Thursday, December 24, 2020

America: The New Rome

We have been looking at loss and suffering--very germaine topics in today's world.  Let's look at America for a moment. 

One argument against Jesus being the long-awaited Messiah is peace did not come to the world when He arrived nor when He left.  

People still went to war, committed atrocities and destroyed everything in their path.  

People persecuted each other and always found some group to blame for their woe, leading to all sorts of terrible behavior.

People's attitudes towards God, each other, the planet and morality have waxed and waned, with some problems being solved while others were created.

So, what difference did it make that Jesus came?

Well, look at America right now.  God has been removed from every corner of public life. The songs played in stores at Christmas time are entirely secular, with an occasional carol thrown in, but that is quite rare.  (If I hear "Last Christmas" or "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" one more time, I may not be responsible for my actions. Insert smiling emoji here.) We protested having the Ten Commandments removed from a park in Boise several years ago.  Boise, Idaho, is not exactly a haven for liberal thought, and yet the monument was taken out.

Back when my kids were little, about 30 years go, the city I lived in, in northern California, passed an ordinance that prohibited the singing of any carols that mentioned "Jesus" in them.  When one kindergartener asked to sing "Silent Night," the music teacher retorted that it was "illegal."  I am not making this up--I was sitting in my daughter's class that day and watched this woman silence a little girl's request. 

I was born in 1960.  AD, not BC.  I went to school in California, where, at Christmas time, we played with dreidels, sang "Hanukkah, O Hanukkah," had a Christmas tree in the class room, ate Christmas cookies and learned how to sing "Silent Night, Holy Night" in German. 

God was an unseen presence in our country, where going to church was important, not swearing was equally as important and being kind was expected of everyone.  Did everyone follow Christian morality and its values?  Of course not.  But God was still there, looking out for us.  Maybe a kind of divine Policeman, who expected us to be good whenever and wherever we could.

My dad was a virulent racist and one angry hombre.  My mom was an alcoholic.  My brother was a sneaky violent young man, who got involved in drugs at a very young age, so no, we were not the Cleaver family, and Father didn't always know best.  We stopped going to church when we were very young.  But God was still there, in the culture, in the larger picture, even if my parents didn't reflect knowing Him in their daily lives.

When I was little, we celebrated the birth of Jesus and sang Christmas carols about Bethlehem, three kings and a little baby in our home and in our culture.  

Yet over the decades, God has been marginalized a little more every year.  Usually diversity, not favoring any religion or not wanting to offend others has been the reason, and so nativities, monuments and overt references to God have gone the way of the buffalo.  

If Christianity is mentioned now, it's usually in disparaging terms--anti-this or that, or responsible for all societal ills.

So, look at America now, with God having been removed from the culture: Angry protestors take to streets to burn, kill and destroy.  Lawlessness in the new law, and the police are told to stand down.  Respect?  Nah--that's just an old Aretha Franklin song.  Name-calling, false accusations, half-truths and constant bashing of certain groups is an everyday occurrence now.  Now even our election process, our democracy, is in jeopardy.  Wow.

I have watched God be removed from public over the last 50 years, and our society has not improved.  In fact, it's far worse.

Jesus came to bring a light to a dark empire, where blood sports, infanticide, child marriage and homosexuality, infidelity, and slavery were part of the everyday way of doing life.  

Without Jesus and what He brought--a value of loving God, ourselves and our neighbor, darkness would still be our everyday, every decade, every millennium.  

I am watching America return to a pre-Christian place, a kind of new Roman empire. We need Jesus to come and bring His light into our lives even more than ever, into our culture, into our leaders, whether in church or in the public sphere. 

A society where the self is god is going to be ugly, for the self is ugly.  Jesus brought us hope for a new self, one where God's love and law is written on the heart.

America is standing at the crossroads.  We can either rock around the Christmas tree, or follow the star to a Baby whose life will change ours. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

On the Brink of Loss

I grew up during the Cold War.  The US and the former Soviet Union were engaged in a deadly dance of what was called "brinksmanship."  How close could we get to an all-out nuclear war?  Could we pull back from the brink in time?  Then you add the policy of MAD--Mutual Assured Destruction.  So, the idea went, if we did not pull back in time, and we went to war, we would bomb each other so effectively, that there would be no winning.  Both countries would be refuse dumps.  If anyone did survive, the world would be enveloped in a perpetual nuclear winter and to quote REM: "It's the end of the world as we know it."

Was it that very idea of a war with no winners and a decimated planet that kept us perched on the brink, not venturing out because the cost was too high?  We were humbled by Trinity, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Russia's "Tsar Bomba" with a projected yield of 100 megatons.  100 megatons.  If that doesn't keep you from getting too bellicose with your enemy, nothing will.  

So, despite the threat of nuclear war, I grew up in a world where the possibility existed but didn't happen, because the outcome was just too horrendous.  

The prospect of what humans had created actually made us stop and think that deployment was a death warrant writ large for humanity.  

So when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, I breathed a sigh of relief along with the rest of the world.  As a little kid, I heard my mom tell of a TV repairman who came to our house and told her that he and his wife had made it "over the wall."  I didn't comprehend what that meant as a six-year-old, but as an adult, the wall tumbling down, like a modern Jericho, meant we were done living on the brink.

But I have seen another kind of war--a war again with brinkmanship.  How close can we come to sharing the gospel without driving the person away?  In other words, we don't actually go to war over someone's soul--we just lure them into church with a culturally relevant service, with a worship team's musical effort duplicating a rock concert and a pastor that is hip, up to date and tells stories and makes jokes.  We will talk about Jesus more as a Life Coach--someone who wants you to live your best life.  

Don't talk about the yucky bits--hell, eternity apart from God and how Jesus had to die to secure our salvation.  The early church talked about His death, burial and resurrection--for that was earth- and heaven-shaking news.  But I have sat in enough churches that are seeker-friendly and in their effort to keep people coming back, the gospel is preached, but the overall message is filled with lots of funny stories, props and video clips, to soften that hard label of "sinner." 

So, this brinksmanship of not offending the culture but trying to preach Jesus but don't drive people away but people need Jesus but if they don't come back they won't get saved but don't emphasize hell and maybe put away the offensive cross from the front of the church but sing songs with concert lighting and smoke machines to create an experience but keep the message light and make people feel welcomed but avoid those hard-hitting Biblical passages get it.

But having been on the brink for a while, we see a lot of churches and a lot of Christians who are focused on themselves.  I knew I was in trouble in a previous church when we changed the name from "worship service" (focus on God) to "Sunday experience" (focus on self).  The pastoral staff was sincere, but every Sunday, we stood on the brink.  Yes, Jesus was preached but we never said or did anything that would make anyone feel that the gospel was confrontational.  The main campus pastor even used a stuffed bear up on an altar to discuss what a sacrifice was.  I think.  I was so horrified at the lack of sensitivity to the sacred I really don't remember.  

So, standing on the brink of just enough Christianity to call ourselves Christians reminds me of what Jesus confronted when He began His ministry.  

He was appalled at what the religious leaders had done to His Father's faith.  The Law was drowned in minutiae of how little a person could get away with and still be obedient.  The leaders had cozied up with the Romans so they could operate the Temple with little to no interference.  The people were  burdened with no hope or consolation from the faith in the One True God, because the leaders misrepresented what God demanded of His people.  

