March 25, 2008

What God Wants Most

I sat in a small group discussion a while back and someone declared, “I think the Old Testament is a fairy tale, a myth like Greek or Roman literature.” While this cast a pall on the conversation, I think this proclamation struck at the heart of what we at times felt about the Old Testament, but didn’t want to confess.

How about you? Does the Old Testament seem like a fable? Do some of the stories (people living for 800 years, great fish, arks, tumbling walls, etc.) seem a bit far-fetched? Does it seem ancient and irrelevant? Do you wonder why the God of the Old Testament seems so angry and wrathful, little resembling the loving, forgiving God we know through Jesus?

I admit I do…or at least I did.

But an amazing thing has happened in the last year or so. I started to read the Old Testament and have discovered insights into God—and Jesus—that have been like unearthing buried treasure. It’s been fascinating.

Recently, our pastor challenged us to read through the first chapter of each book of the Bible, starting at Genesis and going all the way to Revelation. Now, my Bible is pretty well worn, but there were many books in the Bible I had never read. My knowledge of Old Testament stories, history and its important characters was extremely limited.

Well, I accepted the challenge and started reading. (And I know many of you did as well.) During this journey, I discovered a history that while ancient, is incredibly relevant. I met men and women who have so much to teach us today. I found missing pieces to the puzzle of God I’m trying to put together. And most of all I saw that the entire Old Testament, from the first lines in Genesis to the last in Malachi, is a prelude that points directly to Jesus.

I still have lots of questions, but God and His nature are much clearer now. For one thing I see that, God is a jealous god. Much of God’s anger in the Old Testament is a direct result of his children turning away from Him (which they did an awful lot!). Through Moses, God said, “They made me jealous by what is no god and angered me with their worthless idols.” (Deut. 32:17)

Throughout the Old Testament all the way through today, what God wants most from us is not our time, our money, our talents, our prayers or our good works. He wants our hearts. He wants us to forsake the idols and false gods around us and choose Him. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he repeated again and again, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” (Matthew 3:2)

Repentance means that we consciously turn from our sins (and idols and false gods) toward God. It is an act of our will.

God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Open God’s word. Hear His voice. Choose Him.

March 21, 2008

Of Superheroes and Saviors

Recently my husband and I finished one of our favorite rituals of the New Year—watching the previous season of the hit show 24 on DVD. Each winter we wait patiently for that glorious day when the mail carrier delivers the newly-released DVD in the familiar, red NetFlix envelope. At that moment our anticipation is palpable. “How will Jack Bauer save the world this time?”

For those of you unfamiliar with 24, it is simply the most exciting, adrenaline-filled, suspenseful, clever, riveting hour of TV—ever! (And this coming from a girl who prefers chick flicks, weepy dramas and foreign films.)

The gist of the show is that each season, evil forces (terrorists, double agents, Russians, corporate pirates, Columbian drug dealers, presidential assassins, etc.) try to annihilate the United States and our government. And each season, the L.A. branch of the Counter Terrorism Unit (a fictitious government agency) spends a frantic 24 hours trying to stop them. At the heart of it all is CTU uber-agent, Jack Bauer who single-handedly foils the plots and saves the day!

Season after season we watch in awe as Jack Bauer selflessly serves his country to rescue it. He takes incredible risks to save lives. He bucks protocol to do the right thing. He’s been shot at, imprisoned, tortured and left for dead. Many times he’s willingly offered to lay down his life for another. There seems to be no limit to what he will endure or do to thwart evil and see good prevail. Plus, he does it all without eating, sleeping or ever losing the charge on his cell phone! There is no doubt that Jack Bauer is a modern-day superhero. A white knight in a shining armored SUV filled with high-tech weapons and gadgets.

If we could paint a picture of what a savior would look like, we might come up with someone who looks a lot like Jack Bauer.

Maybe this is the kind of messiah the Jewish people were awaiting when Jesus arrived on the scene. Many expected a warrior king who would overthrow the government, toss out the bad guys and set up a glorious Jewish kingdom on Earth.

But instead appeared a humble carpenter from unimpressive parents. A teacher who fought evil with swords of truth. A healer who offered restoration instead of condemnation. A friend who loved the unlovable. A king who became a servant. A lamb who willingly accepted the hate that tore his flesh. And a savior who bore the agonizing punishment that we all deserve.

And He did it for us. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corin. 5:21)

How amazing is it, that on the cross—tortured, humiliated, ridiculed, bleeding and deserted—Jesus, calls out to God on behalf of his killers, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

Where we would reasonably expect (and even want) revenge, Jesus offers something no superhero ever will: mercy and forgiveness—to everyone, even the “bad guys.”

