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

 

 

 

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)

Learning anything from the pain?

Learning anything from the pain?

Suffering1   I knew I was beginning to recover from surgery when I became aware of the sticky square shapes in odd places on my body, the residue of monitoring patches. Now that I had the sense to realize they were there, it was time they were scrubbed off.

Hadn’t noticed them for a week. My days were filled with meds, meals, sleep and occasional trips to the loo.

Major problem; major surgery. Pain and suffering. Weeks of recovery.

I hope no one has told you that once you become a Christian, all your problems are solved. No more suffering or pain, just smooth sailing ahead.

It’s a lie. If someone told you this lie, I hope you don’t believe it. All it’s going to bring is disappointment with God over something He never promised.

Scripture actually teaches that we can expect trouble. Pick your translation and the upshot of 2 Timothy 3:12 is this:

“Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer…”

Not might, will.

Most of my real problems started once I became a Christian. (Before Christ, my “problems” were mostly the by-product of my sin.)

When I embraced Christ, I made the mistake of inviting my running partners, now called “road dogs,” to my baptism. That pretty much cleared my calendar. The ones who stuck around, thinking this was just a phase, exited stage right when they realized I really was a changed person.

I suffered the loss of “friends.” Then there were the family members who went a little crazy, the religious people who didn’t go for all the “saved” stuff. The person who had given me my first Bible became unglued. To this day, our relationship is strained.

Bodily suffering can pale compared to emotional hurt. Still, all suffering hurts. We’d all like to avoid pain, but don’t believe that other lie that if you  “just had enough faith,” you wouldn’t get sick.

If Christians were immune to sickness, there would be no need for all the New Testament teaching on healing. Paul, who wrote much of it, suffered a thorn in the flesh that God refused to remove. Instead, He reminded Paul:

“My grace is sufficient for you; my strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9)

God is with us in all our suffering. I encountered Him in the longtime nurse who brought cups of warm broth to soothe my aching throat after surgery left me barely able to swallow. I glimpsed Him in the bright bouquets that arrived on my doorstep, the meals brought, the cards mailed. I felt His embrace in the hugs of family and friends, heard His voice in their phone calls.

Suffering is part of the journey, not an aberration. It doesn’t last, but it will happen. When Paul encouraged disciples on his missionary journeys, he did not sugar-coat the reality of what it means to follow Christ, saying: “We must suffer many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22)

No servant is greater than his master. Jesus suffered; we will suffer.

“Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered.” (Hebrews 5:8)

I’m learning that dust bunnies will wait. That the people I care about are more important than the work I do. That feeling good is a gift easily taken for granted. That, in spite of everything, God is good. He is faithful and worthy of obedience and praise.

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.”

 

 

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.

Who are you gonna call?

Want to know how much you really rely on God? Here’s an easy way to find out: Where do you turn when something goes really wrong or when you’re facing something that you’d rather avoid?

Let’s say you’ve got a situation:

  1. A truly horrible boss who’s about to send you on a boondoggle to Canada for a meeting you could do virtually. Meanwhile, your real work is piling up on a project that already is overdue.
  2. An unemployed spouse who finally has a job offer… in another state. You’re more than grateful he has a real job prospect, but your support system – your lifeline – is where you currently live.
  3. Young adult children who are making unbelievably bad choices and simply are not open to advice, but they are happy to accept cash.

Could be your situation is much less dramatic:

Hey, it’s Sunday night and you are less than thrilled to be facing another Monday morning trek to a tiny cubicle where you work for a complete jerk.

Where do you go with all that angst?

  • Shopping?
  •  Phone a friend?
  •  Make an appointment with your therapist?
  •  Get a massage?
  •  Go out and get drunk?
  •  Get laid?
  •  Go into a shell and quit communicating with the people closest to you?
  •  Have just a little bit of some substance – legal or not – to get you over the hump?

Or do you get on your knees or take a long drive or take a walk in the woods — or however you choose to get alone with God – and pour out your heart to Him?

When we have burdens, troubles, things that turn our world inside out, Jesus says: “Come to me…”

Our tendency is to go everywhere else and — when all other roads become dead-ends, as they invariably do – we come to Him as a last resort.

God wants to be our initial point of contact, the very first place we bring our stuff and unload. He wants us to turn to Him and to tell Him what we are facing and to ask for some help, some guidance. No matter how terrible things may seem, God’s plan for us is that we never throw up our hands and give up. We are to keep the faith and entrust our cares to Him: “Man ought always pray and not to faint.”

Coming to Christ in prayer is our safety valve in a pressure-cooker world. It won’t make all our problems go away, but it will give us the peace and the grace to endure. And some things, beloved, just have to be endured.

“Indeed we count them blessed who endure.” James 5:11 (NKJV)

So next time you’ve got a situation, who are you gonna call? Where are you gonna go? The songwriter said, “Where Could I Go But To The Lord.”