Conquering Death: Faith not Fences

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Most of us are too busy living to spend time contemplating death and dying, but avoidance is not a long-term strategy for dealing with death.

Death has a way of intruding without warning, commanding immediate attention. We drop everything, travel, make phone calls, send flowers and cards to acknowledge that someone loved has gone. Though life goes on, death has left its calling card.

Death is constant; we notice only when it touches us. As I write, the World Death Clock ticks steadily at the rate of 1.8 deaths every second, an estimated 32 million deaths this year so far.

Three weeks ago, I got an early morning call that a family member had died suddenly. Not yet 40, he left behind a wife and two young children. Days later I sat in a church two states away reviewing the life of a dear man I knew only by proxy.

The grief was palpable. Death was front and center, open casket on the big screen. Fast forward: cemetery, repast, flights home, resume life. No disrespect. It’s what we do. Keep it moving lest death get in our heads, touch our hearts.

Fencing out Death

A church on my daily commute recently decided that death should take a holiday, at least visually.

This one-church-in-several locations congregation, the kind that sends out colorful postcards with hip slogans, merged with a declining mainline church. The merger of people, buildings and grounds included a neat, century old traditional cemetery with flower-topped, granite grave markers in various sizes and shapes.

Apparently, a cemetery with looming gravestones didn’t fit a “life is good” image. Church leaders summarily hid the grim reminders of mortality behind a substantial wooden privacy fence – with gated access for those wishing to pay their respects, of course.

Trying to hide a cemetery only draws attention to it.

The subsequent unflattering publicity revealed that people whose family members are buried in that cemetery didn’t want their graves behind a fence. Driving home this week, I noticed the privacy railings have been removed. The reality of death has come back into public view between open horizontal slats.

It’s a good thing. Death is as much a part of life as sunrises and sunsets. The writer of Hebrews said, “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27)

Fear Not

A cemetery is a reminder that, despite all distractions and protestations to the contrary, “A man’s days are numbered.” (Job 14:5) Nobody lives longer than the time God has set.

Understandably, death gives people the creeps. Nobody wants to die. The church’s mission is to help people face this uncomfortable reality with biblical faith.

Like Jesus Christ standing at Lazarus’ tomb, the church must confront death by teaching people that God has given us eternal life and this life is in His son. (1 John 5:11)  Jesus conquered death, dying in our place and rising from the dead. Likewise, the dead in Christ will be raised. This is the hope of the gospel.

Since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15 NIV)

Resist fear in all its guises and embrace faith instead. Trusting Jesus Christ is the only hedge against death and opens the door to a whole new life!

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.’ Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26

 

 

 

Some through the fire, but all through the blood

 

As I visit churches in different Christian denominations with varied worship styles and sermons that swing between topical and expository, verse-by-verse teaching, I am often struck by the one thing most  have in common: the absence of the presence of the divine.

In our sanitized version of Christianity, we do church as though we can waltz into God’s presence by means of fine-tuned worship, hip videos and carefully rehearsed prayers. Jesus, our home-boy, is going to show up to give us all a high-five. No blood necessary.

Not so. Jesus’ atoning blood sacrifice is central to the faith and key to coming into the presence of God. But you will almost never hear that from a modern pulpit.

We moderns have almost lost sight of the centrality of Jesus “in whom we have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:14)

The church once preserved this trail of blood that runs from Genesis to Revelation in the old hymns of the faith: “Are You Washed in the Blood,” “I Know it was the Blood,” “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus” can wash away our sins.

God, on the other hand, puts blood front and center in worship.

In Leviticus the priests begin their service by presenting an array of specific bloody offerings and burnt sacrifices. Unblemished goats, oxen, rams, lambs, kidneys, livers, hides, flesh, even heads, are reduced to ashes.

The priests slaughter these animals, piece by piece, burn the fat, pour blood around the altar. Clearly, they had to be covered in blood head to toe by the time all the sin offerings and peace offerings were done.

The priesthood was a bloody business. The blood is about dealing with sin before approaching God.

“In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be made ‘clean’ with blood. Without the spilling of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Hebrews 9:22)

The priest had to present an offering for his own sin before going to God with an offering for the sins of the people.  “This is what the Lord has commanded you to do, so that the glory of the Lord may appear to you.” Lev 9:6

We 21st century Christians are reluctant to admit our sin so it follows we are not eager to embrace the blood that as its remedy. Every week somewhere in America, uncleansed and unforgiven priests and people routinely gather for choreographed “worship” without ever seeming to notice that our God who “is a consuming fire” does not show up. (Hebrews 12:29)

In contrast, the Levitical priests ministered by way of the blood and “fire came out from the presence of the Lord” (Lev 9:24) and consumed the sacrifice. The people saw His glory and fell on their faces.

