Thursday, September 08, 2011

The Story, Chapter 31 - The End of Time

It's been a long journey - 31 weeks - but we have finally made it to the end of The Story. This journey leaves me with that awkward feeling I often have when reflecting on the past -- in a sense it seemed like we just began but in another sense it seems like Chapter One was so long ago. Our journey began in the cold winter days of February, breezed through the short Texas Spring, and survived the furnace of the record setting summer of 2011 and now ends on the tenth anniversary of one of the most infamous days in recent US history. In some ways I feel like a little kid in the back seat of my parent's car on a long road trip crying out that well-worn query, "Are we there yet?"

"Are we there yet?" - a curious question as we wrap up The Story. In one sense I get this feeling that we are there. The book of Revelation, as dumbfounding and cryptic as it is, makes some things absolutely sure: Salvation has been secured, God sits on his throne, and the evil one has been defeated. We are there!

But in another sense, even though victory is sure, we have to continue to wait until God finally puts a bow on this whole package. For reasons beyond our understanding the final trumpet has not yet sounded, the Fat Lady has not yet sung, the credits are not quite ready to roll. But sure enough that day will come. So even though salvation has been secured, the journey continues. We are not there quite yet.

This all leaves me a similar awkward feeling. In one sense The Story ends as if The Final chapter has been written but when the book is closed I realize that more chapters are to be written. And these chapters are, of course, the ones written not by others but by me.

The Story is now My Story. Your Story.

Write it well!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Story, Chapter 30 - Paul's Final Days

I am often suspicious of highly motivated people, perhaps because I am much more of a laid-back kind of person. I think they call those energizer bunny types a Type A personality. I'm more a Type Z - when stressed, catch a few zzzzz's and deal with it when you wake up. Anyway, in Paul I see maybe one of the most highly motivated people I have ever read of. He's not just a Type A, he's A+!

Type A's kind of scare me. They must be selling something. They must have some ulterior motives. Behind all that activity must be some devious charlatan eager to deceive me.

In Chapter 29 of The Story I saw another side of Paul. I guess I saw the man that I had missed in all the activity. I often associated Paul with doctrine. I love doctrine. I studied doctrine and Paul was the master theologian. I have always been impressed with his spiritual mind. I also often associated Paul with his fast and furious missionary journeys. I marveled at his non-stop pace, his ability to plant churches, his eagerness to go wherever the Spirit led him. I have always been impressed with his spiritual strength!

This week I discovered another dimension of this Type A apostle. As I read of his fateful journey to Jerusalem and his subsequent voyage to Rome I discovered that at the core of his being was a man whose great mind and great strength was only surpassed by his great heart.

This was a man deeply in love with Jesus Christ. A man whose heart powered his harried pace. As I read some of his last recorded words to Timothy this immense passion emerged from the pages and it struck me that there was nothing suspect about this Type A personality. He was more genuine, more real than I will ever be. I was especially moved by a familiar verse, one that was the inspiration of a hymn I remember singing often growing up:

I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.

Or in the KJV wording,

I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed unto Him against that Day.

I leave Chapter 29 with a new appreciation of Paul. On several occasions Paul would urge believers to "imitate me." I always thought that as somewhat arrogant. Just another pushy salesman! Now that I see his heart, I see it as good advice. He really seemed to "get it" and when one "gets it," they are never the same again!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Story, Chapter 29, Paul's Mission

Have you noticed that in the last few years movies don't end when you think they do? Oh, there will be an ending, but after the credits role for a few minutes there will be some outtakes or additional scenes. I've found myself standing up, brushing the popcorn off me, and ready to go only to take my seat again to see these usually entertaining postscripts.

I don’t have any insider information why producers do this, but I suspect that they reserve these scenes so we'll stay and watch the names of the many people who have made that movie possible - and it does take a bunch of people! I'm amazed at all the work that goes into making a movie, and usually the only ones we give credit to are the stars of the movie and maybe the producer and director.

The same can be said of the early church. Most of us can name the main characters - Peter and Paul. Outside of them we might be able to blurt out a few more names, but most of those are lost in the shadows of the great ones!

This week while reading The Story I intentionally circled all the lesser known characters as a reminder to me that the church didn’t rise on the backs of just a few individuals, but that it took a host of faithful believers to get the message out. The chapter is even titled Paul's Mission, but this is hardly the work of one man. In his shadows are scores of hard-working, courageous, selfless men and women who are used by God to share with the world the life-saving message of Jesus.

So, take a seat and let's give credit to Barnabas and Mark. And don’t forget the roles played by Timothy and Silas. And there's the husband and wife duo of Priscilla and Aquila. Then there's Lydia, Jason, Titius Justus, and Apollos. And that's hardly a complete list. In fact, at the end of many of Paul's letters you can see lists of others without whom the mission would never have been accomplished.

Chapter 29 may be a record of Paul's mission, but it really is all of ours. Although our names may not don the marquees or be preserved in history, we too are critical players in this divine drama. So, find your role, listen to the director, and listen to the challenge - Lights, Camera, Action!!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Story, Chapter 28 - New Beginnings

When LeBron James burst onto the NBA scene after a sensational high school basketball career a well-known shoe company capitalized on his fame signing him to a lucrative contract. One of their slogans used to promote their LeBron James's commercials was "We are all witnesses." I suppose we were all to feel a certain sense of privilege to be living at this time and in this place to be able to experience this incredible athlete. And, as a basketball fan, I am, to some degree, honored and privileged to see such a talent - except when he recently defeated my Boston Celtics!

I've been a witness to quite a few athletic talents in my lifetime. As a Boston fan I especially remember with fondness and privilege watching the great Larry Bird, Bobby Orr, Carl Yastrzemski, and Drew Bledsoe. And as time passes I regale my sons with tales from my sports-watching childhood. I boastfully recite statistics and proudly recall championships. I was a witness!

I noticed that "witness" is a recurring word in Chapter 18 of The Story. The apostles appeal to their eyewitness observation of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection as they proclaim the salvation offered through him. They are proud and bold. They are daring and unashamed as they recall the teachings of their friend and their Savior. They see themselves as witnesses and it is because of this that the message of Jesus spreads.

Although we have not seen with our eyes the glory of Jesus we have experienced the power of his message. We too need to see ourselves as witnesses. We need to feel the same sense of pride and privilege that the apostles felt and boldly and unashamedly share with others what He means to each of us. We need to regale our children, our friends, our neighbors with the wonderful tales of the life-changing power of the gospel.

We are indeed all witnesses and that's just what the world needed then and it's what the world needs now - a band of believers willing to let the world know what an incredible Savior we have!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Story, Chapter 27 - The Resurrection

The Story, Chapter 27 - The Resurrection

On occasion I’ll stop by a fast-food restaurant and find myself silently complaining about everything from the quality of the food to the service. The person who took my order seemed preoccupied with flirting with the kid behind me. I struggle to find a table that doesn’t have the marks of a three year old’s eating habits. I open my sandwich, take a bite and am repulsed by the mustard that I specifically refused at the counter. I immediately try to wash it down to find my soda has too little fizz making it taste more like medicine than a soft drink. To add to all this mayhem I hear the annoying sound of a kid’s meal toy ringing in my ear like a siren!

I’m exaggerating a bit, but sometimes I just get annoyed at the low standards I frequently encounter. But then I think and realize that that’s what you get for the $3.99 special! You see, I can’t expect fine dining at a restaurant that has a playground. It’s unrealistic to think that I will get a gourmet meal cooked by a 17 year old just trying to make enough money to pay for movie. I should realize that if you’re looking for culinary genius you simply can’t find it where your food is wrapped in plastic.

The feeling of dissatisfaction is really not the blame of the restaurant. It’s my fault for expecting more from an establishment that simply cannot nor promises to deliver what I really want.

This is so true for many people, not just in their restaurant choices, but for their life choices as well. Too many people find their lives unsatisfying, devoid of real joy and peace. So many people find themselves complaining incessantly that life just hasn’t delivered. But the problem may be that we are looking for something in places that cannot deliver.

In the resurrection story a phrase that has always stood out to me was when the angel at the tomb ask the women who have come to care for the body of Jesus this question: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”

I have often found myself left with a feeling of emptiness and spiritual hunger only to realize that I have been trying to find meaning and satisfaction in life in places that cannot deliver. I have been seeking life out of dead things and as tempting and luring as they may appear they simply cannot deliver. They will always leave us lacking.

It’s unrealistic for us to believe that the things of this dying world can really satisfy us. It’s our fault that we consistently dine at the cheap and quick spiritual restaurants of the world. We, like the women on that first Easter, need to answer the same question posed to them. “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”

Jesus’ resurrection reminds us that he really can deliver. The resurrection reminds us that real satisfaction is found at his table, not at the table of the world’s imposters. Jesus invites each one of us to feast on his life giving banquet promising that all who participate in it always leave satisfied!

