Conquering Death: Faith not Fences

fence

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

 

 

 

Hating on “The Shack”?

shack  For the record, I’ve read “The Shack.” And no, I don’t believe it’s heresy… as many of my church-going Facebook friends do and re-post often.

Most of them haven’t read the book or seen the movie. Yet, their advice is to avoid it like the plague. My seminary-trained nephew compared suggesting he actually read Shack to my asking him to drink spoiled milk. To hear him expound on his reasoning, you’d think I was asking him to drink poison.

To be clear, I’m a Christ-follower. I’m also someone who made a living as a writer. As such, I appreciate people taking the time to read my work before forming an opinion. Accepting someone else’s translation of my words doesn’t do it justice.

(I suggest Bible critics do the same thing: read the Bible with an open mind before arguing about it. A lot of what you’ve heard is in there is missing, misquoted or misconstrued.)

The Shack is a novel aka a work of fiction. It’s the story of a man’s grappling with God, or rather God reaching out to him, after an unspeakable tragedy touches his family. I’m not going to be a spoiler and give away the details. If you want an overview, go to: http://www1.cbn.com/books/whats-so-bad-about-the-shack

Evidently, some critics expected a solidly Christian message and/or gospel presentation given the story deals with “biblical” issues. The Shack, however, goes outside the box to depict Father God as an African-American woman, the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman and Christ as a way to God, but maybe not the only way.

Presenting the Trinity in a multi-body, gender-bending form is in stark contrast to Scripture which teaches that God is spirit, that “in Christ is all the fullness of the godhead bodily”  and that Jesus plainly says “I am the way” to the Father.

Why expect fiction to rightly represent non-fiction? Does it matter if the author is Christian (or maybe a universalist, depending your point of view)? Does being Christian mean a writer is bound only to write strictly chapter-and-verse equivalent texts? Does being creative mean being heretical?

I hope not. I’ve written about serial killers; contractors who cheat; corporate deceptions and outright liars who purported to be Christian. Does daring to pen their stories make my relationship with God suspect?

I think the outcry over The Shack misses the point of the novel, which is very clear to me: No matter how tormented and terrorized by life we may be, God loves us and He cares. He is willing to meet us in the middle of our mess, restore our souls and make our lives into something beautiful. All He asks of us is to respond to His call.

Seems biblical to me: Christ came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). We didn’t choose Him, He chose us. (John 15:16)

We modern-day Christians are in danger of becoming irrelevant with our knee-jerk rejection of everything with which we disagree.

Yes, we must know the genuine to spot the counterfeit, which means knowing what the Bible teaches so that we can separate truth from error. But what is the good of knowing the Truth if we are so objectionable that we never get to share Him?

I believe that Christ has left us in the world so that we might engage the culture in a way that brings people to God. Jesus calls this being His witnesses.

So if we think the devil is in the details of The Shack, why not do what Scripture teaches: “Examine all things; hold fast that which is good.” (I Thessalonians 5:21) It’s a good place to start building bridges instead of erecting walls.

Call me a heretic, but I think we serve a big God and limit Him with our little minds. One day we are going to be surprised by the tools He used to draw people closer to Himself, maybe even an unorthodox book like The Shack.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

 

 

 

Do you have access?

  I arrived at work, entered the lobby and realized I’d left my badge at home. The badge grants me access. It’s a sign of relationship. Only people with established relationship enter: employees, new hire candidates, vendors, contractors.

No badge. No entry.

Controlled access is a standard security measure. We routinely swipe badges or cards to enter buildings, swipe again to enter elevators.

We respect controlled access at work. But when it comes to God, some people seem to think anyone can march into the presence of a holy God and get their prayers answered.

At least that’s the impression I got from a young Brit on Facebook. He posted a discussion about the existence of God and invited opinions. It turned out to be an excuse for a diatribe against God.

I replied that I believe God “is” and that He can be known. He promptly replied: “bullsh*t!” And he didn’t use an asterisk.

In the ensuing conversation, he accused me of being brain-washed, compared belief in God to a brain virus and offered so-called proof that God is a myth: he had prayed and God had not answered. “You might as well be talking to a vase.”

I get it. He knocked at God’s door and believes God ignored him. Access denied. I think he wanted, still wants, to believe. He is hurt, angry, disappointed.

I say here what that wounded soul wasn’t willing to hear. Just because somebody prays doesn’t obligate God to answer. There is no access without relationship. And God knows our hearts, whether we want a relationship or we just want what we want.

