Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Undercover God

It’s odd that in the ordinary tasks of life God has a way of teaching me about him. 

A while back I was filling up my car at a local gas station when I saw an employee emptying out the trash cans by the pumps.  She was on the other side of the pump I was using, and I noticed her struggling to get the liner out of the trash can.  I reached over and gently held down the trash can to help out.  With just that little assistance she was able to get the bag out and go about her work. 

I expected a “thank you” but there was none.  Then I realized that she had never seen what I had done.  The trash bag she was lifting was blocking her view.  Besides that, I was partially hidden behind a pillar, so she never knew I helped! I guess she just figured that somehow, someway she managed to pull the bag out all by herself.  She didn’t thank me because she didn’t know that I helped. I was tempted to say something but decided the best thing to do was to remain anonymous.

I chalked it up as my “good deed of the day” and then it struck me.  How many times in my life has God helped me and I didn’t thank him?  How many times has God offered a little hand to assist me but remained anonymous? Does God do things like that?  Does God help us out ever so slightly that we don’t even notice?

Of course, there can be no definitive answer to those questions, because if God remains anonymous then how would we know?  Yet, I suspect that He does.  Looking back on my life I can see some curious times when in retrospect I suspect God was at work -- events that at the time I thought were mere coincidences or maybe even incidents that I attributed to my own strength or cunning that lead to a favorable outcome.  Maybe God was reaching around offering that ever so slight hand of assistance to help me out. Maybe there are some times in life when God acts yet remains anonymous.

The first book of the Bible, Genesis, tells a story of a man named Joseph (he of the technicolor dream-coat) whose life has more twists and turns than a downhill slalom. Eventually he ends up in a very favorable position yet all the events that led to that outcome could easily be attributed to coincidence or the normal events of life.  Yet, at the end of the story he credits his good fortune to the hand of God. In a meeting with his devious and betraying brothers who brought a good deal of grief into his life he says this: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good” (Genesis 50:20).  Joseph sensed God’s anonymous hand at work throughout his life.
That little experience at the gas station got me thinking that maybe God is helping me in ways I’ll never know.   It’s reminded me to thank God not just for his obvious and discernable help but for all those times he lends a gentle hand without fanfare.
Albert Einstein is credited with saying, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” Maybe with watchful and attentive eyes we can catch God every once in a while.  At the very least, we can give him thanks for those times when he works undercover.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The God Who Bothers

I don’t understand God.  I’m confident he’s working in the world, but I just don’t get why he seems to do some things and doesn’t do others.  I believe in answered prayer.  I believe in providence.  What really throws me for a loop though is the why, when, where, and how of things.  Even so, the fact that I don’t understand God doesn't surprise me.  If fact, if I did understand God then what kind of God  would he be? If God did everything I suggested, that would surprise me. I’m not surprised, but I am bothered.
It bothers me that God doesn’t consult me when he needs advice.  It bothers me when God doesn’t do the things that I think God should do.  It bothers me that God is silent when I think he should speak, and he speaks when I think he should be silent. God is bothersome, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.
David, the great king of Israel and author of many Psalms, wrote this: “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1) He also wrote this: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.” (Psalm 22:1–2)  And this is the man who was referred to as “a man after God’s own heart!” God bothered David.
The lesser-known but equally-bothered prophet Habakkuk opens his Old Testament book like this: “How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save?“ (Habakkuk 1:2) You can add Moses, Abraham, and Job to the long list of people who have been bothered by God.  I would suppose that your name has appeared on that list at some time in your life.   What are we supposed to do with this bothersome God?
Sadly, some people just quit believing in him.  I guess some would rather have a god who was predictable, aggregable, and less-mysterious or have no god at all (if a predictable, aggregable, and less-mysterious god could actually exist seems almost as bothersome to me). But many a bothered soul has somehow managed to still believe. The above-mentioned David, Habakkuk, Moses, Abraham, and Job are all members of the bothered-but-still-believing club.  How is this possible?
When I look at these bothered-but-believing souls there seem to be certain qualities they possess.  They seem to acknowledge that they may not always know what is best.  They seem to give God time to work things out knowing his timetable is different than theirs.  They seem to know that running a universe filled with freewill gone amok is a little complicated.  They seem to trust God to such an extent that they refuse to stop believing that he has a long-term plan even if it appears that randomness is the rule. And maybe above all, they possess hope.  They have the unfaltering hope that a good, wise, loving, and all-powerful God has written a beautiful ending that will make all the bother worth it.
Are you bothered by God?  Don’t worry, you’re in good company. Join the club of the bothered-but still-believing!
(Note to reader: I encourage you to read the endings of Psalm 13, 22, and Habakkuk 3:17-19)

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Why I’m Glad Jesus was Born

It’s the seasons of lists, so I thought I’d put together a short list of why I’m glad Jesus was born.

