Category Archives: Christianity

Mighty To Save

G. K. Chesterton says in Orthodoxy that Original Sin is the only tenet of the Christian faith that can actually be proven – one only needs to read the newspapers.

We know the world is broken, sick, in need of deliverance.  We know it and we feel it.  I have had the opportunity in the last few weeks to discover what the Bible means by “bowels of compassion.”  I have been so anxious for two members of my family that at times I have been nearly sick with it.  I have laid this at the Father’s feet almost daily, committing myself to trust Him, but that does not make the experience less painful.

When Jesus was on His knees before the Father at Gethsemane, He knew how the story would play out.  He had told His disciples that He would die and rise again after three days.  He faced His suffering with the full knowledge that His death was temporary, that the grave could not restrain Him, that He would be as full of joy on Sunday as He was full of sorrow on Thursday night.

In spite of this, Jesus sweat blood and begged to be released from His “cup”.  It was painful to even anticipate the suffering of the cross.  He knew the beautiful redemptive plan unfolding, yet His humanity bound Him to that moment that I knew so well a few weeks ago – the moment when you see something dreadful immediately before you, but no way to avoid it.  It’s like being tied to the railroad tracks as the train approaches.

And the cup did not pass from Him.  Nor did He shrink from it.  With sublime courage, He faced false accusations with truth,  mockery with the dignity of silence, and the whole prolonged ordeal with dogged perseverance.   The reward of His Passion is described by Paul in Philippians 2:9-11: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (ESV).

Jesus’ death and resurrection buys our redemption.  It is accepted as atonement on our behalf, and we are, in the words Ephesians, “accepted in beloved.”  We are received in Christ with Whom the Father is well pleased.  But Philippians promises us something more than this.  The same Jesus who bore our sins upon the Cross has earned the right to judge sin.  Having offered the perfect sacrifice for sin, He has authority to judge those who refuse to receive it, and to judge the very brokenness of the world that He came to heal.  In Revelation 5, it is the Lamb-who-was-slain Who is worthy to break open the scroll of God’s judgment.

We are far less comfortable with the judging Jesus than we are with the gentle Jesus, but let us think on this:  IT IS THE SAME SAVIOR.  Christ restores the Eden that Adam lost when sin first entered the world.  According to I Corinthians 15, Christ makes alive again that which is dead through Adam’s Fall.  He will restore that which has been lost and heal that which has been broken.

Whatever is wrong with the world, we know this: Christ will redeem it or He will judge it, but either way, He will perfect it.

In this way, the Cross provides us with justice.  It offers peace with God and peace with each other for those willing to walk in grace and forgiveness.  For those who have been wronged, the Cross provides us with a qualified judge Who knows what it is to be wronged, and who will surely have compassion on those who find no vindication in this life.  If Christ was willing to go to Calvary to satisfy the righteous demands of God’s justice, we should never doubt that He cares about what is fair and just in our own lives.  The call to Christians to forgive is not a call to deny justice; it is a call to receive Christ’s death on the Cross as the payment for sin just as God receives it.  By doing so, I place all that is owed me in the hands of Christ, and I ask Him to repair the damage done by those who hurt me.  It is His to bear the cost of sin, and His to redeem the consequences.

As Easter approaches, I am praying for a resurrection of sorts for those I love – to see the death of a relationship swallowed up in the victory of life and love.  God is faithful, and no one can pluck us out of the Father’s hand.  As the sun comes up on the first day of the week, let us think about the earthquake that woke up Jerusalem two thousand years ago, and let us hear in the turmoil the hammer of God striking away the seal on an empty tomb.

 

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Radiance

I’ve been working solo on Beth Moore’s video study, David:  A Heart Like His.  The lesson I watched last night examined the characteristics of praise.

My first lesson on praise came when I was in the sixth grade.  Of course, I didn’t realize it was a praise lesson then, but I learned from it all the same.  That was my first year of middle school, and it didn’t go well.  I was quickly singled out as the “weird” student, and it went downhill from there.  Now that I am an educator, I can look back and see classic signs of distress:  my grades plummeted, my appearance became slovenly at times, I had no friends, and I frequently begged to stay home from school.  I have a very laid back and toned-down personality, so depression is not easy to spot, if that’s what it was.  I’m not even sure I could diagnose it now.  I do know that there were mornings when I didn’t want to get out bed.  My homework was often left undone because I didn’t want think about school when I was at home.  Don’t think I failed at everything, but my good memories of that year are few and far between.