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The Story, Chapter 26 - The Hour of Darkness

Sometimes people's fortunes can turn on a dime. Ask Jack Polz. The Washington native woke up one Monday expecting it to be just another beginning of another week. The most excitement he typically had was gathering all the lottery tickets he bought throughout the week and setting down at the store he bought them at to see if he was a winner. Well, Monday, July 18 one of those tickets paid off big-time. Jack Polz was the winner of $6.4 million from the Washington State Lotto. Imagine the party that followed! His fortune turned on a dime!

Ask Hunter Pence. Last Sunday, July 31, Pence woke up as the starting right-fielder for the last place Houston Astros. Not only last place Astros, but worst-record-in-the-league Astros. He was putting up some decent numbers and had even played in the recent All-Star game, but the Astros were going nowhere fast. By the end of the day he had learned that he was traded to the first place Philadelphia Phillies. Not only the first-place Phillies, but the best-record-in-the-Major Leagues Phillies. The Phillies are a certain playoff contender and an odds-on favorite to represent the National League in the World Series. I bet pulling on that Phillies jersey immediately made Pence feel like a winner! His fortune turned on a dime!

Sometimes people's fortunes can turn on a dime.

In chapter 26 of The Story the fortunes of all mankind take a serious turn for the better. It first appeared to be just another Friday capping off a typical Passover celebration. It was a curious celebration given the fact that the controversial miracle-working rabbi Jesus had made his way into town to the praises of an adoring crown, but the Jews were still going nowhere fast. But by the end of that day we all turned out to be lottery winners. We all exchanged our loser's jerseys for those of champions. By the end of Friday our sin debt was cancelled -- paid for in full by an innocent man who willingly suffered the excruciating pain we all deserved.

Before that Friday death reigned. After that Friday life was resurrected.

Before that Friday guilt ruled. After that Friday grace took control.

Before that Friday hope was lost. After that Friday hope was found.

The fortune of all mankind turned on a dime. I guess that's why they call that Friday "Good Friday!"

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Story, Week 25 - Jesus, the Son of God.

Jesus was the epitome of an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Who really was this man? Questions abound about the true identity of this teacher from Nazareth. No doubt he was an extraordinary teacher, a charismatic leader, and an indisputable miracle-worker. But was he another prophet like Elijah? Was he another King like David? Was he another deliverer like Moses? Was he another father of a nation like Abraham?

Jesus seemed to be like all these other Old Testament heroes, but there was no one category you could fit him in. He was all of the above wrapped into one plus a little something more. That little something more actually is a big something - Jesus is making a claim to be more than human. He makes claims that only God himself can make. This becomes especially clear in a discussion he has with the Jewish leaders when he makes the bold statement, "Before Abraham was born, I am."

With this, Jesus is claiming not only to have existed before he was born (enigma wrapped in a mystery) but this "I am" claim harkens back to the burning bush episode when God reveals himself to Moses as "I Am." There is no doubt that Jesus is making a claim to be God!

Up to this point Jesus had been reticent about revealing his true identity (often times after a miracle Jesus instructs the beneficiary not to tell anyone about what just happened), but as the time for his death approaches Jesus becomes more open about precisely who he is. And this is what really gets him in hot water.

You see, the problem with Jesus' identity is not trying to figure out who he is, it's deciding what to do with him when you do find out who he is!

The enigma and mystery has been revealed- Jesus is unique among all men. Jesus is more than prophet, more than king, more than servant - Jesus is the one and only Son of God. He is God himself. Jesus is God in the flesh! Immanuel - God with us!

Once we find out who he really is we need to decide what to do with him. The leaders of the day decide that Jesus needs to be silenced. They know who he is (Maybe they know more than even the apostles. They seem really confused at times) but they are unwilling to rearrange their own lives to accommodate him. That's the response of many people. Others come to know Jesus' identity and give themselves wholeheartedly to him, even willing to take up their own crosses in faithful service to Him.

Chapter 25 begins with the question, "Who do men say that I am?" A question all of us must answer. But more important is our reaction when we discover who he really is. Think about it for just a moment - Jesus Christ is God in the flesh! What does that mean to you? Are you living your life in the recognition that Jesus is God in the flesh or have you put him aside unwilling to rearrange your own life?

Jesus is not the enigma wrapped in a mystery. His identity is clear. It's all of us who halfheartedly follow this man/God who are the enigma. Why are we not as devoted? Why are we not as willing to follow him at all cost? Why are we so obsessed with things of this world? That's the real mystery!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Story - Week 24 - No Ordinary Man

Even though the Woman's Soccer team lost a heart-breaker to Japan in last week's World Cup final, soccer enthusiasts see the success of the team as a boom for soccer. No doubt more than a few young girls around the country were inspired by the team's performance and will either rededicate themselves to soccer or give soccer a try for the first time. And that gives soccer coaches and players chills thinking that more and more people will come to love the sport that has captured their hearts. For some it's not about winning or losing, it's about getting the word out about a great sport.

That's how it is when you love something - you want more and more people to catch the fever!

This week in The Story we have the retelling of one of Jesus' most well-known parables, The Sower and the Seed. Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven expands as people spread the seed in as many places as possible. Those whose hearts have been captured by Jesus naturally want others to catch the fever.

It's been exciting here at Park Avenue to see that happening. Justin Banks traveling to Japan to help that ravaged country discover the hope of Jesus Christ. Seeds being sown. Our Youth Mission trip to Philadelphia serving people and teaching them about the freedom we have in Christ. Seeds being sown. Oliver and Beverly Bush in Kenya following up on World Bible School contacts and seeing how the harvest has been bountiful in that nation. Seeds being sown.

We just want more and more people to know what we have come to know. So whether you're in Japan, Philadelphia, Kenya, or your own neighborhood, spread the word. Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose, but the most important thing is that word is getting out and that more and more people hear the great news - - that Jesus is no ordinary man. He is the Savior!

That's how it is when you love something - you want more and more people to catch the fever!

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Story, Week 23 - Jesus Ministry Begins

This week Jesus is off and running. After thirty years of "waiting it out" Jesus gets to the work he came here to do. Several things strike me about this chapter.

Preparation by temptation

Jesus goes through a time of intense preparation with a 40 day fast. Jesus realizes that spiritual focus is of utmost value as he begins his ministry. It's 40 days alone with the Father, apart from physical needs, and time to deal with any doubts or fears he has had about this mission. This preparation includes a time of intense temptation from the devil. In fact, the Spirit has led him to the wilderness for this exact reason - to face temptation. Satan's goal is to derail this mission, but the temptations actually have the opposite effect. Jesus gets more focused than ever. I never thought about temptation like that before - it can either get us off track or help us dig in even deeper. For Jesus, temptation serves the latter purpose. He leaves the wilderness more focused than ever!

He takes time for the little guy

Although Jesus has opportunities to speak to large crowds (he goes to the synagogues and teaches at a full house), it is not unlike him to pause and talk to the little guy (and isn’t everyone little in comparison to Jesus). He converses with Nicodemus and chats with the Samaritan woman. This will be standard for Jesus as we read through the gospels. A lot of famous people don’t take time for the infamous, but Jesus does! He's interested in people, not crowds. He is here for the individual which reminds me he came for me and has a specific word for me as well. He doesn't walk through this life without awareness of individual needs. Jesus shows me that he is observant!

He gathers his posse

Jesus realizes that he's going to need some help in this mission. He knows that he's here for just a little while, so he'll need some men to carry the baton after he's gone. So he starts hand-picking a group of men that come to be known as the apostles. While reflecting on this I thought back to the movie Ocean's Eleven. In the 2001 movie George Clooney (Danny Ocean) plans an elaborate casino heist and recruits eleven associates to help him. Each one is different and a little eccentric, but each one has a specific role to fill. Each one has special talents, training, and abilities that will make this heist of the century possible. This principle will carry over into the New Testament church as Paul uses the human body as an illustration of the church - each member though different has its own function to serve. Jesus gets organized.

Jesus is off and running. He's focused, he's observant, and he's organized.

Game on!

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Story Chapter 22 - The Birth of a King

So, we are now into the New Testament, but I'm seeing all sorts of references back to the Old! Imagine just jumping into the Gospels without some background to build on. It would be like jumping into a trilogy and skipping episodes one and two and starting with three. It would be like watching Rocky V without watching the previous four installments (did anyone really watch Rocky V anyway?). You could probably get some sense of the story, but you would miss out on so much!

