Wednesday, March 25, 2015

No Thrift Stores in God's Kingdom

     I love reading about the circumstances that went before Jesus teaches His parables.  The context in which He teaches is illuminating to the parables themselves.  
     How often do we tell someone a story after they've shared some information with us, or recently experienced something dramatic or amazing?  Stories tie us together.  If I tell you that I received a speeding ticket on the way home from church (!), you might tell me that you let fly a swear word right when a fellow church member rounded the corner at the supermarket.  It connects our humanity and makes us realize that we all have things we go through--for better or for worse.
     So, let's look at what preceded Jesus' teaching on old coats and on old wineskins in Matthew 9:16-17. 
     Starting in Chapter 9, we see Jesus having returned by boat "to his own town."  The friends of a paralytic  man brought him to Jesus.  "When Jesus saw their faith," He then lovingly forgives the man's sins.  
     Obviously, the greater paralysis is of his soul.  How many times was he angry at God for his condition?  How many times did he envy people who passed by him?  How many nights did he cry alone, just wanting for one moment to leap up and run outside?  Sin and sadness, anger and regret, swirled in this man's soul like a tornado, and He saw the many layers of dust in the man's spirit.  
     Of course, the religious leaders are outraged that a mere man would take God's office and forgive the man's sins.  Jesus rebukes them, and stands on His authority "to forgive sins."  He wasn't blaspheming, as they evilly thought.  Why?  Because He is the One of whom the ancients foretold.    
     The man arose, healed in body and soul, and went home, much to the amazement of the crowds.
     Jesus goes on and sees a tax collector.  He calls him to follow Him, and Matthew leaves his post and follows Jesus.  Jesus comes to dinner at Matthew's house and of course, Matt's choice of guests are the very ones that the Pharisees despise.  
     They question Jesus' disciples about the wisdom of their rabbi eating with such folks.  Jesus then pointedly comments that the sick need a doctor.  He quotes a verse from Hosea about how God "'desires mercy, not sacrifice,"" and tells the leaders that they need to learn what that means.
     On the tail end of this, here comes John's disciples, observing with some consternation that they and the Pharisees fast, but Jesus' disciples do not.  Interesting to see John's disciples making common cause with the Pharisees, who despised John.  They were probably hovering about in the crowd, listening to the Pharisees excoriate Jesus and didn't want to tick them or Jesus off.  So, they ask a question as if they and the Pharisees are on the right path with their fasting, and Jesus is either misleading or undermining the law with his practices, or lack thereof.

