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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Conquering Death: Faith not Fences

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

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

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

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

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

Fencing out Death

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

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

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

Trying to hide a cemetery only draws attention to it.

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

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

Fear Not

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Restoring Twisted Things

forks I’m roaming through the thrift store the other day, in search of nothing in particular, and I spot this long handle fork. Four prongs, the fourth one leaning left and crooked down. But the design is sleek and stylish. And the price is right: 10 cents!

You might be wondering why anyone would buy a bent fork. Well, I carefully examined this banged up, jet black fork with its out-of-line prong. The inscription on the back read: “WM Rogers IS.” Didn’t mean much at the time, but I know enough about silverware to realize that a black fork has some actual silver.

That little fork had potential. With a little attention, I could envision it poking olives or lemon wedges on a well-set table. For a dime, I was taking absolutely no risk!

I bought that bent fork. Silver, a relatively soft metal, can be bent back into shape with a bit of effort. Having realigned it,  I applied some silver polish and some elbow grease…. and Voila! There’s the lovely fork pictured above.

Often a thing of value is marred, discolored, misshapen and devalued. This fork, silver or perhaps silver-plated, sold for a measly dime. And now it has become my treasure!

Twisted things can be straightened. Dark things can recover their shine. I did this with a simple fork. Jesus does this with souls.

We are not very attractive investments, messed up as we are by the world, the flesh and the devil. The good news is Jesus chose us anyway. He sees beyond what we are to what we can become through His transforming love, mercy and grace.

Life may beat us up and toss us aside, like a bent fork. But we are still valuable to God. Jesus shops thrift; am pretty sure He found me in the bargain basement. He is the master of restoring souls.

And the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. (1 Peter 5:10)

 

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)

 

 

 

Christians: Find your voice!

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Days apart in different parts of the country, two black men were shot dead this week in encounters with the police: Philando Castille in suburban Twin Cities, Minnesota during a routine traffic stop, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge convenience store parking area.

The incidents were captured in videos that have gone viral. Both men died of multiple gunshot wounds. Social media is awash in outrage. My socially conscious Facebook friends, black and otherwise, are posting non-stop about the perceived injustice and outright danger of being a black man in America.

Then there are those who are strangely silent. Usually vocal supporters of law and order and generous with postings on politics, gun rights, pro-life support and Christianity, they say nothing of these horrendous deaths at the hands of law enforcement. It’s as though they live in an alternate universe in which this is not happening.

I’d like to say that the Christian God is as much a God of the here and now as He is of the ever after. He is God with us. He sees and cares that people are dying. He is just. He is righteous. He is impartial, loving us all equally. What would Jesus do? He would not be silent.

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I am the mother of sons. Young men raised to be honest, respectful, self-supporting, God-fearing. One defends his country in the Armed Forces. The other is headed to college. They are all American guys, athletes, YMCA members, volunteers, workers. Smart, handsome, decent, and honorable.

My sons are black men.

Their blackness is all some people – hateful people – may see when they look at them. Such people view blackness as a dangerous evil that is to be punished, a threat to be extinguished. The reality is that some police officers are among these hateful people. When these officers see blackness, it is all they see to the exclusion of one’s humanity.

It’s telling that black men often die in the presence of police officers while white mass killers live to have their day in court: James Holmes, who killed 12 people in the 2012 Aurora, Colo., movie theater and injured 70 more, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Dylann Roof, a white guy accused of killing 9 black churchgoers inside their Charleston, SC, church in June 2015 was arrested alive and is trying to avoid the death penalty.

The silence of some Christian people as black men repeatedly die is deafening. It’s time we found our voice. We are the salt of the earth. It is our Christian duty to be our brothers’ “keeper.” (Genesis 4:9) The Hebrew word is shamar, a verb which means to guard, protect, save life. We are connected by our humanity, each of us vulnerable to injustice in a fallen world.

Consider the words of Martin Niemoller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me

 

Transforming Love

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Before everyone in my home state completely loses their heads over HB2, North Carolina’s birth gender bathroom legislation, may I say a word to my fellow Christians?

Transgender people are people, too.

I get that we may not understand how or why people are transgender.

I get that we may disagree with their notion of “gender identity.”

I get that we may not even like that there is such a thing as “transgender.”

I don’t fully “get” what it is to be transgender. I grew up in a time when gender was static.

