Friday, October 24, 2008

For Unto Us a Child is Born

I just got word that my dear friend has given birth to a precious baby girl and I am naturally overwhelmed with delight and joy. The last few weeks were busy for her with work, two other children and the long list of things that demand attention without respect to her final days of pregnancy and the inevitable resulting exhaustion. I know that this tiny babe enters the world at a time when our economy is teetering on the brink of some sort of abyss--whether it's a ditch or a canyon. This little one enters the world amidst an election where the lives of other babes are potentially at stake. It enters the world when moms and dads are both working hard to make ends meet and when one in every one hundred people will become a prisoner! It enters the world where the environment is slowly giving way to the pollution that results from our greed as a nation. Wow. Welcome to the world little one. We've been working hard to prepare a place for you. Hmmm. But you know what? That sweet, soft, powdery package entered the world at the sovereign hand of an all-knowing, all-powerful God at this precise moment in time because God Himself chose to begin the earthly life of that eternal soul right now. And the very fact that it came is evidence of the God who still reigns sovereign over this planet where the created continue to defy their Creator. This pink-flannel wrapped babe is unaware that it's tiny fingers, toes and lips sing out the song of her Creator--the lyrics and melody that quiet the fears and worries of all who take the time to notice. God gives life. God numbers our days. God remains able and capable though we may think somehow He's lost control. My inbox is flooded daily with political emails and I believe we should make informed decisions, but let me tell you I believe more firmly than ever that God is sovereign in this world today. A quick read of the first few chapters of Matthew--the account of the arrival of another babe--Jesus--is all it takes to remind me of God's sovereignty despite man's intent. The wise men (keep in mind they are called WISE, but even the wisest among us can't pre-discern everything) went directly to Herod to locate Jesus' whereabouts. In other words, unknowingly, they alerted an evil King to the whereabouts of the King of Kings. Not a good idea. And naturally, Herod planned to kill Jesus immediately. You know the story. God--who remained in control of the situation--came to the wise men in a dream and told them not to tell Herod where they found Jesus. Then the Angel of the Lord warned Joseph to flee to Egypt. Herod learned he'd been fooled by the wise men and went on a baby killing spree somewhat foreshadowing of the legalizing of abortion today. Then eventually Joseph is told to move again and he ends up in Nazareth. Here's the thing that catches my breath--God had a plan for the life and the death of Jesus and NO ONE could thwart that plan. No one! Not the King Herod, not the wise men lack of discernment, not the pharisees or the Sadducees. No one. And for Christ's disciples at the time of His death, I am SURE that they must have been convinced that the execution of their innocent leader was way wrong. Yet we all know that in truth it was a part of God's master plan. Isaiah 14:27 says, "Indeed, the Lord who commands armies has a plan, and who can possibly frustrate it? His hand is ready to strike, and who can possibly stop it?" More than anything I want to know that the God I love is completely and utterly untouchable--and He is. If the impending election can somehow alter the ultimate goals of my heavenly Father than He is no longer worthy of being called all-powerful. If the gloomy economy can somehow effect God's ability to provide, than I can no longer call Him Jehovah-Jireh. If this precious new baby born only hours ago into this world has a future without hope than I can no longer call my Jesus the Christ of hope. In my opinion, the outlook for this child is no different than the outlook for you and for me on the days we were born. It is infinitely and eternally good should she choose to accept Christ as her savior one day. The book of Matthew skips most of Jesus' youth and pretty quickly goes from his flight-filled infancy and toddlerhood where as a family they were watching their backs in fear of Herod to the moment when Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. Here Jesus faced an intense trial armed only with the Word of God. He stood not on what He saw, but on the truths He knew. I desperately need to take my eyes off of what is seen in the world around me and burn them into the truths I know. Here's what I love. After Jesus spent that time facing the greatest trial of his life, the Bible says, "Then the devil left him, and angels came and began ministering to his needs." (Matthew 4:11) I need to live like I really believe the devil doesn't win at the end of our story. God Reigns. He Rules. He wins! We get the fairy tale ending. And in the meantime, God will see that our needs are ministered to. I love that in the moments following my great struggles and concerns of life, God ministers to the deep places in my soul. Over and over and over again. A new life arrived today and for this little child who is unaware of all that her world contains, the future is good. And for those of us who are aware of all that exists in our world today, may that baby be a visible reminder of our Creator who remains untouchable. May we walk in the truth that "The Lord frustrates the decisions of the nations; he nullifies the plans of the peoples. The Lord's decisions stand forever; his plans abide throughout the ages. How blessed is the nation whose god is the Lord..." (Psalm 33:10,11)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

