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.

 

 

 

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For our own survival, we must re-learn history

“Go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” The people of Nineveh believed God. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.”

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them.

Jonah 3:2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10

 

The people of Nineveh knew they were doing bad things. Their lives were evil and violent, in the words of their own king.

When a prophet of God called them out on it, they – including the king – repented immediately.

I wish such a scenario could be repeated today in the United States.

It won’t.

For starters, if a prophet of God were to proclaim such a message today, he (or she) would be either ridiculed or ignored. We’d find ways to dilute such a prophet’s message, or refute it, or pretend we didn’t hear it.

Flaunting our evil

The lines between good and evil are often blurred today.

Even when the lines are straight and we know right from wrong, we often flaunt our sins.

  • Just yesterday I saw the driver of a pickup truck on the highway weaving in and out of traffic, going 10 to 15 mph faster than everyone else was driving. He cared nothing for traffic laws on the books or the welfare of anyone around him, including me. This is nearly an everyday occurrence in my world.
  • When was the last time a popular movie or TV show celebrated marriage and the marriage bed?
  • Violence makes the news every day in this country. In Chicago, for example, 409 people have been killed so far this year. That is 126 fewer than 2017, according to the Chicago Tribune. I saw a blurb the other day that said Chicago went 22 hours without a single shooting being reported. That’s what we’ve become: almost a whole day with no shootings is a moral victory.
  • Police officers, teachers and parents do not have the respect that they should. Some of that is their own fault. Some of it is not.
  • Politicians can’t decide right from wrong in any situation these days. No matter how they rule in the Judge Brett Kavanaugh case regarding his U.S. Supreme Court nomination, many of us will get angry. People on both sides are convinced they have the moral high ground. Politicians can’t get it right because we the people won’t let them. Because we the people no longer know what the moral high ground is.
  • Addictions have become an epidemic: opioids, illegal drugs, alcohol, pornography, social media, our jobs … many things. Choice or disease? We’d rather debate that than actually solve any addiction problems.

Experience vs. reason

Was life simpler back in Old Testament times?

The people of Nineveh dealt with the same temptations and evil things that we do. We have far more technology, of course, so we can disseminate evil much faster and more efficiently.

The people of Nineveh didn’t always follow the king’s lead; they responded to Jonah’s message first, then reported it to the king. To the king’s credit, he was paying attention to the pulse of his city.

I wish we had the listening skills that the Ninevites – the people and the king – did, and even more, the discernment to determine good and evil, as they did.

Instead, we justify ourselves.

Experience comes before reason.

In a previous chapter of my life, I was deeply involved in the United Methodist Church. A basic tenet of that denomination is the Wesley Quadrilateral, named for the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. The quadrilateral is: Scripture, tradition, reason and experience.

In that order.

Except that some United Methodists prefer to flip the order, starting with experience, and using reason, tradition and Scripture to justify their experiences.

That debate now permeates our common culture.

If we can’t agree on the basic tenets of what our society should be, how can we possibly solve our moral dilemmas?

That’s what Nineveh had that we do not.

I did it my way

Unfortunately, there’s just enough truth in every modern viewpoint to muddy the waters. Women and immigrants are real people. Abortion is the death of a human being.

Laws should align with those tenets.

They frequently don’t.

Or if they do, we have to fight for them.

And because of our propensity to flaunt laws we don’t agree with, we are becoming an anarchy – refusing to accept authority. Rule by the individual. I have my rights and I’ll do what I want.

If it hurts you, I don’t care.

If I kill you on the road or abort my son or daughter, it doesn’t matter to me. If you don’t satisfy me as a lover, I’ll find one who does.

Never mind the collateral damage.

I did it my way, in the words popularized in 1969 – almost a half-century ago – by Frank Sinatra.

Many of us today have taken those lyrics to heart. We try to justify our actions. And we frequently get away with them.

Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me

Sackcloth and ashes. How archaic.

That attitude is too, isn’t it?

The people of Nineveh asked God to forgive them for their evil and violent ways. God listened, and forgave them.

As a secular – very secular – city.

Then, for a time at least, the people of Nineveh actually changed their ways. Until temptations lured them into evil and violence again.

Is this even possible in 2018 in our country?

It is possible, yes, but I don’t see it happening any time soon. That would require a willingness to admit that we are on the wrong track as a nation, as Nineveh did. We can’t point fingers at others and say, “You need to repent.”

No. The people of Nineveh got down on their own knees.