     He sets the tone by equating himself to a bridegroom, and how in this celebratory atmosphere, fasting would be inappropriate.  The time will come, he tells them, when his departure will cause fasting.  But not now.      
     So, given what Jesus just did--forgave sins, healed, called a scorned member of society to be his disciple, dined with more scorned members, and allowed for joy in his disciples and not ritual, he starts to teach in parables:  “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
     Hmmm...interesting.  Jesus is exploring trying to use both old and new, and what will happen to each.   
     "Unshrunk cloth" is an interesting one--it hasn't been washed, beaten on a rock and left in the sun to dry.  There's nothing wrong with such cloth, as long as the surrounding fibers are the same.  If the whole cloth is "unshrunk," then it will go through the wash in a unified way, each fiber stretching together to face the wear and tear.  
     Now you have a garment that has hole in it--this implies it has been worn a lot, faced many washing days and needs to be repaired in order to be worn again.  Fair enough!  But, unshrunk cloth is not the solution, not because it is not good cloth, but because of its incompatibility with the fabric to which it's going to be attached.  
     So, we have a problem:  a worn-out garment in need of repair and a patch of fabric that once sewn on, will make the hole even bigger as it shrinks.  The new will "tear away" from the old.  Maybe, at first, there seems to be a compatibility between the two:  the new patch hides the hole nicely.  But on wash day--that day when fibers are stretched and pounded in order to be cleaned, then the incompatibility will become painfully obvious and damaging to both the old and the new.  The garment has a bigger hole and the new cloth cannot cover it and is ruined by the stretching of its fibers.
    Now Jesus could have stopped there.  But let us stop for a moment.  The fabric for the Tabernacle in the Old Testament was woven to very specific instructions, as to color and what materials are to be used.  The priests' garments were woven very specifically as well.  God gave His law in an orderly way, by using Moses as His intermediary, and the Tabernacle was a place where Moses met God and received instructions.  The Old Testament is the Old Covenant and Jesus is inaugerating the New Covenant.  But that's our view, looking back.
     All his listeners had was The Covenant--the Law and the Prophets.  Every day of his ministry, Jesus is enacting a new way of thinking and acting before God.  The Pharisees with their not-so-gentle reminders of the Law and the Prophets, represent what will later been seen as the Old Covenant, but only in the light of what Jesus will fulfill on the cross.  That's in the future, however.
     A new fabric is being woven in the work of this man from Nazareth.  The "unshrunk cloth" is Jesus dealing with sinners, forgiving and healing them, and calling the lowly into the Kingdom of his Father.  This is a Kingdom of the Law written on the hearts of those who love God and will act righteously out of love, not out of obligation or ritual.  
    The old garment is in need of repair--the following of rules and regulations, and  hearts acting out of obligation has led to the coldness and snobbery of the Pharisees.  They have a hole in their hearts, exemplified by their contempt of the masses, and their arrogance in thinking they alone know God.
    The two are incompatible.  The day is coming when the old garment will be cast aside for a new raiment, washed in the blood of the Lamb and shining white.  It will endure the rough treatment of the world, and all its threads will face trial united and strong.
     Now, Jesus talks of wine and wineskins.  New wine is valuable.  The old wineskins are just that--they have served well.  The vigorous pouring of new wine into such skins will be a loss for both: the new wine will spill on the ground and the old skins will be torn. Both are ruined.  
     The old garment had its place in covering the sin of the people.  The old wineskins had their place in holding the truth about God.  However, a new wine is coming.  
     The new wine is the New Covenant.  Someday soon, Jesus will take the cup at Passover and tell His disciples that this wine represents His blood that will be poured out for the forgiveness of sins.  He will be THE Passover lamb, whose blood will take away the sins of the world.   
     So, this new wine will be poured into new wineskins:  Jesus' New Covenant will produce a new kind of follower of God, one who is committed and driven by love for those around him and for God.  A person whose heart will be filled with the Holy Spirit and who will serve God well because the old nature "has been crucified with Christ" and we walk as new creations, where the old is passed away and we are empowered from within to live the life He requires.  The Old Covenant is being ful-filled with the wine of the New Covenant.  
     The "new wineskins" and the "new wine" are both "preserved"--they can be used again and again to serve at the table.  With Jesus' blood, we stand in a new relationship to God:  fully forgiven and free to serve Him.  No religiosity, no ritual, no righteousness by works:  He pours His newness into us, and we are free to serve Him and our fellow man.  



Sunday, March 15, 2015

DIY: The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders

     Jesus has been teaching a variety of things by the time we arrive at this parable.  He begins with the Beatitudes, then talks of salt and light, and how He come to fulfill the Law.  He covers murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, "an eye for an eye, " loving your enemies, giving to the needy, prayer, fasting, how we are to store up "treasures in heaven," not worrying for our Father supplies our needs, judging others, asking, seeking, knocking, how we are to enter through the "narrow gate," and how we must watch out for false prophets.
     Wow.  In fact, Jesus kicks off His ministry with this Sermon on the Mount.  He was baptized by John in the Jordan, called out into the desert by the Spirit and underwent temptation by Satan.  He called His disciples and is now going about the Galilee, healing the sick. 
      He climbs a mountainside, and sits down.  He is inaugurating His ministry.  My thanks to Ray Vanderlaan for pointing out that Matthew is presenting Jesus as the new Moses.  He is on a mountain and brings forth a new law--one that gives serious consideration to the Old Testament Mosaic law, but with Jesus' added elements of love, compassion and authority.  He is fulfilling the Law, for He will do what the Lord spoke of through Jeremiah:  "'This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,' declares the LORD. 'I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.'"  
     Moses brought down the inscribed stones of the Covenant from Mount Sinai.  This Covenant was  an agreement between God and His people to abide together.  God expected certain things from His people, and their obedience would lead to blessings a-plenty from Him.  Disobedience would equally lead to chastisement from His hand.  
     Jesus, when finished, gets this reaction: "When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law."
     The crowds rightly sensed a new Covenant was in the offing--Jesus was not simply teaching what the Law said.  He was teaching what the Law foretold:  that God was seeking to inscribe His law on the hearts of His people, and that His definition of "His people" was going to embrace the whole world.  
     Did the crowds understand the bigger picture?  Probably not.  But the times, they were a-changing, and the crowds sensed that.
     So, after Jesus offered His version of the Law, He comments, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
     His listeners are very familiar with the desert and flash floods.  The Hebrews' history is desert history, and the geography influences their analogies.  I thank Ray Vanderlaan  for his teaching on the influence of the desert on the Jewish people.
     A wadi is a seemingly dry stream bed.  The trees are rooted along its outer banks, to make use of the subterranean water.  The wadi is a quiet place, with rocks and sand, and the heat blazing down.