Their brinksmanship led the leaders to crucify the very Servant that Isaiah extolled in order to keep the Romans at bay:  

"But some went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the leading priests and Pharisees called the high council together. “What are we going to do?” they asked each other. “This man certainly performs many miraculous signs. [Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead] If we allow him to go on like this, soon everyone will believe in him. Then the Roman army will come and destroy both our Temple and our nation.”

Caiaphas, who was high priest at that time, said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about! You don’t realize that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.” (John 11:46-50)

The leaders' policy of brinksmanship prevailed a while until 70 AD, when everything the leaders thought was important was destroyed by the very people they had sought to accommodate all those years before.

We dodged the bullet of an all-out nuclear exchange.

The Jews did not dodge the bullet of the Roman empire's fury.

We have stood on the brink for a long time now, accommodating the culture under the pretext of making Christianity relevant.  What do we have now?  Churches that are branded, packaged, streamed and extol rockstar pastors who get people in and keep 'em in--that bigger is blessed and pleasing to God.  Right?

Who, on the other side, is playing the part of the Soviet Union, as it were.  It's an increasingly hostile culture in America towards Christians and their "intolerant" views on Biblical teachings.  The litmus test on whether or not a church person (pastor, singer, teacher) will be acceptable is their position on homosexuality and transgender issues.  If we are vague enough or accommodating enough, we get to go on talk shows, as if that is the highest achievement we can have as modern American Christians.  Woe to someone who stands on the Word without compromise, as Jesus did.

He paid dearly for His intransigence against the prevailing culture of His day as to what was acceptable. 

We are to be messengers, upholding the Word of God with no apologies or back pedaling.  But we are not willing to pay the cost.  Hence, we continue to stand on the brink of truth of the gospel. 

The culture glares at us from the other side.  

The Jewish leadership sadly found out that you cannot sustain accommodation with the values of the world.  At some point, the culture will demand that Christians choose.

I don't know what the bullet that is coming will be, but I don't think we will dodge it. 

Friday, December 4, 2020

Redemption's Operation

I am sure that everyone, in one way or another, is suffering.  I am positing that this planet is a war zone, and like all war zones, suffering is all too common, and kindness is shown far too infrequently, given the magnitude of the suffering.  

"The Diameter of the Bomb" captures how suffering afflicts not just those nearest an event but how it ripples out and touches more and more people.  The poem is by Yehuda Amichai, a modern Israeli poet.

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making a circle with no end and no God.

Isn't that we reaction we all have, as the pain rolls out and we suffer more and more, that God is either outside the circle of our suffering or perhaps He doesn't even exist?  Circles are measurable--their diameters--yet suffering defies basic geometry and having made the circle so big, is it possible that even God cannot be in it or is beyond it?

God cannot be measured; if He is defies space and time in His majesty, how can He be unaware of what we are going through in space and time? 

I used the analogy of the D-Day invasion that God did leave the eternal courts of heaven, and stepped into space and time.  He wrapped Himself in flesh and blood, narrowing His circle down to one human being: a poor carpenter's son from Nazareth.  

His birth was both celebrated and condemned.  From the East, three kings appeared at the door of a humble house with gifts fit only for a king.  Another king, in a jealous rage, ordered his men to appear at the door of every house in Bethlehem, and search out all baby boys.  The streets under that star were filled with wailing and that star was reflected in small pools of blood.

That Baby's entrance into this war zone was marked by the murder of innocent children.  His cousin would be executed years later; His followers would be executed themselves.  He, too, would fall under the murderous gaze of the authorities, and would die a hideous death.  

You step onto the shores of planet Earth and you step into sin, atrocity and death.  Sin is well fortified here, just as the Germans were on the beaches of Normandy.  The beaches were lined with German embankments and the Allies were mowed down on what became known as The Longest Day.  As these soldiers disembarked, they knew that they would most likely die.  Yet, they stepped off those landing crafts anyway.  10,000 did die.  But they kept coming, moving up the beach and coming down out of the sky behind enemy lines. 

That is what Good does.  It steps off the landing craft and goes into the chaos with only one goal: victory.  Evil cannot be partially conquered; it must be utterly removed.  Good keeps on coming despite whatever Evil throws at it.  

Jesus knew that redeeming this sin-zone, war-zone planet would be costly.  The destruction is so widespread that no one escapes it--Jesus included.  Evil's fortifications were everywhere, starting with the murder of those Bethlehem boys.  

Jesus' healing ministry put Hell on notice that such evil had an expiration date.  Demons throwing children into the fire, women selling their bodies, disfigured lepers, sons lying in coffins, daughters dying on cots in poor homes, greedy tax collectors, corrupt religious leaders, decadent kings, amoral governors, rapacious insurrectionists--all were present on God's "D-Day"--the Son landed and He would fight to the end to bring about a final conquering of sin and death.

But Jesus didn't direct this redemption operation from a bunker far away from the battle lines.  He Himself was on the front lines: He drove out demons;  He forgave broken women; He raised those sons and daughters from death; He enlisted tax collectors; He decried corrupt religious leaders; He stood in front of kings and governors; His life was swapped for an insurrectionist and He died a criminal's death, having personally committed no crime. 

Our suffering results in loss--of friends, family, children, peace of mind and security.  We are appalled at just how far the enemy reaches into our lives and into our circle.  

Jesus experienced loss, over and over again.  Having sacrificed Himself to paid the wages of humanity's sin and having risen from the dead, He now truly knows what it means to suffer as a human being.  

Knowing how evil operates on this planet--without cessation and without mercy--He stepped on the shores of our Normandy anyway.  He knew He would die.  His Father told Him so as He bid heaven good-bye.  His Torah told Him: sacrificial death is required to reconcile a sinful people to Almighty God. Isaiah told Him: The Suffering Servant would be so disfigured by sin's fury that we would not even recognize Him.

But He came anyway.

This, for me, puts suffering into perspective.  I will not blame God--that is tantamount to blaming the Allies for World War II, not Hitler and his evil minions.

I will not say God ordained the evil or allowed it--that is tantamount of saying the Allies watched and allowed Hitler free rein, and while they could have stopped him at anytime, they did not. (Yes, I know.  The failure of the US to respond earlier to Hitler proved to be catastrophic--the US could have intervened much earlier but because of the isolationism resulting from World War I, it stayed out only until Pearl Harbor was bombed.  Yes, I know: The US provided the Allies with war materiel before we actually stepped in, but our overwhelming manpower could have made a difference earlier on--a kind of manpower blitzkrieg back on the Nazis before they became so entrenched.)

Don't we have contempt for nations that stand by and do nothing, when evil is released and those nations that could intervene do not?  Why then do we ascribe that same callous lack of intervention to God, all in name of His sovereignty?   

Jesus' mission, to rescue us from sin and death, tells us that our planet needed rescue from those very things:

  • "He gave his life to free us from every kind of sin, to cleanse us, and to make us his very own people, totally committed to doing good deeds." (Titus 2:14)
  • When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

    'Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?'

    The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Cor. 15:54-58)

I highlighted that last portion to encourage us in these days where suffering seems relentless and loss abounds.   