Prepare before the battle comes

O Lord, there is no difference for you between helping the mighty and the weak. Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you.

2 Chronicles 14:11

 

This verse caught my attention this morning during my quiet time. Judah’s king, Asa, was facing a major battle with Zerah of Ethiopia, who had an army of 1 million men. Asa’s army was about half that size.

Asa had several options:

  1. He could have relied on his own wit to try to out-maneuver the stronger Ethiopian army.
  2. He could have raised a white flag and quit before he started.
  3. He could have asked God to fight the battle for him.

Asa chose option 3.

It worked. “… the Lord defeated the Ethiopians before Asa and before Judah, and the Ethiopians fled.” (verse 12)

Asa didn’t ask God to play a genie’s role – come save me from my crisis, then I’ll go on my merry way. I know some people who treat God like that.

I wonder if that offends God.

Instead, Asa rallied Judah to follow God – all the time.

Getting ready

Previous kings had set up worship centers to foreign gods. God’s chosen people had rejected Him and worshiped gods that didn’t exist, or a golden calf or wooden idols that couldn’t do anything.

Asa destroyed all of those.

Then, he built fortified cities that included protective walls around them that enemy armies couldn’t penetrate.

He prepared for battle before the battle came.

When the Ethiopians attacked, Asa was ready. He didn’t know ahead of time that the battle was coming from that particular army, but he knew he would face a battle from somewhere. So, he prepared for it.

He built fortified cities and talked with the true God who actually answers prayers.

If we want to defeat the temptations and sins that threaten to overtake us, we have to prepare ahead of time and be ready for battle, as Asa did. This isn’t an easy lesson to learn.

Missing the message

In 2000, I had a great job, a wife and three growing children, and vibrant church and community involvement. I could not ask for anything better than the life God had given me at that point.

My job as a copy editor at The Saginaw (Mich.) News was wonderful. Great co-workers, great bosses even, a salary that paid for the lifestyle our family of five enjoyed, and a job pledge.

Yes, a job pledge.

The pledge – which the company mailed to us every year in January, in writing – said that as long as The News published seven days a week, we had a job for life. The company retained the right to change our job descriptions, of course, as needs changed, but they promised us jobs until we reached retirement age.

Talk about blessed. I’m sure many of you, even if you have a great job, don’t have a pledge like that.

But in 2000. I received a surprise. God put a bug in my ear.

At the height of our prosperity, He told me that I was trusting that job pledge more than I was trusting Him. I was too comfortable, and my faith wasn’t as passionate as it should have been.

That startled me.

Really, God? You’ve given me so many blessings, so many ways I can serve You … so what’s up with this?

God persisted, so eventually I prayed this prayer:
“Okay God, I give the job pledge to You. I trust you more than I trust the job pledge.”

God knew something I didn’t.

The battle arrives

The newspaper industry, which had thrived for decades, was going to crash in the near future.

God was trying to prepare me for that moment.

When The News cut back to three days a week in 2009, the job pledge went out the window. I got downsized, as did many of my co-workers.

Even though God gave me a heads-up years earlier, I still didn’t handle it well. I sat around home for nearly a year and didn’t do much of anything. My wife didn’t appreciate that. I made no effort to re-train for a different career or to seek any job.

The News offered a nice buyout that continued my salary for a time. I should have taken advantage of that by preparing for my future, but I didn’t.

Unlike Asa, I hadn’t built my defenses up and prepared for battle.

When the battle came, I didn’t know how to handle it.

I didn’t prepare my family, either. I internalize things, which means I don’t talk things out with other people. Including my wife.

Learning the lesson

We attended a marriage retreat a few months ago – in 2018, nine years after the buyout – and talked about some things we should have begun talking about 10 years ago.

We worship a God of second chances, so the Ethiopians in my life don’t have to defeat me, even if I don’t prepare well for them. I’m sure I made it harder on us than it should have been.

Sometimes we bring pain on ourselves. That is not God’s will, nor is it His fault.

Unlike Asa, I tried option 1: to figure out my career plans on my own. That didn’t work out too well.

My newspaper career is done now, for several reasons. We’re here in Elyria, Ohio, doing other things. My wife has a very good job that she enjoys, and I have meaningful work where I can build relationships with people who need that.

My job has its frustrations, but I try not to focus on those (too much). I’m trying to rely on the living God for my job and for our future, like Asa did.

Temptations are much easier to defeat with this mindset, with this way of living.