    So, Jesus starts with wise man building his house on a rock.  Who is this "wise man?"  The man who hears Jesus and puts His words "into practice."  This guy doesn't just go and build his house anywhere.  He is wise in learning where the safe and stable places are. 
     I might build my house near this wadi.  It looks harmless enough--it is in the desert!  How much water could there be?  Sure, the wadi shows evidence of water flow, but I am thinking it flows more like a stream.  The quantity of water can't be overwhelming at any one time.  Besides, in a desert, a cool flowing stream would be nice and refreshing.
    But the wise man looks for truth in where to build.  He isn't dazzled by the location and its calmness.  He wants a firm foundation for when life hits hard.  And it does:
     Where's that sunny day?  Where's that gentle refreshing stream?  This is a flash flood in a wadi.  It rains in the distant mountains, and the accumulating water comes roaring down the wadi.  You might not even know it was even raining until you hear the roar.  But by then, it may be too late to get out of way of the flash flood.
     Isn't this life?  Rains come, the waters rise, and the winds beat against our house.  The very ground beneath our feet is swept away by a raging torrent we didn't even know was in the making.  Boom!
     So, who is the foolish man?  The one who looks at the surroundings:  the sunny day, the heat and blue skies, and says, "This looks good.  All those words of this new Teacher, Jesus...Well, they sound good.  But, I can't relate.  I have the Law.  Good enough.  Yet, when life gets really tough, I am not even sure that God loves me, because I don't uphold all the rules and regulations..."
     Jesus knew that the very foundation of Judaism, the Temple and its system of sacrifices, would be swept away by the raging torrent, as it were, of the Roman army in 70 AD.  His listeners were going to need a stronger, more enduring foundation: not one built of stones, but one built in the heart.  The New Covenant would be written on the hearts of those who believed in Jesus, and even the severest flood could not wash Him away.  He was and still is the Rock.
     Jesus talked of false prophets, whose words and easy demands will seduce us.  They promise us an endless parade of sunny days and blue skies. 
     But Jesus hears the rainstorms in the mountains.  He hears the oncoming torrent.  He wants us to be firmly built on a rock.  He offers Himself:  His blood, which washes away our sins; His love, which reminds us we are sons and daughters of the King; and His grace, which forgives us when we are foolish. 
     Rain, wind and torrents will come, but at the end, you will be standing if you are standing on the Rock.


