Sunday, March 22, 2020

Deep Thoughts in Times Like This

In times like these, I begin to think about the hard questions. 


Like....
What is the worst thing that could happen to me with this virus?
What am I most afraid of?

The worst thing would be that I could die, or someone I love could die. 
            Death is the ultimate evil thing, right?

So what would happen to me if I died?  
Would I survive somewhere after death? 
And would it be a happy place or a not so happy one? 

If I were to survive death, and find myself standing before the Creator of the universe, what would I say to convince Him that I should be allowed into heaven?
            I would probably tell Him that I have been a good person. 

But what if He probed a bit.  What if He said, "How good were you?"
            I could say, "Well, I was a lot better person than Donald Trump." 

Hmm.  That might not be saying a whole lot.
            I could say, "Well, I've been better than most people actually.  
            I've done lots of good things and I certainly haven't done any really evil things. 
            I'm over 50% good.  Way over."

            So I've probably made a passing grade.

But what if there is no grade?
What if it's just, "Are you good or not?" 
How good is good enough?

But the Creator is supposed to be good too, right?  He cares about people.  And He should appreciate all that goodness He would see in me.  

Maybe He would say, 
"Yes, you're right.  You've been pretty good.  In fact, there's only one or two little tiny sins I ever remember you committing.  A little lie or two.  Oh, yes, and that small bit of mean gossip you passed on about your coworker. 

But those little sins would not even show up under a microscope. The rest of you is really clean.
I think you're probably clean enough to enter heaven."
(Whew.  What a relief.)
"I'm sure one little microscopic bit of sinful virus won't amount to much. So we'll overlook that.  
Welcome into my perfect home."


           

Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Voices in Your Head are Lying





The voices in your head hate you. 
They hate you because God loves you, and they hate God.  
The voices in your head want to destroy you.  
That's why they tell you to destroy yourself.
The lying voices in your head tell you that no one cares about you. 

The Truth: You may cast all your cares upon God, because He cares about you. 

The lying voices say that no one understands you. 

The Truth: God searches out your heart and He knows you.

The lying voices say you have no hope; 
that life will not get better for you; 
that it will only get worse.

The Truth: God knows the plans that He has for you, and they are plans to prosper you and give you good things.

Don't listen to the voices.  
Tell them to go away.  
Jesus has given you the right to do that.  
Speak the name, Jesus, to the voices and they will leave. 
Then look around you for a person who can help you overcome the voices; 
go to that person and share your story with them.

God says,  I have loved you with an everlasting love.






Saturday, January 4, 2020

Three Good Reasons for Hope in This Terribly Broken World


Near the end of this last decade I fell into the proverbial "pit of despair." For the first time in years I found myself battling some stubborn bouts of depression and annoying panic attacks. 
 
There were reasons for my angst. The world looked so bleak. My faith told me there was no reason to despair, but my observation of the things I saw around me seemed to argue there was no reason to believe.

But life goes on. One day I needed to get out of the house to run some errands. I went to the local mall and things began to turn around for me. 

After wrestling through this problem, I have come to the conclusion that there are three reasons for hope as we enter 2020. You might say I have re-gained 2020 eyesight in my view of reality. (Yes, I know, but I want to jump into the New Year punning before you all get tired of it.  It's early in the game, after all.)

So here are my reasons for faith in the future:

REASON #1:  THERE IS STILL MUCH GOOD IN THE WORLD! 

As I roamed around the mall that day, I looked up and observed a whole mess of other people who were smiling and happy and friendly. People are happy, friendly, good, getting married, having babies, surviving and finding things to live for.  

Yes, we are a mess. All of us. But when we crawl up and peak out of our little pits of despair--when we take time to observe the other side of the reality around us--we find that peace, love and joy still exist in our broken world.

I have lived in a small town for the past seven years and I bet I could count on one hand the number of times I have run into any stranger on the street who was not polite, outgoing and friendly.  

One of them is Kenneth Richardson. I met him in the mall. He drove up on his mechanical
wheelchair, with his parrot on his shoulder. He is 99 years old and feels great. Strong, (although his legs don’t work much anymore.) Happy to live, (even though he has no living relatives--just the parrot who gives him kisses as we talk.) Will be happy to go home to heaven. Says it could happen any day, even though his doctor assures him he has more years in him yet. In the meantime he makes the most of his life, with a smile on his friendly face.