The way that I found to cope was through the cassette player in our family car.  It was 1986, and we had Sandi Patty’s Let There Be Praise.  I can distinctly remember mornings when I couldn’t bear the idea of going to school, but I could bear the thought of getting up and going to the car.  So, I would make a deliberate decision to get dressed and walk out to the car, so that I could listen to Sandi Patty.  We had a half hour drive to my high school, so I had thirty minutes to listen to songs like “Let There Be Praise” and “Shepherd of My Heart.”  I’m sure my Dad was sick of that tape, but he never complained.

Reading over what I’ve written, I’m a little skeptical.  Surely, it wasn’t as bad as what I’ve remembered.  I do remember some good things from that year, but there truly were mornings that were every bit as difficult as what I’ve described.  And I learned something from them.  The only way to face hard things is with singing.  It’s why so many martyrs, whose suffering is beyond comparison with ours, went to their deaths singing hymns.  Was it joyous singing?  I don’t know, but it was triumphant.  It was victorious for the simple reason that God inhabits the praise of his people.  His presence comes down to us and dwells with us in the songs that we sing in worship.

When David first moved the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, the Lord told him that he could not build the temple.  Instead, David prepared for the work of building that his son would accomplish, and one of his preparations was the organization of temple worship.  Since the task of helping in worship belonged to the Levites, David chose the clan of the Kohathites to lead temple praise.  Their original job had been to carry the furniture of the tabernacle as the Israelites wandered through the wilderness and into the Promised Land.  In Numbers 4:4, God says to Moses, “This is the service of the sons of Kohath in the tent of meeting: the most holy things.”  When the ark was moved to Jerusalem, this service was at an end.  There was no more need to carry things, but David made them “bearers of the presence” in another sense.  God inhabits the praise of His people, and so, as the Kohathites led temple singing, they were once again lifting up God’s presence before the nation.  When Jehoshaphat went to battle with his choir, it was the Kohathites he placed at the front of his army, praising God all the way to battle, only to find that God had slain their enemies before they arrived (see 2 Chronicles 20).

I learned last night that one of the Hebrew words for praise is hallel.  It means “bright” or “shining”, and it conveys a sense of radiance.  It is also the root of the word hallelujah.  When we offer our hallelujahs to God, we declare that He is radiant, glorious.  We declare that his glory shines over the misery of our circumstances.  We invite him to come and be present in our circumstances, knowing that no darkness can withstand the blazing light of His goodness.

““Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.  Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory  . . .” Rev 19:6-7 (ESV).

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Promises, Not Resolutions

I have to admit that we are coming upon one of my favorite times of the year.  I know that some people get the after-Christmas blues, but that has never been my experience.  The stress of the holidays is over, and we start a brand new year.

January always feels like a very fresh month.  I have fresh calendars full of weeks I haven’t used yet.  The days are oh-so-slowly beginning to lengthen, and now that Daylight Savings Time starts in early March, that really does mean something.  The stores have loaded up their sales tables with merchandise from 2011 to make room for new things in 2012.  Even the bareness of the outdoors, stripped of leaves, flowers and Christmas decorations, has a kind of freshness about it.  Gardeners and farmers have already been preparing for planting in the spring, and the trees are hibernating to prepare for fresh coats of leaves in late March and early April.

Seasons of rest are always seasons of anticipations.  As much as we grieve for things we left behind in 2011 — jobs that we lost or left, family members that passed away, all the changes that mark the progress of our lives — January 1 is the moment that we turn around and face forward to the possibilities of the New Year.  I know what I want out of the next twelve months.  Right now, I have a dissertation sitting on my own 2011 “clearance table.”  I’ve got one more chapter to submit to the committee and a conclusion, and I will be done.  My year of possibilities hopefully includes graduation, and the prospect of moving forward in my career.  And with the dissertation no longer hanging over my head, I begin to dream more emphatically of other projects and interests.