When was the last time you saw that in your assembly?

The path to the presence of God is paved in the blood of Christ, to which the blood of lambs and rams looked forward. No matter how educated our preachers or how great our programs: No blood, no glory!

Are You Using Your Resources?

TeamThe modern workplace is a team environment. Team members might be global, but chances are wherever you are, whatever you do, there is a team structure.

No more private offices. Most workers are seated in cubicles or open work spaces organized by team. Why?

Many reasons; perhaps foremost is the synergism of teams. Everyone has weaknesses, shortcomings, things we simply don’t know, don’t know that we don’t know or things we are required to do that we are not very good at doing.

That’s where working in a cooperative team can be a blessing. At least in theory, the strengths of teammates can compensate for individual weaknesses. The team succeeds because individual members help one another.

Currently, I am watching the antithesis of this play out.

A team member is failing, not meeting metrics and not saying a word. Not knowing more than what I see, I would say this person is failing because they don’t understand the concept of team. Surrounded by people who could help, this person has forged a path alone. And they are getting lost in the weeds.

In a team, help is close at hand. Because the team succeeds or fails as a unit, it is in every member’s self-interest to be helpful. Going it alone in a team environment is a recipe for failure.

We are better together, to borrow a phrase.

Christians can learn from this office lesson. Often, we struggle wordlessly, on our own, with an issue, a sin, a problem, never once reaching out for help. That thing gradually overtakes us. And we end up in rehab, in bed, in jail, in a bar, in trouble.

That doesn’t have to happen. We have help!

  • God has given every believer His indwelling presence, the Holy Spirit, the “Comforter,” the Greek word is actually “parakletos” or paraclete, one who comes alongside to help, counsel (John 14:16)
  • God also has given us one another in “koinoinia.” That is, Christian community in fellowship with other believers, our teammates.

God never intended life to be lived solo. He declared it “not good” that man should be alone then created Eve for Adam. Jesus formed a team of 12 disciples. He sent disciples in pairs to minister in the cities ahead of Him.

Life, Christian life in particular, is meant to be lived out in community. Yes, as God’s children, we can go directly to God our Father for help. We Protestants declare the priesthood of the believer and Jesus Christ as the only mediator between God and man.

Even so, there are times when we need each other. The same Bible that teaches if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness also says: “Confess your sins to one another that you may be healed.”

If we persist in facing life’s struggles Lone Ranger-style, we set ourselves up for failure.

The first step in success is admitting when we need help then having the humility to ask for it. God has provided everything that we need pertaining to life and godliness.

Are we using the resources He’s made available?

Is your preacher, preaching?

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Spent some time in church on this Lord’s Day? Maybe you heard preaching. Maybe not.

Preaching is important.

The Bible teaches that “it pleased God through the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” (I Corinthians 1:21)

So what exactly is “preaching”?

  • Is it just “God talk” by somebody standing in front of a congregation?
  • Is it “hooping” in the black church tradition?
  • Is it an academic lecture steeped in the Hebrew and Greek?

Biblical preaching is more the message than the method. This is what Jesus had to say about the message:

He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46-48)

A lot of what passes for preaching these days is motivational, inspiring, even entertaining. It makes people feel good, but it’s not preaching. It doesn’t bring people closer to God. It requires nothing. It doesn’t share the Good News: our sins can be forgiven because we have a Savior in Jesus Christ. He died so that we might live. Real, biblical preaching introduces us to that truth.

I seldom hear preaching that mentions sin or the need for repentance. My question: if there’s no sin, what was the point of Jesus’ death and resurrection? Why do we bother with church? God is not some adornment to our lives so that we can be the “best version of ourselves” (I actually heard some preacher use this phrase!) In Christ, we are a new creation, crucified so that it’s “no longer I who live but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

The Apostle Paul instructed his protégé Timothy to “Preach the word” (2 Tim 4:2) What “word”? Paul’s answer: “The word of faith, which we preach.” (Romans 10:8) What did Paul preach?