So here is my first piece of advice for the New Year:

When you are anxious, get out of your house and around other people. Go to a happy place--to a mall, a dog park, a school playground, or a church service. There are good and happy people all around. Don't spend your life watching the news or reading thoughtless tweets. They only show the worst of it all. Good is still and will always be stronger than evil!

REASON #2:  WE HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE! 

We aren't the first people in history to face a seemingly bleak future with good reason to despair. Six hundred years before Christ, after their persistent rebellion against God and many stern warnings, the Jewish nation was destroyed and it's people were taken into captivity by the Babylonians.

God told these miserable, rebellious children exactly what they had done to deserve his abandonment and exactly how long they would have to suffer their punishment. For 70 years they would live in a foreign land under a pagan government. It would take them that long to learn which side their bread was buttered on.

But, as he is prone to do, God had plans to bring blessing out of the mess they had made of their nation. The Babylonians had some things to learn too, so God plopped His people down in the midst of that great civilization and told them what He wanted them to do while they were there.

Jeremiah 29:4-7 says, This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 'Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.'

Babylon was a civilized empire, but it was ignorant about the one true God. During the time of Israel's exile there, the Babylonians learned much about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (You can read an amazing account of one way the Empire was affected by the presence of their Israelite captives in Daniel 4.)
 
This little bit of history is informative to those of us who live 2620 years later. Though we have seen glimpses of it's future glory ever since the coming of Christ, this messy world is not yet God's Kingdom. It's a sad and sorry mess. But Jesus has told us we are to be like salt and light, conduits of His goodness and His glory, while we live our lives on earth. 

We who trust in Jesus are meant to be instruments of blessing to this broken, hurting world. That's really exciting. We have a purpose. A good one. That, in itself, is one great reason to have hope in the midst of the brokenness around us.

So here is my second piece of advice:

When you're discouraged and frightened about life in this new decade, look around for some dark place to shine your light into. Spread love not hatred. Spread truth, not lies. Spread hope, not despair. Pray for the peace of your nation and the world--the kind of peace that lasts--the kind that rests in God's great mercy and compassion, and His ultimate good purpose for the whole human race. God wants to redeem. That's His business in this world. And you can help bring about His good Kingdom in the hearts of hurting people you live among. The Good will always triumph. Take hope in that reality.

REASON #3: THE BEST IS YET TO COME! 

Speaking of the Kingdom of God, it is coming! The small glimmers we see of God's Kingdom in our present dark world are just the beginnings of that Kingdom--the signs of the promise that one day God will destroy evil and bring His good rule down to us on earth forever. This is the final, and ultimately the only reason we have for hope in our present time.

Evil is temporary. Good is eternal. And we who have chosen to put our trust in a good God--One who chose to put Himself in our place and die on a cross so He could accomplish redemption for us--we have a good eternity ahead of us. 

Yes. It's sometimes been called "pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by." And it's a great encouragement while we slog through the messes of our lives and the sludge of the seemingly endless evil consequences of a world gone mad in its rebellion against Goodness. That great overarching hope is the only reason we have to look for good in the world and work for a better future between now and when God comes back to set everything right again.

For us who trust in God, there will be no such thing as an unhappy ending. In fact that ending, which will come for each of us when we leave this earth, will really be just the beginning of a lasting life where God has wiped away all our tears; where there will be no more death, or sorrow, or crying, or pain. Check out that promise here.

So my third and final piece of advice is:

When it feels like the mess will go on forever, that things will never get better, that things are, in fact, getting even worse, let's resist that lie from the pit and look up. "Look up, for your salvationdraws near," says Jesus to His disciples in Luke 21:28, and to us in this new decade.  And then, as we rest in the relief that hope puts in our hearts, let's get down to the business of bringing God's Kingdom into all the dark places around us. Let's bring that great eternal hope to as many discouraged human beings as we can before Jesus comes back to rule in righteousness over the world He created, redeemed, and will restore.
  
Our faith in a good future rests on a solid reality. It's founded on the great historical event that brought God down to earth on that first Christmas 2020 years ago. Since that day when Christ was born, we have had no reason for despair.

So let's go into this new decade confident and full of peace and joy. And let's do all the good we can do, for the sake of people in the bruised and hurting world around us who don't yet have this hope to rest in. God longs for every human being to know this great hope.

Monday, December 30, 2019

The Only People Who Will Go to Heaven


I have become convinced that the only people who will go to heaven at the end of this life are people who want God. 