No doubt we live under the new covenant but knowledge of the old proves itself so important. Right off the bat in this opening chapter of the New Testament we see repeated quotes, references, and allusions to the Old.

Case in point:

John's introduction to the story of Jesus has several allusions back to Genesis 1. "In the beginning," "light," "word of God". There's no doubt that John sees the coming of Jesus as somewhat of a new genesis, a new beginning.
Joseph is a descendent of David. Is this really a surprise? We start reading about this young couple and then it's revealed - "Oh, by the way, Joseph is a descendant of David." We couldn’t imagine it being any different. The gospels see Jesus as a new king and as good as David was he's not even worthy to shine this king's shoes!
Quotes from prophets. Already in this brief introduction to the coming and ministry of Jesus we have quotes from prophets who lived HUNDREDS of years ago. Micah and Jeremiah are cited as talking about this child's birth! The gospels see Jesus as the climax of prophecy. It was really all about Him even before he was here!

And this is just the beginning. Throughout the New we will see numerous glimpses of the Old. The past 21 weeks have helped set the stage for this new and exciting work of God and knowledge of those "old" stories will enhance our understanding of the "new." We may be starting a new testament but it sure helps to have read the old.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Chapter 21 - Rebuilding the Walls

Saying goodbye to a good friend is a bitter sweet experience - while fondly remembering all of your common experiences you bid farewell often without knowing when you'll see each other again. Reading chapter 21 in The Story stirred up some of those same feelings. With this chapter we wrap up what we call the Old Testament saying goodbye to all the friends we have made along the way. It has been quite a journey and it'll be a while before The Story will pick up again.

Actually, for all of us making this journey together it'll be just next week when we'll pick up with the New Testament, but in real time there is a 400 year gap between Malachi and Matthew! God has graciously placed his people back in the Promised Land with Jerusalem's wall rebuilt and the temple (though not even close to the splendor of Solomon's temple) rebuilt and back in business, but now comes the long wait. Little did any of the Israelites know that the plan was once again in a holding pattern awaiting just the right circumstances to resume.

I often wonder why there are such large gaps in God's plan. It's almost as if that friend you have said goodbye to neglects to contact you even after weeks or months of absence. Why does God "go dark" on his people?

Years ago flying home from Texas to Boston I had a layover in Atlanta. We were scheduled to land but because of storms below us the pilot announced that we were going into a "holding pattern." For about an hour we circled the Atlanta airport until the storm passed waiting for the time when landing would be safe. You see, trying to land in an electrical storm just wasn't prudent. The delay seemed interminable and was somewhat irritating, but really the delay was for our own good. Circumstances just weren't right. In this case silence was sensible. Waiting was wise.

I can’t say for sure why the time wasn't right to send Jesus into the world earlier, but I do know that Scripture assures us that Jesus came at "just the right time."

So I say goodbye to my old friend and patiently wait for his call. I'll have to wait quite a while but when God speaks next he has something to say to us that will blow our socks off. For up to this point God has spoken from afar - from distant mountaintops and thunderous storms. Up to this point God has communicated through his servants and prophets. But when God speaks again he will announce a new twist in The Story. One that no one could have imagined.

HE is coming!

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Story Chapter 20 - The Queen of Beauty and Courage

"Do you believe in Miracles?" Those words will forever be associated with the unlikely victory of the USA hockey team over the indomitable Russian team in the 1980 Winter Lake Placid Olympics. Not only was this victory memorable because we won, but because "they" lost. "They" being what was regarded as the best hockey team on earth. The Russians had already proved their dominance in victories over an NHL All-Star squad, so a bunch of amateurs certainly seemed to be no challenge for the mighty USSR. "They" also being the arch enemies of the good old USA. They were perceived as such an evil threat in so many areas of our life that beating them in tiddlywinks would be cause for celebration.

It was a classic story of good over evil -- underdog over prohibitive favorite!

Esther tells that same story. A pretty but for the most part insignificant Jewess from the tribe of Benjamin (one of the smallest and least significant tribes) teamed up with an equally insignificant uncle take on the most powerful man in the known world and all his henchmen!! And in the end the good guys win, but the victory is even sweeter because the big, bad, powerful guy goes down in flames!!! If Al Michaels was calling this contest he may very well have had the same classic response - "Do you believe in miracles?"

Strange thing however about this Esther story is that there are no outright miracles. No plagues, no fire from heaven, no timely natural disasters. So how does a victory like this happen without direct intervention from God?

Here's the post-game analysis; the keys to victory.

(1) The underdog always believed in a God who was more powerful than any king. Mordecai, Esther's uncle, refused to bow down to any man. Worship was set aside only for God. No king or noble man deserves what is only reserved for God. Key #1 - Unyielding Devotion.

(2) Esther used some cunning to carry out this plan to corner Haman, the henchman. Esther stays quiet about her Jewish roots. Esther sets up the banquet with the king and Haman without revealing her real purpose for the meeting. Esther never lies and is never deceptive but she is crafty. She knows how much information to let out and how much to keep to herself. Key #2 - Wisdom.

(3) When it becomes necessary, Esther risks her life for her faith. Calling for an audience with the king, even if you were his wife, could upset him to the point where he might decide to have your head on a platter. In spite of the risk, Esther (encouraged by her wise uncle) realizes that some opportunities cannot be passed up. Mordecai's inspiring words, "Who knows, you may have been chosen queen for just such a time as this," remind us that there are some things that we have to stand up for right now even if our lives are on the line. Key #3 - Risky faith

Put them all together and the result is almost always the same. Victory! And that's the word forever associated with men and women who display unyielding devotion, wisdom, and risky faith!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Chapter 19 - The Return Home

When I was a kid I remember whenever I was in a place that had public telephones I would always check the coin return to see if I could pick up any extra change left behind by careless callers. It was rare to find anything but every once in a while I'd come up with a nickel or dime which for me was like a pirate digging up a buried treasure! However, one day I remember hitting the mother lode! I came upon several quarters left behind in two or three pay phones - it was by far the biggest payday of my treasure hunting exploits.

Come to find out, those coins were not left behind carelessly but were placed there by family members. Knowing my tendency to check all the coin returns they had set me up!!

Chapter 19 is a set up of sorts. After seventy years in exile God makes things happen. The Lord moves the heart of King Cyrus to send the Jews back to their land to rebuild what Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians had destroyed. Not only that but he opens up the treasury to fund the project AND returns to the Jews all the belongings of the temple that had been looted by Nebuchadnezzar. Everything just seems to fall into place, but behind the scenes we see that God is popping in the quarters to bless and restore his people.

In many ways I see my life like that as well. So many experiences I have had have just seemed to fall into my lap. An incredible and supportive family to raise me. Friends and professors who have richly blessed my life through my college years and young adulthood. A precious wife and an incredible family of my own. A church to minister in that really I really just stumbled upon.

As I look back at all the good things that have happened I know they are not because of my doing, nor do I believe that all of these have been a coincidence. No. I believe that behind the scenes God has been setting me up.

Too often we take credit for all the good things in our lives when really we need to praise God who richly provides for his people. Like a good parent, God delights in blessing his children and I believe he still delights in making things happen in our lives. So next time you stumble upon an unexpected blessing, look up and say thanks!

James 1:17

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Story Chapter 18 - Daniel in Exile

I was born and raised in Massachusetts. I live in Texas. Shortly after I had moved to the Lone Star State I came across a bumper sticker - "Keep Texas beautiful. Put a Yankee on a bus." Although that sentiment has not been characteristic of my life in Texas, I know how it feels to be an outsider. People talk differently, the food is different, customs are different and sometimes I have struggled just to fit in. All in all, the jokes and the jabs have all been in fun but still there is some discomfort in being a "foreigner.".

Yet, my experience is minimal in comparison to what the Jews experienced as they were exiled to Babylon. The jokes and jabs were not in fun. In fact, the differences that existed were often times a matter of life and death. Conformation was often not an option, but a state-mandated requirement. This is the dilemma that Daniel and his three cohorts (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) find themselves in and the same dilemma faces all of us today. We Christians live in an alien culture that is often inhospitable to serious disciples of Christ. And many times the jokes and jabs are not all in fun. Daniel stands as an example of how to live as a serious believer in a culture that strongly discourages such a lifestyle. We can all learn a lesson or two from our friend Daniel who boldly resists conformation to the ungodly culture he finds himself in.

Lesson One: Resolve to be different when the differences matter. Right off the bat it is said of Daniel that he resolved not to be defiled by the royal food and wine. Daniel had already made a decision that here were some things that were non-negotiables. We must resolve to stay true to those habits and practices which define us as disciples.

