He simply says,  “Come to me… . 

God loves us enough to let us learn from our mistakes. As parents, we have to be willing to do the same. It isn’t easy. It hurts to watch anyone suffer when you know the pain might have been avoided.

God would prefer we all learn with less suffering, but we aren’t always willing. So He allows us to experience heartache, disappointment, even failure. Pain has purpose. It can make us teachable.

I am not sure what my son ate for lunch that day. We never talked about it. But he was pretty hungry at dinner that night. And he didn’t forget his lunch the next morning!

Love Your Neighbor

 What bothers me most about the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin in a gated Sanford, Florida community is that it could have happened to either of my sons as easily as it happened to him.

I am the mother of two African-American teenage boys. Our family lives in a neighborhood where you can count the people of color on a few fingers of one hand. My sons walk the neighborhood to visit friends. They ride bikes to the pool. They do exercise runs through the streets. They even wear hoodies on cold days. 

So my children stand out. That isn’t always a good thing. A few summers ago, a sheriff’s deputy rang my doorbell while I was making dinner. I invited him in. He wanted to ask me a few questions. Did I have a son? Did he ride his bike through the neighborhood? 

Why was he asking? This is where it gets interesting. The officer, white, shifted his weight from foot to foot standing there in my kitchen and awkwardly avoided meeting my direct gaze.

A “neighbor” reported seeing a black kid, he claimed it was my son, on a bicycle taking mail from his mailbox, throwing it on the lawn and wetting it with a hose. The officer insisted he wasn’t accusing anyone; he had to follow up on the report. Destroying mail, after all, is a crime.

No kidding? I am thinking the same over-privileged, bored and unidentified vandals the sheriff’s department recently warned were walking from our neighborhood into a nearby park after dark (and repeatedly vandalizing the security gate and telephone at our clubhouse) probably did this, too. Based strictly on neighborhood demographics, what are the odds they are black?

But I didn’t say any of that. I took the high road.

I assured the officer our children were raised to know better than to damage anyone’s property. They not only knew it to be wrong but also knew they’d have to deal with Mom and Dad long before the police got involved. Then I asked a direct question: who sent him to my house to accuse my child of committing a crime without offering proof? They could have contacted us directly. We’re listed in the homeowner directory.

The officer didn’t want to say, didn’t want to cause any trouble.

Too late. The accuser assumed my sons, being the only visible black kids, had to be responsible for this crime. That’s the trouble. In some people’s minds, 2012 though it may be, people of color are criminals. They look suspicious simply because they look different from the majority. A black person in a hoodie is clearly “trouble.”

Lest you think I am perhaps overly sensitive, fast forward a year or two. My children go running on a cold day. Their father trails behind them in his Volvo, keeping watch with the window down. He’s wearing a hoodie against the cold. 

A sheriff’s deputy pulls him over — one street from his own home driving alongside his own children to watch out for them — and asks to see his identification. He has to prove he belongs in his neighborhood. 

Make your own judgments about what happened in Florida. The shooter, George Zimmerman, hasn’t been arrested at this writing. He is claiming self-defense using as a shield that state’s “stand your ground” law which permits threatened individuals to match deadly force with deadly force to protect themselves. 

Of course, I’m still trying to understand how a grown man with a gun is threatened by a 17-year-old boy in a hooded sweat shirt who is walking away from him while carrying a can of soda, a bag of skittles and talking on a cell phone.

Based on my own experiences, I’d say that kid died for WWBBWalking While Being Black in a gated neighborhood where someone assumed he didn’t belong and could only be up to no good.

I am glad the Justice Department and the FBI is scrutinizing this case. If I were Trayvon’s mother, I’d want justice. But what the world really needs now, more than ever, is a big dose of love. “Love does no harm to its neighbor.” Romans 13:10

The Cross: The Ultimate Intervention

 The A&E television series Intervention will start a new season tomorrow. The story line is pretty much the same every episode: a bunch of people come together to stage the rescue of a hapless family member whose substance abuse and/or prostitution to support their addiction has brought them to the edge of a precipice.

In short, it’s a televised last-ditch effort to save somebody from the grave. Invariably, the person at the center of the intervention insists they don’t need help. Sometimes they relent and accept rescue. Other times, they tell their family members to go to hell and walk away.