Heaven is God's home.  It is filled with Him.  If we don't want God, we wouldn't feel at home there.  In fact, if we don't want Him, we probably wouldn't even notice His presence, and the greatest pleasure of heaven would be lost to us.

It is lost to us now. 

We were created for fellowship with God, and when Adam and Eve broke that relationship by their rebellion against His authority, that relationship was lost to them, and to all of us who are their descendants. They lost the joy, and eventually even the awareness, of His presence.  And they passed that loss on to us. 

God's presence is still here.  He is everywhere, touching us with His love. He touches us in the sunlight, and in all things that give pleasure on this earth; He gives us every breath we breathe.  But in our natural state, we go about our lives seeing only the things we can relate to with our five senses, unaware of spiritual realities that are all around us, including the reality of God's presence.  And we wonder why we are so lonely.

We try to fill that God-shaped vacuum with everything else.  We fill it with other relationships, and when those fail to satisfy we fill it with work, or temporary pleasures. 

Our striving for fulfillment drives us so frantically that we become addicted to our attempts.  Every substitute we put into our lives becomes a bondage that only makes us more miserable.

I'm pretty sure it was an awareness of God's loving presence that filled the Garden of Eden with pleasure for Adam and Eve.  They walked and talked with Him, and that had to be the most wonderful part of their Garden experience. 

Walking and talking with God was natural to them.  Because they knew nothing else, they probably couldn't imagine not being able to do it.  They were unprepared for the horror of losing that relationship. 

Maybe that's why they were so deceived by the lies of Satan.  They didn't realize, in that one fateful moment, that God's presence was their central delight, and so the pleasure of God's presence was lost to the human race forever.

But no.  Not forever.  God dearly loved the human beings He had created. He knew they would fall, so He had a back-up plan. Adam and Eve hid from God but He did not hide from them.  He sought them out. He drew them back.  At great cost to Himself, he provided a way for them to enjoy His presence once more.

And He draws us back too.  That deep loneliness we feel is the draw.  When it gets deep enough, demanding enough, we begin to want Him again.  And if we are willing to give in to that wanting, He will fill us with the pleasure of His presence once again.

Yes, there will be other pleasures in heaven--pleasures more wonderful than we can imagine.  In heaven, the distraction of pain will be gone forever and we will be free to enjoy the blessings of God's love that we are blind to in this life. But all those freedoms and wonders will be intricately entwined with the pleasure of His presence. 

If we do not want Him more than anything, heaven will hold no real pleasure for us. 

So God gives us a choice while we are alive on earth. 

We can choose Him and heaven, or we can turn away, as Adam and Eve did. 
God will honor whatever choice we make, for eternity.

FOR GOD, the Lord of earth and heaven
SO LOVED, and longed to see forgiven

THE WORLD, in sin and pleasure mad
THAT HE GAVE the only Gift He had.

HIS ONLY SON, to take our place
THAT WHOSOEVER--Oh what grace!

BELIEVETH, placing simple trust
IN HIM, the righteous and the just

SHOULD NOT PERISH, lost in sin
BUT HAVE ETERNAL LIFE, in Him.

John 3:16 in poetry, by an unknown author.
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Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Christmas Angels and Demons


This summer, for no apparent reason, a vicious bout of anxiety hit me, knocking me off my normally sturdy emotional feet.  It persisted for a full four months, resisting all my tried and trusted coping mechanisms.  I'm still thinking about the experience and learning from it.  Once I had thoroughly dissected and analyzed it, I decided the reason was probably an overall angst about the state the world is in. 

 
Evil news invades our hearts and minds in this information age.  There seems no place to hide from it.  Just when we think nothing worse can happen, a new media revelation bursts upon us. 

So maybe anxiety is not so unreasonable after all?

I am tempted to think the world is getting more evil, but I suspect it's not.  As I begin to come out of my funk and start thinking about Christmas, I realize evil has been around for a long time.  The Nativity Story is full of it.  And when I realize this, the age-old question comes back at me again. 

Why? 
Why is there evil in the world? 
Why, if there is a good God, does He let it happen?

This morning I'm reading a book by Carolyn Arends called, Wrestling with Angels.  In it she talks about the Mother of all Mysteries--the Incarnation. 

