Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Theory meets Christ

The Sadducees along with the Pharisees made up the ruling class of Israel at the time of Christ. They were aristocrats, powerful, wealthy, educated and proud. And Christ fought with them constantly. The Sadducees, unlike the Pharisees, did not believe in life after death. In Mark 12:18-27 they constructed this complicated and long-winded theoretical scenario to challenge Christ (and I paraphrase): The law says that a man should marry the childless widow of his brother and have children with her on his brother's behalf. So what if a man has seven brothers - not two or three, but seven - he marries a woman and dies without having children. Brother 1 takes over but he too dies without having children, brother 2 steps up, and on and on it goes until this poor woman has been married to and has outlived all seven brothers. Finally she dies (and who can blame her), but now what? If they all meet in heaven, who is she then married to?

Talk about convoluted!

Jesus listens to all of this and says, "Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?" (Mark 12:24)

Remember that the Sadducees were the smart guys. They studied Scripture for a living.

I, too, study Scripture for a living, in the truest sense of the word. I don't get payed for it, but it is what I do. I dig, I search, I ask, I pray, I write. And most of the time I feel pretty good about myself. But then I pull out old prayers (I write those down too) and I can literally hear Christ say, "Well, the reason you took a wrong turn there was because you clearly did not know Scripture nor the power of God." Ouch.

Financial trouble? Health concerns? Identity crisis? Crisis of Faith?
Disillusioned? Frustrated? Scared?

Christ knows that I feel all these things - but He wishes that I didn't. He wishes that somewhere along the line I would finally and instinctively and without any doubt know Scripture and the power of God. No more convoluted "what if's," no more theory that crumbles under the pressures of real life.

Every educator will tell you that the best way to know and understand a concept is to actively practice it. That is why we do long-division and multiplication tables in second grade. As a hobby-theologian, I will tell you the same thing: the best way to know the concept of God's power and the power of His Word is to practice it. "Be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves." (James 1:22)

Theory meets Christ. I have come to that point. I know Scripture, I know the power of God. I know exactly what God demands of me. Not practicing what God is teaching me would be blatant disobedience... and who wants to go there? It is bad enough to have Christ say, "You are wrong because you do not know Scripture and the power of God." Far worse is it to have Him say, "You know Scripture, you know exactly what I am asking of you but you decide not to do it. And now you are deceiving yourself trying to deceive Me." Double-Ouch.

Remember the multiplication tables? That is how easy all of this truly is. Don't think Einstein when you hear the word theory. Think 2 x 2 = 4. Knowing Scripture, knowing the power of God, doing what He tells you to do and watching your life be transformed is not that hard. All you have to do is practice. That is where theory meets Christ.







Monday, June 26, 2017

Working Faith

The book of James is one of my favorite books in the entire Bible. And that is one of the few areas Martin Luther and I disagree. He did not care for the book of James, so much so that the supposedly considered omitting it altogether from his newly translated Bible. He didn't, but I can see why he was worried. James' apparent focus on works versus faith can easily be misconstrued to be in stark contrast with Jesus' free and unearned gift of salvation. The church in the Middle Ages had given believers so many hoops to jump through to catch a glimpse of God... a glimpse only, lest they get too close and too bold. Luther countered the church by letting God speak directly to believers, in their own language and without man corrupting His Word. God's grace alone, available to all - that was Luther's message.

Fascinating, I know. But it isn't even close to what this blogpost is going to be about.

James says things like "I will show you my faith through my works" (verse 2:18) and "for as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead" (verse 2:26). It does make one squirm a little, doesn't it?

Not to water this down or shift focus, but there is a second, equally challenging way of looking at this: How about we look at this from God's perspective?

The trick to a living, working faith is seeing God work in my life. And God does work in my life, all the time. What if God says, "Faith without seeing My work for you is dead" - now there's a thought. I am not one of the more literal Christians who are offended if you wish them good luck or if you exclaim "what a coincidence". Call it what you want, to me luck is God's blessing and coincidence is God's providence. It is not what you call it, the question is do you see it?

Faith can't consume me if I don't see God at every turn. God is not an abstract being I sing songs to on Sunday mornings. He is not a mystical figure I read about in Scripture. God is real, He is all around me and if I don't see Him, my faith will remain the theoretical concept that James warns about. Faith and work go together. I do God's work because of my faith - and I see God's work because of it.

And not just if things go well. Seeing God in a blessing is the easy part. God is in the good, the bad and the ugly. See Him in all three, give thanks for all three, trust Him in all three and you will have a working faith in every sense of the word.