Lesson Two: Daniel maintained godly habits in spite of their censorship in the foreign culture. Daniel's practice was to pray three times a day. This was not something he decided to do just when in trouble or when he needed to impress his colleagues. Daniel practiced this spiritual disciple on a regular basis. We must stay true to those godly habits that help form us as disciples.

Lesson Three: Daniel was committed to endure suffering when threatened to compromise. He and his three cohorts had a "come what may" attitude when threatened by punishment and even death when their convictions conflicted with the king's decrees. It was this willingness to die for a cause that eventually brings God glory that never would have been possible had they given in. We must be willing to suffer if we want to make changes in our culture.

Resolve, discipline, and commitment are three components of faithfully and successfully living as an outsider. So, stay true to who you are even if they threaten to put you on a bus!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Chapter 17 - The Kingdom Falls

There's always two sides to a story, including this week's story of the fall of Jerusalem. One side is really quite disturbing. Jerusalem is surrounded by the Babylonians, a famine sets in, the temple is burned and all the treasured possessions of the Jews are destroyed. The one side of the story is that God has simply had enough with these stubborn, rebellious people and they get what they deserve. But the other side of the story is equally disturbing. God who is broken-hearted. This time around I saw this story through the eyes, or should I say, the heart of God. Can you imagine the pain he suffered allowing such destruction to take place. God really deserved a better performance from his children!

I have never experienced a house fire, but I painfully try to imagine the ache of losing all my prized possessions. Those pictures you worked so hard to pose for and then frame just right. The furniture you purchased after weeks of research. The clothes you spent hours picking out. The financial loss is one thing, but the emotional loss is quite another, and perhaps even greater. The investment you made in making that house just how you wanted it to be all goes up in flames.

As Jerusalem goes up in flames try to imagine the pain that God is experiencing. All the investment he has made in this nation goes up in smoke. The way he lead Abraham, empowered Moses, blessed David -- all is gone. All the hope he had in his nation is nothing more than memories. God must have surely wept at the fall of his prized possession.

And then I turn my attention to me, my life. When I fail spiritually I often see just one side of the story - my failures and the negative results that naturally follow. God punishing me for my sin! But what about my failure from God's perspective? How hurt he must be that I chosen someone or something else other than him. How hurt he must be when I don’t live up to the expectations and promise he has for my life. God does not delight in our suffering, he suffers with us.

As a parent I have felt just a fraction of what God feels. There's no pain quite like when a child disappoints you. After investing so much time and energy into teaching a child, to see them make horrible decisions is heart-rendering! And God is likewise disappointed when we fail spiritually, and that side of the story gives me motivation. I do not want to waste all the investment that God has made in my life. I don't want to bring him grief. I want to make him proud - he deserves it!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Chapter 16 - The Beginning of the End (of the Kingdom of Israel)

Sad news in chapter 16 - The northern kingdom falls to Assyria. This however did not come without several warnings. Prophets predicted it and kings refused to listen so God delivered on his promise and sent the Assyrian armies into the capital of Samaria and took captive the northern kingdom of Israel.

As the armies of Assyria turned their eyes toward Jerusalem the southern kingdom of Judah looked on and seemed doomed to the same fate. But instead of accepting defeat the young king Hezekiah turned to God's prophet Isaiah and he promised that Assyria will not take Jerusalem.

In an interesting exchange we have two voices calling out to Hezekiah. The voice of the Assyrian general taunting him for having faith in his God. "Do you really expect your God to stand up against this army when all other nations and their gods have fallen so easily?" was the mocking of the Assyrian general. On the other hand you have the prophet Isaiah reassuring Hezekiah that the Lord will indeed defend this city. Hezekiah has to choose which voice to listen to.

Don’t we all? Don't we all have competing voices calling out to us. One calling us to focus on the strength of our enemy and the weakness of our God. One intimidating us and calling us to give into the forces of evil. The other, God's voice, reminding us that He is with us. Reminding us that He is more powerful than any force man can muster. Each of us is caught in the middle and has to choose the voice we will listen to.

Hezekiah listens to the voice of God and amazing things happen. Assyria is distracted by another military action by the nation of Cush. A plague strikes the Assyrians and 185,000 drop dead! Sennacherib, the Assyrian king, is assassinated by his sons while worshiping his false god. The insurmountable armies of Assyria retreat and Jerusalem is spared!

Casting Crowns, a contemporary Christian band, recorded a song a few years back called The Voice of Truth which puts to music this battle we all face. Hear the words of the chorus:

But the Voice of truth tells me a different story
the Voice of truth says "do not be afraid!"
and the Voice of truth says "this is for My glory"
Out of all the voices calling out to me
I will choose to listen and believe the Voice of truth.

What voice will you listen to? The forces of evil will seem overwhelming. The enemy will taunt you and mock you. It is so easy to give in but we must continue to listen to the voice of God and stand firm for what we believe. God will deliver. He has proven himself over and over again.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Chapter 15 - God's Messengers

Chapter fifteen introduces us to the work of the prophets as they confronted the evil and idolatry that had become standard fare in the nation of Israel. Elijah, Elisha, Amos, and Hosea are featured in this chapter as bold proclaimers of God's simple and direct message - repent or be destroyed!

It's in this chapter that is recorded one of my favorite Old Testament stories - Elijah's meeting with God at the cave on Mount Horeb. Elijah has just experienced a great victory at Mount Carmel over the prophets of Baal, but in depression and desperation has fled to the wilderness. He's down in the dumps as he struggles with finding God in the mess that is Israel. He needs a fresh revelation of God and God gives it to him.

The Lord instructs Elijah to go to the mouth of his cave hideaway because He is about to pass by. A great and powerful wind, an earthquake, and a fire all appear but neither of these carry the presence of God. Following these action-movie-like demonstrations quietly appears a gentle whisper and it is in this gentle whisper that God is present!

God is in the simple, quiet, routine facets of life. That is a hushed message that speaks deafeningly to me every time I read it.

In college I saw a production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town that has left an impression on me that lasts until this day. The story is of a simple New Hampshire town at the turn of the 20th century. It reveals a rather dull story-line with rather dull characters living rather dull lives. Wilder's purpose for this play begins to be revealed when Emily, one of the major characters, dies in childbirth and in the realm of the after-life is given a chance to relive one day of her rather dull life. But as she returns to Grover's Corners everything that was dull is full of life and excitement, not because anything had changed but because even though it was dull it was LIFE! As she says her goodbyes she tearfully bids adieu to the simple things in life - things like freshly ironed dresses and warm baths. And then she utters words that still ring in my mind - Doesn’t anyone realize life while their living it? Every, every minute.

Wilder has taught us a valuable lesson - life is only dull when we fail to realize that the beauty of life is gift wrapped in the gentle whispers all around us! Likewise Elijah teachers us a valuable lesson - God is found as we appreciate all the simple beauties all around us.

Anyone who has lost someone they love longs for all those simple treasures - a soft caress, just hearing their voice, the twinkle in their eye, a simple meal together. Perhaps one of the secrets of life is to appreciate those simple treasures while we have them. Perhaps one of the secrets of life is to be perceptive enough to see God in all the gentle whispers of life.

May God grant us the ability to live life - every, every minute!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Chapter 14 - A Kingdom Torn in Two

Earlier this year I invested quite a bit of my time watching Ken Burns' Civil War documentary. Like every other red-blooded American kid I studied the Civil War in school but I had never quite realized the impact that event had on our country until I watched this gripping series. It really is quite amazing that the country was able to stay together after four years of brutality.

One thing that happens when countries experience times like that is that it is impossible for them to really live out the reason they exist. A majority of time, resources, and energy is devoted to simply surviving rather than concentrating on growth, expansion and serving its citizens.

Disunity always results in dysfunction.

And that's what we see in Chapter 14. The kingdom of Israel is no longer unified and the results are disastrous. Instead of being a light to the world, God's people struggle to survive, both politically and spiritually. No longer are kings and queens beating paths to Jerusalem to sit at the feet of Solomon. The only reason they journey to Jerusalem is in a military attack! God's people are under siege and the distractions prevent them from living out the reason for their existence.

Remind you of anything?

Individual churches and the church universal can be decimated by disunity. When parties are warring within there is little energy to reach out. And even when we reach out who wants to join a community that is at war? Disunity prevents a church from being a church.

That may be why Jesus prayed for his disciples to be unified. One of Jesus' last prayers before the crucifixion is recorded in John 17 and an overarching theme of this prayer is of the unity of believers. Listen carefully to Jesus' plea:

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Jesus recognized the power of unity and he prayed for it.