Now brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and in which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (I Corinthians 15: 1-4)

Paul declared preaching to be both gospel-centered and Holy Spirit-empowered. “And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” (I Corinthians 2:4)

God uses preaching to save people who believe and to grow them up in the faith. It is a supernatural thing. If that’s not happening where you worship, consider the source and find a place where it is.

“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Romans 10:14-15)

 

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What if the worst does happen… then what?

Modern-day, western Christianity says if we really love God, if we have enough faith, we’re protected by a force field that nothing truly bad can penetrate. Should something terrible manage to get through, this fiction continues, we can pray it right out of our lives.

My real life experience has proven otherwise. Bad things happen. And sometimes the only way out is to walk through.

No matter how many crosses or garlic cloves actors use to ward off movie vampires and murderous mummies, in life there is no Christian talisman. The cross, after all, is synonymous with a torturous death that had to be endured before it could be overcome.

Jesus is frank:

In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.(John 16:33b)

Should we encounter a nightmare scenario, it won’t mean that evil has won. Those who trust God may have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but Christ walks with us to the other side.

Our relationship with God doesn’t have to crack under the strain of hard things. It can survive and deepen. Job is the Old Testament example.

By God’s own testimony, Job was blameless. (Job 1:8) Yet, God allowed this guy’s life to fall apart without warning and without cause. (Job 2:3) In a single day, he lost his wealth, his children. On some other day, his health was attacked. There had been a “hedge” of protection around his life. (Job 1:10)  Clearly, for reasons that are inexplicable beyond His Sovereignty, God sometimes allows the enemy to get at us.

We know that Job kept faith, though he had so many questions. God brought him to a deeper understanding of Himself and restored Job without ever explaining why things happened as they did.

God still causes His people to triumph through tragedy.

  • A friend’s only child, a son, was murdered. She endured the court trial, saw his killer convicted and jailed. Despite profound loss and grief, she somehow kept believing and trusting God. Decades later, she still says with conviction that “God is good.”
  • A family’s home caught fire while they slept and burned to the ground, a complete loss. Everyone escaped alive, including a visiting missionary couple later said to be accidentally responsible for the blaze. Think this family struggled with having missionaries set their house on fire? Still, their faith and their marriage survived a life in ashes.
  • A man who had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer stood in church to proclaim that a year later he is cancer-free. A miracle to be sure. Yet he had not escaped suffering. He had endured cancer treatment and had, by God’s grace, prevailed.

In this Holy Week, when we Christians remember how Jesus Christ became our Savior, it’s worth noting that the captain of our salvation was made perfect through suffering, the very thing most of us spend a lifetime trying to avoid.

Christ “tasted death for every man” (Hebrews 2:9), a torturous, humiliating, excruciating death. Nobody dragged him to the cross. He went willingly, drinking to the last drop the worst the world had to offer. Three days later, He got up fully alive, overcoming the very thing that sought to overcome Him.

No matter what happens from now on, Jesus Christ has fully prepared those who trust in Him for what happens next. “No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37)

 

 

What Really Matters?

I’m starting to think differently. Some things matter much less than they once did. I’ve lost my appetite for putting time and money into things that really amount to nothing. At this point in life, I’d rather invest in something meaningful and lasting.

It’s not complicated. People over things. Christ died to save people. He loves us and has given us all things richly to enjoy. But at the end of the day, we have to leave it all behind. Other people are all we can take out of this world.

But most of us are captivated by petty things, things like grass and silverware.

On a 3-mile walk one afternoon, I passed the yard of an elderly couple overseeing the installation of an in-ground sprinkler system. You probably know the type: little black heads that pop out of the ground on a timer.

These white-headed people were meticulously pointing out where the sprinklers needed to be angled more or less to spray the grass and shrubs just so. In response to each instruction, the landscape guys, Latinos wearing bright-colored T-shirts, ran around making adjustments. On the return home, I found them still at, the sun dropping low in the sky.

  • I thought about our dismal attempts at growing a first lawn as new homeowners. In our next home, we promptly put in warm season Zoysia grass plugs, a thick, slow-growing, mostly weed-free variety that filled every bald spot. It’s tan-colored in cool weather and a hearty green in the August heat when all the fescue lawns are brown.

Grass is a low priority in my life these days. If I live to get really old and have disposable income, I hope to God that I am not pouring money into watering dirt.