There is something about a New Year that encourages optimism.  After all, whatever disappointments we experienced last year belong to last year.  I am convinced that, while God’s mercies are new every morning, He is an observer of times and seasons.  Landmarks are important, and that includes special days that are landmarks on the calendar.  We can make resolutions every morning and pray for mercy to fulfill them, but New Year’s Day is an invitation to revisit the promises that God has made to us, the Scriptures that the Holy Spirit has invited us to claim as our very own.  “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord,” and He declared it to people who had every reason to believe they had fouled up those plans beyond repair (Jer. 29:11).  But they hadn’t, because they were God’s plans, and God always gets what He wants in the end.

We can approach 2012 joyously and fearlessly, not because we have resolved to be better people, but because God has resolved that we shall be better people.  “He who began a good work in you,” writes the apostle, “will bring it to perfection at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil.1:6).  Until then, my best hope is co-operation and obedience.  So, as the clock strikes midnight, I will be meditating on God’s promises and not my own intentions, and I will certainly be trusting to His faithfulness and not to my own consistency.

Happy New Year!

 

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A Question of Worth

My mother was born in North Carolina, as were her parents and grandparents.  In fact, the family’s North Carolina roots are quite deep.  I have even seen a digital copy of one ancestor’s marriage license — from North Carolina — during the American Revolution.  It is an interesting document.  Apparently, the newly minted state was too cheap to throw away its old licenses, so they scribbled out the reference to his majesty, the King, and wrote the state governor’s name into the margin.  Perhaps, some frugal clerk wanted to see if the Revolution worked out for them before he went to the expense of ordering new documents from the printer.

As I said, our North Carolina roots are deep.  So, I read with interest and dismay the story that National Public Radio is featuring on its website by Julie Rose entitled, “A Brutal Chapter in N.C.’s Eugenics Past.”  Prior to World War II, a number of states had eugenics laws designed to keep the “unfit” from reproducing.  The unfit were usually persons with disabilities, or those too poor to afford the children that they produced.   Eugenics fell out of favor in the U.S. after WWII because Americans discovered the atrocities committed by the Nazi’s eugenics program.  North Carolina, however, kept its eugenics committees into the 1970s.  According to NPR, North Carolina sterilized more than 7,000 people.  Mecklenburg County alone (the Charlotte area) sterilized an astounding 485.  While sterilization was supposed to be voluntary, the state cannot now be sure that some of these people weren’t coerced.

Of course, they can’t be sure.  Persons selected for sterilization came into the system from psychiatric hospitals, “schools for troubled youth,” and the welfare system, to name a few ways.  In other words, the eugenics program targeted vulnerable people, just as euthensia is an issue wrapped around vulnerable people, i.e. the terminally ill.  How can anyone be sure that people in extreme circumstances, especially when they have diminished capacity, are not being bullied or deceived into consenting to an irreversible act on their own bodies?

The truth is that society cannot have individual liberty without also upholding human dignity.  It is our dignity, our fundamental value as human beings, that gives us a claim to liberty.  In The Declaration of Independence, Jefferson asserted that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are rights bestowed upon us by our Creator.  They are inalienable because they are issued by divine decree and cannot be revoked by human authority. I’m not inviting you to stand and sing an anthem, but this is as good a time as any to consider how foundational this belief is to our way of life.  We may question whether Jefferson, a slave-owner, really believed that “all men” are created equal, or if he just meant to apply it to white men, and he surely did not mean to include women.  Our emerging national conscience, however, has insisted on applying it to everyone.  We fought a war over slavery, argued over women’s suffrage, and pushed on through the Civil Rights Movement, and every time we came back to the idea that The Declaration of Independence doesn’t free anyone unless it frees everyone.

The core of that conviction is that the worth of a person lies in the fact of his or her humanity.  We do not measure the value of a person by race or social class, as every civilization before ours has done.  We declare everyone equal on the basis of shared humanity.  That means that we must value life whether or not the individual is capable of giving society anything in return.  To decide that someone is dispensable because they are “a drain on the system” is to return to the days when societies considered the wealthy or the well-born to have greater intrinsic value than the poor.  Either way, you have measured human value in monetary units.

