Monday, September 30, 2013

There's Power in the Parables!

     These upcoming teachings came about because of an email.
     I had not heard from my brother for 15 years.  One evening, I received an email from a woman who wanted to know if I could contact her, because my brother wanted to talk with me.  She had access to a computer, and was trying to get a hold of me on my brother’s behalf.  Then the memories came back—excruciating ones that I had tried to leave in the past and now were staring at me as I read this email…
     My brother had battled with drugs and alcohol for decades, and as a result, went through two marriages.  I was very close to his first wife and my two nieces, and my husband and I did all we could to help her when my brother chose his addiction over his family.  We even had his first wife and his daughters come live with us when he engaged in physical abuse and threats of violence towards her.  When his first wife left him, he prolonged the nightmare by sharing custody with his now ex-wife, which meant picking his daughters up in his car while intoxicated and continuing to focus on himself, to the detriment of his children.
     He eventually became homeless and lived in his car by the city’s river.
     He soon remarried, and this stormy relationship saw an arrival of another daughter.  His second wife suffered from mental illness and did everything she could to estrange my brother from his family.  He left her and went to live in his car again. 
     Sadly, his first wife remarried a man who had a criminal record which did not allow for my nieces to live in the same household, which meant my two nieces would have to live elsewhere.  Knowing that my brother was living in his car, I went and retrieved my two nieces and they came to live with us.  One of the daughters went to live with another aunt, and eventually, the younger daughter went back home to live with her mother.  The parole board had said it was alright to do so, and we felt that our nieces belonged with their mother, even if she had made a poor choice of a second husband.
     That was back in 1996, and my last contact with my brother was listening to him say that his children were not his problem.  He laughed as I pleaded over the phone for him to be responsible.  I hung up the phone, shocked and amazed at his utter repudiation of his children and I lost what little respect I had for him that day. 
      Now I was faced with an email:  my brother, after 15 years, wanted to reestablish contact with me.  The email also included a number of an elderly woman who offered to talk with me before I contacted him.  I thought that was best—I wanted to understand what had transpired before I talked with her.  I called her and she sweetly explained that after my brother’s second marriage had failed, he became homeless again, and ended living by the river.  My brother had become mentally ill and through the love and kindness of many, he received the medial treatment he needed and a place to live.  She was very proud of his progress and that he meant a lot to her. 
     Wow.  I labored along and hard in my mind about what to do.  I could still hear his laughter in my head and the pain of what he put his first wife and daughters through in my heart.  Then after spending time in prayer, it hit me:  the parable of the Prodigal Son.  I was the older brother in that parable:  angry, spiteful and very hurt, glad that my brother was doing better, yet fighting the urge to throw the past into his face and say, “Look what you did to us!”  So, I realized that parable was a not just story told by Jesus to illustrate truth: It is a story that I am now living.  This is what gave rise to this idea:  there’s power in the parables!   
     The parables are relational:  stories about us and God, and about us and others.  Just as the Ten Commandments boiled righteous living down as how we conduct ourselves before God and with our fellow man, these parables enrich our thinking in the same way, and answer some fundamental questions:  What am I to do with this person, in this situation, and how does God see this?  
     The parables of Jesus are a great “stop light” to our speeding pace through our lives:  We can stop, think and consider that we may need a change of direction.
     Why did Jesus use this teaching method?  A parable, in a strict definition, is "a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson."  Jesus' parables were that but they were more:  Jesus used parables that demanded that His listeners contemplate what they heard.  In Matthew 13:10-17, He says:

10The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
11 He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:
Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
15 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’
16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it."

     Huh?  Is Jesus purposely trying to be obscure?  Ask yourself first:  Why do hearts become calloused?   Answer:  It is the hardening effect of sin and a life lived in rebellion to God that does it.  No, it doesn't mean you are running around killing people--a heart hardens under arrogance, insensitivity and neglect.  We stop listening to God's voice and close our eyes to His grace.  We grow blind to our need for Him.  God wants us to listen to such parables and instead of saying, "Oh bother.  I don't get it.  It must not be all that important or I'd get it right off.  Never mind." He wants us to say:  "Lord:  I don't get it.  Help me understand.  If You said it, it must be important."
    Bingo!  Parables separate those who care enough to wonder what it means from those who don't care and won't take the time to understand.  God will never invade our thoughts...He wants us to ask Him in and seek His face.  Parables take time to understand, and if my heart is hardened, I won't take the time and lose out on what He has for me.
    Jesus explained the parables to the disciples once the crowds dispersed.  But even after awhile, He grew weary with their constant questioning.  Why?  He wanted them to ponder the stories and allow the Holy Spirit to illuminate their thoughts.  
    Jesus wants us to spend time at His feet--not running off to read some commentary or ask someone else.  He is faithful to show us if we are faithful to show up. 
   Jesus says, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." (Matthew 7:7)
     Those are very active verbs:  ask, seek, knock.  We engage and He will respond.  That's what this new series is all about.  Join me!
This sharp-shinned hawk is ever vigilant in his search for prey, which sustains him.  How can we do anything less but be vigilant for the One Who sustains us?

