Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Some thoughts on "Genuine Love".....

The following is an excerpt from "The Brown Book," my personal devotional journal, dated Sept. 17, 2015.

Let love be genuine. (Romans 12:9a)

           As opposed to what? Disingenuous? Feigned? Faked? Counterfeited?
           There are many tings that pass for love in our world that are not real. They are superficial. They are counterfeits. They look like love at first glance but, when you get beneath the surface, they have little to do with real love the way Jesus describes it:
  • Laying down your own life so that another can live his or hers. Not just physical death, but the far greater challenge of daily dying to our own wants, desires, and wills so that our families flourish, our neighbors flourish, those in need whom God brings across our radar may flourish. In our own wills, we may manage to muster a level of compassion and generosity but genuine love pushes past temporary feelings of altruism to become an ongoing state of being, the perpetual death of our wills for God’s and for those whom He loves. Paul called it a “living sacrifice” just a few verses earlier (Romans 12:1).
  • Loving our enemies. Real love doesn’t reserve itself only for those who love us back. It pushes past the natural borders of comfort and even common sense. If I am to follow Christ, that means that once someone has made himself my enemy, he has become a target for intentional love and blessing. This absolutely requires the Holy Spirit. Some days I don’t even like my friends, much less love my enemies.
  • Loving our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus defined the word “neighbor” for us in the parable of the Good Samaritan, just in case there was any confusion or in the unlikely case we would attempt to rationalize away our responsibility to love genuinely when it cost us something. That was the whole reason He even told the parable, to answer the rationale disguised as a question, “Who is my neighbor?” Apparently Jesus thinks of our neighbor as anyone who comes across our path, regardless of race, religion, social status, sexual orientation, or any other reason we might make an excuse to move on down the road and ignore their need. This means allowing God to interrupt our tightly packed schedules of busyness. It means going out of our way to help when it’s not on the way to where we are going in such a hurry. It means getting involved in a messy situation we’d rather stay out of. It might mean risking our own safety to rescue someone from a dangerous situation. We will almost definitely be misunderstood and criticized by someone. Maybe even by everyone. But certainly by someone who means well and is likely very religious.
           Another great picture of loving a neighbor is the cross of Christ. Who gave up more to go out of His way to get involved in a mess that wasn’t His own in order to rescue someone else at the risk of being maligned and hated for it?
           What we call love today is a pitiful, limping, wimpy counterfeit. We think that because we tolerate and validate every foolish life choice anyone makes without speaking up and telling the truth that we are being “loving.” Sometimes loving genuinely means speaking out when everyone else would rather you keep quiet. Love may require us to go against the flow and risk the hatred of everyone else around us. Genuine love is risky these days....
  • We tolerate abortion because we don’t want to seem “unloving” to women or disrespectful of their rights. But who is loving the unborn? Who is defending their rights?
  • We support gay marriage because, we are told, it’s the “loving” thing to do. After all, shouldn’t everyone be free to love whoever they want? But what about when scripture is clear that those who choose that life will not enter the kingdom of God? What about the part where it says that those who are not part of God’s Kingdom will suffer His wrath on the earth and separation from Him for all eternity? If that's true -- even remotely -- how is it “loving” to stand silently by and even affirm their choice to expose themselves to that fate? How badly would I have to hate someone to let them launch out into eternity on that trajectory without saying a word?
  • We remain silent about the gospel because respecting other people’s beliefs (or unbeliefs) is the “loving” thing to do. Respect, yes. Silence, no. Jesus demands our witness in the public square. We are His chosen vehicle to bring the gospel of the Kingdom to this world. How dare we care more about offending other people than offending our Savior? How is that love? Love for God – whole-hearted, soul-captivating love – is the first and great commandment. That means if the world we live in forces us to choose our loyalties, then we choose Jesus. Every time. Without exception. And we express that to the people around us with real love – not that cheap, fake stuff the rest of the world sings about, makes movies and TV shows about, or glamorizes on Facebook.
         When I read this yesterday, the image that came to my mind was of those big, chocolate Easter bunnies I used to get as a kid. It looked amazing – all big and chocolaty, with the candy eyes and the candy bowtie. But when you bit into it, you quickly discovered that it’s hollow. Just a paper-thin shell with chocolate flavored air inside. If you melted the whole thing down, it would barely make a decent-sized candy bar. The solid milk chocolate bunnies are harder to come by: rare and therefore more costly. But imminently more satisfying.
       When I read, “Let love be genuine,” I think, Be the solid bunny, not the hollow one. Be the one whose love goes all the way through, to the deepest places where it’s needed most. Don’t be the one that looks great at a glance, but is really hollow and superficial.
        God, help me to love genuinely today, in Jesus’ name!