I realize that I appear to be addressing an issue (eugenics), which seems to have been tossed into the waste-basket of history, but the truth is that the underlying attitude never goes away.  Our society still wants to push abortions for babies that test positive for Down Syndrome (never mind that the test has a high rate of inaccuracy).  We still debate euthanasia, arguing for “quality of life” rather than quantity, as though each minute of life did not have intrinsic worth.  We complain loudly about welfare mothers, and while surely there is a better way of life than to eke it out on the dole, we forget that every child has enormous potential and a legitimate claim to good care, however dire the circumstances of his or her childhood.  I don’t have easy answers for the economic situation each of these issues create, but to dismiss life on the grounds that we can’t afford to maintain it seems to me a dangerous move away from our core convictions as a free society.

My mother was almost forty when I was born.  She was perfectly content with the two children she already had and certainly hadn’t planned on adding another.  My father was the church custodian and cleaned a doctor’s office on the side; mother was Nurse’s Aid.  They didn’t have health insurance.  According to the NPR article, they were exactly the sort of family that the eugenics board in North Carolina thought they were helping — families who didn’t need the burden of one more child.  Fortunately for me, my parents didn’t consider children to be “life accessories,” and they didn’t think that I cost more than I was worth.  I hear politicians preaching that our society should ensure that every child is planned and, therefore, wanted.  But planned and wanted aren’t necessarily the same thing.  Children are wanted when the parents recognize the intrinsic value of the child, and when they understand that no amount of freed-up income can compensate for losing one.  Children are wanted when society understands that it is worth the money to build more schools, give single mothers a hand-up, and provide safe and nurturing communities that allow even the disadvantaged child to thrive.

Otherwise, we may have left the eugenics model behind, but we will inevitably invite something equally despicable to take its place.

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The Day of Small Things

Almost all of us, unless we are narcissists, occasionally suffer from feelings of insignificance.   I remember how devastated I was at the age of 18 or so, when I first saw a tennis prodigy on television winning her first championship at the age of 16.  There was something disconcerting about seeing someone shoot to the pinnacle of her profession, when I hadn’t even succeeded in picking one yet.  This is funny to me now, but it wasn’t then.  Most of us, at some point in our lives, have wanted to do something that would get our names in the record books. Something that would make us great or legendary.  Instead, we find ourselves, the vast majority of us, in the middle of the daily grind.  We do our apparently small deeds that are just like the countless small deeds that everybody else is doing, and sometimes we wonder if we are even capable of that much.  The loss of a job or a failed relationship makes us wonder if even the ordinary is beyond us. 

For those of us who have struggled to achieve the status quo, we have our kindred spirit in the Old Testament character, Zerubbabel.   We are preparing to start a book study of Zechariah in my small group, and the preface to the book in my ESV study Bible pointed to Zechariah 4:10a as one of the key verses of the book:  “For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel.”

“Who is Zerubbabel?” you ask.  And secretly you wonder, What is a plumb line?

Zerubbabel was a descendent of King David, a grandson of one of the last kings of that dynasty, and in a position to claim the throne himself, except that there was no throne to claim.  The kingdom had been lost in the exile to Babylon.  Now Judah was a tiny part of the great Persian Empire, and Zerubbabel was only a governor under the authority of an imperial government far away.  Twenty years before, the Jewish people had returned to their homeland to find nothing but poverty and ruined cities.  Nehemiah had rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem so that the people could have a measure of security, but it fell to Zerubbabel to build a new temple — one that would be only a shadow of the beautiful edifice built by his ancestor, Solomon.  There was a shortage of money and, of course, there were political obstacles.  The prophet Haggai was delivering sermons to the Jewish people to stir up their enthusiasm to this work of rebuilding God’s house.

But the enthusiasm wasn’t there.  They were a beaten people.  The glory of Jerusalem had been stripped away.  Even if they rebuilt the temple, it wouldn’t compare with the one that Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed.  Besides, they were in a daily battle for survival.  They were trying to rebuild a nation out of the ashes of their grandparents’ sin and failure.  It seemed like all the great works of God had been done in the past.  God had parted the Red Sea and demolished the walls of Jericho in the long ago, but now His people were grubbing weeds and stacking bricks.  The still-chosen people of God were suffering from a profound case of nobody-ness.  It seemed like a day of small things.