To our way of thinking, grace doesn’t make sense. But Jesus didn’t die just for the sins of the really bad guys; he died for the sins of each of us. NONE of us, on our own efforts, are good enough to bridge the gap of sin that separates us from God. We are the bad guys.

What doesn’t make sense about grace is that in place of what we do deserve—death, Jesus’ amazing sacrifice gives us what we don’t deserve—eternal life. All for the price of acceptance and repentance.

This Easter I pray that you lay your sins at the foot of the cross and accept Jesus’ gift of grace. He died not to condemn you, but to save you. He did this because He loves YOU.

“For God so loved [your name here] that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

March 19, 2008

Becoming Salt and Light

The kids are off from school this week for Spring break. While I am enjoying our time together, I’m finding it challenging to get into a rhythm and concoct clever plans for our days. I guess today’s writing is reflective of my state of mind—scattered.

While I was at the gym this morning reading the close captions on the bank of TVs, it struck (again) me how hard it is live in this world and be a Christian. We are surrounded by a society that is anything but godly—a presidential election that seems more about hate and hypocrisy than hope and reason; powerful men seduced by their seeming immortality, tumbling to reality in disgrace and scandal; a pervasive message that tells our young people that sex isn’t really sex and morals are flexible because it all depends on your point of view; a family unit that makes a married mom and dad optional; and our national obsession with celebrities…and that’s just what I saw in 45 minutes while on the stationery bike!

I’m often tempted to curse the darkness and rant about how bad everything and everyone is. Or to live in an ivory tower and shut it all out.

A few months ago, my daughter felt this way. She was upset and told me she thought that God was telling her to switch to a Christian school. My husband and I are extremely pleased with the public school she attends so I was surprised by this. When I pressed her for an explanation, it seemed her concern centered on the ungodly influences at school and the choices of some of her peers. As a mother protecting her young, my first instinct was to get on her transfer ASAP! But after a few moments of consideration, and a quick silent prayer, I saw that my daughter’s request was more about running away than running toward. It was about looking for that ivory tower where life is “good” and safe.

As I told her, our challenge as Christians is to live IN the world, but not OF the world. Jesus says, “you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.” (John 15:19). As believers we are future residents of heaven and aliens in this world. But while we await our inheritance, we are commanded to be salt and light. Jesus tells us, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14, 16).

Every day, all around us, there is so much darkness—much of which the world embraces. But Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world and neither should we. As followers of Christ, we’re set apart and our behavior and good deeds should light the path so that others can find their way out of the darkness—to Jesus.

Figuring out how to do this is hard. It’s an area I struggle with daily.

How about you? Do you have any suggestions, personal examples or experiences of living in but not of the world that we can learn from?

March 14, 2008

Loving and Letting Go

Tomorrow is my daughter’s thirteenth birthday. I wrote the following story on the eve of her fifth birthday and thought it would be fun to reminisce.

It’s amazing as we officially enter the teenage years, the lessons I learned then, will become even more important in the years to come. And now that I’m a Christian, I'm thankful that I can also share the most important lesson with my daughter—the grace and love that comes from knowing Jesus. He is the Rock we all need as parents.

Happy Birthday, C.G. You are turning into such a remarkable, lovely young woman with a beautiful heart to match.

Last week my daughter, who is days from turning five, decided to leave home (aka runaway)and live with her friend. She packed her suitcase, filled her backpack, put on her coat and asked me to tie her shoes. Stunned, I tried to project a calm image like this sort of thing happens all the time. Inside I was filled with equal parts of amusement and sadness. When I asked her why she was leaving she replied matter-of-factly, “It’s funner over there.” I asked her to visit once in a while and said goodbye. Off she trudged, luggage in hand, through the backyard to our neighbor’s house.

It seems like only yesterday this independent preschooler was a tiny bundle. As nervous first time parents, my husband I shared our hopes for our unborn child. We talked about every aspect of his or her life—clothes, discipline, personality characteristics, girl vs. boy toys, sports and activities we wanted him or her to participate in, education, dating, playgroups, and on and on! We had it all planned right up to college! Ridiculous? Of course.

But, I think these conversations helped us put some shape to the unknown. Maybe we were trying to create a situation that would overcome the shortcomings of our own childhood. Maybe we wanted to create little, better versions of ourselves. And maybe we wanted to control what we knew, but were afraid to admit, is ultimately uncontrollable.