Relationship starts with belief. Those who come to God must believe that He is, and that He rewards those who diligently seek Him. (Hebrews 11:6) Scripture says of Christ, “through Him you believe in God” (1 Peter 1:21)

God loves the world, and He has established the way the world gets access to Him. Jesus is the Way. (John 14:6)

God has protocol. In Old Testament times, one guy, a priest, could enter into the Holy of Holies one time a year to offer sacrifices for sin, his and the people’s.

One guy, one day a year. (Exodus 30:10; Leviticus 16)

If that guy didn’t come into God’s presence in the prescribed manner, he dropped dead and had to be pulled out. God didn’t allow anyone to come get him. That, beloved, is controlled access.

In New Testament times, Paul writes in the book of Hebrews:

Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)

Who is “us”? The letter to the Hebrews is addressed to brethren, to partakers of Christ, to those to whom the gospel was preached and they believed. Paul is writing to members of the family of God.

To have access, we have to have relationship.

Lots of people pray who have no relationship with God.  I would not say that God doesn’t respond.

Acts 10 tells of Cornelius, a devout man who feared God, gave to the poor, fasted and prayed. He certainly seems to be seeking God. And God noticed. One day, while Cornelius prayed, an angel appeared and told Cornelius to send for a man who would tell him what he should do.

That man was Peter, who preached the gospel of Christ to Cornelius “that through His name whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins.” (Acts 10:43)

God works on the basis of relationship. To get to Him, we must come through Jesus. He alone restores access.

Open Heart, Closed Casket!

Listening to the radio on the drive home one afternoon, I caught a snippet of a woman speaking to a group about a topic I couldn’t make out. What got my attention was a three-word phrase she used: “cold, hard, empty.”

Those words immediately took me back to a conversation I’d had with my daughter on a drive. Somehow we got talking about the dead which led to laughing about theatrical displays at open coffins.

(We laugh about almost anything!) If I go before her, she promised an award-winning performance to get me laughing from heaven.

If open casket drama is unfamiliar, you probably did not grow up in the South in a black church, as I did.

Funerals in Alabama are a scripted production that begins with the body being properly dressed and laid out in a funeral home parlor, the odor of perfumed formaldehyde hanging heavy in the air and permeating everything, including the roomful of cut-flower arrangements.

Done right, this display provokes the obligatory response: “Doesn’t he or she look ‘natural’?” or “Didn’t they put him or her away ‘nice’?”

This is where the radio remark comes in: Dead people do not look “natural.” They do not look “nice.” They look, well, dead: Cold, Hard, Empty. Those words precisely describe what many of us actually are while living – though we may appear otherwise simply because we are still breathing.

Apart from Christ, we are dead in trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1), spiritually dead and unresponsive to God. When people actually die, we come face-to-face with the physical reality of what it means to be dead. A dead body is cold, hard as leather and empty. The unique spirit that animated the personality is gone.

You can stand at a casket for hours, fiddling with buttons, adjusting ties, talking, shouting, weeping. (I’ve seen people actually kiss the dead.) You will get no response.

If the deceased was a believer in Jesus Christ, Christians believe that their spirit is “Absent from the body, present with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:8) If they did not trust Christ, their spirit, being eternal, still lives on in some place of torment. (Consider the rich man and Lazarus) 

I’m not a fan of viewing dead bodies. When I was a child, the departed were sometimes stretched out in their living rooms, where we’d join friends and family while dropping off a sweet potato pie or a bowl of home-made potato salad. Always seemed a little odd to me, eating and conversation with a dead body in the room.

Home viewings may have ended, even in Alabama where the old ways die hard. But the classic last look lives on. Sometime after the readings, tributes, songs and eulogy, family members typically file past the casket before it is finally shut and summarily rolled down the center aisle with prerequisite Scripture sentences: “I am the resurrection and the life…; I know that my redeemer lives…” .

Sadly, that last viewing is often where things turn dramatic. Sometimes the people who showed the least love during the deceased’s life weep inconsolably, require smelling salts to remain upright or have to be restrained from leaping into the casket.

Personally, I favor a closed casket funeral with lots of photos from various points in my life so those who knew me when, can recognize me then. As my mother used to say, “Remember me as I was.” Not cold, hard and empty, but full of life, laughter.

Of course, traditions die hard. When Mom passed away more than five years ago, family insisted on an open-casket send-off. And no, she did not look natural. She was wearing gloves, for heaven’s sake, which she never wore in life unless she was putting on a pair of Hanes!

Are you Somebody?

“Do you know who I am?”

The question is usually asked by someone who isn’t getting what they expect and consider themselves entitled. After all, they are Somebody: a person of status, position, social standing and/or means who expects to be treated accordingly.

Somebodies don’t follow protocol. They don’t stand in lines. They don’t wait.  And if they do, there is hell to pay.