Saturday, March 7, 2015

God's Economy

     So, let's review.  In Matthew 13, Jesus goes to the lake, and because of the size of the crowd, he steps into a boat, and teaches them a little distance from shore.  He teaches the parable of the sower, which shows that the Word will produce a harvest, but not with everyone.  The soil of the heart must be open and ready to receive the Word, or you have crop failure.
    Soon afterwards, the disciples ask Jesus why He uses this teaching method.  He explains that the Kingdom of Heaven is being revealed to the disciples and because of the hardness of the people's hearts, the teachings will not be understood by the crowd. 
     I think He is also warning them not to harden their hearts, or they will lose the privilege of unpacking the secrets of the Kingdom.  
     He then tells them that the prophets and the righteous people of old would have loved to  have heard what the disciples are now hearing.  He tells the disciples, "But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear."
      The Hope of the Ages, the very One promised so long ago is now standing in front of the disciples.  They are blessed in ways they can't even imagine.  They are to possess "the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven."  They will walk in the very presence of the Messiah, and are learning of the Kingdom of God from God Himself.  The "Word was made flesh, and made his dwelling among us." (John 1:14)    
       Wow.  Then Jesus expounds on the meaning of the sower.  It describes perfectly how the crowd will receive His teachings:  some will not understand, and instead of seeking earnestly, the devil will show up and snatch the seed away.  Some will joyfully receive the word, and then when any conflict arises, they fall away.  Some will hear it and yet the cares of this world and its lure of wealth will cause the word to disappear in their hearts.  
      But those who hear and understand the word?  Abundance!
      Then Jesus talks about the wheat and the tares.  They look similar as they grow, but at the harvest time, it will then be evident who really walked in the ways of the Father, and whose actions were a mere cover for an uncaring and dead heart.
      See a pattern here?  Jesus is talking about sowing and reaping and what makes for a fruitful harvest.  This will happen when someone hears the Word and takes the next crucial step:  They seek with all of their heart and mind to understand it. 
     That includes the disciples as well--Jesus calls everyone to seek and find.
     Next, in Matthew 13, Jesus tells the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast:  seemingly insignificant things that will, in time, have a huge impact.  
     Then the disciples ask Jesus to explain the wheat and the tares, once Jesus left the crowd.
     Obviously, when Jesus is teaching the crowd, the disciples listen along with everyone else.  Then, when they can have a private moment, they ask Jesus the meaning of His parables.  
     Jesus says earlier that "The knowledge of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.  Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance.  Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him." (Matt. 13:11-12)
     While He is speaking of the crowds, I believe that a subtle but imperative warning is aimed at the disciples:  You will be tested with what you have learned when I go to the cross.  You will need to cling to what you have learned in order to stand tall.  You will have an abundance if you seek Me with all of your heart, let your roots go deep, and not allow anything--including death on a cross--deter you from doing what you have called to do.
     Now, Jesus switches from the insignificant--little seeds, wheat, mustard seeds and yeast-- to what everyone will agree is important:  treasure and fine pearls. 
     In God's economy, whatever you have that you use lovingly and willingly for God it what makes it valuable, no matter what the world says.  
     So, let's go to the field where a man found a treasure in verse 44.  What was he doing in that field?  He was out evaluating the parcel of land before buying it.  Was he walking around checking the quality of the soil?  Was he looking for underground water?  Was he seeing any areas that needed improving:  rocks that needed removing or burrowing animals that needed to be chased out of there?  Before he took possession, he looked carefully at what it contained. 
     But:  he was out looking...seeking and then, guess what!  Finding!  That is the key.  He didn't just buy any field sight unseen and then go his merry way.  He was looking closely at this particular field and look at what he found!  A treasure!  Someone hid it there for safe keeping, and now it's his!   But to make sure that the treasure is truly his, he reburied it, "and in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field." 
     In looking closely at what this field contained, he found something even better.  But he was looking.  
     Then he was willing to liquidate his earthly assets to obtain something far greater:  the kingdom of heaven!  Earthly things pale in comparison to heavenly riches!
     Then Jesus switches to a merchant--another seeker of valuable things--who finds a pearl of "great value."  He see a lot of pearls on his buying trips, and all sorts of other things he can potentially sell.  
     But one day, as he is looking, he finds not just any pearl, but one of "great value."  Meaning that yes, there are other pearls out there that are valuable and will compete for the merchant's money and attention.  But his eye is attuned enough to spot one far greater than the others he's seen.  He is willing to sell his inventory and with the cash, buy that one pearl.  
     He probably told the buyer to hold it for him.  He may have even given him a deposit.  But he wanted it so much that he was not willing to risk it being sold out from underneath him.  He hustles to liberate his assets and then hustles back to buy that pearl. 
     Once he's holding it in his hand, nothing else matters.  He will not miss his other possessions.  He will not miss his money or trade.  He has found what he has been searching for his whole life.
     Jesus then finishes His teaching with a net bursting with fish.  It has all kinds of fish in it.  The net was cast far and wide, to collect up as many fish as it could hold.  
     Then comes the sorting.  The good fish are put into the baskets and the bad fish are hucked away.  
      Jesus then parallels this sorting to the "end of the age."  The angels will sort the fish of humanity and those who do not possess the kingdom of God in their hearts, by accepting the Word made flesh, will go into the "fiery furnace."
     Who are the "bad fish"?  They are the ones who don't give their all to find out Who this Messiah is, and then follow Him wholeheartedly.  Their hearts are calloused by sin and they don't see anything of value coming from this Man.  They aren't willing to give up earthly things to obtain the riches of heaven, and they aren't willing to see things from God's perspective.  Yeast and seeds need time to grow and flourish, and the "bad fish" are too much in a hurry--only wanting to gratify the flesh and leaving the spirit neglected.  
    Jesus finishes His discourse with asking His disciples if they "understood all these things?"  They reply "Yes."
    Now, He says that "Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old."  (verse 52)
     Interesting.   The disciples are now being designated "teacher(s) of the law about the kingdom of heaven."  Whoa.  They are not the teachers of the law that are in the Pharisees' club...Jesus excoriates those teachers.  He is saying that with great knowledge comes great responsibility, and the disciples now bear this.  The "house" is filled with treasures, bequeathed by the Old Covenant (the Law and the Prophets) and the New Covenant, which is Jesus Himself.  
     Paul puts it this way in Romans 3:21-24: "But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus."
     Seek, ask, knock:  The Kingdom of God is for those who actively want what God has prepared for them. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Small But Mighty! The Parable of the Mustard Seed and Yeast