Here at Park Avenue we have adopted Psalm 133 as a guiding principle for our work. Verse 1 beautifully states, "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! "

Last week I committed to making wisdom a priority in my prayer life. This week unity joins that list.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Chapter 13 - The King Who Had it All

The story of Solomon is simply amazing. Having asked for wisdom to administer the nation of Israel, God grants not only that request but gives him a dose of wealth and honor that few have ever known. Reading through this chapter Solomon reminds me of those commercials featuring The Most Interesting Man in the World. You know, the guy described by the following:

• "He is the life of parties he never attended."
• "He once had an awkward moment, just to see how it felt."
• "He's won trophies for his game face alone."
• "His words carry weight that would break a less interesting man's jaw."
• "Sharks have a week dedicated to him."
• "He can speak French, in Russian."
• "At museums he is allowed to touch the art."
• "He bowls overhand."

Solomon is THE MAN! Kings and Queens from all over come to sit as his feet and marvel at his wealth and wisdom. Nobles from around the world send extravagant gifts in tribute to this noted king. Solomon - builder of temples, dispenser of wisdom, proprietor of unimaginable wealth!

Solomon stands as an example of what God really wants for everyone. For those who humbly come before him, God wants to grant us more than we can even think or imagine. However, lost in all the bling is the greatest gift Solomon possesses - the wisdom of the Lord. His original request was his best and although he seems to have forgotten that along the way (how wise is it for a man to have 700 wives and 300 concubines) he does seem to make full circle at the end of his life when in Ecclesiastes he is credited with this famous finale--- Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. (Ecclesiastes 12:13)

We would do well to repeat Solomon's request. Years later James reminds us that God is always inclined to dispense wisdom: If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. James 1:5

I ask God for many things, but lately this request seems to have lost its way off the list. Thanks to Solomon, wisdom will now occupy its proper place - top priority!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Chapter 12 - The Trials of a King

What was he thinking? How could David fall for the oldest trick in the book? Lonely night, can't sleep, beautiful woman and … well, you know the rest of the story. How sobering to see such a man of God fall so dramatically that he would not only sin morally but then arrange for the death of his lover's husband.

I see two warnings in this chapter:

(1) Sin can get us all. If Satan can find David's weakness then certainly he can find mine. Vigilance is required of all God's people, and although David finds forgiveness he suffers greatly from his sin. It's easy to throw stones at David, but perhaps even more sobering is his encounter with Nathan and his damning words, "You are the man." As we come to this chapter in The Story let's not forget that each one of is The Man. We are all guilty to some degree of egregious sins and we should all be asking that same question of ourselves - "What was I thinking?" Sin can creep up on us ever so covertly and before we know it we are trapped! The apostle Peter, who also knew how quick a believer can go form hero to zero, shares this wisdom: Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).

(2) Sin can be easily ignored. It seems as if David is able to file away his sin and live quite comfortably in blissful ignorance. Isn’t it amazing how we can rationalize, compartmentalize, and disregard sin in our own lives? Sin can be so subtle and so deceptive. David had relegated his sin to the deepest, darkest corner of his mind that it took a prophet and a little story to bring to light the seriousness of the sin he had committed. Perhaps it is as equally dangerous to ignore sin than to have committed the sin itself! May the Lord reveal to all of us those sins we have been able to silence.

In spite of the warnings I also see a blessing. David confesses and finds forgiveness. His relationship with God actually seems to deepen as he struggles with sin. In God he finds a compassionate Shepherd, a caring Father, a forgiving Savior. Intertwined in this chapter are the heart-felt Psalms of a man who wrestles with the tension of seeking God and pleasing himself. That is what separates David from the rest of the pack - he wrestles and doesn’t give up. His life is a constant struggle and I learn that what may be most important is to stay in the battle.

Life is a spiritual battlefield. We will win some and lose some, but we must always invite God to both our celebrations and our hardships. And amazingly he will accept each invitation and His presence will always make things better!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Chapter 11 - From Shepherd to King

Make sure you listen to our middle school students read chapter 11.
Go to for a link to the audio.

In chapter 11 we are introduced to David -- the great king of Israel, great poet, and man after God's own heart. It is indeed a wonderful story. The youngest of his family he is hand-chosen by God through Samuel to succeed the less-than-impressive Saul. Even as a young man he demonstrates his courage and strength in his battle with Goliath. Have you ever read a more moving challenge against evil than his words on p. 120, "You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied." It makes you want to get up and shout! And that's what his actions do. After he slays Goliath the armies of Israel surge ahead to defeat their enemies. All it took was one man to stand up for the rest to follow along!

And then you have to be impressed with his loyalty to Saul. Given an occasion to kill the obstacle to the throne, David refuses to out of respect for the Lord's anointed. He knows his time will come when God is good and ready!

And above all David displays a passion for worship as he sends for the Ark of the Covenant to be retrieved and brought to a more permanent resting place in Jerusalem. In spite of the little accident along the way (poor Uzzah), David shows proper respect for the Ark. Jerusalem will soon become the long-standing capital of Israel.

Then David has a dream, a dream for a temple worthy of the glory of God, and although he is not the one to build it (Solomon will get that honor) it is David's concept. Even in spite of God prohibiting him from building the temple David still stands amazed that God has chosen him to be such a critical player in The Story -- "Who am I Lord God that you have brought me this far? You have looked on me as though I were the most exalted on men."

This guy is the total package.

This is certainly one of the high points in The Story. When David is on the screen there is a crescendo of music! This is Rocky at the top of the art museum steps. This is Roy Hobbs hitting the homerun. This is Julie Andrews singing on the hills of Austria.

It doesn’t get much better than this. God and the angels are high-fiving each other. The plan is in full swing. This is the way it was meant to be. King David - a man after God's own heart!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Story - Chapter 10
Standing Tall, Falling Hard

I am not a tall man and have long ago embraced my height (or lack thereof) and have even found some advantages to being vertically-challenged. Here are some:

• Shorter fall to the ground.
• You don't hit your head so often.
• You can get in places at kids prices.
• The atmosphere is less rarefied.
• You can fit in to a locker to hide from bullies.
• You can do the limbo without breaking your back.

… and the list goes on!

I bring up the height issue because in this week's reading one of the descriptions of Saul includes that he was a head taller than anyone else. As a short person I wonder why this is important enough to include in the inspired record. Is it just a passing comment or is this somehow related to the choice of Saul as king? I tend to believe the latter to be true.

Saul's height no doubt contributed to his selection as king. Right or wrong, his imposing stature must have given the Israelites confidence that he could rule powerfully. It needs to be noted also that Saul is described by the phrase "as handsome a man as could be found anywhere in Israel." Outward appearance was a factor in who would be considered fit to rule as a king!

But his height and good looks could not overcome some serious character flaws. As Saul's story plays itself out he does indeed stand tall, but he just as surely falls hard.

Although as a short person it gives me some perverted joy in seeing the failure of man chosen for leadership in part because he was tall, I contend that his failure was not due to his height or his good looks. People don’t fail or succeed because of their outward appearance. As my mom always told me, it's what's inside that counts!

I think this little brief description exposes a problem that doomed the Israelites and really has doomed mankind since the very beginning. We tend to make judgments based on appearance when we really need to look at people a little deeper. We tend to be partial to people who look a certain way and that is a dangerous road to take.

James puts it quite bluntly -- If you treat one person as being more important than another, you are sinning. You are guilty of breaking God’s law. (James 2:9 - NCV)

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Story - Chapter 9

I recently saw on television a show called Best in Film. It chronicled poll results in film categories, one of which was best film ending. Personally I think the end of Field of Dreams is the very best - father and son reunited and reconciled over a game of catch. Or what about Planet of the Apes when Charlton Heston discovers he's really on a futuristic earth as he glimpses a broken and fallen Statue of Liberty? You have to love the ending of Rocky - Rocky loses in the ring but who cares because Adrian is racing to his side. Great endings really can make a movie memorable.

As far as books of the Bible are concerned, I think Ruth has one of the greatest endings. Down and out Ruth and Naomi. Both widowed. Both desperate for the security of a husband. Both childless. They've experienced the death of loved ones, a devastating famine, and financial hardships. This book has all the makings of a real downer.

But there's that ending.

Boaz enters to save the day. He seems instantly taken back by Ruth. At their first meeting you can sense that love is in the air. Boaz cares for Ruth and eventually takes her as his wife and the two have a baby. But what is really great about this ending is that not only does Ruth have a child, but Naomi has a grandson. The grandson she thought she would never have after her two sons died. This woman who, refusing to be called by her given name, took the name Mara (bitter) experiences nothing but the sweetest of endings.

The book of Ruth ends with Naomi holding her grandson Obed. Bitter Naomi certainly never looked so blessed. What makes this ending even more wonderful is that Obed will have a son, Jesse, who will also have a son, David -- the great King of Israel. A simply wonderful ending.

