Not always the leader

I’m not ready to feel old. I keep telling myself that.

But maybe I am.

We decided to renew our passports, since we don’t have those newfangled enhanced driver’s licenses yet. We got our licenses literally two months before that law was enacted, so we’ve got the “old” ones and they don’t expire until 2021. We won’t be able to travel, even domestically, starting next year without doing something.

Therefore, we showed up at the AAA office to get our passport photos taken. I’d forgotten that they’d require me to take off my glasses for the photo.

They won’t get an accurate photo of me, I thought, but whatever.

Then, they said: Don’t smile.

They really don’t want reality.

When the lady who took my photo showed me what she developed, I thought, well, that’s what the government wants.

mug 2

I look old.

See the wrinkles. Gray hair on the side.

Up against the wall.

Maybe that is reality.

Those wrinkles aren’t fake. Neither is the gray hair.

Not feeling old

My health is excellent, so I’m not ready to feel old.

I try to exercise, work up a good sweat, once or twice a week.

In addition, I volunteer with a group of high school and early 20s young men at an after-school basketball program our church youth director hosts. Only a few showed up last week, so I got to play.

We played three-on-three half-court, so we weren’t sprinting, but it’s in a gym with no air circulation on an 80-plus-degree day, so all of us needed water breaks. I actually made a basket or two. That’s about it, but I didn’t embarrass myself. Too much.

I’m not ready to feel old yet.

At least I was out there.

Hills and valleys

A few days later, I felt old again. I had a mountaintop experience on Saturday with several hundred leaders of an international Bible study. I’ll be a group leader this year. I met many wonderful people I’ll be serving with, heard several great speakers and participated in some great worship.

The 75-minute drive there and back was easy.

Unfortunately we can’t live on mountaintops. Daily life often takes place in the valleys.

Monday was a “valley” day.

I’m learning a lot about perseverance and the steadfast love of God this summer. Some days, we just press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14).

Press on, whether I feel like it or not.

One step forward, two steps back, sometimes.

But keep going.

Our youngest son visited us last weekend. He left for home Monday morning. Tonight, I’ll see our other two sons. Our oldest son and I have attended an annual event in the Cincinnati area for several years, and they surprised me a couple of days ago by letting me know our middle son will fly in from Denver to join us.

Very cool. Another mountaintop experience awaits.

In between, there’s a valley.

Even the clouds rolled in on Monday, hiding the sun’s brightness.

I had things to do to keep busy, but some days it’s hard to get motivated.

Not “doing” life

Reading a book isn’t a cop-out, is it?

I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading this summer. I love the English language. In addition to writing it, I enjoy reading it. Novels. History. Sports. Current events in the local newspaper.

I’m not contributing to society when I read a book. I’m not “doing” anything.

In our high-achieving society, I’m an anomaly, I guess. There are days when I’ll just watch the world go by, let you all change the world and I’ll just wait my turn.

I read social media, but I don’t post nearly as much as many of you do. I’m not obsessed that way. I don’t do memes. I especially don’t share memes. Don’t try the “I bet I won’t get one share” crap with me. I see those literally every day, and yes, I scroll right past them.

Can I get an Amen?

I’ll wager a lot of those memes are fake anyway.

I will decide myself where to volunteer my time, what to post and what to comment on, thank you.

I’m not about emotion.

Background music

So, maybe that passport photo is accurate, then.

Or, maybe I do feel emotion, but I just don’t share it. Not worth the effort.

I pick my battles, and not too many of them.

Even at home. Especially at home.

There’s one chapter left in the book I’m reading now. Maybe I’ll finish it here in a minute.

Sometimes I put on some soft music when I read; other times, I read in silence. Music relaxes me.

I grew up listening to background music. Classical. Mom and Dad still play classical music, either on the radio or on some of the many albums they have, all the time.

In high school choir, we sang Handel’s Messiah. In a public school. That’s the best music ever written.

Those were the days.

What do they sing in school choirs now? I have no idea. Haven’t been to a high school concert in a long time. Should find an excuse to do that this year.

In the meantime, I’ll read in my spare time. I have a few events to prepare for, some imminent and some long-term. I’ll take my time and try to prepare well.

Until next time. Enjoy your mountaintops and get through your valleys.

Neither lasts forever.

Good thing, right?

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The nation’s answer

Change comes from the inside out

Where are You, Lord?

It’s hard to see You sometimes. We just had a weekend with two – count ’em, two – mass shootings. As usual, emotions flared on both sides. Control guns. Improve mental health.

Where are You, Lord?

When we focus on our own issues and point words at each other, we miss You. We scream and yell. We blame. We get angry.

We despair, because we’ve seen it before.

Yet mass shootings are like plane crashes, aren’t they, Lord? They are few and far between, but they are dramatic and deadly, so they get the headlines.

Vehicle crashes happen far more often. People commit suicide far more often. People even kill each other, one-on-one, far more often.