     I am back in the saddle!  We are just about to pass the 7th month anniversary of Clayton's heart attack and stroke.  He is doing better every day! He is driving, writing and back to his manufacturing of telescope accessories.  God is so good!
     I have felt led of the Lord to return to the parables.  I so love stories, and love Jesus' rather lavish employment of them.  We listen to stories because each one of us has a little kid inside, who wants to be delighted, surprised and engaged.  
     So, away we go!  We are going to be looking at three related parables in Matthew 13.  We've already explored in earlier blogs the parable of the sower and the parable of the weeds.  Keep those in mind as we look at these next ones.  Right after the sower and weed parables come the mustard seed and yeast parables.
     What is the common denominator of all these parables?  Something small and seemingly insignificant will become something mighty in time in the hands of a skillful individual.  
     Let's start with the "small" part.  A crop seed. A weed seed.  A mustard seed.  Yeast.  All are small without much to recommend them to the eye.  They are not shiny like precious metals, nor catch the light like beautifully cut precious stones.  They have no color to speak of: not the breath-taking blue of the sapphire,  the dance of rainbows in a diamond or the fiery red of a garnet.  
     In fact, you would not even notice them lying on the ground.  They would blend in with all the other debris in the dirt. Sand, pebbles, bits of plant matter, dust...these seeds would not even be noticeable amongst all that litters the ground.
     But wait!  Yes, they look insignificant...but what mightiness is contained in such  nondescript and wee packages.  Crop seed falls from the skillful hand of the farmer.  Does he see what we see?  We see tiny grains landing on soil--dead, inert and lifeless.  He sees a fully-flowered field of lovely wheat, blowing in the late summer wind. 
     We see seeds just lying on the ground--they all look the same.  All the seeds spring up, and even in bloom, the wheat and darnel look the same.  It is at the harvest that the difference will be evident.  In full bloom, wheat and its counterfeit, darnel (a wild, useless grass) will be seen for what they are:  food and fuel, respectively.
     Let's look now at the mustard seed--again, it is small and insignificant looking.  Set it next to a pine cone, a sycamore seed or seeds of a fig, snugly embedded in the flesh of the fruit, and it pales in the comparison.  The mustard seed looks like just more road debris.
     Jesus says, "The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field:  which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof." (Matt. 13:31-32)
     Wait a minute.  It is sown deliberately by a man.  It's not just blowing around in the wind, and happens to take root.  It is sown with an insight as to what it can be.  It looks insignificant and has nothing to recommend it when you look at it.  But the farmer knows what he is doing with the "least of all seeds."  He see a beautiful tree with strong branches, and so, he casts the seeds in faith, knowing confidently of their potential.  He sows by faith, not by sight. 
     The farmer also knows that the seeds' mightiness will only be realized in time.  Time to sow, time to grow.  The farmer has enough experience and knowledge to know when and where to plant these seeds.  The results will come from skillful hands and wisdom.  The right soil, the right amount of moisture and sunlight will all combine to produce what the farmer already sees in his mind's eye: a tree that will forever change the landscape.
     Let's switch scenes and enter into a kitchen, with a woman making bread.  (Matt. 13:33)  Jesus has emphasized wheat sowing and harvesting.  Now, here is the results of the harvest:  the ground wheat is in the hands of a skillful woman who will add yeast to make the wheat into a nourishing substance: bread.  
     The work of the farmer now enters into a kitchen, and is worked by another "farmer," if you will:  a wife.  
     The yeast is small and insignificant.  It is worked into a "large amount of flour."  The contrast is there--small seeds produce wheat, and wheat is ground into flour and now, again, a small thing is brought to bear:  yeast.  Do you notice a pattern?  Small things in skillful hands bring bigger yields and those are in turn are used again with small things to bring bigger yields.
     Wheat seeds need a farmer.  Yeast needs a baker.  Is the farmer any more significant than the seeds he sows?  Would we even notice him?  Would we even notice the woman making bread in her kitchen?  Is she any more significant than the yeast she works into the dough?  
    No.  Not to the world, anyway.  We are far more interested in celebrities, the kings and queens of our modern world, than we are by the average, everyday kind of people.
     Yet, look at the Kingdom of God and its economy:  small things, insignificant by the world's standards, become mighty.  Given enough time, with skillful hands and willing workers, the Kingdom of God can take root, providing shade and nourishment to a parched and hungry world. 
      We all have something to bring to God and partner with Him to bring about His Kingdom.  The farmer, the wife, the wheat, the our hands, not much to get excited about.  In the skillful hands of our out! 
      Jesus is in the business of taking small things—barley loaves and fish—and multiplying them to astronomical proportions for His Kingdom’s use. 1 Corinthians 2:9 tells us, “But as it is written, 'Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.'”