What’s more bizarre is that this wonderful ending all takes place in Bethlehem - the place where all of our endings are changed from bitter to blessed!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Story - Chapter 8

This period of Judges is indeed an odd time in the history of Israel. You have this on-again-off-again relationship between Israel and God. In a way it reminds me of my high school or college days when boys and girls would date, then break-up, get back together, etc. For some couples you really never knew if they were a couple or not. One moment they'd be holding hands walking blissfully around campus and then next they'd be vowing to talk to the other never again.

It all reminds me of the title of a recent movie, It's Complicated! We really want a relationship with God but there are so many variables, so many issues that complicate the matter.

There are times when the relationship seems to take so much maintenance you wonder if it's worth it. There are demands on my time, sacrifices I must make, expectations I must live up to, other girls that seem more compatible, and the list goes on. When you think about it, it really is amazing that any man or woman finally makes the commitment to one person. But we do, and maybe that's the key - to finally make a commitment.

We make the commitment realizing that there will always be times when someone else seems more appealing but also realizing that there is real value in being a one-woman-man, or in this case a one-God-man. We realize that at times we may want to abandon God but because of the commitment we stand by our God! And usually things get better. The bad times pass. We expect ups and downs and hang on to our relationship with God because we know that in the long run a committed relationship far outweighs flitting back and forth from god to god.

As a nation Israel never seems to be able to make that complete connection with God. They're like that couple in college that you never know if they are together or not. And because of that their national life is topsy-turvy - a confusing mess of blessing and curses. And so it is with so many lives. Because we fail to make a clear-cut commitment to God we never experience the consistent blessing of a committed relationship. A relationship with God, or for that matter any relationship, is a complicated matter, but when we finally make the commitment then the complications disappear.

This chapter in The Story reminds me that until I make that commitment then my life will mirror this period in the history of Israel. I'll just have an on-again-off-again relationship with God that will be marked by anxiety and inconsistency. I must choose to make the decision to be a one-God-man and then I will consistently experience the joy and peace of a committed relationship with God.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Story - Week 7

As you read through these stories of plagues and conquests it's almost as if you are reading some mythical account - like the tales of King Arthur or the adventures of Harry Potter. You may even think that some of these stories belong in the latest edition of Ripley's Believe It Or Not. Some of these events seem almost too far-fetched to be actually true. There's the temptation to question the historicity of these events. And certainly some have.

But whoever wrote the book of Joshua leaves little notes that seem to serve as witnesses that these are real events. Names and events have not been changed. These things really happened and you can verify the events yourself. Consider these little clues:

Joshua set up the twelve stones that had been in the middle of the Jordan at the spot where the priests who carried the ark of the covenant had stood. And they are there to this day. - Joshua 4:9

But Joshua spared Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, because she hid the men Joshua had sent as spies to Jericho—and she lives among the Israelites to this day. - Joshua 6:25

He hung the king of Ai on a tree and left him there until evening. At sunset, Joshua ordered them to take his body from the tree and throw it down at the entrance of the city gate. And they raised a large pile of rocks over it, which remains to this day. - Joshua 8:29

That day he made the Gibeonites woodcutters and water carriers for the community and for the altar of the LORD at the place the LORD would choose. And that is what they are to this day. - Joshua 9:27

At sunset Joshua gave the order and they took them down from the trees and threw them into the cave where they had been hiding. At the mouth of the cave they placed large rocks, which are there to this day. - Joshua 10:27

• If you question whether or not the Jordan River was parted, go there and look at the stones set up that day. They're still there!
• Want to know about what happened to Jericho? You can just ask Rahab. She's still around.
• Doubt if the sun really stood still? Ask a Gibeonite on his way to deliver water.
• That victory over the confederacy of kings, there's proof. Go to the cave where they were hiding out. The rocks used to trap them are still there.

The book of Joshua represents itself as a historical record of real events that can be verified!

The same question of fact or fiction has also been raised against the events of the New Testament as well. Can the gospels be trusted? Are all those stories just myths created over time?

Peter responds to that accusation with these words:
We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. - 2 Peter 1:16

John has something to say about this as well:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it. - 1 John 1:1–2

These events really took place. God has acted. Heaven has broken through to earth. Believe it or not!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Week 6 - Wandering

I must admit -- sometimes I am a pessimist, and after reading chapter 6 of The Story it doesn't help! Seems that at every turn the people are messing up, making God angry, and suffering some catastrophic plague. I feel like I'm on a treasure hunt like Indiana Jones in some dark cave and seeing corpses of men who have failed all around me. The secret traps have fallen them all. If they couldn’t do it then how do I expect to make through the twists and turns of life?

Am I, are we all, doomed to failure?

But in the darkness of these wandering years I spy a few glimmers of hope.

Joshua and Caleb!

When everyone else seems scared and faithless these two are beacons of hope!

"We can do it"
"Let's not be afraid"
"God is with us"

When it seems like the darkness of doubt has overwhelmed everyone these two make me believe that perhaps failure is not the only option. Certainly an option that many have chosen, but not the only option!

And then there's this unsung hero, Phinehas. The grandson of Aaron impales a Jewish man and a Moabite woman who are apparently flaunting their immorality right there in the Hebrew's camp. For his courage, God calls off the plague brought on by their idolatry and immorality and Phinehas is hailed as an up-and-coming star!

Not all is lost. There is hope. It can be done. We don’t have to perish in the wilderness.

The glass may be half empty during the 40 years of wandering but Joshua, Caleb, and Phinehas fill up my cup just enough to believe that I can make it to the Promised Land!

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The other day I sat down on the couch to watch a movie and realized I had four remote controls for the task! One for the television, one for the DVD player (which I really didn’t need, but grabbed anyway because it seems I always need the one I don't pick up), one for the cable box, and one for the game system that accesses the movies. Another time I had plopped down on the couch (where there is barely any room with all the remotes spread out) and couldn't access the movie provider and realized that my wireless internet connection wasn't working! So I had to get up and reset the router hoping that would resolve the problem.

What's worse is trying to watch television at someone else's house. Have you ever been asked to turn on a friend's television and a cold sweat comes over you when they hand you the remotes? There's a one in a thousand chance that I'll be able to figure it out.

When did watching television become so difficult? It has become so complicated that sometimes it's easier just to give up!

Reading through Chapter 5 in The Story I realized that there was a lot missing. It includes the Ten Commandments but simply summarizes all the other laws with a brief little paragraph. Now, I'm not bashing this edition of the Bible but just want to point out that the Law was very complicated. That's why many people bog down in their Bible reading when they come to the book of Leviticus. It's just so complicated it's easier just to give up!

I think the Jews felt my frustration as well. Some, like the Pharisees, became masters of the remotes. They knew all the right buttons to press and even added a few new ones of their own. But many seemed to get lost in all the details of the Law, especially when the Pharisees made religion even more difficult than it had to be.

So I find it very comforting when an expert in the Law comes to Jesus and asks him what is the greatest commandment it. What button is most important? Which remote should I always have at hand? What command says it all?

Jesus' simple reply is, "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

He takes all the Law and boils it down to two commandments! Wow.

I think a lot of people give up on religion because they see it as this complex system of rules and regulations. They think of church and God and a cold sweat overtakes them because they know there's a one in a thousand chance that they'll be able to get it right. Some think that a relationship with God is just too complicated when in actuality Jesus says it's quite simple.

Christianity doesn't necessitate an advanced degree. It doesn't require hours of training. You don’t have to know ancient languages. You don’t have to memorize tricky words. All you need to do is love God and love those around you. Now, we all know that's not an easy task, but at least we can get a handle on it!

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Story - Week 4

Complain, complain, complain!!! Of all the themes in this week's reading one that stood out to me is how often the people are complaining.

As the story begins we find them crying out about the slavery. This is a good complaining. No one should be happy being in slavery to a godless master. No one should settle for an existence that has no real eternal purpose. Sometimes complaining is a virtue.

But after God acts the complaining goes from good to bad!! When things get even tougher after Moses confronts Pharaoh they really let Moses have it! Why was Moses confronting Pharaoh? To get them some relief so they wouldn't have to complain so much. Did they think the problem would just go away without a little effort?

Then (well after a few miracles and plagues) deliverance comes and you'd think the complaining would stop. But nooooooooooo! More complaining. When they are trapped between the Red Sea and Pharaoh's ensuing army they complain. They even remind Moses that he should have left them alone to serve the Egyptians! "Who asked you to save us anyway?" is their refrain.

They're in the wilderness for three days … THREE DAYS … and start complaining because they can't find water. "If only we died in Egypt," is their new cry! They grumble, they whine, they second guess, they rebel. Complain, complain, complain!

There's good complaining and bad complaining and Israel has become a master at the latter!