What I do “get” is that people are created in God’s image. God loves people. He so loved people that He sent His only son to die to save us. (John 3:16) Save us from what? Whatever would distort the image of God in us. And He didn’t wait until we “got it.”

“God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 my emphasis)

Gender wasn’t always a general topic of conversation. Need I say that times have changed? At my house, we do talk about gender and sometimes late into the night. Frankly, we don’t always agree.

Convinced that being transgender is not new, my spouse doesn’t know why we suddenly need a bathroom law. My 20-something former gender studies student offered a primer, adding that this is not  an abstract notion. My 20-something actually knows transgender people who have been rejected by family, especially their church-going relatives.

What is missing from most Christian discourse about being transgender is any mention of the love of God, the mercy of God, the patience of God. Have we forgotten our condition when Christ found us? Overcome by deception, drunkenness, greed, lying, sexual dysfunction and perversion etc. “Such were some of you, but you are washed.”  (I Cor 6:11)

There are Scriptural reasons to disagree with a host of recent societal shifts, but no Bible passage promotes being hateful in the name of the Lord. God is not eager to condemn people. God is for people, and He keeps the conversation going.

In Genesis 4, to my surprise, God is still talking to Cain, who committed the first murder recorded in Scripture. This guy had whacked his brother Abel after inviting him out for a stroll. Premeditated, unprovoked killing. When God inquired about Abel’s whereabouts, Cain gave a smart-mouthed reply: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Yet, God didn’t punish Cain with immediate death. He didn’t allow anyone else to kill Cain either. Cain lived to marry, father children, build cities. God’s grace, mercy, love.

Let’s not allow HB2, or whatever else may come along, to pull us off message. The gospel is Good News, a message of love shared by loving people. Christ is not glorified by angry talking heads or screaming picketers carrying banners bearing hateful slogans. The fruit of His spirit is love; and love never fails.

“Whoever does not love, does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8)

Give Thanks

It’s early the morning hours of Thanksgiving. The last pie is baked and all the side dishes refrigerated. I’ve just turned out the lights and climbed the stairs, thinking how truly gracious and trustworthy God has shown Himself to be since another Thanksgiving a decade ago in this same place.

Just before Thanksgiving 2003, my husband came home early and announced that he had been “selected” to be part of a resource action. If you are unfamiliar with this bit of corporate speak, it has nothing to do with winning the lottery. My husband had been chosen for layoff after 15 years of award-winning service.

The family breadwinner had lost his job. Happy holidays!

This was about the scariest news I could have imagined. I’d been a stay home Mom for a decade. I did freelance jobs from time to time. But it was a hobby, nothing like the career I’d left behind to parent my own children. (This wasn’t exactly an heroic decision on my part. I couldn’t afford daycare; and could never get comfortable with the idea of giving strangers that much face-time with my offspring.)

After my husband shared his news and handed me a thick severance package filled with legalese, I still remember the frightful possibilities that jumped into my mind like a leapfrog: foreclosure, tax liens, homelessness, possibly facing a health crisis with no health insurance, having to make a long distance move to a job far away from aging parents. There were other questions: How would our marriage weather the stress? Would our family survive this?

That was just the major stuff. Later, myriad small worries crowded my mind, like which “nice but not necessary” things would have to go: my daughter’s ballet classes, the lawn service or maybe the garbage service?

Somewhere in there I was reminded that we were believers in Christ. And this crisis was an opportunity to see if my Christianity was real or just for show. Was I going to believe God or not? Could I count on Him when everything familiar moved? Did I really trust Him like that?

Ten years later, I am thankful that by God’s grace, we weathered the storm. We still live in the same house where I got that terrible news just before Thanksgiving so long ago. I’m still married to the same man. He still works in the same industry. Those children whom I worried might be homeless have spent the intervening years sleeping in their same beds, driving to see their grandparents in the same city. Our health is good; our minds are peaceful.

God has proven Himself faithful.

When we sit around our home and talk about Christianity and why we trust Christ for time and eternity, as we sometimes do, I honestly tell my children that I know God is real because we have history together.

I am thankful that, if you walk with God, you will find that He is just who He says He is. And He will do just what He says.

A God like that deserves my undying gratitude, love and obedience.

As our family sits down to dinner this afternoon and passes the acorn to share what we are thankful for, join us in following the instruction of Psalm 100:4

 Enter His gates with thanksgiving; 

go into His courts with praise.

Give thanks to Him and praise His name.