Things Aren’t What They Seem

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The Bible declares “Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.”

That’s not what it looks like at first glance.

Yes, Jesus Christ did miracles. His own birth – born to a virgin – was a miracle. Yet, Jesus’ own family members all weren’t convinced He was the Messiah. He was despised, rejected by the official religious establishment, convicted in a mock trial and turned over to the Romans who executed Him by crucifixion. Buried.

The ride-or-die disciples, who had left everything to follow Him, ran for cover.

This story does not have the ring of “Power” and “Wisdom.” Could be yours doesn’t either.

We’ve all had times when we thought following God’s plan would lead to a certain outcome, only to end up someplace we never expected to be.

  • You accepted a promising promotion only to be assigned the Manager from Hell.
  • Your child went to a great college only to return home overwhelmed before winter.
  • You exercised, ate right, denied yourself and your health still went South.

Things look bad. It’s disappointing. It hurts to get up in the morning. But know this: tough, tight places are where God’s wisdom and power make the difference – if you trust Him.

God seldom works the way I might hope, where I get to avoid all the unpleasantness and have it my way.

Yet, even when the worst happens, I promise you that God’s wisdom and power prevail. With God, things are not what they seem.

Sending a baby to save the world seems like a bad idea. Babies often didn’t survive childhood in Jesus’ day. Investing just three short years of ministry in a dozen guys who had never traveled much is not how I’d spread the word to the world.

Conquering through weakness, death and disappointment is something only God can orchestrate. We mortals spend all our lives trying to avoid those things. God makes all of it serve His purposes, for all things serve Him.

Seen through natural eyes, Jesus’ ministry looked like an absurdity that ended in failure. Maybe parts of your life look like that now. Remember, your story isn’t over any more than His is.

Jesus got up from the grave.

And those frightened disciples, who ran and hid, were empowered by the Holy Spirit to take the testimony of Jesus to the world, a seeming impossibility. We modern Christ followers are proof that it worked.

Trust God. The path may lead straight through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, but it’s only the shadow. God is with us. He is Faithful.

For the Scripture says, Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.

Romans 10:11

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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)

 

 

 

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)

 

Come to the Light

moths

Intelligence is over-rated.

Moths, so far as I know, don’t have a brain in their heads. But they seem instinctively to understand something that we humans have missed.

We’re meant to come out of the darkness and into the light.

I was sitting in the office a few hours ago with the blinds raised and all the lights in the room glowing brightly when I noticed a host of moths fluttering at the windows, some pasted to the panes as though they might find a way through in spite of the glass wall.

And this doesn’t just happen at my office windows. When I open the kitchen door to a dark garage, waiting moths race into my brightly lit kitchen before I can get the door slammed again. I spend the rest of the evening chasing them from one glowing lamp to another. Some find their way into enclosed overhead lights and, sadly, die there trying to get as close to the source of that light as possible.

Moths, sometimes huge ones, congregate around the outdoor flood lights that grace the corners of my home whenever they’re left on for any length of time.

Moths, you see, are attracted to light despite barriers.

We humans, on the other hand, seek to put as much distance as possible between ourselves and the Light.

Why do we do this? Scripture gives this answer: Men love darkness rather than light because our deeds are evil.  (John 3:17-21)

My friend, God is Light and in Him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5) His desire is that we draw near to Him that He might draw near to us.

And yes, our God is a consuming fire. Yet, the same fire that can burn down a house also can cook a hot meal and warm cold hands. The same fire that burns away dross simultaneously purifies precious metal.

Instead of stumbling around in the dark, bruising ourselves and piercing ourselves through with many a pain, why don’t we all turn to God to walk in the light as He is in the light? (1 John 1:7)

To quote Oswald Chambers, whose writings you may know through “My Utmost for His Highest”:

  To “walk in the light” means that everything that is of the darkness actually drives me closer to the center of the light.

If we’re hurting, bruised and can’t find our way in the dark, it’s time we admit that and come to the Light. God is not waiting to burn us to cinders. He stands ready to help us find our way home.

May we all someday say with the psalmist: “It is good to be near God…”  (Psalm 73:28)

How grows your garden?

Begonia

This is a tale of one plant in two seasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Love: Show More Than Tell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”