Am I a good complainer or a bad complainer?

It's easy to be a bad complainer, even in church! There's always a reason to whine and grumble - the parking is terrible, the pews are uncomfortable, the service is long, the audio-visual is messed up, church members are insensitive, the preaching is … let's not even go there!!!

Here's my conclusion. Life is tough, there will always be challenges, there will always be a reason to complain. My feet will be sore, my back will hurt, my soul will become weary whether I'm in slavery or liberation. Let's give them this, liberation wasn't as easy as they thought it would be. But isn't liberation better than slavery? Isn't it better to endure difficulties knowing you're going somewhere rather than just suffer with no goal in life?

I do need to complain when I am not living out God's purpose in my life, but then, when he gives me a purpose, a journey, then stop complaining and get on with task at hand -- no matter how difficult it may be.

On my journey I may get parched, I may be surrounded by enemies, I may get discouraged - but God help me not to complain. Help me never long for those days, perhaps even easier days, when I had no purpose. Lord, set me on my path and give me the strength to walk with purpose and courage (and as little complaining as possible)!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Story - Week 3

I love the story of Joseph. It all ends so wonderfully. Joseph ends up with the last laugh! His dreams of grandeur come true. His father's preferential treatment is validated. The expression, "All's well that ends well" never depicted a story so fittingly.

I love the story, at least I love the ending. The process is not so endearing. Joseph was sold off by his brothers, forgotten by his jail-mate, and falsely accused by his boss's wife. He found himself in pits and prisons. His coat of many colors was torn and bathed in blood. For a good portion of his life he lived without the support of family. For all he knew his family had just let him go without any effort to find him. He lived in a foreign land where his dreams of success must have been fading fast.

Yet Joseph somehow kept those dreams alive and perhaps it was those dreams that kept HIM alive!

When we stop envisioning a better future then our present is bound to be full of anguish. All the despair, all the betrayals, all the pits we find ourselves in need to be interpreted by the dreams that God has placed in our hearts - dreams of success. Isn't this what Joseph means when he reveals himself to his brothers and instead of blaming and accusing he says, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good"? When the dreams seemed as good as dead, they were still very much alive in the mind of God.

All the while Joseph must have had held on to the hope that God was moving him to a happy ending and nothing could stop that from happening. Paul reaffirms this thought in Romans 8:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose…What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?...No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So, don’t give into despair; don't think that God has abandoned you. The process is sometimes very painful but happy endings come to those who keep the dream alive.

For two inspirational videos on people who successfully endured the process see the sites below:

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. - Galatians 3:7, 9

In chapter two of The Story we are introduced to one of the most influential characters of the entire Bible- Abraham. God chooses this one man through whom he will build a nation that will forever have a special place in God's dealings with human beings. It is through Abraham that the Jewish race will descend and eventually give us the Messiah, Jesus himself.

As Abraham is referenced in the New Testament it is most often in conjunction with some instruction on faith. Abraham is the "father of the faithful," the example of what it means to follow God without question (or at least with just a few), the man who stands as a model to us all. And by all, I mean not only Jews but all who believe, Jew and non-Jew alike. In fact, Paul even makes the case that all of us who believe are children of Abraham and benefactors of the same promises - regardless of our genetics.

I take some pride in being a descendant of one of the pilgrims who sailed to the new land on the Mayflower. Accompanied by her parents, Constance Hopkins came to Plymouth as a child. As it turns out she is my great(x10 or so)-grandmother. I think that's cool and I'd like to think that some of the same adventurous spirit and dedication to faith that must have characterized her lives to some degree in me. I also like to share that story with my kids hoping that they will develop the same pride.

A few years ago my son Bao, whom we adopted from China, was learning about the pilgrims in his third grade class when he exclaimed to his teacher that HE was a descendent of one of those Mayflower passengers! Noting his obvious Asian heritage one child asked with a puzzled expression, "How could Bao be a descendant of a pilgrim?" In spite of genetics he claimed pilgrim ancestry.

By virtue of a spiritual connection I too claim an ancestry that is not technically mine. I am a child of Abraham and in that I take some pride. And by that connection I would like to think that the same kind of adventurous faith and dedication to God that characterized Abraham's life lives to some degree in me.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Chapter One - Creation

Creation has always been intriguing to me, especially the vastness of it all. I remember as a young child lying out on the grass on a warm summer's day looking up at the sky wondering how far it went and then wondering if it ended then what was after that. I couldn’t imagine a universe contained, but I also couldn't imagine a universe eternal! Even now as I look up into a star-filled evening sky it amazes me - the distances and sizes just boggle my mind. I figure there must be something behind it all!

Recently I've also been amazed by the variety of creation. All the different types of animals out there, each one with its own distinctive look. I'm no scientist, but I hear the naturalistic explanation of life and it just doesn’t seem to account for so much variety. If life happened by some accident then there must have been a lot of different accidents to produce all these different kinds of life. I figure there must be something behind it all!

Also, what about the earth that provides all the food for all these life forms to survive on? I walk through the produce section of the grocery store and am amazed at just how much this earth produces - all the fruits and vegetables year after year springing up from the earth to sustain life on earth. Another fortunate accident that this life that sprang up was able to find apples and bananas around to keep it alive. I figure there must be something behind it all!

The beginning of The Story lets us know that THERE IS something, or rather someone, behind all this world. "In the beginning, God…" The Bible never attempts to prove God's existence, it just states it as a given. And for me it's not a real difficult given to accept. Sure, there are times that I doubt, times that it appears to me that chance and randomness are in control, but when in doubt I only have to look up and around and evidence is all about.

As we begin The Story we start with the knowledge that, in the beginning, God is there and we can be assured that he'll be there all the way to the end.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Fly Over

As we enter into this 31-week study through the Bible I'm confident of many benefits we'll experience individually and as a congregation, but the one that comes to mind on the cusp of this voyage is the opportunity to get a panoramic look at God's relationship with us humans. It'll be a fly-over of sorts as we start at square one, creation, and end up with a glimpse of the consummation of God's plan, heaven.

There are a lot of people, Christians included, who have trouble understanding God. They'll say, "How could God do this or that?" or "If God really loved us He wouldn't act that way!" Granted, there are many God-denying events recorded in the Bible (as well as other records of human history) that seem to indicate that God can't exist, at least the God we hear about in Bible Classes. Many of these atheistic or agnostic conclusions are based on individual events or statements, not on His total body of work. How would you liked be judged based on one particular day or period of your life?

Years ago my niece who lived just across the street from us brought a friend by our house to swim in our pool. I was out working in the yard and was frustrated at something, can't remember just what. But apparently I didn’t make a great first impression on this stranger as I overheard her say to my niece, "Boy, you've got a grumpy uncle!" I was offended. "You don't even know me," I wanted to shout. My character was being judged on the basis of one passing encounter! Too many people do the same with God.

Many people don’t judge God -- they judge some being they think is God. They don't know Him well enough to make a clear-headed judgment on his character. They don't know the plan, and when you don't know the plan individual steps along the way may seem contradictory.

Have you ever printed out a map to a destination east of you and were taken aback when you have to take a highway that goes west? On the basis of that one step on a long journey it appears that the direction giver is insane, wicked, or just plan uninformed! But sometimes God takes us on what appears to us to be the wrong direction to get us on the right direction.

God can't be judged on individual events. We need to know The Story.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

As you read this Sunday morning Texas Stadium will have been reduced to a pile of rubble.

Growing up in New England in the 1970’s as a National Football League fan there was no sight quite like the aerial view of Texas Stadium – especially on Monday Night Football! To a pre-teen Yankee, Texas seemed so far away, the Cowboys were football royalty, and Texas Stadium was the royal residence. I remember being told that the hole in the roof was there so God could watch his favorite team!

Years later I walked into the legendary stadium to see Denison’s high school football team vie for a state championship. Walking into Texas Stadium was like living a childhood dream - - here I was in the very place that I so admired as a child. I could almost hear the voices of Frank Gifford, Don Meredith, and Howard Cossell announce my arrival. Just two years ago my daughters actually stepped foot on the hallowed turf as one cheered on the Yellowjackets and another marched with the band as once again Denison’s local 11 made a run at the state championship.

The venerable stadium is now just a pile of rubble. Replaced by a newer, fancier, billion-dollar structure Taxes Stadium has been reduced to being the eyesore of Irving – just a heap of stone alongside Loop 12.

And so is the future of every stadium, every structure, every accomplishment of man.

It’s been a lesson that God has been trying to teach us from nearly the very beginning. “Build the best and most beautiful that you can,” God challenges us, “And I will remind you that buildings, stadiums, palaces will never get you to where you want to go.” The Tower of Babel was man’s first attempt to find immortality in buildings and we all know how that worked out. The path that leads to God is not one constructed by humans, yet we continue to believe that buildings, things, possessions can ultimately lead us to the eternal.