It would be tempting to judge these people as whacked and to congratulate myself for not being “like them” – were the show not so graphic a depiction of the human condition.

At our core, we all are fatally addicted to sin; we can’t help ourselves.  To quote T.D. Jakes, “There is no human remedy for sin.” Each of us needs Divine Intervention. Yet, like the church in Laodicea, we live in denial.

You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. Rev 3:17

Search the Bible and you’ll find one helpless sinner after another and a God who stands ready to intervene.

Consider two snapshots:

  •  In Ezekiel 37, the prophet stands in a valley of dry bones. These bones belong to the long dead, bleached by the sun, brittle, disconnected. God asks the question: Can these bones live? From a human perspective, they’re hopeless. But the question is being asked by God with Whom nothing is impossible. So the prophet replies: “Lord, you know.”

The bones can do nothing for themselves. God takes the initiative. He does all the work.

He tells the prophet to speak to the bones these words: I will put flesh and muscles on you and cover you with skin. I will put breath into you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.

Then God does what He says right there, right then. The image is of God opening the grave, calling out and reassembling a bunch of raggedy skeletons and speaking life to them so that they stand upright, a living, breathing, mighty army.

  • In Zechariah 3 Joshua the high priest is standing before the Angel of the Lord in filthy robes. Filthy as in: vile, dishonored, morally defiled, unclean. Picture a priest standing in a holy place before a holy God to perform some religious ceremony while wearing clothes covered in excrement. Despicable. Beside him, ready to accuse him, is satan himself.

“Look at this guy,” satan is prepared to say. “He isn’t fit to serve God. He doesn’t deserve to be here. Look at him; he’s nasty, full of sin.” Joshua stands mute. He can say nothing in his own defense. The charge is true. The Lord Himself rebukes satan.  The Lord gets the filthy robes removed from Joshua and gives him new, clean clothes.

This is the human situation before God. Dead, filthy, justly accused, hopeless without the work of Christ on the Cross. That work is The Ultimate Intervention, and that’s worth contemplating during this season of Lent.

Forever in Blue Jeans?

My house is filled with teenagers who ask a lot of questions. Consequently, there’s a lot of discussion around what I call “the culture wars,” modern-day controversies that clash with historic Christian teaching.

I recently edited an article for someone regarding a May 8 vote on NC Amendment 1, which would amend North Carolina’s state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. The subject came up at home. Finally able to vote in an election, one of my children stated their position. Then came the question: what do you think?

My husband and I are about to celebrate a silver wedding anniversary, telegraphing that I favor church-sanctioned marriage for a man and a woman. I view marriage as a picture of Christ and His Bride, the church. That said, I have no quarrel with civil union, which has nothing whatever to do with the church as far as I’m concerned. It merely provides legal standing regarding property rights, hospital visits as “family” and the like. I see no point in enshrining a same-sex marriage ban into the state constitution. Same sex marriage already is illegal in North Carolina.

A hail-storm of questions ensued: Is it “fair”? How can a loving God just reject people and consign them to hell because they “love” someone of the same sex?

We humans tend to accept some things as a natural part of life, of what is. We consider other things, spiritual things in particular, negotiable, open to question or outright challenge.

Quick example: My employer has a dress code. I can wear denim on Fridays only, but not all Fridays. On Fridays when special guests are on property, business attire is required. Sleeveless arms, Capri pants, sling back pumps, mules and exposed-toe shoes are taboo every day of the week.

As far as I know, no one ever has challenged the code. Acceptance of employment includes submission to the company’s dictates regarding what can and cannot be worn on site. Their property, their rules. No question.

In that way, the company gets more respect than God who provides the air we breathe. Something inside us insists on the right to challenge everything about Christianity that goes against the grain of personal preference or popular culture. I’m guilty. I have a sin nature just like everyone else on the planet. Compliance is not my first response.

On Facebook, the nation-sized online community that’s poised to go public, young and old freely post what they are thinking, reading, watching on YouTube or listening to on Ipods, Spotify, Pandora or Rhapsody. There I find a pervasive embrace of peace, love and inclusion that is devoid of biblical perspective. Historic Christianity is widely viewed, even by professing Christians, as narrow, dogmatic and intolerant of other faith systems that proclaim other ways to God, many paths to enlightenment.