Those situations may get a mention in the media, or they may not. They often are not front-page news.

Yet vehicle crashes and suicide affect far more people than mass shootings do.

I personally knew two people who committed suicide, one a few years ago and one about three decades ago. What if I had said something … if I only knew … perhaps …

Are You there, Lord?

You are.

People have reasons for doing things, good and evil.

Taking away the gun may prevent the mass shooting, but would it save the man’s soul? Would it change the trajectory of his life?

Are You there, Lord?

Is there a bigger picture here?

Can we change what we have become?

We can’t legislate that, can we, Lord? That’s what we want to do. Gun control. Improve access to mental health treatment. Let someone else fix it. Create a program that people can avail themselves of to improve their lives.

That will solve the problem, right?

Many mass shooters are loners, quiet people with few friends who stay in the background of life, exploding at the worst possible moment. I saw a report that 26 of the last 27 mass shooters were fatherless.

Is that the trigger, Lord?

We’re all about personal rights now, individuality, non-conformity, breaking the rules, love (my way) … we don’t hold each other accountable anymore.

Not even in our families.

Our broken families.

Or our churches, many of which are no different than society at large.

Where are You, Lord?

If following You doesn’t change us, what’s the point?

If I can believe whatever I want, then why believe anything?

Is there no right and wrong, Lord?

If mass murder is wrong, then what else is wrong?

Who decides?

That’s why we can’t agree on anything, Lord. We have no foundation in our lives anymore. No good vs. evil. That’s all fairy tales.

Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. Cinderella and the Evil Stepsisters. Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.

Fairy tales.

No respect for authority. No respect for people of a color or ethnicity different than us. No respect for people not born here.

We’re all just visitors on Planet Earth, aren’t we, Lord? We’re not as different as we think we are.

We say hi to our neighbors but we don’t take time to know them.  Some of us move around more than others, so we have to work harder to meet people.

We’d rather do our own thing.

And then we wonder why we can’t get along with each other.

Even if we follow You, Lord, that doesn’t guarantee that we will get it right.

Reading the book of Acts, the early church had just as many issues as the church in America does today. They had to call their leaders together to hash out some very divisive issues.

But they did it, Lord.

And the church grew because they followed You and Your Scriptures. They rejected the belief that “they have to do it our way.”

Why can’t we get this right, Lord?

In Your last prayer on Earth, You prayed for unity among the believers. You knew how crucial that was, and still is.

We blew it, Lord. Again.

Both sides think they have the right answer, but neither does.

Only You do.

Unconditional love is a phrase we don’t hear very often. Not love (my way). Unconditional love.

What You want.

What the other person wants.

Not my will be done …

Who prays that anymore? Truly prays that?

I’ve been involved with a Tuesday morning prayer group for a year now. (See photo above, taken by Jason Russ. Used by permission.) Not that I’m a “prayer warrior” or anything. But we cry out to You.

Imperfectly, because we are imperfect human beings. But we pray.

We ask forgiveness.

We have our wants and needs, and we pray for those, too.

We pray for healing. Our own healing. Our city’s healing. Our nation’s healing.

Again, we pray imperfectly.

But we pray.

Prayer changes not only our city and nation; it also changes us.

One person at a time.

Where are You, Lord?

That’s where You are.

You are just waiting for us, that’s all.

Waiting for us to pray to You.

To seek Your will.

Not my will, but Thy will be done.

On Earth as it is in heaven.

Oh, how we need You now, Lord.

We are lost as a nation. We can’t save ourselves.

We don’t need You as a policymaker, Lord.

We need Your unconditional love.

We know You love each of us that way.

Help us to love each other that way too, to follow Your example.

Nothing else works. We’ve tried.

Oh, how we’ve tried.

I can’t go to Dayton or El Paso and make everything right.

But I can do something right here, right now, right where I live.

Show me, Lord.

Lead me.

What my neighbor does is up to him (or her).

This isn’t rocket science, Lord, but it is radical.

Unconditional love.

Only You, Lord, know what that truly looks like.

Show us, Lord.

Because that’s the only answer than will work in the long run.

The reason we’re here: To touch a life

I scroll past the vast majority of memes I see online because they are shallow and often untrue. They are easily misunderstood. I speak from experience; I comment on them occasionally, and have been told I missed the point.

But this one caught my attention. For one, I hadn’t seen it before. For two, I like the message it presents.

I actually like it.

… touch the past, touch a rock

My wife and I recently spent a weekend at the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum in northern Kentucky. We touched rocks, and other things.

creation 5

Both attractions were designed and built by Answers in Genesis, an organization that “advocates Young Earth creationism on the basis of its literal, historical-grammatical interpretation of the Book of Genesis,” according to Wikipedia. While there, I bought a book, “A Flood of Evidence; 40 reasons Noah and the Ark still matter” by Ken Ham, who founded Answers in Genesis in 1994, and Bodie Hodge, his son-in-law.