She says:

Of all the paradoxes in the New Testament, there is one more impossible than all the others, and the contradiction is not in something Jesus says but in what He is . . . . fully God and fully man, together.  A crazy (and ultimately violent) collision of human and holy, somehow contained in ordinary flesh and bone.  It is the Mystery of Mysteries, and it starts with--of all things--a baby. 
(p. 193)

She goes on to point out that this "violent collision of human and holy" happened for a very deliberate reason.  It happened for Love.   And then she gives us one of the most lucid and engaging answers to this question about the problem of evil that I've seen:

If this is the whole quest of God--that we should love Him as He loves us, that we should become His friends--we must be free to reject His offer.  This is a terrible freedom, and I suspect it is at the heart of most of the terrors in this world.  We cannot love God unless we are free not to love Him.  Many of us don't.  He does not override our wills.  He does not move us about like pawns in a cosmic chess game, always ensuring an agreeable outcome.  We are free to bring hate into the world (and indifference too, which is really hate in its most lethal form), and so we bring also disease and pollution and crime and death.  If God were to force us to stop the hate, He would eliminate the opportunity for us to choose love.  (p. 202)

I'm going on a Carolyn Arends binge this Christmas.  I'm going to fill my house with her Christmas music.  Her unique and vivid song lyrics follow this theme of the violent collision of the human and the holy, with an underlying echo of God's love that Christianity claims will one day swallow up all the evil.  

If you're looking for a reason to believe in the Good this season--if you want something that will counter-balance the Bad you will continue to hear in the media--I heartily recommend you check out her music.  You will find in it thought-provoking reasons to hope in the midst of the mess we humans have made of the world.

Her message--the message of Christmas--is an antidote for anxiety. 

Check out these clickable samples of her music:  
Long Way to Go, the Christmas story in a nutshell.
The Power of Love, an old song but a good one.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

What's Wrong With Faith?


Last post I shared a story from Will North's book, Water, Stone and Heart. The story was a sermon about Peter walking on water. 

I told you I had a problem with the Vicar's sermon and I asked you to tell me what my problem was.  Kind of like Nebuchadnezzar asking Daniel to interpret his dream, I guess.  Not really fair.  But Jean Pedersen picked up on my question and gave me the response I was looking for.  I suspect others of you would have come up with the same thought, but Jean stated it in a nutshell.

She wrote: "It's not faith in faith. It's faith in Jesus."

In all fairness, I thought the sermon was a pretty good one, as far as it goes.  It communicates truth in an entertaining and effective way. But at the end, in the vicar's application of the truth, her message strays a bit, and that straying has the potential to lead us off a cliff into thin air (or into cold water, depending on which of her great analogies you follow.)

For sure, faith is important.  Lack of faith can keep us from being saved. But it's not our faith that saves us.  Faith is only the conduit that connects us with the source of salvation.  When it comes to our eternal well being, it's the source of our faith that saves us.  Until we get to the place of realizing we need that Source, we are lost.

There's another story about drowning that illustrates this concept.  It's the story of two men sitting on a grassy bank by a river, watching their friend struggle in the current, trying to stay afloat. One of the men is a strong swimmer, totally capable of rescuing the drowning man. The other looks at him, astonished and even angry to see his capable friend watching the drowning man flail in the water. 

They both watch as the man goes down once, twice, and finally three times.  Only then does the strong rescuer jump in, swim to the friend in the water, and haul him back to safety on shore.

As the three of them rest on the riverbank, the dry one asks, "Why on earth did you just sit there so long and watch him struggle to stay alive?  Why did you wait until the very end, when his hope was gone, before you saved him?"

The rescuer looks at his friend and explains, "As long as he felt he had any strength to save himself I was not able to rescue him.  If I'd gone out sooner, his struggling would have drowned us both.  I had to wait until his strength--his last vestige of hope in himself--was gone before he would let me do it for him."

Faith in ourselves--in our own ability to be good enough to merit heaven--can keep us afloat until we no longer have the strength to dogpaddle.  But in the end, we will drown if our faith is in anything except the Master of the waves who alone can walk on water--the One Who waits to take our hand when we have finally given up all hope in ourselves.

That's the message of the Gospel. Later on, in the book of Acts, that crazy, impetuous "rock," Peter, explains this important truth:

With that, Peter, full of the Holy Spirit, let loose: "Rulers and leaders of the people, if we have been brought to trial today for helping a sick man, put under investigation regardint this healing, I'll be completely frank with you--we have nothing to hide. By the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the One you killed on a cross, the One God raised from the dead, by means of his name this man stands before you healthy and whole. Jesus is 'the stone you masons threw out, which is now the cornerstone.' Salvation comes no other way; no other name has been or will be given to us by which we can be saved, only this one."

Acts 4:8-12, from The Message