(1) Jesus was a great teacher.  Even if you don’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God, it’s hard to deny the beauty and wisdom of his teaching.  Not only that, Jesus used so many different methods to communicate.  His Sermon on the Mount are some the most powerful words ever spoken.  His parables are some of the most well-loved stories.  His ability to turn a chance encounter into a spiritual conversation is remarkable.  Jesus knew how to communicate to a wide range of people long before educational theory was even thought about.  Not only did he communicate well, but his message is life transforming.  Imagine if everyone lived by his teachings.  What kind of wonderful world would that be?  I’m glad Jesus was born because he teaches me so much.

(2) Jesus made people think. If you think Jesus was the kind of teacher who just bellowed out rules and truths, you’re wrong.  Jesus invited people to discover truth that was already in us, but had just been covered up by years of tradition and assumption.  While he valued tradition, he despised its tendency to blind us to God’s clearly spoken word.  Some of his strongest opponents were religious leaders who were so steeped in tradition they had lost sight of truth.  He challenged them and their followers to see beyond tradition and seek truth above comfort and the status quo. One of Jesus’ often-used teaching methods was asking people open-ended questions.  Other times he would just tell a story and allow the hearers to come to the obvious conclusion.  Sometimes he did simply declare truth, but often he challenged us to think trusting that any honest-thinking person would realize the validity of his teachings.  I’m glad Jesus was born because he challenges me to think.

(3) Jesus showed us what a real human looks like.  From Adam until Jesus and from Jesus to today no human being has fully lived out the will of God in their lives.  Jesus stands alone as THE model of what God had in mind when he made us.  His complete trust in God, his unconditional love for all kinds of people, his resistance to sinful compromise all make him unique among the human race.  In observing Jesus, we can see what we all should aspire to be. I’m glad Jesus was born because he is the perfect example of how I should live.

(4) Jesus’ coming reminds me that God cares. Jesus’ birth is a vivid reminder that God both knows and cares about what is happening here on the planet he created. Jesus’ coming reminds me that God has taken full responsibility for us and, while we were the ones who left Him, He is one who will never desert us. His love is unconditional, unending, and undeterred.  Even though we all have left God he still came to be with us.  In fact, one of the names used of Jesus is Immanuel which means “God with us”. God saw our need and responded.  I’m glad Jesus was born because it reminds me that God really does care about me.

(5) Jesus’ coming ushered in forgiveness.  The very reason Jesus came was to be a sacrifice for us.  He came to pay the price for sin that none of us could afford. His perfection was more than enough to undo what Adam had done in the Garden of Eden.  His sinlessness made up for our sinfulness.  His obedience broke the curse of sin, set us free, and paved the road back to the Father.  I’m glad Jesus was born because in Him I can find forgiveness.

I’m glad Jesus was born.  Where would I be without Him?

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

What Might Have Been

I don’t have a dramatic conversion story.  Sometimes I wish I did.  I remember as a younger Christian hearing stories of people sharing their impressive conversion stories and being almost envious of them.  You know them.  People who served prison time, who were caught up in heinous sins.  And then, someone shared the gospel with them and their lives were changed.  I remember hearing one of them years ago.  A guy named Joe shared with our group what he used to be like and we all listened with mouths agape and hearts amazed at how powerful the gospel had been in his life.  It’s not that my sins were any less offensive to the most holy God, but Joe’s sins and his deliverance made for such a better and more compelling testimony to the power of the gospel.  Sometimes I wish I had Joe’s story, but I don’t.

I wasn’t raised from birth going to church, but I was introduced to the good news at the relatively young age of ten.  So, I didn’t really have much time to sin that badly.  At least not badly enough to have a story that anyone would really like to hear.  Like all of us, I’ve had my struggle with sin, but I’ve never been addicted, imprisoned, or abused.  My story is really pretty simple.  I grew up believing, followed the rules (for the most part), went to a Christian college, married a Christian girl, and became a Christian minister.  Borrr-rrring

Sometimes I wish I had a better story.

People like me, and I suspect there are many more, can have the tendency to underappreciate the power of the gospel.  So, in the absence of a story of what used to be I sometimes imagine a story of what might have been.  What might my life have been like if I hadn’t heard the gospel at an early age?