They use the Bible to prove itself.

If you believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, which I do, that’s fine, but I don’t see this book convincing anyone of its truths who doesn’t accept the Bible’s inerrancy. That eliminates most Americans.

The book, the Ark and especially the Creation Museum use rocks to explain how fossils formed quickly when plants (mostly) and animals died. Plants and animals that die naturally don’t fossilize; they decay. It took a quick catastrophic event, such as Noah’s Flood, to bury plants and animals in a hurry, allowing them to fossilize.

Noah’s Flood also formed the Grand Canyon. That masterpiece of God’s creation was not formed over millions of years by a tiny river. The book and museum discuss this too.

And they mention Mount St. Helens which, when it erupted in 1980 and again in 1982, made rock formations in hours and days that scientists previously thought took millions of years.

Rocks, as this meme indicates, are a window to the past. We interpret the rocks differently, depending on what we’re looking for.

But the past is gone. We can’t change it. We interpret it and try to re-interpret it (are some people truly trying to say the Holocaust never existed, or that man never walked on the moon?). We study the past to learn how best to live today. Or, that should be why we study the past.

… touch the present, touch a flower

I’ve been on a weeding kick recently. Our yard and gardens are full of them, unfortunately. It seems like it’s a never-ending battle. Weeds choke off plants and flowers.

flowers

I’m not an expert on flowers, but I see them bloom for a time, then disappear. Annuals bloom for one season, then die. Perennials bloom year after year, going dormant during the winter, then re-emerging in all their beauty in the spring.

I think this is what the meme is trying to say. Flowers are beautiful today. We enjoy them in the present. We’d better, because tomorrow they’re gone.

Even perennials don’t live forever. They have to be replaced with other flowers eventually, if you want to keep your garden colorful.

A sunset. A rainbow. Sparkling ripples on a slow-moving lake or river. A fall color tour. A gentle breeze.

Such beauty. Nature can be so wonderful.

Then, it changes. The beauty is gone.

Night. The storm that precedes the rainbow. Crashing waves. A frigid winter snow. No breeze at all in 90-degree heat.

We endure, hoping for the touch of a flower once again.

… touch the future, touch a life

People matter. We so often forget this.

If you’ve read this far, hopefully I have touched you at some level.

But touching a life involves so much more than words on a printed page.

wcws 2

I volunteer at a food pantry twice a week. I’ve met an 18-year-old girl who is head of household for her family of six. Her mother passed away a year ago, and now she’s in charge at home. At 18.

We at the food pantry can help her for a day or two. What then?

I also volunteer at a once-a-week after-school pick-up basketball ministry that our church youth director organizes. After playing for a couple of hours on a recent Thursday, one of the young men told us how he’s trying to build a life for himself and lead his teenage brother down the right path, even though both of their parents – who are separated – are drug addicts.

Can we make a difference in the lives of either of these families? Are we touching the future when we connect with young people at these events?

I come home to a nice house in a decent neighborhood. No one is forcing me to touch a life.

Actually, that’s not true.

Since I call myself a Christian, and since I try to live by the Bible, God Himself commands in that Bible that I must connect with other people at some level.

You are watching. I know you are. If I call myself a Christian, what do you see?

I must serve.

Far too many “Christians” use the Bible to try to justify sinful lifestyles. Jesus was crucified for saying exactly this. The apostle Paul was stoned, flogged and beaten for saying exactly this.

What does it mean to touch a life?

It’s not about me, trying to justify myself at all. That’s an easy way to identify “fake Christians.” What’s our motive? Is it to serve others? Is it to touch a life?

This will be our legacy. If we want to touch the future, we MUST touch a life. That life will continue on after I’m gone.

Already, I’ve lived in South Euclid, Ohio; Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; New Kensington, Pa.; East Lansing, Mich.; Ridgewood, N.J.; Pickford, St. Ignace and Saginaw, Mich.; Rockford, Ill.; and Elyria, Ohio.

I touch people, and I’m gone. You touch me, and I leave. I take part of you with me wherever I go.

Because you have touched my life.

Thank you.

I hope I am worthy of your time. I hope I have helped you get just a little closer to God because I was there.

Don’t be too hard on me when I let you down. I try not to criticize when I see others fall. We’re in this life together.

The future will change because both of us are here in the present. That’s a given.

How will the future change? For good or evil?

May the rock and the flower guide us as we learn how to touch a life. No matter where our lives take us.

Why faith matters, and the reason it often doesn’t

From right, Ren Dejun, Liao Qiang, Peng Ran and Ren Ruiting follow a hymnbook during a Sunday church service in Taipei, Taiwan.

That day (when Stephen was martyred) a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria … Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.