For more posts in my parable series, click here.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Heaven, Hell and Other Life-Affirming Things

     I have been thinking about death lately.  Having just lost a friend and now another friend has informed me of her husband's passing, it is just one of those subjects that is a little hard to ignore.  I thought about the unfairness of death--how it takes those we love away from us.  I came up with "The Unfairness of Death List."  Here goes:

1.  Life is like jumping from a plane with no parachute.  It's exhilarating at first...with the wide blue sky above and the earth far below.  But, as you get older/closer, you realize, hey, there’s no parachute and then comes the big splat—nothing.
2.  Mr. Job of the Old Testament.  He suffers utter loss:  everyone and everything is gone.  His suffering is tremendous and his loss horrible.  How could you not just sit under a tree with him and simply weep?
3.  Life is quite like that cruise ship that sank awhile back.  Everyone plans to have a good life, gets ready and sets sail.  Then this cruise ship ran aground and sank, killing the passengers.  The ones who survived felt (among other things) totally misled:  this was to be a glorious time; instead, many perished.  Life can feel as if we have been gypped.  Duped.  Betrayed.
4.  Death is like a criminal.  It is the ultimate thief:  you set up a beautiful house, reputation, wealth, only to have death break in and steal it.  Jesus observed the irony of placing too much emphasis on things that can be destroyed: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."  (Matthew 6:19-21)
5.  Life is not a cabaret, old chum.  Think of the wealthy people who spend a lifetime acquiring money, sometimes to do real good in the world.  Ted Turner owns 20% of American bison on his huge estate in Wyoming.  He is trying to preserve this important part of our nation's history.  But:  all of that wealth will be gone the day he dies.  How unfair it is to work your whole life, only to walk out with nothing.  My father, who grew up rather poor, spent his whole life trying to get ahead, only to die of cancer.  
6.   Those who die leave us alone.  We will never see our loved ones again.  What?  Our relationships are so important and is that really the end?  To see those we love only to turn to dust?  What if we cannot be by the bedside and say good-bye?  Or there is no body to bring home, mourn and then bury?  Unfair, unfair, unfair.

     Now, let's think about Hell.  How unfair! Wait a minute, though...what if there was NO hell?  
1.  What about those who escape earthly justice?  Hitler killed himself in his bunker before the Russian troops got to where he was.  Himmler, his right hand man, killed himself as well, thereby avoiding trial.  What about these mass shooters who will never go court, having been shot down in a gun battle with police?  The rapist who goes to trial but is not convicted for lack of evidence?  The child molester who never gets caught and then dies...leaving behind an emotional debris trail of broken lives and murdered innocence?  Death for these folks is a kind of escape, away from the judgment of our law.  

     Now, let's think about if there was NO heaven.
1.  Where do the innocent go?  1.3 million children perished in the Holocaust.  Millions have died in abortion, famines, disease, murder and neglect.  It is unfair when a child is buried by a parent.  That is not the order of things.  
2.  It is hard to let someone go, but if you truly believe you will never see them again, would some of us not be as invested in the ones we love?  Our attachment would be limited because our time with them would be limited?
3.  Someone dies in agony.  That's it.  They checked off the planet in pain, only to go into the cold ground.  They are beyond our comfort and the cold earth is inhospitable.  My grandmother did fairly well at the funeral of my grandfather, until after the funeral was over, the caretakers started lowering his casket into the ground.  She burst into tears, fearing it would be too cold for him in the ground.  Her children led her away from the cemetery in tears.

     OK:  let's turn this around.  The very presence of heaven and hell affirm life here.  I contend that without them, life's unfairness is far too overwhelming to contemplate for very long.  Let's see how hell affirms life here and later on:
1.  God doesn't send people to hell.  It's a choice that they have made.  If someone doesn't love God here, why would He grab that person at their death and force them to live with Him forever?  It would be a kind of divine rape:  violating the heart of someone who didn't want to be with God on earth but has to endure Him for eternity is appalling.  Love by definition cannot be forced, and God will not force Himself on us.  Hell is the place people choose to go by their beliefs and the behaviors that result.  They lived a life without God here and thus they will live an eternal life without Him there.
2.  For those who escaped earthly judgement will find a Higher Court of Law is in session.  The judgment will be fair and impartial because the Judge is that way.  No technicalities, no dream team of lawyers working the system for the benefit of the defendant.  God Himself will be the standard:  fiercely loving but fiercely just.

     How does heaven affirm life here and later on?
1.  The blind will see, the lame will walk.  There are no wheelchairs in heaven.  Completely restored, free to laugh, dance and sing, all pain and agony there forgotten, we cannot help but rejoice for those who leave.  
2. The children will gather around Jesus and He will bless them. He blessed them here without reservation; there will be no different: "But Jesus said, 'Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.'" (Matthew 19:14)  Jesus' lap is big enough for all.
3.  We will see our loves ones again.  But there is a "but"--they need to know Jesus.  This means we will invest not only our love in them but we will pray, share and encourage them about the life to come.  We will raise our children with eternity in mind; we will "preach the Gospel at all times, using words only when necessary."  Life is precious and so is eternity.  
4.  When death takes away our loved ones, we say, "Until we meet again."  We won't say, "Good-bye."