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Extravagant Honor

The following is an excerpt from my personal devotional journal dated September 25, 2015.

Outdo one another in showing honor. (Romans 12:10b)

            “You’ve really outdone yourself!”

            We say this when we recognize that someone has gone to extreme measures to accomplish something. We say they went “above and beyond,” or “over the top,” or that their efforts were  “off the charts.” What we mean by all these clichés is that the person making the effort went to extravagant measures and exceeded all expectations.

            People these days are extravagant in a lot of things: sports, cars, decorating their house at Christmas, food, parties, weddings… you name it. For many, no effort is too great, no expense too costly in order to “outdo” themselves… and everyone else. Most of the time we waste extravagance on stupid things that are foolish or self-indulgent. Occasionally, you may find someone who is extravagantly generous or compassionate or kind. But normally it’s used to gratify sensual craving or temporary pleasure. Then, here comes this first century Jewish Christian church planter with a radical notion: take that bent towards extravagance and use it to benefit another person. Specifically, Paul says, to “honor” one another. Other translations render this verse “give preference to one another (NASB),” “take delight in honoring (NLT),” and “practice playing second fiddle (MSG).”

The dictionary defines honor as “high respect, as for worth, merit, or rank.” In a letter to the church in Philippi, Paul instructed them, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others as more significant than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3, emphasis mine) This runs counter to our deepest nature. Ordinarily, we jockey for position, clamor for recognition, crave applause, bask in glory, and will normally step on anyone who gets in our way in order to get it and, having gotten it, to hold on to it as long as possible. In America in particular, it is ingrained in us from childhood that we have “certain inalienable rights” that are due us, and woe to anyone who violates them! We sue each other, drag each other into court, publicly shame and defame anyone we think is trampling our precious rights.

The Christ follower has no such illusions. We call Him “Lord” which literally means “master,” as in the owner of a slave. If we call Him Master, then what does that make us? We left our rights behind us with the fishing nets and tax collector’s tables.

To show extravagant honor then demands from me extravagant humility. It takes being a “living sacrifice” to be able to “count others as more significant than myself.” I once heard Andy Stanley teach on that passage in Philippians: “It means that we treat everyone else as the most important person in the room.” Think about it this way: suppose the President of the United States walked into the room. Or your favorite pop star, or athlete, or movie star, whatever. You would probably make a big fuss over him, offering your seat, offering to serve him, making yourself lower so that he or she could be regarded as higher. Honor. Impossible without humility.

I love John the Baptist’s reply to his disciples when they complained that everyone was leaving him to follow Jesus:

“A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before Him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:27-30)

This is remarkable. In a day and age when everyone is trying to build up their ministry and draw huge crowds in multi-million dollar facilities to see major productions that we call “worship,” John the Baptist saw success as losing all his followers to Jesus! The whole point of his ministry was to get people to leave him and follow Christ. John considered his ministry successful only when everyone had left his “church” to join Jesus’.

Look closely at John’s words. Here’s what he basically said:

·      I only have what God has given to me. It’s His grace, not my talents, which even put me in this position. Therefore, I don’t hold anything too tightly. Nothing is mine; it’s all God’s and He can do with it as He pleases.

·      I am not the Christ. It’s not about me. The whole point of my ministry was to get people to follow Jesus. He is the hero of the story, not me.

·      I know my place and I know my role in God’s plans and purposes. For me to try to grasp at power or hold onto people for my own pride would be like the best man at a wedding trying to steal the bride away from the groom. That’s not his place. She doesn’t belong to him.