My time, your time, here is too limited to fixate on cultivating something that’s ultimately cut down. “The grass withers, the flower fades. But the word of God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40:8)

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While admiring heirloom jewelry at a shop, I overheard a customer discussing the purchase of an estate silver service valued at about $3,000. That’s $3,000 worth of forks, knives, spoons and serving pieces. It was weighty-looking stuff, polished to a shine that begged for sunglasses, clearly intended to be a family treasure.

At that moment, I wondered how much of the precious things we pass down will be turned into cash with no familial sentiment. Do Millennials even cook regularly let alone know how to set a fine dining table with that kind of cutlery?

A better question: how many hungry people could be fed by converting pricey forks into food donated to soup kitchens, food banks, and rescue missions?

  • I’m resisting the impulse to accumulate. I’m de-cluttering, gifting, learning to live more simply. I’d rather have treasure in heaven, where God is and where I expect to be.

Nothing wrong with beautiful lawns, fine dining, heirlooms. They’re just temporal, earthly. Better to hope in God, who is eternal, and to “do good, be generous and willing to share.” (I Timothy 6:18)

Grass is simply a reminder: time is short.

“As for man, his days are like grass

As a flower of the field, so he flourishes

For the wind passes over it, and it is gone,

And its place remembers it no more” Psalm 103:15-16

Waiting For Something?

what-are-you-waiting-forWhat are you planning to do “Someday”?

Apologize… Forgive … Give … Embrace? Pay Down Debt, Get Fit, Learn to Play Chess, Volunteer? Maybe it’s in your heart to volunteer with a ministry or start one? What has to happen before you actually do it?

  • Do the stars have to align?
  • Does God have to part the clouds, speak audibly?
  • Do you have to get a medical diagnosis that brings mortality into focus?
  • Does someone have to die?

Well, Someone already has.

Jesus died so that we might have life and have it to the full. He also got up from the grave and ever lives to see that His will is faithfully executed.

While it is called today, He wants us to believe Him and live because life is short.

I went to the Y today and someone else was seated in John’s place. John, a fixture at the front desk for years, was a slender man with hands frozen in such a way that his fingers did not easily grasp. Yet, he managed to pleasantly swipe entry cards and hand out locker tokens. I didn’t think much of his absence until I checked out an hour later. There was John’s picture on a funeral service program. He died 5 days ago.

Had I planned to say something important to John, my opportunity has vanished. That’s why it’s important to “Say What You Need to Say,” as singer John Mayer wrote.

God did not give us life for us to sit around waiting for Someday — when everything is nice, tidy, and perfect—before we start living the life we were created for. Life is messy, and we might never feel ready, but the day we hear God speaking, that is the time to act.

When it was God’s timing for His people to enter the Promised Land, they refused to go. Seeing themselves as grasshoppers being sent to face giants, they were paralyzed by fear. The result? That whole generation (save Caleb and Joshua) died in the wilderness, a dry desolate place when a land flowing with milk and honey was theirs for the taking.

If God says Someday is Today, we want to get in agreement with Him.

So if it’s in your heart to learn to ski, move in that direction. Read about skiing. Get in shape to ski. Meet other ski-minded people. See what God might do.

Prompted to pray more? Get in the Bible. How did Jesus and His disciples pray? Look for opportunities to pray. Ask God for some prayer partners and pray with them.

Need to ask for forgiveness? Humble yourself; pray for God’s timing and make the call, make the visit or send the email. It’s our obedience and not the outcome that matters.

Almost nothing just happens. Expect to put some effort into your “Someday.” In my 49th year, I set a deadline to run a half marathon: before I turned 50. Then I prayerfully planned. I joined a training group, ran and cross-trained on a disciplined schedule. When it got tough – as anything worthwhile eventually will – I persevered. I got injured; I got therapy. I kept running. When race day came, I completed the race.

Now I am learning to swim, fulfilling a “Someday” promise made to my children (all swimmers) long ago. I don’t swim in the deep yet, and I don’t swim expertly. I am not even sure I like swimming! But I am in the pool and swimming as best I can at this point. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start. Someday I’ll be a lap swimmer. But it won’t happen if I don’t work at it now.

In realizing a few “Somedays,” I’ve learned that we are capable of more than we might think because the God who called us to Himself is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask, think or imagine according to the power that works in us, His Holy Spirit. All He wants from us is our cooperation.

Our days on this earth are numbered. Let’s make the most of them by conquering our fears, dropping our excuses and getting on with the business of living. What are we waiting for?