Then God began to speak to Zechariah through some of the most striking visions found anywhere in Scripture.  God had not forgotten His people; His historic plan for them had not been abandoned.  He would bless them again, and He would send them a King to restore their ruined kingdom.  Did they feel insignificant?  God was sending a King who would  exalt the insignificant: 

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  (Zech 9:9 [ESV])

To Zerubbabel and his contemporaries, it must have seemed that their part in this unfolding plan of God was very small indeed.  Yet God repeatedly assured Zerubbabel of his calling and his significance.  “Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain.  And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!” (Zech 4:7 [ESV]).  Zerubbabel was destined to succeed because the favor of God rested upon his work, and no obstacle would prevent him from finishing what he had started.  The finished product might not be impressive to human eyes in the way that Solomon’s temple was impressive, but God would be pleased that Zerubbabel had done the necessary work to glorify God in his own generation.  Zerubbabel was a blessed man.

Even more, God was going to change the perspective of those who saw and judged Zerubbabel’s labors.  Those who despised the era in which they lived as a “day of small things” were going to get an attitude adjustment.  They were going to see the favor of God, the grace of God, in the success of Zerubbabel, and God would have glory in the triumph of His people.  What was required of Zerubbabel?  There was one key ingredient to the promise.  The people would rejoice to see him holding a plumb line.  This was a tool used in the ancient world to make sure that a wall was straight.  If the angle of a wall was off-center, the whole building was in jeopardy.  As the leader of the people, it was Zerubbabel’s job to see the work was being done properly — to come behind the workers and verify that each part of the building was firm and straight.  His diligence in the small things, and God’s blessing on the whole project, were the guarantees of success.

Should we feel insignificant then because God has called us to a task that seems small or unimpressive?  The truth is that not one of us is in a good place to judge the value of our own work.  After all, your high school history book was full of people of who were mighty and famous in their day, and yet not one piece of what they built has survived.  Matthew Henry notes that Zerubbabel is a picture of Christ in that God promised that he would both start the temple and finish it.  In the same way, Christ is the beginner and the finisher of our faith.  He is both the cornerstone and the capstone of all that we seek to accomplish for God.  Let us to look to Him and boast in the finished work of Christ.  All that we do for Him will have significance.  We will each look back on our own day of small things and cry, “Grace, grace.”

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A Recent Passing

I was listening to BBC World News last night, when I first heard the news of Christopher Hitchens’ passing.  As with any such loss, sympathy must go to his family and colleagues.

I never got around to reading any of Hitchens’ books.  They aren’t the sort of thing I would pick up for casual reading, as a rule.  My response is to comments that Hitchens made that were replayed on the BBC last night.  Hitchens was famously resistant to the idea that he might have a death-bed conversion.  In the event that rumors of one got out, he implored the public to consider his actions the result of the illness and medications.  In the replayed interview, Hitchens responded to a question by stating that IF God does exist, and Hitchens did indeed find himself being judged by such a person, his only plea would have to be that he did not insult God with insincere and self-serving last-minute prayers.  Otherwise, he did not know what defense he could make, but that he certainly wouldn’t be “servile” about it.

That Hitchens wouldn’t say a prayer to hedge his bets was probably the closest he came to good doctrine.  Jesus had a term for prayers that were said without faith or sincerity – vain repetitions – and warned that God wouldn’t answer prayers that were noise and no substance.  What stunned me about Hitchens answer was the notion that one could address God with servility.  Clearly, Hitchens understanding of God-ness left something to be desired.

Atheists operate under that assumption that Christianity is one of many mythologies and, having lumped the Christian God in the same category as pagan gods, they assume that the Christian God must be just as limited in personality and power.  If one were addressing the womanizing Zeus, or the mummified Osiris, or the harlot Ishtar, a certain independence of thought might be rightly considered a virtue.  These gods did not create the cosmos; they were born out of it.  And they certainly unfit to be the moral judges of humanity.

The Christian conception of God, however, is that there is a Being of limitless power who willed and created everything that exists.  Science, therefore, cannot contradict our knowledge of Him, but it can refine and expand that knowledge, because God is the author of science.  He wrote the rules and designed the systems that scientists discover.  Because He created space and time, He exists outside space and time.