Seems to me that most of us fail to grasp the real meaning of Christianity. It’s not a democratic system in which we vote on what we like, majority wins and rewrites everything to suit us. We are not running things. God is Sovereign. Christ is the Head of the Church, the body of Christ. As members of His body, we are blood-bought Company men and women, governed by our relationship with Him. He rules in love, but He does rule.

In its simplest terms, Christianity is a holy God’s offer of rescue to sinful mankind. It’s John 3:16.  He alone is God. We come to Him on His terms, His way. Dogmatic? Absolutely.  It is an offer. Like an offer of employment, we can accept or not. But once we accept, we wear His robes of righteousness. No wardrobe changes.

I encourage my children to question. My husband and I clearly do not have all the answers. The answers we do have from Scripture don’t always satisfy. Young people are much more attune to culture speak on issues of gay marriage, pluralism and so on than they are to historic church doctrine. Modern-day paganism seems so much hipper.

Still, I’m of the opinion that an unexamined faith is not much faith at all. Christianity can hold its own in the marketplace of ideas. God can handle questions. The real issue is our willingness to accept answers we don’t want to hear and then to do what we otherwise would not.

When it really matters, we can develop a willingness to conform. Today is Friday. I’ll be wearing jeans to the office. Big decision: Gap, Liz Claiborne, Calvin Klein or Levi’s?

Cleaning House

Tonight I did a very courageous thing. I looked under my bathroom sink and pulled out the stuff I have been pushing backward into the dark for years. I brought it into the light one bottle, jar and packet at a time. I looked each one over carefully, opened a few, smelled the contents and tried to decipher smudged labels to determine how long I’d had it.

Then I did what I have been avoiding for a long time. I made a decision. I began to toss those fancy plastic packages, one at a time, into my little green waste basket until it positively overflowed.

There was a lot to sort through. Most of it landed in the now bulging bin: mousses, masques, gels and creams; lotions, potions, waxes, oils and spritzes, even a few cute but empty containers. The brands were varied: Body Shop, Avon, Arbonne, MAC, Mizani, Neutrogena, KeraCare, Cream of Nature, Eucerin, Body Shop, Bath & Body Works, Victoria’s Secret.

A lot of wasted money. Some of that stuff, I’m not proud to say, had hardly been touched. Some of it felt slimy when I rubbed it on, broke out my skin or flatly didn’t deliver on the advertising claims. Finally, I let it go.

As I finished my little chore, spontaneously begun as I searched for something practical like a bottle of alcohol, it dawned on me that what I have been doing with cosmetics is a metaphor for what we sometimes do with life. We collect a lot of costly baggage over time only to realize later – if we are honest – that much of it is worthless garbage. Spiritually toxic waste.

Instead of discarding it, we keep it hidden in the back closets of our minds and hearts. We know it’s there, taking up space better reserved for more honorable and productive things. Getting rid of it would mean having to face our bad choices and poor judgments head-on, reliving some of our worst moments.

We would finally have to accept hard truths. We might have to admit that we picked up things along the way – things we thought we had to have, couldn’t live without – only to learn that they were poison. We know now what we are loath to admit: “I was wrong. I made a mistake.”

Confession is hard, but it’s also good for the soul. To confess simply means to agree with what we know to be true, to concede the point, declare it openly… no more denial.

Proverbs 28:13 says, people who conceal their sins won’t prosper, but those who confess and forsake them will have mercy.

I don’t know about you, but I need a lot more mercy and much less hidden junk. So, while it may be the dead of winter, it’s as good a time as any to clean house. I invite you to join me in getting into those dark places and starting to deal with your stuff. Time to start fresh. The best is yet to come!

Need Debt Forgiveness?

  What you don’t know can hurt you. You don’t know what you don’t know. By the time you learn, the fix-it boat may have sailed.  Want a real life example?

While training for my first half-marathon, I reached mile 12 and my right shin decided it simply was not going to keep up that pace. Off I went to physical therapy.

I didn’t know precisely what it would cost, but this was familiar territory. I’d taken my daughter to PT during her senior season of cross country. I chose a different therapist whose location was more convenient, plunked down my co-pays at each of 8 visits and never gave it a second thought.