Monday, June 12, 2017

Words, Words, Words

John Donne said, "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent."

Man may not be an island, but I am feeling very much like one. The isolated, desolate, unwelcoming kind, not the kind with the white beaches, crystal blue waters and iced piña coladas.

I don't recognize the continent I am supposed to be a piece of... be it my country, my church, my fellow islanders. Everywhere I turn, mine fields are waiting, everybody I meet is on guard and ready to pounce. The tone is harsh, the rules of combat brutal. Take no prisoners, you are either with me or against me, compromise is a sign of weakness, compassion has become an unpatriotic sentiment.

I am right up there with the best of them, I am never not angry these days. And this is with me limiting mainstream news coverage to the headlines of major, international outlets - once a day only. I am completely off social media, I drive my car in radio silence and my TV intake these days is Father Brown on PBS. No kidding. And still I am angry. It is like poisonous gas; it finds a way in and it eats you up from the inside out. Maybe being an island isn't such a bad idea after all...

If it wasn't for Christ's nagging voice: "I told you to make disciples of all nations, not to build a tiki bar on an island somewhere. By all means, leave your TV and radio off, read only the comics in the newspaper and stay away from Facebook and Twitter, but this island thing just will not work! Now more than ever, put yourself out there. Don't talk,  don't argue, just be... be My love, be My hope, be My peace... be Me!"

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus reprimands the Pharisees for hiding behind man-made rules and activities to appear holy when in fact their hearts are as far from God as they can be. (Mark 7:6-8) Religious activism versus true faith. Like the pumper sticker: "Jesus is coming, look busy!" Max Lucado has a field day with that in his study 'The Gospel of Mark'. Questions like "What do you do to appear holy?" or "What is wrong with measuring spirituality by outward actions?"

Wouldn't you know it, these questions make me angry.

Not every busy Christian is a hypocrite! And if there ever was a time to be an active Christian, this is it. We are drowning in words. Vile, ignorant, incomprehensible hate speeches countered by believers' appeals to remember and live the gospel. "Words, words, words, I am sick of words!" Eliza Doolittle says that in My Fair Lady. From John Donne to Alan Jay Lerner, who says I am not well-versed?

I agree with her: I am sick of words. I ask God to do so much for me, it cannot be that all I do for Him is talk. And that does not make me a hypocrite; an island, maybe, but not a hypocrite.

"a bruised reed He will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench" (Isaiah 42:3). I am all out of words. All I have are two strong hands and a faintly burning wick. It is all I need. It is all any of us need.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Witness

In Christian lingo the terms "to share the gospel" and "to witness" are often used interchangeably. This has always confused me, being my literal and analytical self. Per definition, a witness is somebody who has seen an event, can testify to the truth of the event and serves as proof that the event actually took place. If you witness an accident, you saw what happened, you can explain what happened and you can attest to the accident as a true event rather than hearsay.

In that sense I have no problem with the apostles witnessing for Christ. They were there, they saw Jesus prove His deity over and over again. And it is not just a chosen handful who can make that claim. The Bible is full of witnesses to the ministry of Christ all the way to His crucifixion and resurrection.

I believe every word they said. From David to Isaiah to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul and countless others, their witness is good enough for me. But that is my faith, not personal observation - and while my life is full of proof that Christ is at work in me, that still doesn't make me a witness. It makes me a believer. If you want a witness account of my faith, you'll have to ask the people around me. They are the ones who should see Christ in me. I have no proof that the Bible account of Jesus is true. I wasn't there. But if I live my faith the way Christ demands me to, my life will the proof of His existence to anyone willing to look. And that puts a whole new spin on the often used and abused term "to witness". It is a call to action above all else.

The book of Acts gives a clear example of what faith like that should look like: Peter and John had just healed the lame beggar in front of the temple and were arrested for it. They were dragged before the Council and asked to explain themselves... which they did by sharing the gospel as witnesses in the true sense. This is Peter and John we are talking about, if anybody personally knew Jesus Christ it was those two.

"Now when they (the rulers and elders and scribes) saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition." (Acts 4:13-14)

Peter and John did something that was completely out of character: not only did they heal a man, they then stood in front of the Pharisees (the smart guys) and boldly held their own despite their lack of education and training. It had the Council members speechless. Why? Because for all intents and purposes, this should not be. Illiterate fishermen are not supposed to deliver eloquent speeches.