·      I get joy from Christ being glorified. It means I did a good job. It means my ministry was a success. I will be completely happy when every last one of my disciples has left me to become a fully devoted follower of Christ.

That is extravagant honor. Holding this low view of myself and a high view of God results in showing honor to others:

·      If I regard nothing as mine, and everything as a gift from God, then I can be extravagantly generous to others and share freely from what God has given me to show them honor.

·      If I understand that the point of my life is to get others to follow Jesus rather than me, then I can be humble in an extravagant way so as not to block the view of Christ. “Down in front!”

·      If I know my place and understand my role in God’s plans and purposes, I am free to let go of selfish ambition and insistence on my rights, and extravagantly join God in His work around me.

·      If my joy comes from decreasing so that Christ can increase, then there is nothing that can ever steal such extravagant joy!

Father, this is my prayer: I must decrease, Jesus must increase. Use my life to point others to Christ. May I be forgotten and lost to obscurity to make Christ more known. Forgive me for my pride, my selfish ambitions, my grasping for personal rights, and my insistence on recognition and admiration. Help me in humility to regard others as more significant than myself. Form in me the mind of Christ for the glory of God. In Jesus’ name! Amen!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

You have need of endurance...

The following is an excerpt from my personal journal dated September 11, 2015.

            A few weeks ago, my wife and I were celebrating our 28th wedding anniversary at a beautiful log cabin nestled in the north Georgia mountains. My wife loves the outdoors, so we went on a few hiking trails nearby. One of them was Raven Cliff Falls trail. It’s a 2.5-mile hike through shaded woods along a creek with several lesser falls and pools. It was cool and a bit rainy, so it was an enjoyable hike.

            As we were nearing the end of the hike, we heard a noise behind us. We turned to look and it was two women, an older woman and what appeared to be her adult daughter. They were walking briskly, probably for exercise. I told Cheryl, “At the pace they are moving, they will pass us by in a few minutes.” We had been in no hurry; we stopped several times along the way to explore a side trail, to take a picture of a flower or a section of the creek we thought beautiful, or to check out one of the many campsites in case we ever decided to come back with the rest of the family. Sure enough, within a few minutes, the pair passed us by and disappeared around a bend in the trail ahead. I figured we would see them at the falls when we reached them shortly.

            But not too long after, we spotted them ahead, stopped along the side of the trail, huffing and puffin. They looked tired and out of breath. They were looking at one of the larger falls along the way to Raven Cliff itself. As we passed, I asked them, “Catching your breath before the finish?” The older woman panted, “No… we can see it from here.” She pointed to the waterfall. “Close enough is close enough,” she said with an exhausted smile. I thought to myself as we walked on. Wait, does she think that’s Raven Cliff Falls? Does she think they were there?

            The actual falls is an impressive sight. Two massive, towering cliffs of solid granite, with a waterfall that gushes through a break between them, ending in a secluded cave with a pool of icy, cold, fresh water to splash around in and be refreshed by. It’s definitely worth the two and a half mile walk.

            The waterfall the two women pointed to was nice… but it’s hardly a substitute for the real Raven Cliff Falls! I found myself becoming anxious for them as we walked on. I kept looking over my shoulder to see if they would continue on and come to the real falls. “I hope they aren’t going to turn back,” I said to Cheryl. “It would be a shame to come so close and stop just short of the payoff.”

            Sure enough, after just a few minutes more of walking, we turned a corner on the trail and it opened up to the majestic granite cliffs and the towering waterfall. It was hidden from sight by the twist and turns of the trail; you could not see it until you were there. Excited and spurred on by the prospect of getting up to the water, Cheryl and I scrambled up an incline littered by roots and limb and loose rock. In fact, the most arduous and strenuous part of the whole trail was right there at the end.

            Once we reached the falls, I looked back once more to see if the two women were coming. No sign. I whistled loudly. Everything in me wanted to shout, “Don’t stop now! Keep going! You’re almost there! It’s worth it! Just keep going!”  