Acts 8:1,4

 

A few minutes after I read those words in my morning devotion, I opened the local newspaper I subscribe to. I was stunned to read an article on religious persecution happening as we speak, and another article from this country explaining that most Americans don’t care about faith issues.

“Christian family details crackdown on church in China,” the Page A2 headline read.

Liao Qiang, 49, had to flee China with five family members, including his 23-year-old daughter, Ren Ruiting, after “living under constant surveillance for the past seven months after authorities detained them and dozens of other members of their prominent but not government-sanctioned church in December.”

China’s ruling Communist Party has carried out a widespread crackdown on all religious institutions in recent years – not just Christian churches, but institutions of all faiths. It has bulldozed churches and mosques, the article states, and incarcerated more than 1 million members of Islamic ethnic minorities in what are termed “re-education centers.”

Qiang and his family fled to nearby Taiwan, where they are free to worship as they choose. They attended a public worship service this week for the first time in seven months.

Persecution forces church growth

In the book of Acts and in China, persecution forced the church to scatter.

While the government leaders in both circumstances were trying to suppress faith, and especially Christianity (in Acts), the opposite happened. Faith spread.

Sometimes it takes persecution to grow our faith.

We often ask why bad things happen to good people. We wonder why we struggle in various parts of our lives. We wonder whether God has abandoned us.

Actually, God may be drawing us closer to Him through our struggles. We don’t really know what persecution is in this country – not to the point where believers are martyred or active churches are bulldozed.

Perhaps that day is coming.

Apathy kills the church

The other article I read in the local paper? On Page A5: “Poll: Americans tend to go it alone (Most don’t seek clerical advice)”

That poll blames technology for many Americans’ choice not to seek advice. Since we can Google information on literally any subject, this article says, we don’t see the need to seek advice from clergy (or anyone else, for that matter).

The poll also blames the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church for reducing clergy interaction with that institution.

“At the same time,” the article concludes, “more Americans describe religion as unimportant in their lives, and church membership and service attendance have declined. Gallup polling shows about half of Americans said they attended religious services within the past week in the mid-1950s, while just about a third say they did now.”

Our response

What does faith mean, anyway? Is it worth dying for, as Stephen did? Is it worth being forced from home to parts unknown, as happened to the early New Testament Church and is still happening in China and other parts of the world today?

For U.S. residents, faith in God costs very little. Perhaps that’s the main reason why it doesn’t mean much to most of us.

Every so often I ask myself, “Do I have to hit rock bottom before I can find God?”

I’ve never done drugs or been arrested. I grew up in a stable home. I’ve always had at least a little money in the bank. I’ve always been healthy.

And yet …

When our family made an out-of-state move before my ninth-grade year, I discovered that I was missing something emotionally. I had a low self-esteem and nothing to lean on.

Eventually, I discovered that Jesus Christ could – and did – fill that void in my life.

So, in a sense, yes, I did hit rock bottom. Not outwardly, not materially, but spiritually, I did.

As with the early disciples and the family in China, I was forced to make a decision. My physical life wasn’t at stake, but my spiritual life was.

If something important to you is forcibly taken away, how would you respond?

When a loved one dies or an emergency strikes, how do you respond?

Do you blame God, or do you turn to Him?

That’s not a theoretical question.

Places where faith grows

Perhaps that’s why most people who accept Christ as their Lord and Savior do so as children. Young people – age 15 and younger – are still searching for meaning in life. Their values aren’t set yet. If you grow up in a Christian home you have a better chance to accept that faith yourself. There are exceptions, of course. And if you didn’t grow up in a Christian home, you can find such a faith in other places as well.

Perhaps a catastrophic event will force your hand. Perhaps that’s what it must take.

That’s why Christianity’s growth is explosive in China and Africa, but not the United States.

 

Christianity’s ‘explosive growth’ in China – and the official pushback

https://www.inkstonenews.com/china/christianity-protestant-church/article/2133812

Christianity is not illegal in China, but it has faced a long history of suppression and official distrust ever since missionaries began arriving with European and American merchants hundreds of years ago.

 

Christianity’s future lies in Africa

https://sojo.net/articles/christianitys-future-lies-africa

The continent (Africa) has become the epicenter in the fight against extreme poverty and inequality, housing over half of the world’s people who are living in the quicksand of extreme poverty. Conflict, corruption, illicit financial flows, gender-based violence, exploitation, the impacts of climate change, among other challenges, have long stunted Africa’s growth and suffocated human flourishing …

Less than 20 percent of evangelical pastors have received seminary training, which poses both a challenge and an opportunity … But a revitalized and more vibrant evangelical church that is increasingly committed to both evangelism and holistic transformation will be an essential force in overcoming these and other challenges.

Our impersonal, judgmental lives

Is the United States becoming a Third-World country? Extreme poverty, conflict, corruption, illicit financial flows, gender-based violence, exploitation, climate change … These topics dominate discussion boards today, don’t they?