Does anyone have any idea what such a Person must be like?  How about this:  Go to pbs.org and watch the four of episodes of The Fabric of the Cosmos.  Do we really think it would be servility to pay homage to a God who could invent such a universe or even multiple universes?  If there really is a God, and I believe there is, then He deserves the worship of those He has made, whether we understand His judgments or not.

And would we dare to disagree with Him to His face?  God told Job to stand up and answer Him like a man (Job 40:7), and Job’s answer was to repent “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).  God told Ezekiel to stand up and answer Him like a man, but Ezekiel had already fallen flat on his face, and he was unable to get up until the Holy Spirit lifted him up (Ez. 1:28, 2:1).  A person may resent the fact that there is Someone with the right to judge us, but that does not make it any less true.  The fact that we must say it with fear and trembling does not make it any less true.

Believe me when I say that, if Hitchens was guilty of arrogance in how he spoke of God, I have been guilty of the same arrogance.  How often have I complained about the circumstances that God has put me in?  How often have I questioned the goodness of God, or been angry or bitter about the injustices of the world I live in?  And, yet, I too must stand before this God and give an answer.

I went to bed last night thinking about my own defense before God.  It is what it has always been.  God has pardoned me for the sake of Christ, and my defense is in Christ.  He is able to save to the uttermost all who come to God through Him (Heb. 7:25).  I hope, therefore, to see God with awe, but also with joy.  But let me also remember, when I am most inclined to complain about life, that it is God who will someday judge me, not the other way around.

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Approval

Yes, I’ve been off the blog for a while.  In my defense, I’ve been writing a dissertation, which finally looks to be going somewhere.

I came across an interesting quote last night as I was doing some research.  Months ago, while writing about Edmund Spenser, I found an allusion to Mary Magdalene in The Faerie Queene that nobody seems to have written about before, and I’ve been trying to figure out what Mary Magdalene is doing in this particular place in the narrative. So, I did what one usually should do when a Protestant from this historical period does something unusual with Scripture.  I checked the Geneva Bible.

The Geneva Bible (1560) was the most popular English translation of its day.  Even after the KJV was published (1611), people continued to use the Geneva Bible, partly for the marginal notes that explained the text and added cross-references.  In a sense, the Geneva Bible was a study Bible, and it was used for personal and family devotions.

John 20 is the only place in the gospels where we read about Mary’s encounter with Jesus at the tomb – the one where she laments that someone has taken her Lord, and she doesn’t know where to find him. When she realizes that she is speaking to a risen and living Jesus, she immediately grabs hold of Him, only to have Jesus tell her that she must not hold onto Him, as He has not yet ascended to His Father.  The Geneva Bible adds this note:  “Because she was too much addicted to the corporal presence, Christ teacheth her to lift up her mind by faith into heaven, where only after His ascension he remaineth, & where we sit with Him at the right hand of the Father.”

I have to say, this set off some fireworks in my brain.  We often think about our salvation in terms of Christ dying for us, and rightly so, since there is no forgiveness of sins without the atoning sacrifice (Heb. 9:22).  But my research into Reformation teaching has shown me a different emphasis.  Luther and Calvin frequently spoke of the sufficiency or righteousness of Christ.  His sacrifice is important as the way that this righteousness is transferred to us.  When I stand before God, I will be saved, not just because Jesus died, but because His death has given me a righteousness without which God cannot find me acceptable.

For this reason, just as I remember the cross and empty tomb, it is equally important that I think of heaven when I think of Christ.  He occupies the place of ultimate approval — at the right hand of God.  Those who are “in Christ,” those who share the rewards of His suffering, also occupy this place of approval as Christ represents us and intercedes for us to His Father.  For this reason, Jesus says to Mary, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (Jn. 20:17, ESV).  To call Him our God and Father is a privilege that Christ gives us through His own good standing, the approval that God gives Christ is extended over you and me as a holy covering.