Imagine my shock when the final bill arrived one month after the last session: $1200-plus. No itemized list of specific charges. Just a bill with a payment address and a note that failing to pay within 30 days would result in additional charges.

Who knew that a few half-hour therapy sessions could cost so much? You might say it was unwise not to consider the end from the beginning. And you’d be right.

I got my therapy, ran my race and claimed my trophy without once considering the ultimate cost of reaching the finish line. It never occurred to me that the price would exceed what I was prepared to pay.

I’m not alone in my lack of foresight.

Plenty of people go blithely through life completely unconcerned about the day of reckoning. Oh, we know we are mortal, that 100 percent of the living will die. Yet, we don’t prepare for our dying day.

We have our reasons.  We say, “When you’re dead, you’re done; so why worry?” Or we’re confident that when life’s bill comes due, our good deeds will cancel our bad debts. In the end, we assume everything will work out. Of course, the end is not an ideal time to find out.

Christianity favors complete disclosure: Dead is not done. “It is appointed unto men once to die and then the judgment.” Judgment sounds to me like settling accounts. We’re advised to “count the cost” on the front end of things so we know whether we have what it takes to pay the bill.

Lest we abandon all hope, Christianity offers debt forgiveness. You’ll probably see it advertised in the stands at next Sunday’s Super Bowl: a placard painted with John 3:16. This plan goes by several names: Substitutionary atonement. The Great Exchange. The Gospel.

Christ is our Advocate. He speaks in our defense, having satisfied our debt in full at the Cross. We walk away.

Whether you’re dealing with spiritual indebtness or an unbelievable bill for services rendered, learn from my mistake.

Don’t wait until it’s too late to understand your situation. The Bible says in all your getting, get understanding. If you seek counsel with your money, why not get some for your soul?

I recommend an Advocate. Works for me – body and soul. A health advocate resolved my physical therapy bill.  Final accounting: I actually owed about $400. That, my friend, is deliverance!

Virgins in a world of eros defiled

  TLC’s “Virgin Diaries” premiers tomorrow. It’s a peek into the lives of adults who have saved themselves for marriage.

For all the creators’ insistence that the show is meant to “celebrate celibacy,” something about the trailer makes the show look more like a feature about these awkward oddballs who have grown into adulthood without hooking up.

In American culture, virginity is seen as an anomaly. Healthy, happy, well-adjusted people are portrayed as having sex on the regular.  No marriage required.

The idea is promoted in popular music, magazine ads, TV sitcoms and in commercials for everything from beer to automobiles. Even the fashion industry is on board producing ever tighter, more transparent garments with plunging necklines or high midriffs. It’s nearly impossible to find young girls’ clothing that doesn’t wreak with “sexy.”

No wonder many young people, Christians included, think there’s something wrong with them if they haven’t “lost their virginity” by middle school – as though it were a thing to be discarded!

When you’re young and itching to have sex, it’s easy to see God as a killjoy, a spoiler of all things fun. Christianity, with its objections to sex outside marriage, seems hopelessly outdated. Not even priests are celibate these days. Can God really be serious?

When I was growing up, adults harped on the danger of becoming pregnant outside wedlock. The ensuing scandal seemed more important than the morality of being sexually active. Multiple family members walked that road, and they were not celebrated. No baby showers. No strolling through the mall with a big belly and no wedding band. Consigned to the back church pew.

No more.  The stigma is reserved for those who are not out there getting their freak on.

Worries about unwanted pregnancy are all but forgotten in the New Age of booming infertility and accessible abortion. Even the dreaded VD (venereal diseases) of my day have morphed into STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) that are infinitely more treatable. Today, even HIV-positive people are told they can engage in “safe sex.” Full-blown AIDS, considered a virtual death sentence in the 1980s, can be treated if not cured.

One thing has not changed. Neither pregnancy nor disease are the worst things that can happen to a sexually-active young woman. (No sexism. Women are usually the ones who get hurt in these things.) The loss of innocence can never be regained. And we learn too late that stepping outside God’s established boundaries for sex triggers “The Law of Unintended Consequences.”

