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

 

 

 

Escape Sin’s Paradox

a-universal-paradox

I am ever learning but never coming to know the truth.

I am sampling all the world has to offer but am empty still.

I am ever seeking new experiences but never finding joy.

I am free to do what I please and enslaved by my own choices.

I am the constant critic who is blind to my own shortcomings.

I am the instigator of wrongdoing and the accuser once the deed is done.

What am I?

I am “the paradox of sin.”

I am pleasure and punishment rolled into one.

Sin is pleasurable for a season. When the season passes, sin’s beauty is ravaged; and we are left with its ugly reality.

We’ve all had our conversations with sin, heeded its voice and inevitably encountered its diabolical duality.

Sin promises freedom but everyone who sins is a slave to sin.

Sin twists our desires, compels us to seek fulfillment in self-destructive ways. Sin drives us to run after a nameless something that is always beyond our grasp.

When I survey the landscape of my own soul, I see sin’s stillbirths: dead hopes, dead dreams and dead relationships. Eventually sin turns on us, confronts us with our guilt, reminds us of how we’ve failed, whispers that we deserve to die.

In truth, we’re all sinners. The wages of sin is death. There is none righteous, not even one.

Yet, death was never God’s plan.

Man was created in God’s image, an eternal soul with free will, freedom to choose. God planted a garden and put Adam, this man He created, in it. The garden was filled with pleasant trees, two of which are identified by name: the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God gave but one restriction:

Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die. (Gen 2:17)

We know the story: the serpent persuaded Eve to eat of that tree, insisting there was no death in it, that it was the source of godlike wisdom. She gave it to Adam and he ate. Why weren’t they drawn instead to the tree of life?

We human beings are forever tempted to taste a freedom that results in our own bondage. Given a choice, we gravitate toward death not life. Look at your own choices and say it isn’t so.

Fortunately, God has provided a way of escape.

The last Adam, Jesus Christ, has released us from the paradox of sin. His death and resurrection has broken sin’s power over our lives. We don’t have to obey the siren call of our own sin nature. We are free. Sin reigned in death. Grace reigns through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:19-21)

 “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

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)

 

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)

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.

Thought Catalog: Think About It

One of my children passed along a recent Thought Catalog installment entitled “Why I’m Not a Christian,” http://thoughtcatalog.com/2013/why-i-am-not-a-christian/.

It’s the story of a self-described obedient, church-going adolescent who became a Bible-reading college student and decided to “renew his faith by ‘praying the prayer’” through Campus Crusade for Christ and to give his life to God.

Life was good, but he had an overriding desire: a wife. Wives, after all, are a good thing. (Proverbs 18:22) This is where the story takes a turn.

Overwhelmed with desire but realizing sex outside marriage is outside God’s plan, this young man struggled. He eventually fell into a cycle of Internet pornography, masturbation and guilt. He says he still prayed, believing God for the wife of his dreams.

While working at a Christian group home, he was convinced he’d found his wife, working right alongside him. Problem was, she wasn’t interested.

A year passed. The 25-year-old virgin met a woman on MySpace and flew from South Dakota to Alabama to meet her. They were “naked just hours after meeting at the airport.” The girl, however, was remorseful. By the time his flight landed back home, she had left him a phone message saying: 

 “what we were doing. It just wasn’t right. I need a man who is going to be a spiritual leader. He shouldn’t be going to bed with me so easily.”

That was the decisive blow. He now considers himself an atheist. He was a good boy, delighting himself in God. (Psalm 37:4) God didn’t meet his expectations, so He must not exist.

My child wanted to know what I thought about this. My answer: Everyone wants a Savior; nobody’s looking for a Lord. Jesus Christ, however, is both Savior and Lord. It’s a package deal.

If we accept Jesus as Savior, He also becomes our Lord. That means He decides what we need, when we need it and how we receive it. His goal is not necessarily to make us happy, healthy and wealthy. God is focused on making us holy, conforming us to the image of His Son. (Romans 8:29)

Our role is to submit to His will, out of love and trust, choosing to humble ourselves. It’s not a one-time event. Committed Christians make that choice over and over again, one decision after another for a lifetime. It can be tough to do, even for the most dedicated souls.

God sometimes asks us to submit to things we don’t like: denying a natural desire for sex until He provides the right mate; working for a jerk when we might be more capable; walking through chemo and radiation while knowing God has the power to miraculously heal without human intervention.

He sometimes allows us to be disappointed, to suffer. And He doesn’t always explain why. He doesn’t have to. He is God. He suffered much more on the cross to save us than we ever will in obeying Him.

We humans rebel against all this. We naturally resent any and all authority. We don’t want anyone telling us what we can and cannot do. We want to be equal partners in a neat “religion” where I do my part and God does His. Even seasoned saints can struggle deep down with believing we know what’s best for us: who we should date or marry, what job suits us etc. We get angry when God doesn’t follow our script and quietly accuse Him of “not meeting our needs.”

Like the Thought Catalog guy, we can make an idol out of our unmet needs. I know. I’ve been there, done that more times than I’d like to admit. I’m thankful that God forgives when we repent; and He grants “do overs.”

It may be hard to accept, but God is not in the business of granting wishes. He is about transforming us. (Romans 12:2). He molds; He shapes; He whittles – working all of it for our good. (Romans 8:28)

Consider these possibilities:

  • Suppose the Thought Catalog guy really didn’t want a wife as much as he wanted sex?
  • Suppose God “failed” to produce a wife on his time schedule because he wasn’t ready for one?
  • Suppose the wait was meant to reveal his need to grow in the fruit of the Spirit which is self-control or self-discipline? (Galatians 5:23)
  • Suppose the woman he quickly bedded was God’s choice for a wife had he been able to exhibit that self-control?

People who truly love God don’t serve Him for what we can get but because of what He already has given: Himself. Through Christ, our sins are forgiven and we are granted fellowship and communion with God, total access with an open invitation to come boldly to the throne of grace and find mercy and help when we need it. (Hebrews 4:16)

God Himself is our “exceeding great reward.” (Gen 15:1) Not a wife, not a husband, not a job or any other dream come true. That stuff is extra, like whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles topping a good mocha latte.

 When we’re in a relationship, it all comes down to love. Did the Thought Catalog guy – do we – really love God? Jesus says to His followers, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15). “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24 NLT)

Christianity is a love relationship, not an obligatory transaction. (John 3:16) God is love, but He doesn’t assume love on our part. He says, If we love and If we want to follow. It’s our choice.

When we choose to go our own way, like the Thought Catalog guy, what we’re really saying is we just don’t love Him enough.

Think about it.

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.