The two women never came. We never saw them again, not even on the way back. Cheryl and I talked on the return trip about how they must have thought that they had seen all there was to see, were unimpressed and turned back, disappointed and probably a little bitter. “Really?! This is what we came all this way to see? We suffered and wore ourselves out for THIS?!” We imagined them going back home and telling their friends, “Don’t bother with Raven Cliff Falls. What a waste of time! We did it and it was nothing special.” How many people would never get to experience it because they believed their report? How many people would never even start the trail because they didn’t finish it?

It’s not hard to see where I am going with this. All weekend Cheryl and I joked that every trail was “rich with metaphors” for following Christ. I believe He wanted to join the conversation about trails and paths and enduring to the end. Raven Cliff Falls was His statement on the matter.

            Rewind about two weeks before our hike to the falls. I had been listening to a podcast by John Eldredge. He was talking about his practice of asking God for a word or theme for the upcoming new year. He usually does this on New Year’s Day, he said. I had heard this idea before and it intrigued me. But it’s August already, I thought. It’s too late to get a word from God about my year. At the exact moment I had that thought, John Eldredge said on his podcast, “It’s never too late to ask God to give you a word for the season of your life you are in now.” Ha! Ok, then.

So I prayed, “Father, do You have a word or theme for where I am right now?” Immediately, in my mind I heard, as clear as day, the word, “Endure.” It resonated in my heart. It lined up with so much that I had been reading in the Word and experiencing in my life. It rang true in my whole being, right down to my soul.

That night, I told Cheryl I had asked for a word. She said, Wait, don’t tell me. Let me ask about your word and see if God confirms it.” She sat silently praying for a moment. “OK, what was your word?” she asked. “Endure,” I said. She jumped and slapped my leg playfully, a big smile on her face. “No way! That’s exactly what I heard, just the way you said it just now… ‘Endure.’ ” So I began looking everywhere for what God might be saying or revealing about enduring. The word began cropping up in almost every passage of scripture I read in my prayer times.

So when we had that experience at Raven Cliff Falls, God got my attention. There are promises to those who endure to the end. There are rewards. There are also dire warnings for those who don’t. Here are a few things I believe He said to me about endurance in connection with our hike on the trail:

Faith is crucial. If you don’t believe that what’s at the end of the trail is worth whatever it takes to get there, you will give up before you find out. You will never know.

Pace yourself. Don’t be in such a hurry that you miss beauty and wonder and joy along the way. Take time to rest and catch your breath. Draw strength and encouragement from the journey itself. If you put your head down just to soldier through, you may burn out before you get to the end and find yourself settling for something less, becoming disappointed and cynical and bitter. You may actually discourage others from ever starting by your failure to finish.

Don’t walk alone. Two are better than one on a journey. There is great value in sharing the adventure with others who want to finish with you. Allow other voices to encourage you when you lose your desire to go on. Allow them to share wisdom on how to best handle obstacles on the trail. Another pair of eyes can see things yours might miss. It’s wisdom.

Look for the trail markers. They have been put there to guide you by the ones who blazed the trail before you. When my wife hiked part of the Appalachian Trail the year prior, she noticed that occasionally there were these white rectangles called blazes painted on trees along the path for when you needed to know you were still going in the right direction, or when the path took a weird turn or seemed confusing. Just when you might be thinking, Am I lost? Did I make a wrong turn? Did I wander off the trail somehow? there was a blaze to reassure you and direct you to the next section. But you have to 1) know what they look like, 2) know what they mean, and 3) keep your head up and your eyes open so you don’t miss them. Comfort can be a distraction. It makes us lazy and less aware of our situation. Stay alert.

It gets hardest at the end. The hardest part of the trail is often that last little bit. You know you’re close, but it’s been a long walk. You’re tired, you can sense it’s almost over, and then you face the steepest, most strenuous climb. Don’t quit! Endure. It’s worth it. Jesus warned His followers that the closer they got to Him, and the closer they got to His return, the more they would suffer like Him. If I am not experiencing this, I have to ask myself, “Have I stopped moving forward? Am I camped along the trail in a cozy spot, no longer even on the path?”

You can’t see it from a distance. Like the trail to Raven Cliff Falls, close enough is not close enough. It doesn’t cut it. You never see the falls until you reach them. It’s not something you can admire from a distance to save yourself some trouble. You have to keep walking all the way or you will never even know what you missed.