Consequence 1:

Sex becomes cheap and vulgar – When I listen to pop music or watch YouTube, I am struck by how easily this generation throws around the f-word, which we all know is a crude reference to sexual intercourse. I’m no prude – I have teenagers remember – but it saddens me that the more young people are exposed to sex, the less they know of real intimacy.

I am reminded of a lunch I had at the home of a friend, a former nun, and her husband. They had paid an immense price to be together in the way of husbands and wives. He brought her a cup of tea while we chatted; their glance was literally moving. Something holy and intimate passed between them that made me feel an intruder in the room. I’ve never experienced such a moment.

In contrast, many young people casually enjoy “Friends With Benefits” with barely a thought. What should be sacred has become something sordid and empty. Being with that special someone once left them tingling with passion. Now they are left staring at the ceiling wondering “Why did I do this again?”

The stolen fruit that was so sweet has left a bitter taste in their mouth. To quote BB King, “The thrill is gone.” Sadly, they believe the lie that this is what sex is and, in doing so, are robbed of its fullness.

Consequence 2:

Unholy soul ties – Sex is not only physical but also spiritual. The Bible says when we lie with someone the “two become one. “ (Ephesians 5:31) Obviously, the two don’t morph into one person because they get up, put on their clothing and go their separate ways.

Even so,  having sex binds people to one another in a kind of spiritual union, forming a connection that God intended to be lasting. That’s why He reserved sex for the marriage bed, which the Bible declares is “undefiled” or pure.

Outside marriage, this sexual gluing becomes bondage. That initial sexual encounter can turn into an addiction we love to hate. The jokes that used to be funny become irritating, the attentiveness becomes stifling or maybe we just get bored. The sex isn’t even that great, yet we just can’t get that person out of  our system. We are attached even when we don’t want to be.

This, beloved, is what sexual boundaries are intended to spare us. God is no prude. No matter what pious Christian tries to say otherwise, God intentionally designed people with sexual union in mind. He purposely made sex possible and pleasurable… not just for utilitarian pro-creation as the Puritans once taught. The joy of sex was His idea, but make no mistake. God made sex for a specific setting: marriage.

Oh, I know the mess we’ve made of marriage. Christian divorce rates are no better than the general population. Still, ideally, marriage is to be the one place where people are committed to one another for life, come what may. In that setting, they are free both to fully know and to be fully known. Naked and unashamed. Able to fully enjoy one another with God’s blessing.

Sex outside marriage is no blessing. Just ask someone who was young once, did not learn to exercise self control, and is transparent enough to be honest.  While the marriage bed is blessed, “Whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.” (Hebrews 13:4)

The urge to merge is God-given. He doesn’t mock us. He created us with desires that He intends to fulfill at the proper time in the proper way.

For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11

Believers can trust that. While it’s true that losing one’s virginity is not the end of the world, some gifts can be given only once. Yes, we can always begin again and “reclaim” our virginity. God forgives if we repent, but we are not promised no complications.

“We have become accustomed to happy endings, but life is not always like that,” to borrow a phrase from The Huffington Post‘s Black Voices.

Are you on Plan?

You’ve found your soul mate! Then someone says to you: “A relationship with this person will cause you to deviate from The Plan for your life and prevent you from fulfilling your creative destiny.”

That’s ridiculous, you say; no one has that kind of knowledge. Suppose they did? What would be your response? Would you even consider what they had to say?

This is the premise of a movie I stumbled upon called, “The Adjustment Bureau.” In it, Matt Damon is a bad-boy politician who has a chance encounter with a woman in a men’s room. (It would take too long to explain.)

He is convinced that she completes him, only to have fedora-wearing strangers, Adjustment Bureau operatives, tell him that he is never to see her again.

The Chairman has a Plan for his life, they say, and it does not include the woman. In fact, she takes him decidedly off plan. The adjusters, angels perhaps, intervene to get Damon back on Plan, which they hint includes several more election victories and the distant strains of Hail to the Chief.

The unmistakable message: Follow The Plan, and “You could make a real difference.” Go your own way and all bets are off.

What strikes me is that this premise isn’t really fiction.

The truth is God does have a plan for each of our lives: a plan to prosper us and not to harm us, to give each of us a hope and a future.  The Bible says God loves us and that He wants to do us good.

Trouble is, we don’t believe it.