A theme of Scripture is that man was never meant to create the eternal; we were made to pursue It.

Jesus reminded us of this when he said, “Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven.” “Turn your sights from human accomplishments toward the divine accomplishment,” he instructs us. “You’ll never find security, lasting peace in those things that eventually crumble, whether it be by carefully placed explosives or something as commonplace as rust and moths.” What a futile quest we find ourselves in when we look for lasting value in transitory things.

Texas Stadium, the awesome structure that inspired and awed me as a youth, is now just a pile of rubble – the common fate of everything in this world.

So goodbye and thanks for the memories. But more importantly, thanks for the reminder.
You’ve probably seen the replay by now of what happened in Arlington during last Sunday’s Ranger game. A 28-year-old man dived over a row of seats in pursuit of a foul ball. In his way was a four-year-old fan who was pushed aside and bumped. The man returned to his seat a row behind and victoriously held up the ball as other fans began chanting, “Give him the ball!” He didn’t and that overaggressive act set off a wave of response.

Word of the injustice got back to the dugouts, and before the game was over Ranger and Cardinal players gave the four-year-old two bats and four baseballs, one signed by Nolan Ryan! Later in the week, the family was invited to appear on ABC’s Good Morning America and more good fortune came his way – he was given New York Met souvenirs and tickets to the Mets game.

Turns out, not getting that ball was one of the best things that ever happened!

We all get jostled now and then by overaggressive people. At our feet we find treasures snatched away by someone stronger than us. We get cheated, lose rewards, and sit quietly while others exult in their conquest.

This is particularly the case for Christians who play by the rules, who live unselfishly, who are willing to turn the other cheek. Always has been - always will be! We live as helpless four-year-olds in a world of powerful adults!

But we live this way knowing that there are greater rewards than baseballs out there. We know that the guy sitting behind us won’t have the last word. We know that word of the injustice gets back to the Father. And we know that one day it will be the four-year-old’s day to exult.

It will even turn out that not getting that ball will be one of the best things that ever happened to us.

After receiving his gifts from Good Morning America host Charles Gibson, the four-year-old simply responded, “Wow!” One day, we will do the same!
Over the last couple of months I’ve tuned into Extreme Makeover – Home Edition on Sunday evenings. The stories I’ve seen are heart-wrenching. A family whose mother has died gets a new home with specially designed rooms for each kid and the widower. A family with a child beset with autism and numerous other health setbacks get a new home specifically designed to nurture the autistic child. The family has been away one week while a top-notch crew renovates the home with a seemingly unlimited budget.

After the week is up the family returns and gets a room-by-room tour of their new home - jaws drop at the transformation, smiles erupt with each opened door, tears of appreciation flow.

The end of the show leaves me in tears. I don’t even know these people yet I feel myself overwhelmed with a sense of joy that they now have such a beautiful place to live. Yet, I also feel a twinge of jealousy – wouldn’t it be so awesome to be one of those families? To have a home specially designed for me, one that would buckle my knees in delight and appreciation.

Last week it dawned on me that one day I will. “I go to prepare a place for you,” Jesus says. In the book of Revelation John describes heaven in jaw-dropping terms. After our week is over we will be given a room-by-room tour of our new home – one that will give new meaning to the term Extreme Makeover. I must admit I’m tiring of all the reality shows on television, but there is one I’m excited about: Extreme Makeover – Heaven Edition.
Ran across an article today - Doctors Often Prescribe Placebo Treatments. I know I had placebo as vocabulary word in High School, but just to refresh myself I looked it up in the dictionary. Placebo—A substance containing no medication and prescribed or given to reinforce a patient's expectation to get well. The article defines the placebo effect as a benefit produced by assuring someone that whatever is being given will benefit whatever the problem happens to be. Apparently this sometimes actually works! I find it amazing that our minds can have so much control! What we think can actually affect how we feel.

Now I’m not here to debate the ethics of this type of treatment or to defend or refute any medical practice, but I do see a spiritual parallel here. What we think about can determine our spiritual health. If you think spiritually unhealthy thoughts, you will feel spiritually unhealthy. If you think spiritually healthy thoughts, you will feel spiritually healthy.

Last week in our small group this passage was brought up—Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8).

Are you feeling a little spiritually weak? Coming down with a little spiritual bug? You may not need anything more than a change of thinking. Think about good things, dwell on God’s love, find something to be thankful for. Change your thinking and you just may end up changing your life!
Disturbing news for anyone who has ever been or ever plans to go to a zoo – on Christmas day a seemingly innocent visit to the San Francisco Zoo turned tragic. A Siberian Tiger escaped from her enclosure killing a young man and mauling two others. Couldn’t help but think of the warning from the apostle Peter - “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

How and why the attack occurred is under investigation, but one thing is sure -- whatever fence, barrier, or barricade that separated the helpless guests from the ferocious beasts was inadequate. If you’re going to get close to danger you’d better be sure you’re protected. The same is true is a spiritual sense.

Certainly one way to avoid that danger is to simply stop going to the Zoo. Chances are slim that a Siberian tiger or, for that matter, any dangerous beast will find his way down my street. But in a spiritual sense Peter seems to be saying the Satan prowls down every man’s street. It’s like we’re not at the zoo with protective walls and secure enclosures but at a petting farm where the animals are not harmless sheep and chickens, but Siberian Tigers wanting to tear me limb from limb.

What’s an innocent Christian to do?

Peter’s advice is short and sweet – be self controlled and be alert. Watch your step; be aware that danger is in the air; know that temptation can be around every corner. The apostle Paul gives similar advice - “Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (1 Thess. 5:22, 22). We must be aware of the spiritual hazards that we face day by day. Sounds pretty bleak, almost like Dorothy and friends in the Wizard of Oz – Lions and tigers and bears – OH MY!!

But there is hope. Nowhere in Scripture are the warnings of a vigilant tempter not countered with the resources of a powerful deliverer. By the power of God’s Spirit we’re reminded that the prowling lion is resistible, beatable, and utterly helpless in the presence of The Lion. Another apostle sets the record straight saying, “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

It is a zoo out there, but thanks be to God there’s no enemy that the two of us can’t ward off!
One of my summer memories is sleeping late and waking up to watch Bob Barker host The Price is Right. As a kid I did pretty well – no telling how many dinettes, bedroom suites, and cars I could have won if my name had ever been called to Come on Down! With a different schedule it’s been a while since I’ve watched the Price is Right, but I hear that Bob is stepping down after 30+ years.

One of the premises of the popular game show and the inspiration for the title is determining how much a product is worth. It’s a case of television imitating reality – every day we face the same challenge. Is that car worth the payments; are the clothes worth the price tag; is the house worth the mortgage; is the meal worth the tab? Over and over we make decision whether or not the price is right.

Jesus challenges potential disciples to go through the same process. Before you commit to discipleship you have to realize that discipleship, like everything else, comes with a price. Jesus uses the phrase “count the cost.” He says before someone builds a tower he counts the cost so that he will not be ridiculed if he is unable to finish. Or if a king is going into battle he’ll assess his forces and then decide whether or not to engage in battle. The same is true for would-be disciples – before you commit you better count the cost. And the cost is everything: “In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” Talk about sticker shock!

So, is it worth it? Is the price right? The cost is everything you have, but the reward is everything you desire! After Jesus reveals the price tag he goes on to tell three stories that illustrate the incomparable value of being a disciple. It’s like finding the coin you’ve been frantically searching for; it’s like finding the treasured sheep that’s gone astray; it’s like coming home to a loving and forgiving father. The only people who fail to make the sacrifice are those who fail to see the benefits!

It was missionary and martyr Jim Elliot who once said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." No doubt – the price is right!
While I was out raking some leaves this past fall a strange thought crossed my mind. It seemed as if there were fewer leaves for this time of year and I wondered whether or not the extended daylight savings time had anything to do with it. Then I thought how ridiculous that thought was. Changing our clocks can have no effect on the natural laws God has set into effect. That would be like on a cold day in February turning the calendar to July expecting to get warmer weather. I can say it’s summer till I’m blue in the face, but if it’s winter, it’s winter. God's natural law does not depend on human opinion.

In the same way God’s moral law cannot be altered by human opinion. We can say sin is not sin until we’re blue in the face, but if it’s sin, it’s sin. And if it’s sin there will be some consequences. Calling sin “choice”, “disposition”, “alternative lifestyle”, “preference”, “inclination”, or “the new morality” will never change God's moral law. To do so is as ridiculous as expecting a Texas snow storm in July because you flipped the calendar to January!