But how much of these discussions are personal? We talk in the third person all the time. Most of us don’t know what extreme poverty looks like. Corruption: have we experienced it personally? Climate change? Illicit financial flows?

These issues matter, of course, but until they become personal, they remain debate topics and nothing more.

After all, Americans prefer to live alone. We can take care of ourselves, thank you very much.

Just don’t ask me to think deeply about any subject.

Silent majority needs to be heard

The opposite of love is not hate.

Both are strong emotions. People with either love or hate care deeply about the issue at hand.

No, the opposite of love – and hate too, for that matter – is apathy.

I … just … don’t … care.

As a holiday weekend is concluding, I’m struggling with this. Perhaps I’m feeling emotional fatigue. Especially since I’ve never learned how to express my emotions verbally.

America the divided

Am I proud to be an American?

That’s a more complicated question than it used to be.

I am free to live where I choose, worship where I choose (or not), work in a career field of my choice (assuming someone would hire me), marry whom I choose, spend my free time however I choose …

Yes, this country offers many good things.

But not all receive those things equally.

This is the message of America today.

We hold up that ideal, but we aren’t close to it. We’re closer than we were a century ago.

Or are we?

Equality an illusion

evicted 2

I just read a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Evicted” by Matthew Desmond, which described the substandard housing situation in inner-city Milwaukee a decade ago. We on the outside think the long-term poor often choose to live that way, that if they would just get a job or education, they could pick themselves up by their bootstraps and improve their lives.

But that’s often not possible. The housing culture in the wonderful United States of America is designed to keep poor people poor.

evicted 5

Rents are not much cheaper in poor areas than they are in the suburbs. The federal government subsidizes low-income housing for landlords, so they charge unaffordable rents in low-income areas because they can. And when poor people get behind on rent, far too often they get evicted.

The book follows eight families who faced this. Many of them made upwards of 90 or more calls and/or visits to rental properties to find a suitable place after eviction. Eviction is like a criminal record – often landlords make it difficult for the evicted to rent again.

And if the family, often led by a single woman, has children, that’s another strike. Kids cause damage. Teens do drugs and get into trouble. Claiming this, some landlords don’t want children.

And why are neighborhoods segregated racially? Because landlords make it so. They find creative ways to refuse renting an apartment or house to a minority in a “non-minority” neighborhood.

Us outsiders don’t get it. We can’t just throw a month’s rent at one of these families and think they are good to go. The issues run far deeper than that.

Are there any solutions?

The author suggests housing vouchers, which can be used in any neighborhood.

 

By and large, both public housing residents and voucher holders pay only 30 percent of their income on rent, with government funds covering the rest.

Evicted, page 302

 

Many poor people pay 70 percent or more of their income on rent, which means they often have to decide between rent and food, or rent and the utility bill. That’s why evictions are prevalent among the severely poor.

This problem is nationwide. In 2012, one in nine occupied rental households in Cleveland were summoned to eviction court (page 296). More than 10 percent of all renters in the biggest city near here faced eviction.

Do the rest of us even notice this? Even if we do, how much do we care? Enough to change public policy to improve the lives of the poorest among us?

Compassion helps, but compassion goes only so far.

Just ask the illegal immigrants at our southern border.

Standing for … what?

Pennsylvania Daily Life

And as we celebrated our nation’s birthday, I saw this at work in the way we treat our flag. Even the flag has become a racist symbol.

What does the American flag stand for, anyway?

Does it stand for all those freedoms we like to say we have? Does it stand for the bravery of our veterans and active military service people?

What else does it stand for?

And why do some people not stand for it at all?

When I see unbridled poverty, when I see far too much violence (there was a police shooting in our city last week), when I see broken homes as the norm … can I really celebrate living in the United States these days?

Are there solutions? Or have we given up the fight, given in to apathy?

We think only of ourselves. My rights. I can live with whomever I want, drive whatever speed I want on the highway, spend my money (or other people’s money) on whatever I want …

Without thinking of consequences.

Burying our dreams

We just don’t care anymore. There’s no bigger picture.

No ideals bigger than ourselves.

What is freedom, really? What did our forefathers live and die for?

Did they live and die to create the United States we have today? Is this the best we can do?

Can we learn to get along with each other again? To overcome apathy?

We like to throw around the word “hate,” but it’s often misplaced. Sure, there’s some hate out there, but I don’t think there’s as much of it as extremists on both sides of the political aisle think there is. Most of us, rich or poor, are just trying to live our lives.

Leave us alone, we are saying. Just chill out.

Maybe I’m mistaking this for apathy. Maybe we aren’t as apathetic as I think we are.

Perhaps we do care, deep down in our hearts.

We just don’t know how to show it.

Or, more likely, we’re not allowed to show it.

We get shouted down. The “hate” word is thrown at us if we disagree. The loudest voice is often the one that gets heard in this country.