Human natures says: How does He know that this person, this job or this relocation isn’t right for me? I know what I feel, and this feels right. It feels good. How can it be wrong? Deep down we don’t really trust that God knows what He’s talking about.

We resent God exercising authority over us.  What gives Him the right to determine what’s best for me? Rather than take God’s advice, we rebels prefer the famous lines of Henley’s Invictus:

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

Not every bad choice is necessarily sin. Could be it’s the right thing at the wrong time. Or a “good” thing that encourages the very worst parts of our personalities. Still, we pursue it because we humans enjoy flirting with disaster.

Like ill-fated contestants on the old game show “Let’s Make a Deal,” we are not content with what God has revealed. We want what’s behind Door No. 3 even if it is a booby-prize.

And we are free to choose. Our freewill, when not submitted to God, has a way of taking us off course. Matt Damon’s character makes his choice, and we are left to wonder about the consequences.

In real life, some of us have made our choices, gotten exactly what we wanted and wish we hadn’t. The thing we knew would bring us such life is sucking it right out of us. But rather than admit we were wrong, some of us are blaming God that no adjusters in smart hats came to save us from ourselves or have come to clean up the mess.

If we were honest, and at some point we all need to get honest to God, we’d admit that God’s word is right: “There is a path before each person that seems right, but it ends in death.” (Proverbs 14:12)

The good thing is we don’t have to stay on that path. We can turn around at any point. God calls that turning repentance, and it puts us back on Plan.

The Fundamental Things Apply

Most of us know how to turn it on when the stakes are high and the bigwigs are watching. It may come as a shock, but Christians ought to be just as concerned about “routine faithfulness” in small tasks before an Audience of One, to borrow a phrase from today’s installment of the “Our Daily Bread” devotional guide.

Life’s routine matters, “the little foxes,” are usually what cause us to stumble. We all come off as spiritual at prayer and small group meetings. The trouble comes when we have to keep the laundry under control, the dishes washed and toilets scrubbed at home. If we hold it  together there, maybe we struggle with staying on task at work when the boss isn’t looking.

It’s understandable. Who hasn’t checked their email only to lose half an hour of prime work time?

If we aren’t intentional in this distractible culture, however, our Christian character can lose its luster under harsh scrutiny. Consider the cautionary tale of an employee whom I “met” after inheriting their company-issue computer. We never had a face-to-face encounter; it was more of a virtual introduction through the uncleared hard drive.

Through that computer, sometimes quite by accident, I learned more about the former employee than any stranger ought to know. Mostly, I learned that they spent much of their work day doing things completely unrelated to work while many detailed aspects of their paying job were neglected for years.

Musical downloads revealed their tastes in music. Their preferred Internet websites were logged in the bookmarks cache. Their spouse evidently was often job hunting judging from the number of completed employment applications left behind. (The Social Security numbers alone would have been a boon for an identity thief.)

This employee was big on “giving back” if the multiple emails and files of their charitable work can be trusted. They prized family, too, producing various party invitations in Microsoft Publisher and scanning family photos. Did I mention that this person had a reputation as a dedicated Christian who had done a “good job” in the visible aspects of the position?

I’m not sure God would agree.

Christians should be an employer’s most productive, trustworthy and dependable workers. As followers of Christ, we are called to work hard whether we are being supervised or not. We are to “work with enthusiasm, as though [we] were working for the Lord rather than for people.”(Ephesians 6) Sadly, I’ve actually heard people say that they hesitate to hire Christian people because they tend to be lazy on the job.

I’m fond of the North Carolina state motto, and I think it applies here. It’s the Latin phrase, Esse quam videri meaning “To be, rather than to seem.”

I’m committed to being a Christian rather than simply seeming to be one. If that’s your goal, and you are blessed to still be employed in this economy, don’t bother posting Scripture verses in your cubicle or inviting people to Bible study over lunch. Go to work on time. Do the very best job you can while you’re there; and be mindful to treat people well no matter how they may treat you.

That’s all the Christian witness you’ll ever need.

P.S. If you leave your job, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to clear your hard drive!

Mercy On Empty: Fill’er Up!

I’m at the gas station three days before Christmas and some imbecile almost backs into my car trying to leave the pump without consulting the rear-view mirror.  I lean on my horn, and a self-appointed good Samaritan tries to tell me the person just wants to back up.