We have Suffering Servant who stands beside us, and says, "Yes. I know.  I suffered deeply while I was here.  I overcame.  So shall you, because I did and I now live in you."

Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Bookends of Suffering: Calvinsim and Prosperity Gospel

I am delving into the matter of suffering.  No one voluntarily enrolls in the School of Job.  We walk past its gate, hoping our name is not called to come in and sit down.  As soon as suffering invades our lives, we are not any different than our founding father of the human race, Adam.  We engage in blame.  Look how Adam and Eve responded to God's inquiry (He knew about them having eaten the fruit on the tree) and how they will not take personal responsibility for their actions:

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Gen. 3:8-13)

Our need to blame is driven by a deep fear: the fear of exposure, a glaring light shining right into our shame.  It's not just the guilt we are feeling--guilt results from knowing that we have done something wrong.  Shame results from believing we are past redemption; no good; worthless and one big mistake.  No one wants to feel that way, so we submerge that shame under blaming someone or something, redirecting that glaring light elsewhere. 

Adam blamed God and Eve:  He gave Eve to him and she was the one handing him the fruit.  Eve, unwilling to stand in the light, blamed the serpent.

Nothing has really changed since that day when God shines His light into our lives and our lies, and we immediately redirect the attention elsewhere.  Adam blamed God.  We blame God.  We reason that because He is in charge of the universe, His hand must be involved in whatever takes place, whether good or bad.  In fact, we even created a theology that if examined carefully, have God aiding and abetting felonies on a truly horrendous scale and quite often.

I have had friends throughout the years who are Calvinists.  I am wary of adhering to any -ist or -ism with a human name in front of it as a theological lens, but I have enjoyed conversing with my friends who are -ists.  

Many years ago a pastor friend of mine loaned me a book on Calvinism, hoping I would see the light.  One sentence struck me like a thunderbolt: The author thanked God he was not born a Hottentot (the beleaguered South Africans whose lives were made miserable by European apartheid), implying that God had ordained him to be white and in control.  I was shocked.

Another friend said to me in all sincerity, speaking of her closet friend who had been raped when she was four, "So-and-so has had a hard time accepting that God had ordained her rape."  What?

So if God is in control, everything that occurs on this planet is ordained by Him.  Rape of children.  The Holocaust.  Name your 20th century genocide.  Serial killings.  The list goes on and one, and in their effort to acknowledge God's sovereignty, such believers step right into Adam's shoes,  placing God at the scene of the crime, and His complicity in it.

One day, I was invited by this friend to a play celebrating Martin Luther and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  The play consisted of Luther debating the Pope. (Not historical in fact, but oh well.)  Of course, the pastor as Luther got all the great lines, and the woman's son was the Pope, barely able to stand up under the machine-gun fire responses wrought by Luther. (Kind of an odd morality play to watch in this day and age.)  

After the play was over, as we booed the Pope and clapped for Luther (I refrained), the pastor asked the audience if we had any questions.  I asked him why Luther had descended into a virulent antisemitism in his later years, even to the point of suggesting that Jews should be locked inside their synagogues and burned.  He said that was a regrettable position that Luther had taken.  Hmmm. Later I approached him privately and asked him if he knew about the judensau on many Lutheran churches in Germany, and how there is a debate whether to leave them in tact to teach history, or remove them, due to their highly offensive nature.  He didn't now about them, and when I explained that carved into stone on these churches' wall is a Jew sucking milk from a pig's teat, he looked horrified.  

In this church's effort to celebrate the theology of Calvin and Luther, they had to sneak past history and human suffering very quickly, to get to the intellectually satisfying position that God is in control and ordains everything that happens to us. 

It is very comforting to say, "God willed this."  Or equally say, to the person who is reeling in a tragedy, "God ordained this."  On other words, the fear that our suffering has no meaning and that terrible things happen on this planet randomly, is an abhorrent idea to people who love God and want Him to be in control.  Their fear drives them to ascribe to God culpability for everything, even if it means having Him preside over the rape of a child.    

I am sure some of you will be offended at how much I have reduced Calvinism and Lutheranism. But theology in the seminary is not where the average person lives and breathes, and sweeping dogmatic statements implicating God in criminal behavior needs to be confronted. Yes, both reformers had some good insight into the Bible, but those who have inculcated their views into a daily way of seeing how God works has left me deeply saddened.

But wait!  There's more.  John Piper has identified prosperity gospel as American Christianity's biggest import and is very upset by that.  He feels that it misrepresents the Gospel and when this theology fails, people will move away from God altogether.  I respect him for that.  (Yes, I know he is a Calvinist.  I can still learn from him, even if I disagree with his theological lens.)  The Third World is awash in prosperity gospel preachers, and its appeal is understandable.  The fear your life is ordained, with all of its pain and suffering, is not very appealing, especially when the future looks as bleak as the present.  God's ordaining of your suffering may give it meaning, yes, but in the long run, such a life has little hope in it.  So, what is the answer to suffering?  Instead of placing the responsibility on God, prosperity gospel teachers teach that you haven't yet applied the Laws of Prosperity!  Your suffering comes from your ignorance and now, all you must do is exert your faith and access God's wealth.  Of course, the best way is to tithe money into such a church and God will multiply it over and over for you!  You just need to exert your faith, BOOM! Wealth, health and a prosperous life are yours!

So, according to this theology, your faith is the antidote for suffering.  God ordains, in this theology, a life blessed beyond measure, especially in the material realm, where we live.  So hunger, disease, poverty and suffering are just a big cosmic misunderstanding, and once enlightened, heaven comes down to earth via our faith! 

You may be thinking at this point, Wow, Rhonda, isn't this a bit unfair?  Boiling down a response to suffering as believing either God ordained it or we have the power to change it with our faith--isn't that being a bit reductive? 

No.  I don't think so.  The American church is replete in prosperity theology and our megachurches are awash in its teaching, in some form or another. Many of the Calvinists I have talked to see their theology as a way to strike back at the prosperity gospel, by putting God back on His sovereign throne.  They eagerly want to pull down what they see is presumption parading as faith and toss it in the trash heap.  They agree that God wants our faith, but ultimately, even if we have all the faith in the world, if our child is sick and is going to die, because God wills it, our faith will not have any impact.  The Calvinists revile this faith in faith way of thinking, and the prosperity types don't want a God that doesn't want the best for them in this world, not just in the world to come. 

In this time we are going through, with Covid-19 on the rampage (despite our overwhelming desire to bring back the normal, by not wearing masks and sitting in church) we are faced directly with suffering and we want to cope with it.  Meaninglessness only lasts so long; no one wants to sit and their cosmic lunch alone.  For us to endure suffering in life, we want a meaningful explanation, one that gives us hope and encourages us to face another day.  

I am hoping as we explore suffering, to offer a model that was inspired by a scene in the series, Band of Brothers.  