      He sows by love and we walk by faith, secure in the knowledge that He knows what He is doing. He is building His Kingdom and wants us to work with Him, trusting His timing. 
      Next time, we'll see how Jesus ups the ante, and instead of picking insignificant things like seeds and yeast, he picks items that the world values:  treasure, pearls and valuable money-making fish to compare the Kingdom of God to...

      An old unattractive black locust tree become a mighty perch for a bald eagle.  God's touch makes the insignificant special, and the ugly beautiful.  Give Him time to work in you.  He "has made everything beautiful in its time."  (Ecc. 3:1)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Struck by Lightning

     It has been very quiet on my blog--well over three months.  I am touched that my readers still come by and read, even though I have been out of action for a while.
    Let me ask you:  Have you ever seen a tree that has been struck by lightning?  It may be missing a branch, have burn marks and look as if it should not be standing.  Yet it is.  It is forever changed by its unintentional encounter with that jagged white-hot bolt.  No tree searches for such a strike from the heavens; it's a risk every day it stands tall in a field and storms gather above it.  It grows, produces seeds, watches the seasons change and yet, when the sky grows dark with iron-gray clouds, it stands:  facing down yet another storm.  Another year.  Another risk of being struck.
     The tree embraces the risk:  in a field where the soil and sun make it grow and prosper, is the same field where it can get hit.
    Life is no different.  The same life that brings us joy is the same life that can strike us down.
    On August 2nd, my husband suffered a heart attack.  We were watching a John Wayne movie on a Saturday night, and he said he had chest pains.  He had just spent forty minutes on the treadmill.
     Last summer, he had had an aortic valve replaced.  For a year, he had been the textbook patient:  he exercised, lost weight, watched his diet and as a result, he felt good.
     I thought his pain was perhaps from over-exertion.  He is 57 years old and sometimes overdoes the exercising.  But that night, he said not only was his chest hurting, but also his back and left arm.  He wanted to go to the ER--I opted for the urgent care, which is far closer.  I figured the sooner he was under medical supervision, the better.  We sped into urgent care, and sure enough, his heart was "all over the map"--to use the paramedic's phrase.  The urgent care people had called the paramedics almost immediately, after administering nitro-glycerine.  One of the paramedics walked out and told me that Clayton was loaded  into the ambulance and with lights and sirens a-blazing, away they went.
     I followed to the ER and he was already being rushed into surgery, to have a stent put into place for a clogged artery.  I waited and waited--hospital time is frustratingly slow.
     His cardiologist who "happened" to be in the ER that night (no coincidences exist in the Lord) came and found me in the waiting room.  He outlined the surgery's progress and then I heard a dreadful word:  "stroke."  He had suffered a stroke when a piece of calcium deposit in that aortic valve was bumped into,  broke away and went into his brain.  I felt the color drain out of my face.  He was now to be transferred into CICU.
      The enormity of the event was not yet evident--Clayton was awake and talking with the nurses.  He then called a friend.  Within 24 hours though, the stroke made its destruction known.  Clay's right side went quiet.  His speech slurred and he seemed to be fading away.  I asked the neurologist how far down he would go--she said the next 24 hours would tell us the extent of the damage.
      The next day, he seemed even further hampered.  He was trying to recite formulas from physics to show he was not mentally gone--he seemed to know something had gone wrong, but to what extent, was a mystery to us all.
     Finally, the neurologist said we were at the extent of the damage.  She showed us the MRI, which showed a light gray jumble against a dark gray landscape.  My husband's brain had been struck, if you will, by lightning.
     My brilliant husband--he has defended the 2nd Amendment with endless enthusiasm, even to having his work cited by the Supreme Court regarding the unconstitutionality of Washington DC's gun ban.  He has written seven books, all concerned with history, whether about black demographics in the US, about his ancestor's role in the Civil War, to why guns are an integral part of the US.  His last book changed directions:  he wrote passionately about the changes in mental health laws in our country, which have directly contributed to an increase of mass public shootings.
     He embraced the risk:  he has spoken out and has received much criticism about his positions, and yet he has stood tall, wanting this country to honor its Constitution and be more humane in its treatment of those who battle with mental illness.
     The same soil that nourished him, his passionate love of history, also put him at risk:  working long hours at a 9-5 job, only to then to go and teach, write articles, do research, write books and fly hither and yon to speak and defend his positions.
      The lightning struck.  The tall tree I call my husband was hit hard.
      He is now at home, after eight weeks in the hospital.  He can speak and think clearly--to God be the glory.  People who have left-brain events are usually bereft of these faculties.  Clayton is left-handed so his brain seems to be working around that part of the stroke.  But his right side is weak.  He can walk now with a cane and sometimes on his own.  His right arm is still quiet, and he finds that discouraging.  He is eagerly awaiting more physical therapy for a full recovery.
     We are walking along a new road.  We have been married 35 years in March, and this is one more challenge we will face together.  I thank the Lord for His nourishing presence in this time, how He has worked through those around us.  Our son and daughter have been wonderful--supporting us as they struggled with their own fears and suffering about their father.  Our grandbabies have been wee rays of light, with lots of pictures and "I love you's" along the way.  Our son-in-law has stood by wife as she came to visit the hospital and he came and joined us with love and concern.  Extended family sent cards and emails.  Our friends have come by and played chess, brought books and have offered prayers to our Father, Who has never left our side.
     This beloved tree was struck.  But by God's mercy, it still stands.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Three Gardens