     Now, what about heaven?  Heaven is a place of praise. Why? "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21:4). All our needs are met, no tragedy to pray through—our lives are now truly centered in just Him. That’s why death-bed confessions don’t bother Jesus—it is better to launch into an eternity with Him, than live a full life and then leave it for an eternity without Him. 
     Heaven and hell affirm life: life has more in store than just what is on this planet.  Suffering will be over, justice will be served, and fairness will reign over all:  "I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life."  (Rev. 21:22-27).

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Weeds 101

     I spent almost an hour and a half pulling weeds this evening.  It has grown cooler recently in the mountains, and I enjoyed being out in the sunshine and the wind.  Unfortunately, once I got started, I didn't realize how long it would take me.  A lot of weeds had sprung up recently, and the rains we have had certainly didn't help.
     While I was pulling weeds, I had quite a bit of time to think about them.  Funny, isn't it?  When you are doing a task, it is easy to either think about other things, or the task at hand.  I decided that weeds had some lesson to teach me--they are mentioned in the Bible and clearly have some kind of application.  So, here is what I have learned from our uninvited guests.

1. Weeds are not part of God's original design.
     They result from the curse and if you have a garden, you have no doubt of this truth. Because of Adam's choice to disobey God, weeds are invaders to God's Creation. God says to Adam:  “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’
“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.'" (Genesis 3:17-18)
Weeds are a constant reminder of Adam's choice to sin against God.  As Adam's sons and daughters, we are not allowed to forget that sin came into the world through disobedience.  
2.  Weeds are part of the soil and their seeds are everywhere.  They serve to remind us that sin is as well.
     Sin, once it entered the Creation, permeates everything.  A day doesn't go by without something terrible happening.  Historians say that in 4,500 years of man's history, there has only been a total of 200 years of peace.  So, conflict and war, murder and mayhem, suffering and sadness seem to be everywhere and affect everyone.   
     As Paul observes, "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time." (Rom. 8:22).  We feel the weight of sin as well as Creation itself. 
3.  We may not constantly plant weeds, yet they show up all the time.  
     We may not engage in particularly bad sins, yet we are never free from sin's pull, either.   Maybe we are tempted all the time and yet wonder why we are so afflicted.  Sin is part of who we are and the sooner we recognize this, the sooner we know we need a Savior:  "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).
4.  We ignore the little sins and worry about the big ones, forgetting that all sins start small.
     I was tempted only to pull out only the large weeds.  They were the most ugly and obvious.  The little ones are hardly noticeable, and yet, where did I think the big ugly ones came from? 
     Any sin in our lives needs to be pulled.  It is far easier to walk away from a sin with a tiny root, than to pull out a well-established one.  In fact, the well-established weeds had sharp thorns or sticky sap that made them hard to pull out and they hurt my hand as I did so.  So, I tried to get all the little ones as well.  
     The deepest roots should be Christ in us, not sin.   "So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ."  (Col. 2:6-8).
5.  Weeds thrive on the same things that plants thrive on:  water, sun and soil.
     Sin doesn't just happen.  It needs to be watered (we act on it), it needs sun (we give it our attention and time) and it needs soil (we allow it to grow, thinking we can leave it be at any time).  Of course, weeds are a counterfeit plant--some even look nice and yet will not only take over other plants, but destroy them.  Sin is a counterfeit joy--it looks nice and we are deceived into thinking we are in control.  Not so-- the weed of sin  eventually chokes off the life within us and sometimes we realize how deceived we are, after much damage.   
     But that is why God sent His Son:  to remind us that we cannot weed our own garden:  "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."  (Ephesians 2:8-10).
     In order to have a healthy garden or to keep our yard looking nice, we need to keep watch over the weeds.  Sin is no different:  without an admission of our need for a Savior and an everyday dependence on Him, we can too soon forget how nasty sin's weeds are and how quickly they take over.
     One final note:  Idaho has truly one of the nastiest weeds on the planet.  They are called Puncture Weeds or Goat Head Weeds.  They are ground creepers and spread out very quickly.  They have these very evil seeds that will puncture a bicycle tire or your foot.  You can't just reach down and pull them out because the seeds really hurt your hand.  I had to rake them and cut them right at the base of the stem.  I then used the rake to drag them over the side of a small embankment on our property.  
     My point?  No one will ever celebrate the goat head weed.  And yet today, sin is being celebrated as worthy of our attention and imitation.  Each generation has its obvious goat heads--those things that we were taught vigorously to avoid.  Sadly today, the most harmful weeds are being promoted as "transgressive" and "edgy."  But a goat head by any other name will puncture your skin and cause pain.  Sin by any other name will destroy and leave a scattering of broken lives in its wake.   
     Remember:  Satan will never advertise sin as slavery.  He promotes it as freedom.  God's Word is our field guide to sin and we must never doubt God loves us enough to tell us to avoid even the most beguiling of weeds.  This is the goat head weed as it starts out:  kind of lovely, huh?

This is what the goat head will put forth later on as it grows.  This is when the goat head reveals its true self.  Sin is no different.
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