Tell people about it. Show them where the trailhead is. Describe the falls. Tell them what you saw and how it made you feel. Get them excited. Offer to hike with them. Point out all the cool stuff along the way. Encourage them to endure to the end.

“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.(Galatians 6:9, emphasis mine)

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12-14, emphasis mine)

“For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, yet a little while, and the coming One will come and will not delay; ‘but My righteous one will live by faith, and if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in him.’ But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” (Hebrews 10:36-39)

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfector of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2, emphasis mine)

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Stooping is the New Standing

 The following is an excerpt from my personal journal dated July 4, 2015.

“…but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened.” (Luke 4:11-12, ESV)

     The resurrection of Jesus Christ still seems like an “idle tale” to many “...and they did not believe.” In our cynical, reality-obsessed culture, we gravitate towards the gritty. We are suspicious of happy endings. Real life isn’t tied up neatly with pretty ribbons and bows. The resurrection seems to us like a fairy-tale finish to an otherwise powerful and poignant tragedy. It’s too good to be true, so we dismiss it as false.

     The disciples apparently felt the same way. Jesus was dead. That was real. They saw it. They knew it to be true. It must have seemed a cruel joke in poor taste for these women to come barging in with wild, “idle tales” of a risen Jesus. Yet there was one man among them who dared hope their words were true, enough to get up and go see for himself. 

     Peter’s last encounter with Jesus ended badly. Betrayal. Vehement denial that he even knew Jesus. Cowardly self-protection at the expense of His Lord. Worst of all, Jesus had known him better than he knew himself. He told Peter he would do this.

     But He also said, “When you return…” He knew Peter would deny Him, yet offered him hope that there was a way back. So when Jesus was killed on the cross, that hope had died. Jesus was gone and Peter never got the chance to make it right again before He was killed.

     Until today. If He was alive, then maybe… He got up and literally ran to the tomb. And here’s the part I personally love in the text, the specific word picture Luke uses: “stooping and looking in.” To stoop means to bow down, to get low. It means to make yourself smaller so you can enter. It’s a humbling of self. Had Peter refused to make himself lower, all he would have seen was the stony outside of a garden tomb. But “stooping and looking in, he saw…” There is a whole different perspective awaiting the one who will stoop and look in. You have to want it bad enough. Peter did.

     Ordinarily, it would be nothing special for a person to bend down in order to see into a small, low space. But there was more going on inside Peter. The action was pregnant with spiritual implication. Peter, whose pride and self-preserving instincts wouldn’t let him risk his own safety to identify with Jesus just a few nights earlier, now had to lower himself to peer into a tomb to know if there was any hope for him beyond his own death.

     Did he see Jesus? No, and that’s a good thing. If Jesus had been in the tomb, then all hope for redemption was lost – for Peter and for us. Instead, he saw the shell of empty grave clothes laying there, no body to fill them, as if to shout, “I couldn’t hold Him! He is too strong! I was no match for Jesus!”

     Maybe the reason the story seems like an “idle tale” to so many is because they will not stop to look in for themselves. Maybe they are afraid of what they will see if they do. If they dare get low in front of all their peers and take a hard, honest look inside that tomb, it might really be empty. And if it really is empty, then Jesus might actually be alive. And if Jesus rose from the dead, then He has claims on their lives that they cannot shake. No, it’s too risky. Better to stay home with the scoffers. It’s safer that way.

     Safer. At least until the sky cracks wide, and that Risen Jesus returns in triumph to claim His place as rightful King over all. The those who rejected Him, who refused to stoop and lower themselves, who dared not look inside for fear of what they would – or would not  -- find there, they will cry out for the mountains to fall on them and for the rocks to cover them. Anything to escape the penetrating gaze of that “Idle Tale” turned “True Story.” For them there will be nothing left but the wrath of a Holy God who did everything in His power to save them except force them to love Him.

     For the Christ follower, stooping is the new standing. It is a permanent position of humility before a glorious Savior. Jesus stooped far lower than He asks any of us to do. Yet stoop we must. Lower ourselves we must. If we want to see for ourselves what is true and live a life of freedom, hope, and victory, then we must do it from the stooping position.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Feeling all "misty" this morning...