If I had internalized this message a little earlier, maybe I wouldn’t have felt so helpless and inadequate when she didn’t sleep through the night until she was over twelve months old. Or when she threw a record breaking temper tantrum in the supermarket because I wouldn’t let her take the little shopping cart home. Or when she went through a “terrible three” stage of hitting and pushing.

With each of these “phases,” I scoured parenting books, called the pediatrician and talked to other moms—frantically looking for guidance or a simple solution that would end the unwanted behavior immediately. Of course the search was in vain. There aren’t any quick fixes or magic potions when it comes to children and their behavior. They are real live works in progress with a will of their own.

I'm learning that I can teach. I can guide. And I can love, but my child is who she is. As parents, my husband and I just have to figure out who she is and how we help her become the best version of herself she can be. Even if that version doesn't match the plans my husband and I so carefully laid. One thing is for sure, while I never doubted that I would love my newborn child, I was completely unprepared for how much I would fall in love with her.

So as I watch my independent, almost five-year-old daughter stoically walk through the yard, I realize that this is the first in a long line of experiences that I hadn’t planned on and can’t control. And as much as I want to make her stay, I know I have to let her play this one out on her own terms.

I went to “visit” my little runaway a short while later, not sure what to expect—half-fearful that she really did want to change addresses. But, instead of the strong-willed determination I witnessed a short while before, I was met by a vulnerable little girl with tears streaming down her face. She had pushed the limits of her bravery and wanted to come home to her mommy and daddy. I scooped her in my arms, kissing away the tears, grateful that at least for now a mom’s kiss and hug really does make it all better.

We gathered her things and set out for home. As we walked through the yard, hand in hand, I fell in love all over again.

March 11, 2008

Extreme Makeover Meets the Real World

Each week on ABC’s hit show, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, a family that’s struggling with overwhelming circumstances is selected to receive a brand new home that will help them overcome their troubles. It’s not just a renovation of the old home, but a brand new, state-of-the-art, beyond-your-wildest-dreams house!

As soon as the family is whisked off to a wonderful vacation spot, hundreds of volunteers arrive on the scene to begin a week of hard work. Construction professionals and good-hearted individuals work side by side to build, wire, roof, paint, decorate, landscape and more. I’m sure the excitement at the build site is electric. Plus, there is the added thrill of “Hollywood” as the show’s cameras roll. Local news crews descend on the scene. Police officers control the throngs of spectators who gather to gawk. At the end of the week, amid thousands of cheering people, the family shouts those famous words, “Bus driver, move that bus!” and a magnificent mini-mansion is revealed.

This past year, a family in our community received an unbelievable new home compliments of the hit show. The excitement was everywhere. Even my kids came home abuzz with tales of who knew the recipient family, whose dad was a police officer at the site and even (gasp!) who had actually met Ty Pennington!

Eventually life went back to normal in this otherwise quiet neighborhood.

Almost exactly one year later and literally right around the corner from this Extreme Makeover was another home—another family—and another overwhelming need. But this time there was no fanfare.

My friend, a single mother, had to sell her relative’s house after his recent passing. The home was badly rundown and the open house was scheduled in just two weeks. A call for help was sent out to her church family and soon dozens of volunteers—armed with toolboxes, yard tools and paint brushes—arrived to help. They hammered, sawed, spackled, painted, de-cluttered, repaired, decorated, vacuumed, dusted, raked, weeded, mulched and more! And when it was all done, it was glorious.

How do I know? Because I was there.

Being one of the last ones on the scene, I marveled at all that had been accomplished in such a short time. The house sparkled. I was filled with admiration for those who had selflessly given their time and joined together to do what seemed overwhelming, if not impossible. It was just as the Master Carpenter said, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” (John 13:35)

As I worked outside, the Extreme Makeover house loomed in the distance as a startling counterpoint. Sure it’s spectacular, but it’s fantasy—a wood, shingle and glass lottery ticket. Our house was an example of an extreme home makeover—in the real world. This is what it looks like when we “love one another.” No cameras, no celebrities, no front page stories, no cheering crowds. Just love in the form of hard work, a helping hand and even a shoulder to cry on.

I know that our group of volunteers is special, but not unusual. Every day church families everywhere join together to do this very thing. We don’t do it for fame or recognition. We do it because that’s what the Bible tells us to do: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Galatians 6:10)

As I drove away that day, the newly-planted “For Sale” sign stood as a silent testimony to all that happened here and the fact that we, indeed, are better together.