Thanks, Asa, for reminding me to rely on God.

It makes no difference whether I’m strong or weak. If God fights the battle for me, I’ll win.

Doing what Jesus would do …

If Jesus walked the Earth in the flesh in 2017, where would He go? What would He do? Who would He spend His time with?

I wonder about that every so often.

In response, I turn to the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which describe the life He lived among us. There isn’t much in the Bible about the first 30 years of His life, but His three-year ministry offers plenty of evidence about what and who were important to Him.

Inside the church

Jesus spent some time in the synagogue, the church of His day. He spoke there on occasion as a visiting preacher. He did a healing or two there. He overturned the money changers’ tables there when He discovered they were overcharging the parishioners who needed to buy sacrificial animals.

Most often when He visited the synagogue, He was not there to worship. He was there to confront the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Sadducees, who ran the synagogue and knew the Old Testament Scriptures inside and out, but still didn’t understand them. The leaders missed the prophesies about Jesus in the Scriptures. They also added a whole lot of rules to the Books of the Law, the first five books of the Old Testament, which describe in detail how a follower of the living God was supposed to live.

Jesus called them blind guides and hypocrites. When He claimed to be God and to have an intimate relationship with His Father, they went berserk. They killed him for that.

Christians, beware. Jesus attacked religious leaders hard. They didn’t take it well.

Should Jesus visit the United States in the flesh in 2017, I fear He would give a similar message to the church today. And we would give Him a similar fate. Not every local church would reject Him, but many would. This scares me.

Does it scare you?

Outside the church

However, my reading of the Gospels tells me that Jesus spent most of His time outside the synagogue, with tax collectors and sinners. He gave them the benefit of the doubt every time. He was all compassion:

  • The woman caught in adultery.
  • A Samaritan woman at a well. (The religious leaders of His day treated women like second-class citizens. Jesus treated them like the daughters of God they were – and are. Jesus could be considered a radical feminist, if you read the Bible that way.)
  • Matthew, a hated tax collector, one of the 12 in His inner circle.
  • Zacchaeus, a religious leader who asked the right questions.
  • All kinds of people who came to Him for healing, both physical and demonic.
  • Hungry people. (He fed 5,000 of them with five loaves of bread and two fish.)
  • A couple getting married who ran out of wine. (Jesus liked to party, by the way.)
  • And on, and on.

Doing time

As Christians, we so often spend most of our free time inside the walls of our churches. We worship there, we study the Bible there, we offer social programs there and invite the community in.

That’s not what Jesus did.

  • He prayed on mountainsides.
  • He healed people in their own homes.
  • He ate at their homes, too. Matthew is a great example. He wanted his friends to meet Jesus, so he invited them to dinner, then invited Jesus to join them.
  • He traveled the countryside, visiting cities and towns along the way. He counseled his 12 disciples as they walked and as they served those they met.

I think this should be our pattern, too. We need to worship; Jesus did not avoid the synagogue, even though He wasn’t very happy with most of the leaders He met there.

But Jesus spent most of His time mingling with unbelievers on their turf. He was comfortable in crowds; He was comfortable in one-on-one settings, and in groups of just a few people. He traveled. He had a hometown, but He didn’t claim it. He knew Jerusalem was important, and He did spend time there (and died there), but He visited other places as well.

WWJD

A few years ago there was a bracelet in Christian circles that was all the rage: WWJD. What Would Jesus Do? It was a fad question that most Christians didn’t take seriously, but that’s the question I’m asking. What would Jesus do? Really?

Are we prepared to do the same? He said we should.

Perhaps big fancy church buildings aren’t a good witness. I’m not sure Jesus would be impressed with them. He’d rather those resources – money and human time – be spent elsewhere.

Jesus said full-time Christian workers should be paid a fair wage. This is important.

Taking the job home

But our leaders should be equipping the rest of us to do the work of the church – outside the church, in our spheres of influence. That’s what Jesus did with His 12 disciples. He gave them His heart, then told them to go make disciples of all nations.

I meet people every day who would never set foot inside a church. If I call myself a Christian, I am Jesus to them. How do I wear that “job title?” Do I represent Christ well?

Do you?

Is your church equipping you to be the church to those outside the church? If not, what’s the point of church?

Yes, we worship God and praise Him for what He’s done for us.

So what? Do we leave our praise on the altar? Or do we take it home with us?

That’s what Jesus did.

And what He’d continue to do in 2017.