For this reason, Paul states, “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:34, ESV).  I think believers cannot hear this enough.  We constantly reproach ourselves (usually with good reason), and our adversary, Satan, is always the accuser of the brethren.  But Christ does not accuse us.  He is as gracious to us as He was to the adulterous women when He sent her accusers packing and refused to lift so much as a pebble Himself.  He stands between us and judgment, then His Spirit gives us the power to go and sin no more.

I wonder, when we confess our sins to God (as indeed we must), how would it change our prayers if we were not trying to earn approval or acceptance?  Christ has won approval for us.  Rather, we must seek God’s grace to mend the broken places in us, and the power and the filling of the Spirit to transform our deepest longings and ambitions.  It is for freedom that Christ set us free (Gal. 5:1).

 

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Weird Things

I remember the first time I realized that God has a masculine sense of humor.  I was reading about sea cucumbers, nondescript little blobs of animals that are at the bottom of the ocean food chain.  They are mostly sedentary, but if threatened can defend themselves by ejecting part of their internal organs.  This is called eviscerating.  While a predator is munching the jetsam, the sea cucumber can swim to safety and regrow its organs.  Another weapon in its arsenal is a toxic substance that it can eject, which poisons creatures nearby.  According to Wikipedia, the toxin is similar to soap.  Apparently, some creatures that live underwater cannot tolerate soap.  Go figure.

So, as I was saying, they are sea blobs that shoot out part of their insides and, when they’re really mad, they spit soap.  You know that’s a guy joke.

My new favorite animal is equally bizarre.  This is the cuttlefish, which I knew nothing about until I watched the Nova special (“Kings of Camouflage”) online.  Apparently, cuttlefish not only change colors, they are shape-shifters as well.  They’re invertebrates, and their outrageously flexible skin can stretch into different shapes and change colors at will.  According to Wikipedia, they have layers of skin pigmentation with 200 specialized pigment cells per square inch, which is about 350 dpi.  In other words, their skin has about the same resolution quality as an inkjet printer, and they can mimic patterns in their environment as well as basic colors.

What could be better than that?  How about three hearts, green-blue blood, and eight arms coming out of their heads.  As I watched Nova, I got the distinct impression that God was amusing Himself when He invented cuttlefish.  They put on a show that Hollywood couldn’t top with CGI and special effects.

We so seldom think of God as being entertained by His creation.  Perhaps that would sound more pious if I said that He is delighted with His creation.  Fallen and imperfect as the world most definitely is, there must still be endless moments when God takes pleasure in gazing at what He has made.

May I suggest that we might be better people if we learned to do the same.  Friday was a heavy day for me, full of anxiety and concern.  Today, I find myself back in the hospital with a loved one.  And yet I was thrilled and delighted yesterday by a program about cuttlefish, as if God were letting me take a time-out from life while He delighted me with something playful and amusing that only He could invent.  We get so bowed down and aged by life that we forget that we are, after all, only children of our Father.  Do we imagine that God has no time for playing in the nursery?  Once I would have thought so, but the older I get the younger I act.

 

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The Wisdom of God

Our ladies group finished our study of Ecclesiastes last night, and I have to admit that I’m relieved.  We’ve had fun with the study, but this is surely one intimidating book to teach.  It’s  full of hard questions and tough topics, and it requires a lot of cross-referencing to other books of the Bible.  There’s not a single aspect of the human experience that Solomon (a.k.a. Mr. Sunshine) can’t sum up with the line, “This too is meaningless!”

One comes to the end of Ecclesiastes wondering if, after all, there really is any use in human reason or logic.  The answer is yes, of course.  We can do our work wisely and well.  We can use our tongues and our good sense to get along with other people and help the communities that we live in.  We can use our time on earth to do our duty:  honor God and live according to His commandments.  Even in this, however, we are limited.  Solomon raises huge questions about oppression, injustice, pain and death.  Sometimes, these come from human  folly.  Sometimes, the most heinous suffering comes from nothing other than the human failure to act wisely.

A breakthrough (for me) came when I saw the definition of wisdom in Easton’s Bible Dictionary.  Specifically, Easton’s defines wisdom as a matter of morality rather than intellect.   Anyone who has endured a college philosophy class knows that there is no harder word for an academic to define than the word “wisdom” (unless it’s the word “truth”).  Perhaps, the reason for this is that we have been trying to define wisdom as an intellectual property when we should have been speaking of it as a virtue.  The validity of this may be easily tested:  is a foolish act and a wicked act the same thing?  I wouldn’t bet on the answer always being “yes”, but I’m guessing that it would be most of the time.