One of the soldiers, who has driven ahead of the company, is rushing back to tell the sergeant that he needs to come and see something.  The sergeant wants to know what the soldier has seen, but the soldier just can't seem to explain it.  The company pulls up to a barbed wire fence, where gaunt, skeletal men slowly come up to the fence, in stripped uniforms.  The sergeant wants to know what's going on; one of the soldiers, who speaks German, is trying desperately piece together what the inmates are telling him.  More and more people gather and the stench of the camp invades the senses of the soldiers.  They have no idea what they have found, for this is no Geneva Convention guided POW camp; something is horribly wrong, and the Americans who have arrived are completely dumbfounded as to what they are seeing.

We know.  We want to reach in and tell the soldiers this is the real war that Hitler wanted: the utter elimination of the Jewish people.  The D-Day invasion, of which these soldiers have been a part, was only part of the war effort.  But as one soldier realizes, who earlier had been complaining about why they have been fighting so hard, this is why:  to stop this unspeakable evil.  He gets it and at the end, so do we.  This was truly a crusade to stop not just a war but the wholesale slaughter of humanity.

Now, the model that I will be exploring is one of our planet as being one big war zone, with unspeakable evil occurring daily.  The planet was invaded by an evil when Adam and Eve handed it over to the enemy, who had promised them so much and who then gave them a legacy of evil and destruction.  His job, from the moment Adam and Eve took that apple from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, instead from the Tree of Life (God's wisdom and ways) was to "steal, kill and destroy." (John 10:10)

Jesus stepped into this war zone to retake the planet, one soul at a time.  Suffering is an intrinsic part of war zones.  We will examine how suffering is part of this planet, pure and simple, and the hope is in Jesus and how we follow Him through the chaos.  

Stick with me. 



Saturday, November 14, 2020

Enrolling in the School of Job

Why do people suffer?  This question has rang down the ages like a cry in the dark that will not stop.  Every generation, from Adam and Eve crying over their dead son, Abel, to the survivors of genocide, and everyone in between, have asked that question.  Sometimes, the heavens are silent, as if God wants us to leave a message and the time that we called, and He will get back to us.

It's a legitimate question with no easy answers.  But recently, I have been compelled to ask it and seek those answers.  In fact, it is that very question that drove me into the arms of Jesus.

When I was in the 8th grade, our teacher was on an exchange program with a teacher in Palo Alto, California.  I was living in Hawaii, having moved there a few years earlier from Los Angeles.  This new teacher wanted us to learn about the Holocaust.  This wasn't a new subject to me; my parents talked all the time about the atrocities of World War II.  The movie "Exodus" had a profound effect on them, and how Israel was the only safe place for the Jews.  They mentioned the tortures done to the Jews in the camps; it seemed as if they still couldn't believe something like that could happen on their generation's watch.  But it did and they discussed it with an impressionable young girl, who tried in her imagination to see what has gone on.

Then came this teacher with a movie.  Real images to replace the vague imaginings I had concocted; bodies in pits, closets with heads stacked inside; more pits, and more bodies.  Dismembered body parts, stacked up like cord wood.

This threw me into a deep quest to understand such a horrific event.  I read The Diary of Anne Frank, but that is comfortable history; people hiding, a girl falling in love.  There is no diary that describes what happened to her once she was arrested, deported in a train and died a painful death of typhus in a squalid camp.

I couldn't believe that the God of my Sunday School, and my 50's parents' faith of do the right thing and love America could possibly have overseen such an event without any intervention.  Where was America?  Where were my parents?  Where was God?

I then decided that there could be no God.  Yup.  I declared myself an atheist and had to eat my cosmic lunch alone.  But then it stuck me:  The people who perpetrated such horrors literally got away with murder.  If this earth and its justice system was it, then any kind of justice meted out was paltry in comparison to the enormity of the crime and the numbers of who were involved.

So, I made my way back to God.  Who is He?  Buddhism seemed a good choice, because in Hawaii, that religion is prevalent.  But a quiet individual, seated like a lotus with his eyes closed, seemed too far removed from the heads in the closet.

Then, I pursued Judaism.  I wanted to desperately understand why the Jews had been so mercilessly hunted down and killed.  The God of the Jews was familiar from my Sunday School days; my parents had long stopped going to church, but I remembered the lessons. So, I read every book in our school library about Judaism, Israel and Hitler.  

I desperately wanted to believe that God would comfort the broken lambs and punish the wolves.  What to do?

For a class project, I had to write a biography of a famous person.  A good friend of mine had been telling me about Jesus, and to read the New Testament.  In my wisdom, I declared that the New Testament had been written by Christians, so it was unreliable and biased.  Then came the movie, Jesus Christ Superstar.  Oh wow.  Music and a Jesus who railed against injustice was a potent mix to my searching heart.  Alright then: My biography project would be on Jesus Christ.  But no Bible as a source; I used many books from our school's library.  I wrote a long paper and made a poster of the highlights of His life.  

Now, I faced a conundrum:  I loved Judaism, but this Jew with the fire in his eyes and his call to stand up against evil was far too compelling to ignore.  One night, having laid a Star of David and a cross on my nightstand, I prayed that God would move the one He wanted me to follow.  The room filled with such a warmth and presence that I knew I had met God.  Personally.  Deeply.  I was forever changed.  

My heart's quest had been fulfilled.  I had met the One who had not forgotten this earth, its inhabitants, nor its evil.  He has not been a spectator, but as C.S. Lewis observed, He invaded this planet in the person of His Son, Who, like the troops on D-Day, has been taking back the planet from its evil empire one soul at a time.  

I have been on a quest ever since to reconcile the goodness of God with the immense evil on this planet.  Enroll with me in the School of Job to explore the nature of suffering.  I don't know exactly where we will go, but the Holy Spirit wants us to be bold adventurers and seek truth, no matter where it leads.  

Because, ultimately, a genuine search will lead us back to the One who calls Himself, "Truth."

Will we answer the question of "Why do we suffer?" Maybe yes. Maybe no.  But I have found the one thing such a search brings is a deeper understanding of God, and our relationship to Him.  That alone is worth the journey.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

The Best Church Money Can Buy

Let's join Jeremiah in chapter 5 as God gives him an assignment: 

Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares.
If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city.
Although they say, ‘As surely as the Lord lives,’ still they are swearing falsely. (5:1-2)

Why Jerusalem?  It contained the megachurch of its day--the Temple--and it was the spiritual power center and focal point of the Jewish people.  It had it all, with lots of leaders who knew the Law and all its intricacies.  King David ruled from here. The spiritual leaders led.  The people followed.  But there was a serious problem.  Truth was not in operation, despite all the appearance to the contrary.  Jerusalem looked spiritual enough, with all the hustle and bustle of religious activity. Solomon spared no expense and this megachurch gave the Jewish people a tremendous sense of pride--after all, this was God's House.  It was alive and well.  Was it?  It was alive, but not well.  Jeremiah was asked to search for truth in His people.  The God argued that no one in His city was honest.  God saw into the people's hearts and despite outward religious behavior, they lacked honesty.  Honesty is integral to God's character; He cannot and will not lie.  Those who call upon His name must reflect His character. Jeremiah responds with a rhetorical question, and then makes an observation: 

Lord, do not your eyes look for truth?  You struck them, but they felt no pain; you crushed them, but they refused correction.  They made their faces harder than stone and refused to repent.  I thought, 'These are only the poor; they are foolish, for they do not know the way of the Lord, the requirements of their God.' (5:3-4) 

He is mystified why, despite all of God's efforts to correct His people, they refuse to repent.  Jeremiah is giving them some latitude, based on their poverty. Solution?  Jeremiah will seek out those at the top and in doing so, confronts a terrible truth: 

So I will go to the leaders and speak to them; surely they know the way of the Lord, the requirements of their God. But with one accord they too had broken off the yoke and torn off the bonds. (5:5)

What "yoke" had been discarded?  What "bonds" had been cast away?  The leaders--with "one accord"--had thrown away truth.  Truth about what?  The prophet Micah put it succinctly: He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)  Those hallmarks of His people were missing.  Why?  Because the leaders had decided that truth had gotten in way of doing great things for God. They might have argued, The Temple is still standing, Jerusalem is still operational, so truth is not necessary to keep a society functioning.  People are being religious and we are still chosen, so let's do what is pragmatic, expedited and popular.  Truth is time-consuming to teach and follow; let's keep the greater good in mind, and if we have to cut corners to do so, well, hey, we are still doing big things for God.