My Pending File Overfloweth

I have always had some sort of "pending file" that I keep. The contents of course vary from bills awaiting payment, letters yet to be returned and pictures I'd like to blow up and frame. There are weeks on end when that file is nearly empty. I love it when it is like that. At present, I keep the file under my laptop and when it begins to get rather full, the computer totters atop the pile reminding me of contents awaiting my attention. I can't help but draw the comparison between that file and my Christian walk. There are times in the passing of life when I have an overall sense of having figured things out for the most part--times when things make sense, fall into place and God seems pretty tidily summed up. (No doubt those are probably the times when Jesus calls out to heaven, "Look down there in that little town in Georgia--we're fixing to see some sparks! Old Sarah thinks she's got us figured out again.") And then there are seasons when the horizon is a haze. God seems known and yet still unknown and unclear. Present, yes, very present, but just not so neat and tidy. Things don't all make sense--I have more questions than answers and more pending concepts than completed ideas. I don't begrudge these times--they're the Jacob wrestling with God all night sorts of seasons when in the end, I always know that in some way I'll be marked, changed. The change for Jacob was a new name and a limp when he walked signifying to all mankind that he had contended with God. Jacob wasn't exactly worthy of God's blessing in my opinion. After all, he stole his brother's blessing, he favored Rachel's children and had a very dysfunctional family. But God, in His sovereignty and goodness chose to bless a man completely unworthy. The truth is, I'm not much different than Jacob. My life doesn't match his in terms of where I'm weak, but that there is weakness and failure is evident to anyone who knows me. But we kid ourselves if we think that having it all together--an empty pending file if you will--somehow renders us more worthy of God's blessings and presence in our lives. In fact, the more I consider the patriarchs of the Bible the more I see that God blesses those people in spite of who they are and not at all because of who they are. It's so easy to conclude that we need to "be a good Christian" and that in so doing we will find ourselves the recipients of God's goodness. We are the recipients of God's goodness because we choose to accept His goodness first in the form of His Son's finished work on the cross and second in our day to day lives by appropriating the blessings He has already poured out on us. By that I mean to say that "His divine power HAS given us EVERYTHING we need for life and godliness..." (II Pet 1:3) And by appropriate I mean we apply the truths of God's word to our lives like putting moisturizer on our face. We have the moisturizer in our bathroom vanity, but it is only useful if we put it on. It is the same with the blessings of God--they are only useful if we know what they are and choose to put them on. But that they are readily available to all who believe despite how messy or neat their lives are is not ever to be questioned.

Back to the pending file--we all have them. Sometimes they're overflowing and sometimes they're empty, but we have them. There are times in life when things are unfinished and messy but we are loved as much in those moments as we are loved when things are orderly and completed. We journey. We do not arrive here in this life. We journey. And on that journey, we are loved infinitely and completely to such an extent that if we were to grasp utterly the magnitude of that love we would want for nothing. What I hope though is that amidst the seasons when my file is full and there seem to be unfinished items scattered throughout, there will be overwhelming evidence that my wrestling is with a sovereign and good God. It's my prayer that I won't leave the place of those encounters unchanged.

Perhaps you are like me in that there are times when you look around your life and think there's a lot that's left to be done. In those times perhaps the greatest truth we can chew on is this--I am loved. Loved abundantly. Loved utterly. Loved greatly. Loved eternally. Loved unconditionally. Loved amidst the mess.