Who can say for sure, but early on in life before God and the church became central in our family’s life there was a lot of alcohol in my family. Not that my parents were alcoholics, but drinking was more than social.  I can even remember pretending with my friends while playing in our pedal-driven cars driving to an imaginary bar and ordering drinks.  Alcohol, and perhaps even the abuse of it, was the trajectory my life was headed.  As a child I was exposed to unhealthy anger and even had moments of rage. Without the gospel, I’m confident that anger would have gotten the best of me many more times than it has. The list can go on.

I have in no way conquered the power of sin in my life, but, to the extent that I have, I give credit to the gospel.   To the extent that I am a good husband and a good father is a testimony to the power of the gospel.  I shudder to think of what might have been.  And in my shuddering, I give thanks to God who rescued me from the power of sin and death.  Just like he rescued Joe.

Maybe you have one of those impressive stories that everyone loves to hear.  Tell those and tell them often.  You are a witness to the power of the gospel.  But maybe you’re more like me.  Just an ordinary guy who has an ordinary story.  Take a moment and think of what might have been. How lost we would be.  Without purpose and without hope. Slaves to sin bound by our natural desires.

Shudder and then thank the Lord for rescuing you from what might have been and giving you the hope of what is to come!   

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Post-it Note Christianity

I’m a minister and, for the most part, the people I’m around know that.  But in the church I serve we don’t wear any special clerical clothing, so on occasion I find myself in conversations with people who don’t know I’m a minister.  That can create some interesting situations. I golf occasionally and it’s not uncommon if you’re golfing alone or in a pair to join together with another group to make a foursome.  Usually it’s around the third or fourth hole when the question comes up, “What do you do for a living?”  When I announce I’m a minster I can see the look of horror on some people’s faces.  Golfing can bring out the worst in a person and sometimes the language around the course is not what you might call “minister approved.”  So, I usually hear some apologies. 

Another common scenario is that after 10 or 15 minutes of conversation it’s found out that I’m a minister and there seems to be the need for some people to explain why they don’t go to church.   Recently I heard this: “I grew up (fill in a denominational name), but it didn’t stick.”  That phrase, “It didn’t stick,” got me to thinking.  Is that what Christianity is -- something that sticks or doesn’t stick? Is faith like a post-it note we slap on our chests so people will know what we are?

I love post-it notes.  They’re real handy but, by design, they’re not anywhere close to permanent.  I’ve also noticed that they’re not real effective for multiple uses.  The more you remove them and re-stick them the less sticky they become until eventually they don’t stick at all.  Post-it notes have a lot of valuable uses, but I’m inclined to think that one of those uses is not as a designation of our faith.  Christianity has to be more than a sticky-note, but sadly that’s how it’s seen by many.

A post-it note Christianity is convenient.  We can slap it on when we’re at church or with the minister and then painlessly remove it when we’re at work or behind the wheel. We can take it off when we go to the movies or surf the internet and reapply it when we sit down for our quiet time.  It can be removed when we want to use power and anger to win an argument and then reapply it when “faith” is more conducive in making a sale or building our reputation. Post-it note Christianity is quite popular, but it just doesn’t work.  The more you remove and reapply it the less sticky it gets until eventually it doesn’t stick at all.

After I heard that phrase, “It didn’t stick,” it dawned on me that faith was never designed to stick.  Faith was designed to be imbedded.  To be surgically implanted in our very beings.  To become a permanent fixture of our souls.  Anything less is not really faith.

Long before post-it notes and pens and pencils, an early form of writing was chiseling into stone.  It took longer, of course, but once it was engraved there was no erasing it.  I think that’s more what faith is like. Something permanently engraved on our hearts. The Bible talks about God’s word being “written on our hearts.”  What a beautiful image.

It’s either chiseled-in-stone or nothing.  Post-it note faith is not an option. So, what is it for you? Is your faith a post-it note faith or a chiseled-in-stone kind of faith? Only one will last.

Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of
your heart.
Proverbs 3:3 (NIV)

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Mirame, Mirame

Last month about 40 members and friends of our church went to Mexico on a mission trip.  Our assignment was to serve an orphanage in Chihuahua by helping with some building projects and general upkeep of the facility that serves about 50 children.   But more than that, we were called to spend time with those children to remind them that someone cares and help reinforce the mission of the orphanage to assure them that there is a Father who ultimately cares for them.  So, while much of our time was dedicated to cleaning, and painting, and drywall, we spent an equal amount of time just hanging out with the kids.  A good portion of that time was on the playground.