Reading in James this morning...
"Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin." (James 4:13-17, ESV)

There are two important facts about being a human on planet earth that James reminds us of:
  1. Our days are numbered. Literally.
  2. We have no idea what that number is.

I have no idea if this is my last day on earth or not. The coffee I sip now could be the last cup I ever taste. The good-morning kiss I just gave my wife a few moments ago could be the last kiss we ever enjoy. The sentence I am hastily scribbling across the page of my journal may be the last thing I ever write. I simply do not know the number of my days.

So to live as if I did know, or as if it didn't matter, or even worse, as if God did not have a say in how I spent my numbered days is actually evil, arrogant, and sinful. James calls it "arrogant boasting" because we do not stop to ask God what He wants to do with our lives. Planning our futures -- even in the short term -- without seeking the Lord's will is actually "evil." It actually works against what is good and right and true.

That's why James says, "Hey, if you know you are a mist, and if you know you are subject to the sovereignty of God, and if you know you ought to ask Him what He wants to do with the number of your days -- and yet you spend it pursuing your own plans without a thought to His plans or purposes, then you are sinning against God." We are basically giving Him the middle finger as we run off to do whatever for a few years before launching out into eternity. And then we get to stand before Him and explain why our plans were somehow better. (Cue Dust in the Wind by Kansas...)

Father, what do you have for me this day? If it is my last day, let me live it purposefully for Your glory. Use me to tell someone the good news of the love of Christ. All my plans and hopes and dreams I yield to Your gracious, sovereign will. I am a mist, here for a little while, then gone and eventually forgotten even by my own great-grandchildren. I am only two generations away from being forgotten entirely by my own family!

God, help me to live in light of the glorious reality that this mist may only last a little while, but in Your hands it can accomplish something eternally significant in Your Kingdom. I am Your, Father. Live through me today, in Jesus' name.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

So I came across this in Proverbs...

"To do justice AND righteousness is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice." 
(Proverbs 21:3, ESV. Emphasis mine)

     In scripture, righteousness and justice are always mentioned together. Like conjoined twins they are inseparable. They are two sides of a single coin; both are necessary for the coin to be of any worth.

     Justice is big these days among young evangelicals. They are understandably sick of the apathy, sick of the lazy church sitting in pews and singing dry, dusty hymns while the world goes to hell all around them, sick of the hypocrisy of claiming the title: Jesus-follower" but not actually following Jesus into the world to heal the sick, care for the poor, touch the leper, and love the outcast. There is a lot to admire about the "social justice" movement in the church these days. The world is dying to see if there is an ounce of authenticity left in Western Christianity. But there is a caution to be taken if we are to follow Jesus into the world: Justice is never far from righteousness. Never. Ever.

     Many want to cast off the holiness of God in the name of His justice. Some would feed hungry stomachs with bread, but starve their souls of the Bread of Life in the process. They want to reach out and embrace the marginalized and outcast, but not require repentance from sin. They cast off God's unflinching call to purity and holy living because, after all, who are we to tell anyone how they should live? Aren't we all sinners? Isn't everyone broken in one way or another? We imagine that enough efforts to promote justice will somehow excuse us from the demands of righteousness.

     In fairness, the vast majority of American Christians have done the inverse: we have reduced the gospel to a set of doctrinal statements and a moral code of conduct: "If you agree to the truth of these statements, and can manage to avoid these particular sins (usually sexual in nature), then you are a Christian." Meanwhile, the cries of the oppressed and impoverished largely go unheeded. They can barely be heard above our state-of-the-art sound systems in our multi-million dollar facilities. Justice is re-labeled "Missions"and left to those who "feel called" to it. (BTW, you don't "feel called;" you ARE called. You either listen and obey or you don't.)

     But the truth is that Jesus requires both. The Proverb above doesn't say, "Righteousness is acceptable to the Lord, but justice is optional." Nor does it say, "To do justice is better than righteousness." It says that both together were more acceptable to Yahweh than merely superficial religious ceremony. Why? Because they are the metric of our spiritual maturity. They are the barometer of our hearts -- where they are, what they desire, how we regard the Lord.