“And she should back into my car?!” I yell. The other driver finally drives forward, where there always was a clear exit.

She pulls away effortlessly. I have to admit, I almost wished she’d hit something as a permanent reminder of her recklessness!  Truth be told, most of us like to see people punished when they do wrong even if we aren’t personally injured.  We want God to condemn the same people we do.

It was the same in Jesus’ day. One day at the Temple, the scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman they’d found in the act of committing adultery. (There’s no mention of the man involved, though we know there had to be one!)

The penalty for her sin, they reminded Jesus, was death by stoning according to the law of Moses. A holy man, like Himself, would have to agree. If not, they could accuse Him of opposing the law.

To their dismay, Jesus didn’t immediately react.  When He did, His reply was withering: Let him among you who is without sin cast the first stone.

One by one, the men walked away, the oldest ones first. Having lived longer, presumably the elders were conscious of having more sin for which to account.

The woman was left with only One who could rightly condemn her. He did not.  He simply told her to go and sin no more. If it sounds like a free pass, it’s because it is. Jesus didn’t ask her to shed any blood. He didn’t even ask her to apologize.  He told her to change her behavior.

For those of us who prefer to see people suffer for doing wrong, this is hard to take. But here at Christmas,  it’s a great illustration of the real gift God offers each of us: a merciful Savior who didn’t come into the world to condemn it, but to save it.

I embrace this mercy for myself, but I often find it hard to give it away in the everyday world of gas stations, grocery store parking lots and home. Maybe mercy is THE gift to share this Christmas. No one deserves it. But it’s what everyone needs — even when it’s the last thing we may want to give!

Watch Yourself

How well do you know yourself, that person you wake up to and carry around all day?

Truth be told, we may know the people around us – spouse, children, co-workers — better than we know ourselves.

We learn people by watching them, constantly and unconsciously. If we watch closely, we can learn their strengths, their gifts, their little irritating habits, their inconsistencies, their default settings, their besetting sins, their go-to themes of conversation, the triggers that set them off.

My problem, maybe yours too, is that my being “other-focused” in this way is not always a good thing because it takes my eyes off me.

Paul, writing to Timothy, gave him this instruction: “Watch your life and doctrine closely.” (I Tim 4:16, NIV) or “Pay attention to yourself and to your teaching.” (NASB)

Paul doesn’t tell the young pastor to watch the lives of people in his church. He tells Timothy to watch himself. The word for “watch” has the meaning of pay attention to, observe, apply, to check.

At street level, we’d say: watch yourself. This is not a new idea. The same instruction can be found in Deuteronomy

Paul reminded Timothy of what we so easily forget. In relationships, we naturally focus on other people’s ills: what they do wrong, where they have blind spots, where they need work. If we are leading something, whether it be a ministry, a team or a family, we can begin to view ourselves as the professional fault-finder and fixer.

Paul points Timothy to the man in the mirror. If Timothy wants to make a difference in the lives of the people around him, Paul tells him to keep a close watch on himself and the example he sets. He is to be a demonstration of the truth he teaches.

His first letter to Timothy instructs him on “how people are to conduct themselves in God’s household.” (I Timothy 3:15 NIV) Specifically: what to teach, the qualifications for a deacon or overseer, the appropriate way to related to older men, widows, young men etc. He admonishes Timothy to avoid false doctrine, reminding him of the book-ends of true Christianity: faith and love.

In the midst of this discussion, Paul tells Timothy to pay close attention to how he lives as well as what he teaches.

Paul knew the importance of both right teaching and personal discipline. He wrote to the believers in Corinth that he disciplined himself as an athlete in competition: he beat his body down and made it his slave, that after he had preached to others he himself might not be disqualified for the prize. (I Corinthians 9:27)

I know firsthand the damage so-called Christians can do when we teach one thing and live something else; fixated on straightening the crooked lives of those around us, we do more harm than good when we fail to bring our own lives under the dictates of Scripture. Our actions give God’s enemies an occasion to blaspheme.

Paul reminds us that the biblical challenge is to watch ourselves.

“You, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? (Roman 2:21-22)

Want to lead others to the faith? Watch yourself.