I can still hold my own by throwing, hitting, or kicking a ball, but there’s no way I could possibly keep up with the stamina of 8 to 15-year-olds.  I needed breaks and often found myself taking a seat while the younger members of our mission team kept up the pace.  But even as I sat, the children would come up to me with jump ropes in hand and say in Spanish, “Mirame, mirame.” I can’t speak much Spanish, but I did recall those words from my high school years.  It means, “Watch me, watch me.”  Even if I couldn’t run, kick, or jump they wanted me to watch.  So, I did.  They would jump rope while I counted.  When they reached multiple of tens, I would cheer and they would smile.  When they messed up, they’d start again.

“Mirame, mirame.” They just wanted to know someone was watching them.

In Genesis, the opening book of the Bible, a major player in the story is Abraham.  God had promised him that he would be the father of a great nation.  The problem was that Abraham and his wife Sarah were old, beyond their childbearing years.  So, Abraham decided to have a child by his wife’s servant, Hagar.  Although Abraham is regarded as a great man of faith (and rightfully so), this was not the best decision he made.  Hagar did become pregnant and that led to hard feelings between the two women.  The feud eventually led the expectant mother Hagar to flee into the desert. It was a hopeless move, but she simply couldn’t stand the humiliation and wrath she was experiencing. 

Imagine that.  A pregnant woman who had just done what she was told to do.  Certainly not without some responsibility, but no doubt a victim of the whims of those more powerful.  And now she finds herself in the desert, pregnant and alone.

Not long into her journey Hagar is visited by an angel of the Lord.  He tells her to go back home.  He makes her some promises, but more importantly he reminds her that, while no one else may care or see, the Lord does.  After that experience, Hagar gives God a new name – it’s El Roi in Hebrew.  In English, it’s The God Who Sees.

You know, we’re not too much different from those children at the orphanage.  We just want to know that someone is watching us, and we can rest assured that God is. 

When no one notices you’re gone, God notices. When no one else knows your pain, God sympathizes.  When you feel invisible to the world, God sees. 

“Mirame, mirame,” we cry out, and when we do we can rest assured that God pauses and watches.  And in watching, He assures us that we are loved.  He reminds us that we have purpose.  He affirms that even if the whole world deserts us, He never will.  He is The God Who Sees.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Remember Who You Are

Last month Jordan Spieth captured his third major golf championship as he outlasted Matt Kuchar at the British Open.  It was an amazing finish for the 23-year-old Texan, but the very beginning of the tournament had an interesting twist as well – not for Spieth, but for former champion Rory McIlroy.

McIlroy came into the British Open on somewhat of a slump, performing poorly in four of his last five tournaments, and it looked like that trend would continue.  He bogeyed four of the first five holes creating serious doubts that he would be in contention for a second Open title. 

But what happened on the sixth tee may have helped turn things around.  His caddie said, “You’re Rory McIlroy, what are you doing?”    He reminded him that he was a four-time major champion.  He reminded him that he was a former #1 ranked golfer in the world.  It was time for him to start playing like it.  And McIlroy did.  He started acting like himself. After that dismal start, McIlroy went on to turn bogeys into birdies and, in the end, finished a very respectable fourth.

All that he needed was to be reminded of who he was.

The Bible begins with the wonderful story of how the world came into existence – “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  He spoke and the universe came into being.  After that initial creation, Genesis focuses in on planet earth.  Skies and seas, sun and moon, birds and beasts all are spoken into being, and then God creates what he really had in mind from the beginning - man and woman.  And what’s unique about these humans is that they are created in the image of God.  In some mystical and spiritual way these two, and every other human since then, bear a resemblance to this good and powerful creator God. 

And all of us need to be reminded of that from time to time.  We are created in the image of God.

That’s who we are.  That’s who I am.  That’s who you are.

But there’s another narrative of our being that we hear all too often.  That other story tells us that we are here by accident.  That we are the product of random chance.  That we are no more than the molecules and atoms and DNA and other stuff that can be diagramed and seen and magnified.  That other narrative tells us that our morals, our beliefs, and our emotions are all evolutionary tactics that help us survive and deal with the fact that we are just stuff – nothing more than stuff.

Is that what we are?  Is that what I am?  Is that what you are?

If there’s any hope for us to turn things around, I doubt that narrative can do it.

But what about the Bible’s story?  What if we really are created in the image of God?  What if that is who we really are?

The Bible’s narrative of our being tells us that we are of great value, that we have a vast potential for goodness, that we have creative powers, that we are in a mystical and spiritual way like God.  Perhaps what we need is to be reminded of that from time to time.  We need to be reminded of who we really are - created in the image of God.

That’s who we are.  That’s who I am.  That’s who you are. 

And once we know that, we can start acting like it.