     God created the heavens, the earth, all life and then mankind.
     Next, He put man into a garden:  "The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Now a river went out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it parted and became four riverheads...Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, 'Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.'” (Gen. 3:8-9, 15-17)

     Why in a garden?   Why not in a house?  Why not in a forest?  Why not at the seashore?  Why would God put Adam in a garden? 

 I have several sisters in the Lord who have beautiful gardens.  They lovingly plant and tend their gardens with dedication, knowing they will have beautiful strawberries, melons, lettuce, cucumbers and all sorts of wonderful things to harvest as the season rolls along.  They have to know what to plant when, and they have to keep an eye on what is growing.  They have to water the plants just so, and know how much fertilizer to apply.  They have to deal with deer who want to sample their wares.  They face an endless parade of bugs.
    When I visit their gardens, they have such joy on their faces!  They pull aside large leaves and show me baby fruits and vegetables.  They eagerly talk about what is coming to fruition and when, and what lies ahead.  It's almost like sneaking into a nursery to spy on a sleeping newborn baby.  

God put Adam in a garden to teach him the fruits (pun intended) of obedience.  The garden was an embodiment of God's ordered universe:  everything would grow and produce seed after its own kind.  Adam would tend the garden but it was God Who provided everything that Adam needed:  water from the rivers to water it; the seasons arriving each year with wind, humidity and sun to help it grow; the soil from which Adam himself sprang and from which each seedling would spring as well; and Adam's two strong hands to till the soil.  Every aspect of the process was provided for and when Adam proudly picked the bounty and ate, he could truly thank God for His care over His creation.   
     God asked one thing of Adam:  "tend and keep it."  Adam needed to be dedicated and committed to the garden.  God gave him a task and He knew it would mature Adam's character.   Our character comes when we must work for what we have--we value it more.  If we are given everything, with little to no work on our part, we start acting rather entitled to what we think is rightfully ours.  
     God wanted a mature man walking in His garden, so He gave Adam responsibility.  He loved Adam enough to provide all he needed; He wanted Adam to serve Him out of love and gratitude and demonstrate that by tending the garden.
     But we know what happened.  Adam's disobedience caused him and Eve to be driven out of the garden.  The garden was now off-limits to the sons and daughters of Adam, due to sin.

But wait...let's walk into another garden.  We see a second Adam:  the Son of God, Jesus Christ. God had given Jesus everything he needed:  the power to conduct a ministry that would impact not only his generation but future ones as well.  The Father expresses His pleasure in His Son, who left the courts of heaven to walk in the streets of an exiled humanity:  "This is My Beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased."
     God gave Jesus a task: 

     "Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!" (Phil. 2:6-8)
      The "bounty" given to the Son by the Father was: 
     "Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
(Phil. 2:9-10)
     The Father gave the Son the strength to endure the cross.  The Father loved us so much He was willing to pour all His wrath upon His Son's shoulders, even to the point where Jesus cried out, "Why have You forsaken me?"  