Pray with me:

Lord, as I look around at the hills I am reminded that my help comes from you--maker of heaven and earth--and maker of the hills. Lord, I know there's not a single thing in the pending file of my life that wasn't first filtered through your hands. Teach me to look not at the hills but at You, The Lover of my Soul. Teach me to surrender to You amidst the wrestling. Amen.

Read with me: II Peter 1: 1-11, Psalm 121

Monday, October 6, 2008

When we Live as Though we are Loved

Recently when I logged into my email there was waiting for me a 'check-up' email from a very dear friend. An area with which I have been wrestling was the topic of the email and I had asked my friend to hold me accountable. The truth is that I hadn't had a lot of success in this area in the last week and typically I would be dreading the faithful accountability my friend offered but when I saw the email sitting like a candle in my inbox I felt encouraged--even happy. I thought to myself, "How odd that I am happy to see that email when I have so little good to report." The truth of the matter is that I know her heart so well that I know without a single question that this person loves me to pieces and her sincere hope is for God's goodness to come about in my life. I also realize that she does not judge me based on failure or success, but based on my heart. She knows my heart's intentions and loves me for the contents within my soul. Though I knew I'd have to report some failures I also knew that her disappointment would not be "in me" but "for me" as I had before me this week the choice between God's very best and some mediocre counterfeits. If she suffered any grief over my report it would not be in me as a person but a sincere sadness that someone she loved made poor choices. Few humans can separate people's actions from people's hearts. But her unconditional love changed how I felt about her faithful encouragment in my life. Here's the thing--God's love for us is that way times a million, and most of us just don't live like we believe that. We say we believe it, but we do not live like it. God used my friend's email to remind me of His own feelings towards me despite my inadequacies. Ephesians 1:4 says, "For He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that we may be holy and unblemished in his sight in love." That verse packs a whole lot of truth into one relatively short sentence. For the God of the universe, of all creation, of you and of I, chose us -before the earth was formed, before the sky shone light or dark, before the stars were strung--to be encased in Jesus. When God sees us, He sees two things--a person who is holy and a person who is unblemished. Do you follow that with me? As a follower of Jesus, standing before God with our failures, our lists of mess-ups and our relative unrighteousness God still sees holiness and an unblemished creation. I know. I know. He sees holiness because we are in Christ and Christ is holy. He sees unblemished people because we are clothed in Christ's righteousness and therefore we appear like a spotless lamb. And none of that is really us. That's all Christ. But when He really looks at just us....WOE. Stop right there. That's the point. We've got to get our heads around this reality--it's NOT just us anymore. "I have been crucified with Christ, and it is NO LONGER I WHO LIVE, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me." (Gal. 2:20) From the moment we become a follower of Jesus we are never again seen alone in the nakedness and shame of our sinful and broken state. When God looks on us He sees Jesus--every single time. We are dressed in Jesus. We may not behave like Jesus, we may not think like Jesus, we may not act like Jesus, but we are in Him nonetheless. We need to know that because so much of our theology comes from the words we hear instead of The Word and we don't always realize the two don't line up. We hear things like, 'we don't want to disappoint God' and assume that somehow if we can disappoint him we must also be able to please Him. He is pleased--trust me--He is "well pleased." He's well pleased with us, but not because of us, because of who we are in--Christ. "I do not set aside God's grace, because if righteousness could come through the law, then Christ died for nothing." (Gal. 2:21) The thing is that we are loved in such a way that is completely apart from ourselves and anything we will ever do or not do. We are loved without condition because we are not loved based on our own righteousness, but based on the perfect spotless lamb of Jesus and if we think that in anyway we can appear before God in a pleasing way in our own merit we sell short all that Jesus did for us on the cross. When we say with our mouths that we can't earn God's favor but then turn around and nearly deify people who appear to have it altogether. The question must be asked, if God's pleasure in us can be related to our good doings, then, as believers, can it not also be related to our wrong doings? The answer, I believe--however controversial, is NO. Like a candle glowing in a windowsill over the holiday season, God's love is an everlasting love. It's presence in our lives is not in anyway conditional on how we behave, how together we are, or how much of a failure we are. And when He checks up on us, like my friend did, it is for our good. It is not God's intention to condemn us but to empower us. His desire is not to point out our