Which is why I defended the United Methodist Church this spring for standing firm – as it has for more than half a century – to its convictions regarding homosexuality. As one voice swimming against the political correctness tide, I took some flak for that, but the discussion was excellent. Thanks again to all of you who participated.

The loudest, or even the most persistent, voice is not always the right one.

Sometimes, the silent majority actually has something to say.

We care. We really do.

But does that mean anything? Can the silent majority do anything with its passions and desires in this country?

Who’s listening?

Anyone?

We cannot escape

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

you discern my thoughts from far away.

You search out my path and my lying down,

and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue,

O Lord, you know it completely.

You hem me in, behind and before,

and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

it is so high that I cannot attain it.

 

Where can I go from your spirit?

Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning

and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me,

and your right hand shall hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,

and the light around me become night,”

even the darkness is not dark to you;

the night is as bright as the day,

for darkness is as light to you.

 

For it was you who formed my inward parts;

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

baby-growing

Wonderful are your works;

that I know very well.

My frame was not hidden from you,

when I was being made in secret,

intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.

In your book were written

all the days that were formed for me,

when none of them as yet existed.

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!

How vast is the sum of them!

I try to count them – they are more than the sand;

I come to the end – I am still with you.

 

osr 4

O that you would kill the wicked, O God,

and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me –

those who speak of you maliciously,

and lift themselves up against you for evil!

Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?

And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with perfect hatred;

I count them my enemies.

Search me, O God, and know my heart;

test me and know my thoughts.

See if there is any wicked way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting.

 

Psalm 139

The good stuff is coming, oh yes

Are there rewards for following Jesus Christ with your whole heart?

Oh, yes.

The Christian life is no picnic on Earth. Great things happen, but suffering does too. We know this.

As Christians, however, we look beyond Earth. We’re here 70 or 80 years, give or take, and then we die. Guaranteed.

What then?

That’s when it gets good.

I’m studying the book of Revelation – the last book of the Bible – with three friends this summer. Near the beginning of the book, Jesus gives seven messages to various churches. Each discourse includes good things the church has done, bad things the church has done, a warning if the church doesn’t get its act together, and a reward if the church does change.

Without getting too theological, those messages apply to Christians today as well. If we “conquer,” as my translation (New Revised Standard) puts it, we will receive some awesome rewards.

Let’s look beyond ourselves, beyond Earth even, to see what’s in store for us.

 

“To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.”

Rev. 2:7

 

This is stunning. We first see the tree of life in the Garden of Eden, along with the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:9). After Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3:6), God kicked the sinning couple out of the garden. Why? Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” … (Gen. 3:22)

The tree of life would have allowed Adam and Eve to never die. This is the way we were created, to live forever. But because we rebelled against the living God, our lives were shortened.

Until the very end of time. Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.” (Rev. 22:14)

Once we enter the city of God, we will live forever in paradise.

 

“Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.”

Rev. 2:11

 

All of us will be harmed by the “first death,” which is the death of our physical bodies on this Earth. What is the second death? But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death. (Rev. 21:8)

The second death, then, is separation from God. Permanently. We get to choose which “spiritual death” we will face – living in paradise with God, or separation from Him in the lake of fire.

There’s no third option, by the way.

 

“I will give a white stone, and on the white store is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.”

Rev. 2:17

 

Whoa. A new name. Given to each of us by the living God. That name will define who we are. We can only guess what this means, however. Gotquestions.org offers this explanation:

The best theory regarding the meaning of the white stone probably has to do with the ancient Roman custom of awarding white stones to the victors of athletic games. The winner of a contest was awarded a white stone with his name inscribed on it. This served as his “ticket” to a special awards banquet. According to this view, Jesus promises the overcomers entrance to the eternal victory celebration in heaven. The “new name” most likely refers to the Holy Spirit’s work of conforming believers to the holiness of Christ (see Romans 8:29; Colossians 3:10).

 

“To the one who conquers I will also give the morning star.”

Rev. 2:26

 

Who or what is the morning star? It’s Jesus Himself. “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” (Rev. 22:16)

We will live with Jesus Christ, the morning star, forever.

 

“If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels.”

Rev. 3:5

 

What is the book of life? This, along with books that describe our lives on Earth, will be opened on the Judgment Day. What happens if our names are not in the book of life? I saw the dead great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev. 20:12, 15)

Instead, Jesus will confess our names before his Father and his angels. Our works aren’t good enough to stand on their own; we need Jesus to advocate for us on our Judgment Day.

He promised that He will do that for us. If we conquer.

 

“If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.”

Rev. 3:12

 

A pillar in the temple of God could refer to eternal life. The city of God is the “new Jerusalem,” which is described in Rev. 21:9-26. It will be a huge city, and beautiful beyond description. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Rev. 21:26)

These rewards are all related. And they are only for those of us who conquer.

 

“To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.”