If you are the impatient type, as I am, perhaps you’ve been tempted to be Somebody.

Happened to me when I went for a dental cleaning. The practice has been sold and most of the people are new. I, however, am a long-term patient, accustomed to prompt and skilled service. Things have changed. First, they called last minute to ask if I could arrive early to an appointment scheduled six months earlier. That would be a No. I rescheduled.

I waited nearly 15 minutes to be called back. As I waited, my husband sent a text saying I should consider the visit a “test.” He reminded me that I’d be representing Christ while there and should keep my behavior in check no matter what happened.

I needed the reminder.

I waited 45 minutes before a hygienist touched my teeth. Bitewing films were taken by someone who needed help turning on the machine. When the hygienist arrived, without apology for the delay, she promptly dropped an instrument with a loud clank.

She then kicked it aside, joking that I needn’t worry. She had plenty and would not need that one again.

If I could have spoken, I might have dropped a verbal bomb on this woman who apparently didn’t realize she should suction as she worked.

Instead, I sat there battling the urge to ask “Do you know I am”

  • a paying customer
  • a longtime patient
  • a witness to the first dropped instrument in decades at a dental office

It came to me that the more important question is whether I know who I am: Nobody special, just another human being whose faults, frailties and outright sins Someone died for. I should take my cue from Christ who “made himself nothing” (Phil 2:7) even though He was Lord of all. He humbled Himself, becoming obedient to the point of enduring death on a cross.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name (Phil 2:9)

A real Somebody is willing to become Nothing. They are not provoked, remaining calm under pressure. Christians are called to be Christ-like even in unreasonable circumstances.

For a moment, I considered that my inexperienced hygienist – whose framed degree revealed that she’d graduated less than a year ago – might have had a string of late appointments before me and I had walked into the perfect storm. Maybe she was doing the best she could and I should just relax and show some mercy. (Luke 6:36)

I took a deep breath and let her finish without a word of criticism and managed to leave the office without making a scene. Test passed.

Next time I’m tempted to pull the Somebody card, I hope I choose to be merciful instead. To quote Shakespeare:

 The quality of mercy is not strain‘d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven. Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest… It is an attribute to God himself. (The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1)

Your Jesus still in the manger?

It’s Advent, a time of Christian preparation for the coming of Christ. We’re fixated on the crèche: baby Jesus in swaddling clothes, haloed and lying in a manger, surrounded by animals, shepherds.

Babies are cute, cuddly, harmless, helpless, adorable. But babies grow up.

Despite Hollywood and Christmas card depictions, the wise men most likely missed the manger; Bible scholars say they arrived about two years later, where Scripture teaches they came into a house to greet Jesus as a young child.

Full story: Jesus kept right on growing into the God-man who died on a Roman cross to save sinners; He became a Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief, a Suffering Servant. He got up from the grave with all power in heaven and in earth in His hands. This same Jesus will one day come again — not as a baby, but as a conquering King.

Are you living like Jesus is still in the manger?

I get it. A grown up Jesus can be scary, awakening the kind of uneasiness sometimes associated with developmentally disabled children as they mature. Full grown, they aren’t so non-threatening; their non-conformity draws attention that can make us uncomfortable.

A baby can be soothed, silenced, ignored. A mature Jesus is not so easily managed.

Don’t be afraid. I bring you good tidings of great joy: Jesus has left the manger.

It’s time we who say we believe allowed Him to grow up or, to put it another way, to be “formed in” us. Strong’s describes the Greek word used for “form” to mean: a life and mind formed in us that is in complete harmony with the mind and life of Christ. Gal 4:19 

This, beloved, is what Christmas is about.

Jesus at the manger points us beyond Christmas to Easter and on to Pentecost, to the God who supplies supernatural power to His people to deal with daily life in real time, where we’re confronted with spiritual wickedness in high places.

This is not Jesus lying in manager, not Jesus suffering on the Cross or wrapped in grave clothes in the Tomb. This is Jesus moving by His Spirit in the Book of Acts.

Risen from the dead and preparing to get back to heaven, Jesus told His core followers to wait at Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, His Spirit, who would guide them in truth, empower them to live as Christians and to do the work of ministry.

Folks, the manger was only Act One. History, some say His Story, has kept moving.

Baby Jesus was on a mission: born to die to save us and to rise from the dead, His Spirit enabling us to be His witnesses and become mature men and women of God who reflect His image in the Earth.

Still looking for the perfect gift? Could be we all simply need to fully unwrap the priceless gift we already have: “Christ in you, the hope of glory!”

~ Merry Christmas.

 

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)