What really rocked my thinking on the subject was one of the references Easton’s recommended on wisdom, I Cor. 1:24:  “But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God” (NLT).  According to this verse, if we want to truly define wisdom, we cannot describe what it is.  We must describe who it is.  Christ, as God in human flesh, is wisdom.  Further, Galatians 3:27 states that when we became believers we “put on Christ.”  Putting on Christ is New Testament speak for holiness.

So here is what unfolded:  Wisdom is a virtue that Christ personifies.  To put on Christ-likeness is to put on wisdom, as one would put on a garment.  Therefore, to pursue holiness and to pursue wisdom is the same thing.  Both holiness and wisdom are terms that describe a life lived rightly and lived well.

I think this reading will stand in the light of 2 Peter 1:3:  “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence” (NLT).  It is knowledge of God that equips us to live godly (holy) lives, and the application of that knowledge may be properly called wisdom.

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Pause to Admire

For those of you who didn’t travel this holiday weekend – good for you!

I took my mother and brother to meet with family in Blowing Rock on Saturday, and the traffic was something else altogether.   It took us thirty minutes to drive through Elk Park because we found ourselves behind the town parade.  For those of you who have never been to Elk Park, I will indicate the size to you by noting that we might have passed all of twenty people lined up to watch the said parade.  Apparently, everyone else in town was in the parade, and that’s why it took them thirty minutes to do it.  Then we tried to take our usual route over Grandfather Mountain, but had to turn back because there were about fifty cars (and I’m not kidding) lined up outside the entrance gates to the park.

Needless to say, I was a bit chuffed by the time we and the traffic (finally) moseyed into downtown Blowing Rock and set about to find a parking space.  For those of you who think I should have just stayed home, I agree with you.  However, when one is meeting family, one does not always have the luxury of choosing the appointed day.  One should, however, try to avoid showing up in a bad mood.  I have to say that I was finding that hard to do.

That was when I saw something that delighted me.  Keep in mind that I am easily amused.

Isn’t he beautiful?  I think he decided to drop in for a photo shoot.  I got several pictures before he flew away.

I wish I could think of something more profound to say than, “Look at that symmetry!”  On the other hand, perhaps we are never more profound than when we simply pause to admire.

The day offered me another gift in the form of the rhododendron which are in full bloom in the mountains.  I do not know what dreary and unpoetic soul named them “rhododendron” (one of the ugliest words in the botanical lexicon), but they don’t deserve it.  Rhododendron grow in shady places, out of the sunlight.  They are hardy shrubs that thrive in the cooler weather of the mountains, and when they are not in bloom, they appear to be nothing more than tough, scrubby bushes.  Then summer comes, and they produce a blossom that is truly a lady among flowers.

It is hard to imagine how a shrub can grow such tough leaves and such delicate blooms at the same time, but here is another angle.

We all know that God grows some of his finest people in out of the way places and unpromising circumstances.  My mother is one of those people.  You cannot imagine more barren soil than what her childhood seemed to offer.  But Jesus himself was a “tender root out of a dry ground” (Isaiah 53).  Like rhododendron in the winter, His appearance had no particular beauty, no distinguishing loveliness to set Him apart from the other people He mingled with on a daily basis.  Yet those who measured His quality by the roughness of His exterior missed the incomparable glory of His godhead that those closest to Him were privileged to see.  His disciples saw the dead raised and the lame dance and the deaf hear and the blind see, and three of them saw Christ in his heavenly glory, shining like the sun.

All this we know from Scripture, but we forget over and over again to apply it to the reality of our lives.  We are angry at the traffic, frustrated with our loved ones, tired of the humid weather, weary at work, and a hundred other things.  Yet, God continually shines through His creation with an unspeakable beauty, and He reminds us that it was not beneath Him to come and share the ordinariness of our lives.  Indeed, He breathes upon that ordinariness, and it blossoms into “joy unspeakable and full of glory.”

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