Rev. 3:21

 

We will enjoy royal status. We will not be subjects, employees, homeless, malnourished or mistreated in any way. We will be forgiven, pure, holy and one with God.

The older I get, the closer I am to this day. When I get discouraged with the way things are going on Earth, all I have to do is look up. A better day is coming.

A day worth waiting for.

A day worth dying for.

A celebration for conquering.

 

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.

Romans 8:18-19

Repentance is a practice, and other truths

 

Nuggets of truth I learned in a year-long study through several Old Testament books:

 

  • God’s definition of success is to be faithful, and we do that by meditating on His word.
  • We are on God’s team. He is not on our team.
  • Sometimes, we don’t understand God’s directions. But He sees the big picture.
  • The Christian life is a marathon. Jesus has already finished the race, and returned to help us through it.
  • What are my gods? Where do I spend my time? What do I think about during the day, and at night? What do I worry about?
  • God sometimes empties us before He can fill us.
  • Kindness leads people to repentance.
  • Christ redeems us, even if we are foreigners (as Boaz did for Ruth).
  • What do we do with our idols when they don’t work? We often prop them up, and keep using them – to our destruction.
  • Repentance: Turn away from sin, turn to God.
  • We have to ask for deliverance continually. This is sanctification.
  • I need to lead with confidence where God has given me influence.
  • The Psalms are like a waterfall. Singular verses are good, but they aren’t a waterfall.
  • The Psalms have the power to realign our hearts to God. They are cracking the vault of my buried emotions.
  • God used both success and trouble to shape David’s life.
  • Do I want to let God write my story, or do I want to write it for Him?
  • Hopelessness is pervasive today. We look in all the wrong places for hope.
  • Am I looking for relief, or relationship?
  • David inquired of the Lord …
  • I don’t know God’s timing.
  • We are living our lives in the middle of God’s throne room. We get to join God in what He is doing.
  • Win or lose, I should worship God.
  • Do I reflect on how merciful God is in my life? What do I dream about? Probably about me, not God. He rested on the seventh day to reflect on what He’d created.
  • Israel is a great nation because it has a great God.
  • Am I willing to trade my plan for His, even if I don’t see it fulfilled?
  • Many of our battles are internal – lust, greed, pride, self-centeredness. But the victory has already been won.
  • Repentance is a practice. I have to get rid of sin. Otherwise, the pain stays.
  • Obedience brings blessing. Disobedience brings judgment.
  • Church attendance isn’t enough. A personal encounter with God changes lives.
  • Israel trusted in the ark of God, instead of the God of the ark.
  • God will not be mocked. He expects His people to live differently than everyone else does.
  • God intends us to build each other up, even if others hurt us – the way David respected Saul.
  • God rested on the seventh day – not just to rest, but to reflect on what He’d done.
  • When a prophet shows up, usually there’s a reason and it doesn’t go well.
  • We can choose to sin, but we cannot choose the consequences. Stop before it starts. The longer we wait, the harder it gets.
  • God is just. We blow off sin. God does not. (For example, when David took a census of Israel toward the end of his life, he wanted to celebrate Israel’s size, not God’s power. God’s judgment for that cost 70,000 people their lives.)
  • God limited places of worship to keep pagan practices out, but Solomon worshiped at high places of pagan gods.
  • The focus is not what I need, but who I need.
  • God’s gifts do not ensure that we use them wisely.
  • We do not create wisdom. We discover it.
  • Learn from the mistakes of others. We don’t have to experience everything to learn lessons.
  • Even when we are distant from God, we can call out to Him for forgiveness.
  • The central Temple building is no longer needed. Our bodies are God’s temple.
  • Solomon fulfilled the Temple obligation; that was not devotion.
  • Leaders are to execute justice and righteousness.
  • Each day presents new opportunities to trust God or go our own way.
  • Not all adversity is because of sin, but if we face adversity, a heart check is a good idea.
  • Pleasure is only for a moment. God is forever.

 

 

 

Perfect justice will come

Justice and wisdom. They go together.

I found the best explanation of justice in a book on hope by Max Lucado. The best description of wisdom resides in another book, this one a novel.

Let me set the stage with this:

 

For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.

2 Corinthians 5:10

 

Justice

Lucado published a book last year (2018) called “Unshakable Hope: building our lives on the promises of God”. One of those promises is titled, “Justice Will Prevail.”

Lucado explains how that 2 Corinthians judgment will work. It makes a whole lot of sense.

You and I, along with each person who ever lived, is living or will live, one day will stand before God’s judgment seat.

Heaven requires that sins be paid. All of them. There will be no sin in heaven.

hope

How will God remove all sin from Heaven? One at a time. As long as it takes.

Here’s the picture Lucado paints of what judgment will look like.

Each of us individually will stand in a courtroom, God’s courtroom, and face our Maker. “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books.” (Revelation 20:12)

In those books are all of our works, good and evil. Every single one.