At our core, we are still fallen beings.  Jesus will give us a new heart, but the old sin nature lurks predatorily under the surface.  Paul, in Romans 7, laments this very fact.  Even if we start out sincerely, with our born-anew heart, our prideful self, fed by the Big Time (bigger must be blessed) will eventually take over and destroy us.  God summarizes the Jerusalem leaders well: "for their rebellion is great, and their backslidings many." (5:6) This word "implies repeated apostasy." (NIV Study Bible).  This is not where people make a mistake here and there, or where their sinful nature has kicked in temporarily--it is a repeated departure from the truth, as revealed in God's Word and and as reiterated by His prophets. Reaction?
They have lied about the Lord; they said, 'He will do nothing!  No harm will come to us; we will never see sword or famine. The prophets are but wind and the word is not in them; so let what they say be done to them.' (5:12-13)
Truth was not being preached.  The consequences for disobedience to the Lord were not being taught.  The prophets were ignored.  Is the modern church in America any different?  Casting Crowns has really captured the modern church in their song, "Start Right Here:"   

We want our coffee in the lobby, we watch our worship on a screen
We got a rockstar preacher, who won't wake us from our dreams
We want out blessings in our pocket, we keep our missions overseas
But for the hurting in our cities, would we even cross the street?
Huh but we wanna see the heart set free and the tyrants kneel
The walls fall down and our land be healed, but church if we want to see a change 
in the world out there, it's got to start right here, it's got to start right now
Lord, I'm starting right here.  Lord, I'm starting right now...

America has the best churches money can buy. Yet we wonder why 2020 has been such a terrible year. 
'Among my people are the wicked, who lie in wait like men who snare birds and like those who set traps to catch people. Like cages full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; they have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek.  Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not seek justice.  They do not promote the case of the fatherless; they do not defend the just cause of the poor. Should I not punish them for this?'  declares the Lord. 'Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this? A horrible and shocking thing has happened in the land:  The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end?' (5:26-31) 

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Jeremiah 4: Which Message?

Recently, our church had Dr. Christopher Yuan come and speak, along with his mother and father.  I read his book, Out of a Far Country, many years ago, and was very moved by it.  Having been molested by a neighbor, Christopher would later tell his mother that he was gay.  His mother, whose marriage was on the rocks, decided to take her own life in the face of such overwhelming news.  Christopher had been on the fast track to receive his doctorate; three months shy of completing it, he dropped out of school.

Travelling to her destination, where she would take her life, his mother had a tract in her purse, and she pulled it out and read it.  It was about hope.  Forgiveness.  Life.  Jesus Christ and His gift of salvation.  Then and there she received Jesus.  She did not take her life but was given new life.  

She then started on an eight year campaign to pray for her son.

Meanwhile, her son started using and then dealing drugs.  One day, DEA showed up and Christopher was arrested and was given many years in a federal prison.

He found a Bible in prison and started reading.  He admitted that he was intrigued by the Bible's message, but he desperately wanted to find a biblical justification for his homosexuality.  He read and read, and was dismayed that the Bible did not compromise or alter its message that homosexuality is a sin.  He went to the prison chaplain, who offered him another book that did say being gay was not a sin.

He struggled and struggled with these two incompatible messages.  In the end, he accepted the Biblical message.  He went on to tell us that the opposite of homosexuality is not heterosexuality; it is God's holiness.  His identity is not to be based upon his sexual orientation but on his being a child of God.  

He spoke powerfully.  He spoke with conviction.  He spoke the biblical message of salvation in Jesus Christ and how He wants us to be holy, as He is holy.

Wow.  Please read Christopher's article on the subject:

Sitting in that prison cell, not so many years ago, Christopher had two books, two messages.  One message fit his desire to remain as he was; another message was calling him to new life.  One message was replacing biblical morality with a man-made, softer version of how to live.  The other message was a call to radically walk away from where he was, to a place of peace, reconciled and born anew in Christ. 

Christopher was given two choices.  He could only pick one.

Judah was given the same opportunity.  It was given two choices.  It could only pick one. 

God said, 

"If you, Israel, will return,
    then return to me,”
declares the Lord.
“If you put your detestable idols out of my sight
    and no longer go astray,  

and if in a truthful, just and righteous way
    you swear, ‘As surely as the Lord lives,’
then the nations will invoke blessings by him
    and in him they will boast.”

This is what the Lord says to the people of Judah and to Jerusalem:

“Break up your unplowed ground
    and do not sow among thorns.

Circumcise yourselves to the Lord,
    circumcise your hearts,
    you people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem,
or my wrath will flare up and burn like fire
    because of the evil you have done—
    burn with no one to quench it." (4:1-4)

Later in the chapter God says, 

 “My people are fools;
    they do not know me.
They are senseless children;
    they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil;
    they know not how to do good.” (4:22)

Whoa.  Pretty harsh to our modern, tolerant, culturally relevant ears, huh?

What if Jeremiah had come with the same soft man-made version of God's message that was in the book the chaplain gave Christopher in prison?  It might have gone something like this:

Judah:  I get it.  It is hard to ignore how green and abundant Canaan is, compared to the deserts of Egypt.  It is a land, after all, that flows with milk and honey.  So, could all those Baal worshippers be wrong?  They pray to him, and look what happens!  Abundant crops!  Large herds!  Lots of baby everything!  So, let's not get too hard-line on this idolatry thing.  Yes, God has made it clear He does not tolerate being worshipped alongside other gods--He is God alone.  BUT:  Let's be real, here.  God doesn't want you to ignore how you really feel--you feel that there is a truth behind this Baal worship.  

Fair enough.  But let's lighten up on the child sacrifice thing.  That's extreme, and no self-respecting Yahweh follower would be caught dead (no pun intended!) at a child sacrifice.  Stay home that day.  You're outnumbered by the Canaanites--just tell them that you can't afford to throw in your own kids, but you certainly appreciate how they do and how their devotion benefits the whole society. 

The temple prostitute thing?  Well, don't overdo it.  Go only a few times a year.  Yes, it violates God's rules for marriage, but a few times a year can't hurt. Again:  Could all those Canaanites be wrong?