failures, but to spur us on toward love and good deeds. When we sing of God's amazing grace we are singing of God's amazing "unmerited, unearned, undeserved favor" not His grace that saves us and then somehow becomes conditional. It's my hope that in a world where even amongst Christians we can feel a spirit of condemnation and a sense that in some way we need to perform in order to prove our worth, I may walk as one who is loved. Loved not for what I've done but because I am God's creation and I am dressed in God's Son. Those two things will never change and therefore, I am forever loved. If we can learn to walk in that truth, I believe the world will inevitably be drawn toward the irresistible warmth of the God whose scripture insists that above all "the greatest of these is love." (I Cor. 13:13) Perhaps Christ Himself said best what I fear happens all too often among sincere people who desperately want to obey and honor their heavenly Father. "Therefore pay attention to what they (experts in the law or scribes) tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy loads hard to carry, and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them..." (Matthew 23:4) If after walking away from a sermon or a book intended for spiritual growth we feel weight like a burden or that there are a list of things we need to do to improve upon ourselves could it be possible we have misunderstood the intent? Consider again Christ's own words, "Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry." (Matthew 11:29-30) Jesus Himself insisted He came not to condemn the world but to seek and save those who were lost. And the question must be asked if as Christ followers we are walking with a sense of failure and condemnation, then by whom are we being condemned? Many years ago I lead a Bible study on women's character. We went through a book and many were affronted by the contents of the book. Many of the ladies said it felt next to impossible to carry out the author's instructions. I followed the instructions laid out in that book to the letter for a very long time. And I'll be frank with you, I felt like I had something finally figured out. It was a difficult pace I can promise you, and after a couple of years I realized that while her ideas were excellent and well intended they were not a miraculous formula for achieving spirituality. My most spiritual moments in those years were probably on the days when I bombed big time and sat before my heavenly Father looking into His eyes soaking in His love. When I get to heaven I know that God will not commend my efforts in those years as any greater than the years when I basked in His presence and drank up His love like a warming wine. I'm ashamed to have to tell you that I remember looking into some of those women's eyes and saying, "I know this is difficult, but it is right, and your life will be better if you live like this." That I was sincerely trying to obey God and honor Him goes without saying. But as I look back on that study, my heart aches for those young mothers who were struggling to follow a God who seemed so unattainable, so righteous and perfect that to bring Him joy would be nearly impossible. For some, sadly, I believe they came to the conclusion that the goal was too lofty and that the exhaustion that resulted from their noble attempts was just not worth it. They could be better moms and wives if they just focused on their families and quit worrying about trying to please God. Man if I could have a do-over! I'd take those women's hands in my own and I'd say, "God does not care about how perfect you are, He is madly in love with you right now--while you are completely imperfect. He loves you when you are tired from being up all night with that new baby and He loves you when you fall asleep trying to pray. He loves you when you snap at your children and He loves you when you intend to make a romantic dinner for your husband and have the kids in bed early and in fact you end up eating hot dogs with kids crawling under the table. He loves you because you are His creation and He sees in you the perfection of His Son." I'd say it every single week that they came to that study because if we don't believe, live and breathe the reality of God's love in our lives we will not experience the freedom and fullness of life God intends for us here on earth. I write all of this at the risk of being criticized for not discussing James' words about being "doers" of the Word. I write all this knowing people will say you are selling God's love as a ticket to live life as you please. Knowing that people will ask what about the "working out of your salvation?" I know. Trust me, I know it's all in there. But I believe that when a person knows they are completely, madly, unconditionally loved their lives will be transformed. Do we want to live lives that are full of God and discover that we can be more in this life than we ever imagined? Paul prayed to that end when he said, "I pray...that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, so that, because you have been rooted and grounded in love, you may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and thus to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power that is working within us is able to do far beyond all that we ask or think, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:16-21) God's love changes everything. Do we know that love? Really know it? I pray we do. Amen.