     Righteousness is how we live before God. It measures our moral choices as they flow from the affections of our hearts. Like water that will seep through and rise to its own level, what -- and who -- we really love will be revealed by how we live. God is very concerned with what our hearts desire and how we go after it. There are ways to live that promote human flourishing in every area -- physically, materially, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. And there are ways to live that destroy us, sometimes quickly and obviously, but more often quietly over a lifetime, like a slow poison working its way through our bodies, shutting it down one system at a time until we stop living.

     Morality is what we think of most when we talk about righteousness but it is actually much more than that. It's not rule-keeping; it's loving God more than we love ourselves and trusting that His commands are an expression of His love and protection towards us. Righteousness deals more with our relationship to God, while justice is more about how we treat other people because of our relationship to God.

Righteousness and justice always go together. To attempt one without the other is to accomplish neither.

     Jesus said this was the sum of the whole Law and Prophets: "You shall love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (righteousness), and you shall love your neighbor as yourself (justice)." He told His followers to "seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness." Righteousness and justice always go together. To attempt one without the other is to accomplish neither.

     You cannot claim a zeal for justice and embrace or accept something God calls sin. You are not being just towards those who are trapped in that self-destructive lifestyle, misleading them to believe they are safe from the wrath of God and penalty of their sin. Nor are you being just towards God by treating His Word and His holiness as something that can be casually dismissed whenever it's expedient or unpopular.

     Conversely, you cannot claim a zeal for righteousness -- holding up your morality and doctrinal positions as evidence -- if that never results in action taken to oppose oppression, injustice, exploitation, corruption, or abuses of power. What kind of righteousness leaves the helpless undefended, the hungry unfed, the naked unclothed, the sick uncared for, and the captive left to rot in captivity?

     The Proverb is saying, "Don't look at your religious service as the metric of how well your relationship with God is going. Rather, look at the interplay of both righteous living before a holy God and compassionate justice towards those made in His image. That's what God is really after." James affirms this in his letter:
     "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world." (James 1:27, ESV. Emphasis mine.)
     Justice AND righteousness. Never one without the other.

     Father, help me to live a life pleasing to You. I fear there are days when not only do I not do both, but some days that I do neither. God, make me more like Jesus, who loved You more than life itself and expressed it by loving others. In Jesus' name I ask these things. Amen!


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

His way is through the sea...

 The following is an entry from my personal journal dated August 30, 2015.

"Your way was through the sea, Your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen." -- Psalm 77:19, ESV

     The psalmist is a man in trouble.

     He emphasizes, not once but twice, in verse 1 that he is crying aloud. Not praying silently or murmuring under his breath. He is shouting his prayer to God! His is a desperate situation. There seems to be no way out. He can't sleep. He can't speak (v. 4). He is so troubled that it is literally debilitating.

     So what does he do? I love these next few verses. They are so raw, so honest, so unflinching...

"I said, 'Let me remember my song in the night; let me meditate in my heart.' Then my spirit made a diligent search: ..."

     This desperate man makes a diligent search in the deepest places of his being. He asks a series of questions to himself. He is grappling with how to interpret his circumstances. He is taking what he has always believed to be true about God and holding it up to what he is experiencing and asking the really hard question: "Is it really true?" Was it just a nice little faith, a quaint set of beliefs for when times were good? Or does it stand up in the storm? If I could sum up his questions in verses 7-9, I would say it like this: "Has God given up on me? Does He care?"
     What follows is nothing short of amazing. God answers his question. Not audibly. Not in a miraculous show of thunder and fire from heaven. In the deepest places of his soul, the Spirit of God whispers, "Remember..." 

     And that is exactly what he does. He rehearses the things God has done in the past when everything seemed hopeless and, by all appearances, God had abandoned His people. In pondering these things one particular story comes to his mind: the parting of the red Sea to deliver Israel from the Egyptian army.

     If you go back and read the story in Exodus, the people of Israel were freaking out. Behind them, the armies of the largest, most powerful kingdom in the world were bearing down on them, intent on slaughtering every single one of them. In front of them was the impenetrable barrier of the Red Sea. They were trapped, it seemed, with no way out.

     Ah, that's the magic word: way. 