Finally, stay positive.  Negative vibes from God's prophets just make you feel sad.  Just listen to the ones who encourage your need to be happy, healthy and prosperous.  Ignore the ones calling you to holiness, dependence on God and a life lived that reflects His presence within you.  

Oh yeah, I guess that means me, huh?  I better get online and download some better messages from those people who know how to grow a church.  The Word of God can be a real bummer to those seeking peace with who they are.  God wants better for us; but could all those Canaanites be wrong?  Can't argue with success, can we?   

Pragmatism, majority views and seeking your truth never saved anyone.  In fact, the culture in a fallen world is by definition, going to mislead, lie and misdirect away from God's Word.  It all comes down to that lie whispered millennia ago:  "Did God really say..."

A compromised truth isn't.  We do no one a favor by redefining sin as something else.  Sin is meant, just like its author, to "kill, steal and destroy."  

Jeremiah knew this.

Do we?














Thursday, October 15, 2020

Jeremiah 3: When Worldviews Collide

We are exploring Jeremiah, and how his words from God as are relevant today as they were back in his time.  Let's look at some interesting verses from chapter 3:

During the reign of King Josiah, the Lord said to me, “Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there. I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it. I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery. Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to her, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood. In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense,” declares the Lord. (3:6-10)

I begin with these verses, but walk with me for awhile.  We shall land on them again.

With human beings, you really have only two choices:  We are inherently either good or bad.  

If we are good, then all we need is a the kind of society that brings out the full potential in everyone.  If we are not engaged in the good, then we must improve the society, or remove it altogether, for it clearly it is hindering us more than it is helping us.  

The problem, then, is out THERE, for in our hearts, we believe are good.

It's the HEART that needs reformation, in God's economy. 

If we are fundamentally bad, then the society will reflect that.  It will confirm on the outside the bad we possess on the inside.  We will arrange, change or destroy what we build, always hoping for improvement, finding that, given enough time, even the most well thought-out societies will fall prey to our base nature.     

It is either an inside problem (we are bad) or it's an outside problem (society is bad and is impeding our good).

So, how do we create a profile of human behavior?  What have been the consequences of what we think, believe and then go out and do?

It's in the verses right here.  Judah had to only look at what Israel had done and how God reacted to the Israel's idolatry.  Israel fell prey to the same world view that we can control our world through human action and thus we are in charge of the outcome.  It's a pride-centered, humans-are-basically-good way of living.

How so?  Israel's mindset was, If we want to keep our Promised Land fertile, flush with crops, abundant water and weather that we can plant and harvest crops around, we will sacrifice to the gods, have sex with their prostitutes and then live the way we please, having gotten the gods to do our bidding with our obedience.  All those Canaanites can't be all wrong.  Compared to the desert our ancestors were in, this is a paradise.  The locals must have gotten something right!

 Israel allowed the world view of the Canaanites to permeate their God-centered-people-need-to-be-obedient-to-His-Word-if-they-are-to-live-in-a-moral-society.  Israel compromised.  Generation after generation, the compromises worked their poison and the inherently bad nature of human beings was allowed a freer and freer rein.

Israel was corrupted by what she believed and then by what she did.  

God reminded the people through Jeremiah that Israel was judged and destroyed by doing the very things that Judah was doing now. 

Judah, despite what had happened in and to Israel, decided that idolatry fit her best.  It catered to the base nature in human beings.  It's funny how the rituals idolatry demands amplifies what is already in human beings.  No one has to be coaxed to go up and unite with a temple prostitute.  Yes, sacrificing a child would have been painful, but the gods will give that mother more children and the whole society will be happier.  So, a woman would overcome her mothering instinct and sacrifice her child.  The whole society would  become the very one that Jeremiah is denouncing as he warns Judah.

Learn from history, Judah!

Jeremiah is warning everyone that human beings need God, otherwise the weak and the infirm are cast aside, justice is served to keep the rich, rich and the poor, poor.  Human beings have no value--they are to be used, abused and exploited by those who have the wealth and power to do so.  Greed permeates every area of human interaction:  Do undo others and then split.  Compassion, mercy and grace sound really nice until they interfere with worldly pursuits of those who feel entitled to do what they want.  The "I Want" list is endless, so is the abuse and wickedness human being will use to fulfill it.

But does Judah learn from history?

Are we?

A society will no restraints on human nature will allow for that very nature to rule supreme, because human being without a changed heart will not have it any other way.  Look at what Ezekiel says, 

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (36:26)

Jesus is very clear what human-nature infused heart believes and what actions result from it:

But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. (Matt. 15:18-19)

Judah would come under God's heavy hand if they ignored the warning of His prophet.  And sadly, we know from history, they did.

We also know from history that human societies where the corrupted human heart reigns will result in collapse, with devastating and long-lasting results.

But we have to know history.

We have to know His Word.

And we have to know God and receive the new heart He promises us by receiving His Son into our corrupted hearts.  

Society is only as good as the hearts that inhabit it.

America:  We are in trouble. 

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Jeremiah's Call to Return to God, Away From Deception

How often do we say, "What do you want me to do, Lord?"  Especially in times of national crisis, as we are experiencing now, the burden of doing something positive for the Kingdom of God becomes keen.  

But it always starts with me.  With you.  Oh, it may feel grand to go out into the streets, attend a church that defies wearing masks or gathering together to sing hymns outside despite the police asking you to hand over your identification and you refusing to do so.  

Beware of the snare of pride, brothers and sisters.  Don't cloak your pride in "I don't have any fear" (are you insinuating that I do if I wear a mask?) or, "I am more spiritual because I don't wear a mask" (insinuating that if I do, my faith is weak?).

God has made it very clear what we are to do:

He has told you, O man, what is good;

And what does the Lord require of you

Except to be just, and to love [and to diligently practice] kindness (compassion),

And to walk humbly with your God [setting aside any overblown sense of importance or self-righteousness]? (Micah 6:8 AMP)

Whoa. That says it all.   How do we walk humbly in this age of inflammatory language, opinions parading as facts and words spoken under the guise of Christianity, but seem to be a far cry from the Lord we profess to follow?  James weighs in with how poisonous our tongues can be, and in this age of social media, our words can become especially hazardous:

Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly. Indeed, we all make many mistakes. For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way.

We can make a large horse go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth. And a small rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go, even though the winds are strong. In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches.

But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. (James 3:1-6 NLT)

Perhaps you don't consider yourself a "teacher."  But as a follower of Christ, you are.  You teach others what a follower of Christ looks like, sounds like and acts like.  But isn't James being a bit dramatic, when he compares the tongue to being set on fire by hell itself?

No. Our pride is the open door that Satan uses to make an incursion, and to whisper in our ears how wonderful our opinion is, and how everyone is entitled to it.  Why?

  • Because we have Jesus, and they don't.
  • Because I am the smartest person in the room.
  • Because I can cut through all the muck and murk when others are deceived and I know the truth. 
  • It's my job to let others know how misled they are.

Once our pride is the driver for our tongues, all sorts of awful things can come out, even out of the mouth of people who love Jesus.

Our pride is at the core of our human nature.  Our ancestors--Adam and eve--picked their own way of viewing the world, by eating that fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  That other tree, the Tree of Life, would have made Adam and Eve eternal sinners, so God exiled them out of the garden.