In an American courtroom, every defendant is allowed an advocate, someone to defend him or her. It’s not mandatory; we can reject assistance and stand before the judge on our own if we so desire.

On God’s judgment day, those of us who know Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior will have an advocate as God reads off our sins. For example:

  • Bill made a comment behind someone’s back. Jesus: I died for that.
  • Bill ignored a person he could have helped. Jesus: I know. I have forgiven him.
  • Bill cussed under his breath, but a few people heard him. Jesus: I took care of that.

And on and on. Every single sin I have ever committed, and will commit, in my entire life. God will read them off.

Jesus will accept the punishment for each one of them.

There will be no secrets in Heaven, no wondering, “What did he/she do down there on Earth?” We will be free, completely free, from all sin – and able to worship God and live for Him with our whole hearts.

When the list is ended, anything good I’ve done will also get read aloud by the living God, according to the verse I quoted in 2 Corinthians. God will celebrate all the good that happened (and is happening and will happen) down here on Earth.

This is the judgment of each one whom Jesus knows intimately.

But some people on Earth reject God.

God will honor that. And He will judge accordingly.

These folks will face the same judgment. They will stand before God, and He will read off their sins, one by one, just as He did mine.

But they will have no advocate standing next to them, offering to pay for their sins.

God, therefore, will declare them guilty – the only sentence He can pronounce.

Justice will prevail. For each and every one of us.

Wisdom

Justice plays out in a similar fashion in one of my favorite novels – “The Shack,” by William Paul Young. In a chapter titled “Here Come Da Judge,” we see two main characters: Mack, who is bitter over the kidnapping and death of his young daughter, and the judge, later identified as Sophia, the personification of God’s wisdom.

shack

Mack also has a wife and four living children. In this chapter, we learn that Mack, like many of us, is quick to judge just about everyone he meets – and he blames God for allowing his daughter to die.

How accurate are our judgments? God writes down all of our deeds, good and evil, in books that will be opened one day. But how much do you and I truly know about each other?

Since Mack was quick to condemn the killer of his daughter and God for allowing that scenario to play out, Sophia did something unusual. She got up from her judge’s chair and invited Mack to sit there. Judgment Day had arrived, and he was the judge.

Mack was unnerved. He felt unqualified.

But he judged people all the time, so he had lots of experience at it. He was qualified then, right?

Judge Sophia gave him a challenge: Only two of your five children can go to heaven. You must send the other three to hell. Which of your children would you sentence to hell?

When you put it that way, Judge …

But that’s what we do every day, don’t we?

Mack said he couldn’t do it. No way. Sophia said you must. You want to judge, you think God judges like this, then render your verdict.

Mack pleaded for his children, all of them. He said he’d take the punishment for their sins – send him to hell, let all of his children go to heaven.

Mack finally understood wisdom. Because that’s exactly what Jesus Christ did for His children.

There’s so much more to “The Shack” than this one scene. It’s a great book, and it came out as a movie two years ago.

The advocate

I’m glad I’m not the ultimate judge of anyone, even though I try sometimes. I don’t know your motives, why you do what you do. You don’t know my motives. Shakespeare said all the world’s a stage, and he was right. We’re all actors, and when we play a role, we can hide our true selves.

But we can’t hide from the living God.

That’s why His justice is perfect.

Each of us will get what we deserve.

The question is: Will you have an advocate with you on the Judgment Day? Only one advocate will be allowed in that courtroom, and he paid a very heavy price to claim that role.

A price that no one else can come close to paying.

That day will come. It’s been promised.

Will you be ready?

One day …

A prayer for God to do whatever it takes to convince the world that he is indeed God:

 

O God, do not keep silence; do not hold your peace or be still, O God!

Even now your enemies are in tumult; those who hate you have raised their heads.

They lay crafty plans against your people; they consult together against those you protect.

They say, “Come, let us wipe them out as a nation; let the name of Israel be remembered no more.”

They conspire with one accord; against you they make a covenant – the tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites, Moab and the Hagrites, Gebal and Ammon and Amalek, Philistia with the inhabitants of Tyre; Assyria also has joined them; they are the strong arm of the children of Lot.

Do to them as you did to Midian, as to Sisera and Jabin at the Wadi Kishon, who were destroyed at En-dor, who became dung for the ground.

Make their nobles like Oreb and Zeeb, all their princes like Zebah and Zalmunna, who said, “Let us take the pastures of God for our own possession.”

O my God, make them like whirling dust, like chaff before the wind.

As fire consumes the forest, as the flame sets the mountains ablaze, so pursue them with your tempest and terrify them with your hurricane.

Fill their faces with shame, so that they may seek your name, O LORD.

Let them be put to shame and dismayed forever; let them perish in disgrace.

Let them know that you alone, whose name is the LORD, are the Most High over all the earth.

 

Psalm 83