Peter and John were clearly identified as followers of Jesus both because they had physically been with Him and because they were now testifying for Him. They made none of this about themselves.

And finally they had their proof standing right next to them. The healed beggar was right there for all to see. No wonder there was nothing to say in opposition, who could argue with the facts?

If I want my life to be a witness of my faith, this is my blueprint:

1. do something that I could or would never do out of my own steam
2. give Christ all the credit for doing it
3. have my "proof' ready for all to see

I have heard people with speech impediments deliver the most amazing sermons. I have seen my boys as small children serve the poor in Ecuador without speaking a word of Spanish. I have seen rich men humble themselves to scrub floors and I have seen poor men stand up courageously to remind the church of its call to love. I am a witness to all of that. My prayer is that you are a witness of my faith. Do you look at me and see Christ in action? Are you amazed and ask yourself "how does she do that day after day?" Is the proof of my faith standing right next to me, so to speak? If not, I am failing miserably. No blogpost, no sermon, no Bible study can take the place of faith in action. They are just words, and words without living proof will not convince anyone, nor should they.

The closest I come to giving others a chance to witness my faith is hospice. If it was up to me, I would have quit years ago. I give Christ all the credit and there is no question in anybody's mind why I keep showing up. And nobody can argue with the value of the work that I do, death affects all of us and it scares most of us. Even so, this is just the beginning.

My walk with Christ has to be uphill. It has to push and challenge me, it has to make me grow and it has to change the world around me more so today than it did yesterday. There is more to come, I can feel it. Peter did not stop with the healing of one man. In fact, Peter did not stop until the day he died and by then he had truly changed the world for Christ. Don't let it be said that I set my goals too low.




Saturday, April 29, 2017

Double Standard

So you think praying "thy will be done" is hard? Try praying it for your child.

Only a few blogposts ago I announced with much fanfare that not even a cancer scare can keep me from praying God's will. A few weeks later I am praying for my son's health and my prayer goes something like this: "Lord, about Your will... wouldn't healing him be an awesome will for You to have? Just heal him! This one time, can my will be the one we're going with? Please, Lord, just make him well!"

Before you shake your head in disappointment, I don't think this prayer is altogether wrong. God's will is done with or without my permission. Whether or not I give Him my consent at the end of each prayer, God is in charge. But He is also compassionate and He wants to hear my honest, heartfelt, desperate prayers - even if they don't end with "thy will be done". He loves the ones that end with "please, oh please, Lord hear me!" just as much.

At the end of the day, it is all words anyway. God goes so much deeper than that. He knows my heart, my deepest thoughts and fears, guilt and regret, my worries and my hopes. And He knows if I am sincerely trusting Him or merely offering lip service.

And so I pray my prayer for complete healing unashamedly and confidently. Because it is my heart's desire, I can't think of anything I want more.

"But what if your son won't get well?" you ask. "What will that do to your faith and trust in God's compassion?"

What will it do? It won't crush it, if that is what you mean. I will not turn away from God with a pout because I didn't get my wish. I will continue trusting Him and pray for the next thing: "Lord, let his medication protect him and not harm his body." The depth of my faith does not depend on the number of answered prayers. Which is why I don't care much for devotionals that talk about a miracle in answer to a prayer... you know, the ones where the rain stops five minutes before the bride walks down the aisle or the tumor disappears to the utter amazement of the doctors. We wipe away a tear, we applaud with enthusiasm and we praise our awesome God. It is uplifting and beautiful. And it truly is, I am not dismissing the existence and beauty of God's miracles - but to me, true and enviable faith comes from trusting God when the storms just will not cease. No breaking of the clouds,  incessant rain instead, one downpour after the other, and still unshaken faith. That is the kind of faith I want. Who knows, it may be the kind of faith I'll need. And with that in mind, I pray big and take it from there, not for one second doubting God's perfect will for me and the ones I love. And not for one second fearing that my faith will be shaken if His will does not coincide with my prayer. This is the faith that glorifies God and this is the faith the world marvels at.

Here is the thing, as a side note: you may trust God's will with everything you got, you may see it in everything you touch, but please don't ever offer it as comfort to others. Having been told years ago that my boy's health battle was the will of God very nearly cost me my faith. It hurt and it did nothing to help. It is not for others to declare God's will for me and my family, it is for me to figure out - with His help. So next time you are holding a friend in pain, instead of declaring God's will, just be His love -  you can't go wrong with that.

Back to my prayer. Paul tells me to "rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." (1 Thessalonians 5:15-18).