Ever since, we have had an enemy whispering to our pride, "Did God really say?"  So, instead of God's way of good, which He consistently outlines in His Word, we choose the way of evil: that which our fallen nature says is good.  We follow our way, keeping the precedence set by Adam and Eve.

So, right now we are having a bumper crop of fleshly fruit in America, and not just in those who do not know the Lord:

When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God. (Gal. 5:19-21)

Spot-on.  We could take each fruit in these verses and have no problem finding those in the church and outside of it who are bringing that fruit to the public square and passing it off as somehow acceptable.  Truthful.  Spiritual.  Progressive.  

Jeremiah weighs in on how the people of Judah conducted themselves, speaking on God's behalf:

"My people bend their tongues like bows
    to shoot out lies.
They refuse to stand up for the truth.
    They only go from bad to worse.
They do not know me,”
    says the Lord.

“Beware of your neighbor!
    Don’t even trust your brother!
For brother takes advantage of brother,
    and friend slanders friend.
They all fool and defraud each other;
    no one tells the truth.
With practiced tongues they tell lies;
    they wear themselves out with all their sinning.
They pile lie upon lie
    and utterly refuse to acknowledge me,”
    says the Lord. (Jer. 9:3-6 NLT)

I stand stunned how much this sounds like America today.  Another translation of verse 6 reads, 

"You live in the midst of deception;
    in their deceit they refuse to acknowledge me,”
declares the Lord. (Jer. 9:6 NIV)

We become deceived because we hear something that sparks our sense of self-righteousness, our prideful thinking, so we listen more and more, not questioning why this something is so appealing.  Soon, we are knee-deep in "Oh yeah!  How could this be wrong?  It seems so right and explains everything!"

Uh-oh.  But the Word, what God says, is the standard whereby we measure what we hear and the truthfulness of it.  Until we are grounded in His Word, our need to let our words be heard by everyone should be reined in:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. (James 1:19-26 NIV) 

Wow.  Again.  Maybe instead of going to social media to get the latest whatever, go to the Word.  Not as exciting, to be sure.  Appealing to our sinful nature will win out every time if we let it.  But the Word is the rock upon which we build our house, for the storms, wind and rain are coming.  
I would like to be standing when all this madness is over.  I am sure you would like to be, too.   

True faith?  A good witness to those who don't know Jesus?  James gives us a striking definition:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)












Monday, September 21, 2020

Cleansing Rain & Living Water--Jeremiah 2

Last week, the smoke from fires burning all over the West made the air quality in Idaho absolutely awful.  The sky was a grayish brown, and all those wonderful things that mark the vista of living in a valley--distant trees, mountains on the other side and a warm glowing setting sun--were gone.  I couldn't see the mountains, the trees disappeared in the haze and the sun went from a fiery orange to a salmon pink disc from sunrise to sunset.

I live up on a rise in this valley and I love to look out my window and see the broad vista that I have.  It was gone, enveloped in a haze that was relentless.  

Did I start any of the fires that are consuming the West?  No.

But I am subject to their effects. Why?   Because I live in a community.  I am not alone.  My decisions affect others and others' decisions affect me.   

I fear we have entered a time when everyone wants to do their own thing, and consequences are either dismissed, are not allowed to be commented on, or viewed as those eggs that must be broken to make a societal omelette. 

Jeremiah, on God's behalf, laments,

My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
    the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
    broken cisterns that cannot hold water. (Jer. 2:13)

Before I moved to Idaho, I never really thought about water on a daily basis.  I grew up in Los Angeles, and just assumed that every time I turned on the kitchen or bathroom faucet, water would come out. Our lawn was green, and the neighbor's pool was always full of sparkling blue water.  We went to Malibu every weekend, and there was the ocean, proudly displaying its abundance.

Later, when I was married, my husband and I took a trip up US 395 to the Owens Valley.  The area was  a vast desert, with a long aqueduct running parallel to the valley floor.  My husband said that in the early part of the 20th century, the developers of the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles needed water.  Lots of it.  The amount available locally would not be enough to support a burgeoning area, with people and lots of agriculture.  So, this aqueduct was built to take water out of Owens Lake.  Once the locals realized what Los Angeles was doing, they started blowing up the aqueduct.  The city of L.A. used the National Guard to protect the building project.  The aqueduct was completed and the water from Owens Lake was siphoned out, until no water was left.  

When I visited the area, in the early 80s, a large dust devil was all that greeted us over what was once a beautiful verdant valley and lovely lake.  We traveled up the 395 further to Mono Lake.  It retained some of its grandeur, and local people then were fighting L.A. tooth and nail to prevent history from repeating itself.  "Save Mono Lake" bumper stickers were everywhere.

The need and greed for water drove L.A. to seek alternative sources, and all of this is recounted in a wonderful book called, Cadillac Desert.  It made me realize how water wars have shaped the West, for the simple reason is a lot of people want to develop, live, and farm here, but water was and will always be in short supply. 

But wherever I lived, it seemed we always had enough water.  These water wars and environmental concerns seemed out there, beyond directing affecting me.  

Now I live in Idaho, and water is not abundant.  People worry about the snow pack every winter replenishing the  reservoirs here. I am sure as this valley continues to grow, (and it is) water will become a topic of deep concern, calling out for better management.  I had lived in the mountains, where we had to drop a well.  I live off a well here now as well, and every now and then I worry that my lawn may use too much water, and our well will go dry.

Wells not regularly replenished by rain go dry.  It may take a long time, for much water has accumulated underground.  But still I wonder.  

God's lament over His people is they were no longer drawing life from the Source of all life itself: God.  He equated Himself to a "spring of living water."  In a desert, this is not just water for green lawns; it is fresh rainwater, caught and held in cisterns that are clean and maintained, to keep the water in them fresh.  Bad water or no water:  both are terrifying prospects in the desert.  Without fresh water, crops fails, animals and humans thirst, and people sicken by having drunk unsuitable water out of desperation.    

What did these people then do?  They built their own cisterns, that were "cracked" and could not hold water "at all."  Not just poor water was found in these makeshift cisterns; their cisterns held no water at all. Whatever water was caught leaked out and the people, who thought they had something, had nothing.

How long did it take to run out?  When did the people notice that the water they needed was not there?  Did they just go dig another one, only to find the same result of water disappearing over time due to cracks?  

The water used by people in Jeremiah's day was still provided by God in the form of rain.  (God could have ceased the rain to fall, but in His longsuffering love for His people, the seasons still came and went.) But the water went in and then disappeared, for the hearts of the people had cracks in them--cracks made by disobedience, spiritual adultery, ignoring God, blaming God, choosing not to serve Him, wicked behavior and ultimately not returning to Him, seeking forgiveness and restoration.

In fact, the most terrible crack of all was the claim that, "I have done nothing wrong.  Surely God isn't angry with me!" (2:35)

Then, with that claim on their lips, the people,

First here, then there—
    you flit from one ally to another asking for help.
But your new friends in Egypt will let you down,
    just as Assyria did before.
In despair, you will be led into exile
    with your hands on your heads,
for the Lord has rejected the nations you trust.
    They will not help you at all. (2:36-7)

The man in the White House, the political party you adhere to, the church you go to, the conspiracies you believe sound right, the claims and evidence from this news source or another, your friends on social media...These allies "will let you down."  Why?  Because they are as cracked in their hearts as you are.  As I am.  