March 6, 2008

Borrow Mine

I suppose this is part two of yesterday’s tales from the pit. Because of time and space constraints, I left out one very important aspect of getting out of the pit.

Friends. Good Christian friends.

Before I was a believer, my pit was a place almost no one knew about. I was ashamed of the weakness it showed so I kept it to myself. I tried as best I could to get out on my own but seemed to find my way back there again and again. It was dark and lonely. And it’s somewhere I never want to go to again.

One of the greatest testimonies I have is that when I came to faith in Christ, He rescued me from that pit and filled it in (partially). And He sent me something I’d never had before—a good Christian friend. And then He sent another and another and another. Eventually, I felt confident enough to share my “pit experiences” with some of them. Much to my surprise, they didn’t run away in shock and horror. In fact, they stayed and offered encouragement—and sometimes, shared their own stories of dark places.

Maybe some day God will completely fill my pit and I can plant a tree on top of it in remembrance. But in the meantime, when I still occasionally find myself in one, I know I’m not alone. These brothers and sisters in Christ offer encouragement where I need it, acceptance where I feel condemnation and prayer when I can’t find the words. And most of all they shine the light of God’s love and truth in the darkness.

I admit that it’s scary to admit weakness and ask for help. Certainly doing so exposes one to rejection and ridicule. But I have found the opposite to be true. No burden is ever as great as it seems when confessed to a friend.

Pride, Shame, guilt and fear can keep us quiet. But by digging into those dark corners of our lives and bringing them into the light, God can begin to heal us. “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Col. 1:13-14

This journey as a believer is not easy. Thankfully we are not designed to go it alone. Even in the Garden of Eden God saw that it wasn’t good for Adam to be alone, so He created a companion for him.

And I think God still does that today—He sends us companions and by doing so it is “very good” indeed.

To me Bebo Norman’s song, Borrow Mine, captures all of this perfectly. So to my brothers and sisters in Christ who are my wonderful companions and confidants on this journey we’re on, (you know who you are), this song’s for you. Thank you for letting me "borrow yours" once in a while.

“You can borrow mine
When your hope is gone
Borrow mine
When you can't go on
'Cause the world will not defeat you
When we're side by side
When your faith is hard to find
When your faith is hard to find
You can borrow mine”
Excerpt from Borrow Mine by Bebo Norman

March 4, 2008

Getting Out of the Pit

“Do not let the floodwaters engulf me or the depths swallow me up or the pit close its mouth over me.” Psalm 69:15

Have you ever been in a pit? These aren’t valleys that accompany the normal ebb and flow of life; they’re the holes that we fall into that threaten to swallow us.

Our pits have names: loneliness, doubt, addiction, fear, past hurts, sorrow, sickness, insecurity, worry, envy, selfishness, anger and shame just to name a few.

Maybe you “visit” your pit from time to time. Perhaps you’ve spent so much time there it feels like home. Or maybe you’ve been blindsided by a traumatic event or illness and hurled into one. It makes no difference. When you’re a pit dweller, it’s dark, lonely and confusing there. Logic doesn’t prevail and hope is elusive. The problem isn’t getting in, it’s getting out.

From my experience, rarely (like never) does anyone jump in to join you. So, while you’re in there alone, you get busy. You paint the walls with self-pity. Carpet the floors with despair. And accessorize with anger. The pit may even start to feel comfortable…and maybe even deserved…so you stay.

Is this where God wants us to be? I think the answer is an emphatic NO!

But there is someone who celebrates when we’re downtrodden—Satan. Spiritual warfare is real. Forget about demon possession, as long as the enemy can keep our eyes OFF God and ON ourselves, our doubts and our problems, he’s won.

The Bible is filled with stories of pit dwellers. Moses was filled with doubt and felt completely unqualified to do what God called him to do. Sarah waited 25 years for the son God promised. Hannah struggled with sadness and shame because she was barren. Job lost everything. And David repeatedly cried out for the Lord to have mercy and deliver him.

We’re not alone in our troubles. And there seems to be no doubt that we will have them, but Jesus did not die for us to dwell in them. Satan condemns, but Jesus came to redeem us and set us free—“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)

Is life abundant in the pit? Absolutely not! Fortunately there is hope.

I’ve learned that getting out of the pit is about letting go so that I can receive. It’s about choosing to listen to the Voice of Truth and not the lies of the enemy. It’s about trusting God that He will do what he promises. Because ultimately, it's about faith.

Are you in a pit? Cling to the words of King David, “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.” Psalm 40:2

Cry out to Jesus, stretch out your hand and trust in Him. He has not forgotten you.