     God's specialty is making a way where there is none. It's His signature move, ultimately perfected in the resurrection of Jesus. The psalmist remembers this and it dawns on him like an epiphany: "Your way was through the sea, Your path was through the great waters..." Key word: through.

     When the Israelites in Exodus 14 saw their predicament, they did exactly what the psalmist did: they cried aloud. "What have you done, Moses?! Have you brought us here to die? What's the matter, there weren't enough graves in Egypt, so you hadda lure us out here so they could kill us?!" All their questions amount to one big misinterpretation: There is no way. We are doomed. God has given up on us.

     Moses' response to their questions is beyond epic. It's so epic that Bible publishers should just go ahead and pre-highlight it for people...

"Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which He will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. (Now you see them; now you don't!) The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent."

     Freaking awesome. "God's got this! Your part is to shut up an watch!"

     Then God did something no one expected. He took no way and made it The Way! He took the very thing that trapped them and turned it into the escape route. He took a wall and made it a door.

     When the psalmist remembers this his heart is lightened. That changes everything! Maybe the reason God has not delivered him from his troubles is because they are the very thing He is working through to bring true freedom and deliverance.

     "Your footprints were not seen..." We may not be able to distinguish a clear set of footprints to track the movement of God, but that doesn't mean that He isn't working. Verse 20 reminds us that "You led Your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron." Then the psalm abruptly ends. Boom. Over. No neat wrap up or summary or conclusion statement. In the words of the great Stan Lee, "'Nuff said!"

     God didn't deliver from trouble; He delivered through trouble. And though His footprints were not visible to the naked eye, His direction and provision were obvious in Moses and Aaron.

     Why? Why does God make a way through  instead of just avoiding the trouble to start with? The answer to that question is in what He said to Moses at the Red Sea:

"... I will get glory over Pharoah and all his hosts, his chariots, and his horsemen. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I have gotten glory over Pharoah, his chariots, and his horsemen." (Exodus 14:17-18)

     When the psalmist reflects on the story of God's deliverance through the Red Sea, he makes an astute observation that I completely missed on the first reading -- God led them there on purpose! "You led Your people like a flock..." It was no accident that they ended up at the Red Sea. God led them there "by the hand of Moses and Aaron," knowing full well that Pharoah's armies would come charging after them and trap them against the waters. Here's the crazy thing: It was God's plan to do that the whole time! Why? Why would He do something like that? That seems so.... mean.

     We often misinterpret our circumstances because we are working at cross purposes with God. We are not interested in what He is doing or why. We just want out.

     We are looking to return to comfort as quickly as possible.
     God is looking to make Himself known to the nations.
     We are interested only in our pleasure.
     He is interested only in His glory.

     Knowing God's agenda in advance puts us at a remarkable advantage over our "day of trouble." Endurance is made effective by knowing the end to which we are suffering. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus endured the cross "for the joy that was set before Him." How we handle the "day of trouble" will reveal whether we are on the Kingdom plan, or if we have a plan all our own we are trying to get God to endorse.

     The psalmist, the Israelites, and I all have something in common: In the "day of trouble" when we are so desperate that we can't sleep or speak and we cry out to God, "Why have you abandoned me?!" -- we forget stuff. And we need to remember. We need to remember that God's way is through, not from or around or over or under. We need to remember that we don't always see His footprints but we can trust that He is leading us.

     The question then is: Are we following? Am I yielding to His leadership by submitting to godly leaders He has placed over me with a proven track record of walking with God and experiencing His power? Am I so busy trying to find a way out or around the "day of trouble" that I am missing "the salvation of the LORD" that runs right through it? Am I so busy complaining that I can't hear God saying, "You have only to be silent."?

Thank you, God, for this great reminder. Help me to remember in my day of trouble that Your way is THROUGH the sea, Your path is THROUGH the great waters, even though your footprints may remain unseen. You lead Your people like a shepherd leads his sheep. By Your grace, make me to trust Your promises. Help me to look for the ways You are getting glory and making Yourself known in my day of trouble. Help me endure for the joy set before me, of knowing You are leading me and bringing Your Kingdom through me. In Jesus' precious and holy name I pray this today.