God's will is for me to pray. And pray I will, without ceasing, for my son's complete healing... and I will find something to give thanks for, come what may. It is how my husband taught me to pray that day our son came home from the hospital: "Thank You Lord for everything that could have happened but didn't". Amen to that.



Wednesday, March 29, 2017

En Masse

I have this thing about crowds. I can't stand them. Any crowd, any size, for any reason makes me uncomfortable. Large, uniform crowds scare me to death. I am not talking about a phobia of being in a crowd. I am talking about the frightening reality of what people in crowds have been lead to think and do over the centuries. You may argue that there are bad crowds and there are good crowds. The blind masses following Hitler on one side, the peaceful masses bringing down the Berlin wall on the other. Bad or good all depends on where you stand of course - and just to be save, I stand as far away from crowds as I can get, even if I believe in their cause.

Needless to say, when friends asked me to join them at a concert of contemporary Christian artists I very politely declined. I like contemporary Christian music, at least some of it. I believe that singing God's praises with thousands of other believers can be up-lifting. I don't doubt that the Holy Spirit can move souls during a Michael W. Smith concert. But the Holy Spirit will have to find my soul somewhere else... somewhere quiet and private.

Jesus was surrounded by crowds from the very beginning of His ministry. He tried to avoid that. He instructed those He healed not to tell, but obviously that wasn't going to work. So He had to push through curious crowds, cheering crowds, desperate crowds, threatening crowds and hateful crowds, all the way to the cross. Yet despite all the people and the noise, He interacted one-on-one with those who came to Him for mercy. Even the ones trying to just touch His garment for healing He turned around for. There is no "en masse" treatment with Christ.

He interacted with whoever was committed to get to Him, whatever it took, crowd or no crowd.  They had the faith, they had the desire, they had the courage and they had the determination - and so they sought Him. And they expected great things from Him.

That, in a nutshell, is the definition of great faith. Great faith is to seek God, to expect great things from God and to do great things for God.

Back to the crowds: it is easy and tempting to hide in the crowd when you stand before Christ. Like at school when you sit head down, eyes averted, hoping the teacher won't pick you to solve the next problem in the front of the class. You can go through years of church service that way, singing the songs, praying the prayers - but unless your heart reaches out to Jesus and begs Him to look at you, to see you, to love you and to save you, you are missing the entire point. You are doing religion, you are not doing faith. Religion works en masse, faith only works between you and Christ.

With Christ, there is no strength in numbers. You are enough.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Another Step Closer to "Your Will Be Done"

I come from a long line of pragmatists. "Was sei muß, muß sei" is our family motto - which roughly translates to "what cannot be cured must be endured." Or, more to the point: "just get it over with!"

"Was sei muß, muß sei!" Schwäbisch for "Your will be done."

My soul longs for that kind of faith, my brain tells me that another little biopsy won't be so bad... but my heart is beating out of my chest, my hands a sweaty and my mouth is dry.

"Your will be done." How can something that is so obviously right be so difficult to do?  Fear and worry are powerful roadblocks to submissive prayer. On the other hand, fear and worry are exactly what could get me there. Look what I found in Romans 8:26-29, verses in red.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. 

There is no shame in questioning, asking, rebelling even – I am weak, I am human, I get scared… God knows that and He gives me the Holy Spirit to counter my human side when it gets in the way of communicating with Him. If I tie myself in knots, He untangles the mess to keep the prayer line open.

For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

… "as we ought" means that there is a right way to pray and there are right things to pray for; there is a way I ought to pray. And at times I just won't know what that prayer should be. Pray for healing, pray for a miracle, pray for God’s will? If I run out of words or thoughts, the Holy Spirit prays on my behalf without words, heart to heart. It is still all about the open prayer line.

And He who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

God knows my heart, no matter what prayers come out of my mouth, and if my heart is not aligned with the will of God, the Holy Spirit will correct course. I may kick and scream, I may threaten, offer deals, make promises or beg… at the end of the day, my prayer will align with the will of God. That is the result of an open prayer line.

The most beautiful example of this is Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane: "Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will." (Mark 14: 36)
Here is the Son of God calling on his Father, buttering Him up, pleading and begging to be spared the hard road ahead, only to submit to His will in the very next sentence.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 

"For good" and "according to His purpose"  must never ever be separated! Good according to God is not necessarily good according to me. Healing sounds good to me, heartache and trial may sound good to God. But if I love God, I accept that His will is perfect, better than my own. This is what trust and submission look like.