Fresh rainwater being siphoned from one cracked cistern to another will not work at solving the fundamental problem.  Why?  The heart of the matter is a matter of the heart. 

My heart.  Your heart.  The heart of this country. 

A recent rain storm cleared our valley up somewhat, and we saw blue sky again.  We all rejoiced.  It was temporary, however.  Why?  The fires themselves are still burning.

Whatever cistern, whatever ally we are seeking, unless it is an remorseful return to God, His Word and asking for a new heart, the water we need will disappear.  

Why?  Because the problem is our hearts--our angry and arrogant attitudes, our claims to be on the right side of the political divide, and how our sin (because it is really rather small compared to everyone else's!) doesn't affect anyone but ourselves.  Wrong. 

But the distant fires' smoke is once again taking over our Idaho skies.  We need rain--refreshing cleansing rain that will wash our skies clean and put out the fires.

We need His living spring water that will wash our hearts clean and bring our sinful fires under control:

Jesus replied, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” (John 4:13-14)

We choose.  


Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Eleventh Commandment--Jeremiah 2

You didn't know there was an 11th Commandment, did you?  It is rather simple: "Do not get caught."

But we are getting caught in America. 

Light is shining in, exposing those who seize and destroy women and children by trafficking them.  

Christian leaders whose behaviors speak of the idol of self and an utter disregard for Christ.

Sex addiction surveys that show how deep people have gone to fulfill their cravings, and how many of those sit in church and preach from the pulpit are caught in snare of porn. 

How nihilism (nothing matters) and moral relativity (my truth) have resulted in our cities burning, and how the real issue is not racism, but hatred:  hatred of America, the rule of law, and our ideals. We may have been imperfect in fulfilling our ideals, but they remain a goal to always strive for. But these ideals are now deemed worthless, kicked to the curb because of hypocrisy.    

Law and law enforcement are optional; those who seek to destroy are allowed to and those who question this are silenced.  There are differing standards and different groups are expected to adhere to them; this hypocrisy has led to a scofflaw attitude, even on the part of otherwise law-abiding citizens.  

The light that is exposing the darkness in America is there to bring out sin.  Sin, like a disease, must be exposed, diagnosed and then removed.  We love to quote John 3:16, but look at its larger context:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:16-21)

Getting caught means full exposure to the light and to the Light:  Christ Himself.  The standard of what is dark and light, good and evil, is not each other, the past from the present, or between the races.  It is God Himself.  He is the standard, and all of us fall short.  

Paul hammers down on the same theme of the Light's purpose in Ephesians 5:1-7, and how we live in the light as Christ Himself did:

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.

Paul then goes on to why the Light is so essential and our response to it:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said:

“Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.” 

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.

So when His light comes in, and shows us who we really are, what do we do?  How do we react when we are exposed?  How did Judah react when God's light shone on them?

They were aggrieved, not because of their sin but because they got caught:

How can you say, ‘I am not defiled;
    I have not run after the Baals’?
See how you behaved in the valley;
    consider what you have done. (2:23)

The shameful evidence was all around Judah, and yet upon exposure, the nation reacted with utter denial.  She would not own her complicity in her sinful ways, but blamed God when things went badly:

As a thief is disgraced when he is caught,
    so the people of Israel are disgraced—
they, their kings and their officials,
    their priests and their prophets.
They say to wood, ‘You are my father,’
    and to stone, ‘You gave me birth.’
They have turned their backs to me
    and not their faces;
yet when they are in trouble, they say,
    ‘Come and save us!’
Where then are the gods you made for yourselves?
    Let them come if they can save you
    when you are in trouble!
For you, Judah, have as many gods
    as you have towns. 

Why do you bring charges against me?
    You have all rebelled against me,
declares the Lord.
In vain I punished your people;
    they did not respond to correction.
Your sword has devoured your prophets
    like a ravenous lion. (2:26-30)

Instead of allowing exposure to turn to repentance, the people of Judah became defiant, denying God and then blaming God.  The correction God gave them, once His light exposed their deeds, was meant to restore the relationship between Him and His people.  

Earlier, Judah had said, 

 Long ago you broke off your yoke
    and tore off your bonds;
    you said, ‘I will not serve you!’
Indeed, on every high hill
    and under every spreading tree
    you lay down as a prostitute. (2:20)

When did America throw off its "yoke"?  When did it became post-modern and post-Christian?  When  did it decide that the Bible was an antiquated document, filled with repugnant morality that limited free sexual expression and needed to be removed from public life?  

When did the church decide that music and a "Sunday Experience" was more important than having the Word front and center?  

The evidence is everywhere.  Our country is more steeped in sin, chaotic and in bondage than it was when I was growing up.  No, nothing was perfect then, but marriage was still an honored institution, and certain behaviors were wrong because God's Word was everywhere.  Even if the family Bible was never opened, it was considered an important element in the home, for its presence spoke to a transcendent set of values that culture couldn't change.

Now, His light is shining and exposing our sin.  

God called Judah to examine closely how God has provided for Judah and blessed this nation, even with its hypocrites, sinners and saints.  Judah's response?  They killed the messengers because the message was spot on:

In vain I punished your people;
they did not respond to correction.
Your sword has devoured your prophets
like a ravenous lion.
You of this generation, consider the word of the Lord:

Have I been a desert to Israel
or a land of great darkness?
Why do my people say, ‘We are free to roam;
we will come to you no more’?
Does a young woman forget her jewelry,
a bride her wedding ornaments?
Yet my people have forgotten me,
days without number.
How skilled you are at pursuing love!
Even the worst of women can learn from your ways.
On your clothes is found
the lifeblood of the innocent poor,
though you did not catch them breaking in.
Yet in spite of all this
you say, ‘I am innocent;
he is not angry with me.’
But I will pass judgment on you
because you say, ‘I have not sinned.’ (2:30-35)

Wow.  God's judgment comes only after exposing the sin and offering the remedy:  a return to Him and His values, His ways, His ordering of society.  

What is our response?

Let me conclude with this.  As I sit here in my office in a small town in Idaho near Boise, the sky is enveloped in a dirty gray.  If the wind blows in just the right direction, the smoke from all the western fires is pushed out of the Treasure Valley.  We have high mountains that surround us and they tend to hold in whatever comes into this valley.  

For a few days this past week, we have some lovely blue skies, mild temperatures (for summer in the high desert) and we could almost forget that the West is on fire to an unprecedented level.  But today?  No.  The wind has changed direction, and now all that smoke from Oregon, Washington and California, coupled with local fires, is rushing into Idaho.  

Our landscape is bleak.  I cannot see the distant mountains from my window, and the sun rises and sets a pinkish orange.  

The air quality is horrible.

The only hope in this rather disquieting time of the year is the possible arrival of some rain early this week.  

Even in this rather bleak landscape that is America right now, we still have hope.  Hope has a name: Jesus.  Sometimes we are able to forget how America is careening out of control with the blue skies of family, friends and sunny summer days.

But the sky is gray.  Are we willing to repent and call out to God for forgiveness?  

I pray so. 

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