 The Father wanted a redeemed humanity walking in His garden--mature and responsible sons and daughters of Adam, cleansed from sin and obedient to their God. The only way He was able to achieve that was through His Son's death: "All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation." (2 Cor. 5:19-20). 
     Remember how God walked with Adam and Eve in the first garden?  Today, He is now walking with those He has redeemed, dwelling in their hearts and empowering them through the Holy Spirit.
     But a Day is coming when He will once again walk with His children, on a restored planet, in a new garden. 
     Now, let us travel to this last garden:  "Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever." (Rev. 22:1-5)    

The very tree that God feared would be eaten by a disobedient Adam and Eve, the Tree of Life, is now accessible.  Its leaves heal and its fruit of life is abundant.  
     In order for us to return to the garden, and walk with our Father, His Son had to walk in the Garden of Gethsemane.       

     Let us never forget what our restoration cost Jesus and let us till the soil with diligence and obedience, until that Day!


Saturday, July 5, 2014

If He Forgives, Why Can't I Forget?

     If God puts my sins as far as the east is from the west, then why can't I?
     If He forgives my sin, then why can't I?
     If He doesn't remember my sin, then why do I?
     All excellent questions.  I have been pondering this question.  It is a mixed blessing to be sure:  God sets me free of my sin with His love and forgiveness, yet I can remember every detail and shame floods my soul.  I would love to not remember.
     Satan uses my rap sheet of sin to remind me of how bad I have been/still am.  He parades all the sickening details of what I have done and delights in tormenting me in how low I stooped in my pursuit of sin.  He reminds me of the tears I have caused to flow and the hurt I have needlessly bestowed on others.  I cringed when he starts the movie called "This is Your Life."
     On the other hand, God doesn't even remember what I have done.  My slate with Him is completely clean: "'Come now, and let us reason together,' saith the Lord: 'though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.'" (Isaiah 1:18)
     Perfect cleansing leads to perfect righteousness in His eyes: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9)
     He wants to restore fellowship with us so much that He sent His only Son to die for us.  Sin is the wall and Jesus tore down that wall.  We need to confess--that is, acknowledge what we have done.  He already knows, but He needs to hear from us:  "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." (Psalm 51:17)
     He hates our sin, yes, but He loves us more: "But you have burdened me with your sins; you have wearied me with your iniquities.  I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins." (Isaiah 43:24-5)
     Wow.  We stand in the light of His forgiveness and love, and yet...why can't we forget?  Why must the memories torment us?  Think a minute about the words of Joseph, when after his brothers sold him into slavery, he rose in the court of Pharaoh and was able to save his family from famine: "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today." (Gen. 50:20) 
     Listen to the words of Paul, who like Joseph, was misunderstood, cast into prison and reviled: "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose." (Rom. 8:28)
     So, if we remember our sins, what is the good God tries to bring forth?  What is the beauty He brings from the ashes?  How does the garment of praise feel around our bruised spirit?  How can there possibly be joy for mourning?
     Remembering our sins:

Keeps us humble about ourselves:  It is hard to be self-righteousness when we know we have fallen prey to the same sins.  This was one of the tragedies of the Pharisees:  they were so unaware of their sins--past, present and future--that they had no humility.  They were the very opposite:  arrogant and confident in their own ability to be good, they were, in Jesus' words, "white-washed tombs filled with dead man's bones."

Keeps us from judging others: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."  (Matt. 7:1-2)  If we remember our failures, our faults, then we remember our need for mercy and how grateful we are for it.  We like to give out judgement but receive mercy.  Jesus is calling us to give out mercy and not forget that we have stood there ourselves in the shoes of sin.  If we do judge, then let the standard we use be exactly the same one we use for others. 

Keeps us dependent on Him:  Our sins remind us that we are weak, "But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me." (2 Cor. 12:9)  It's hard to deceive ourselves about how wonderfully strong and sufficient we are when we are reminded of our sins.  At that moment, we are reminded of our need for Him, in every day and in every way. 

     Notice how not forgetting our sins affects ourselves, each others and how we relate to God.  
     Now it is true that Satan will use our sins to condemn us, leading us to be paralyzed with shame.  But, we must use the sword of the Spirit:  His Word.  Jesus rebuked Satan with the Word of God.  Why do we think we can respond any differently?  
     Next time you feel harassed, speak His word against your accuser and stand on the fact that "You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world." (1 John 4:4) 
     We stand on His forgiveness and grace.  As someone once said, "When Satan reminds you of your past, remind him of his future."     
     We walk in Him with confidence:  "Be still and know that I am God." (Ps. 46:10)

As someone once said, "When Satan reminds you of your past, remind him of his future."


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