He HAS the power!

“Power is the rate at which work is done” (The Physics Classroom, 2016).

“I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory.” (Psalm 63:2, NIV)

When I teach Sunday School, I love to incorporate science lessons whenever I can.  These lessons stem from physics, biology, physiology, and other disciplines, and I love teaching kids how the world God made works in orderly ways that reflect His character.  Many of the children I teach are “front pew kids” like I was at their age, and they have heard the story “Jesus Walks on Water” so many times the meaning of this story has lost its depth.  They already know that when I start with, “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat…” I will tell about a storm, frightened disciples, Peter almost sinking, and end with, “…’why did you doubt?'”  But telling this story with bobbers, rocks, a tub of water, and a physics lesson on density and flotation makes them think about Jesus’ wave-walking in a different light.

Recently, I’ve been teaching on several themes that start with “Jesus has power over…”.  The lessons focus on miracles Jesus performed while He was alive – miracles that not only benefited people physically but also glorified God and revealed Jesus’ power.  So when we had a review session, I made a graphic (see above) that uses the definition of power in the field of physics (Power = work/time) that the kids could color and use as a Bible bookmark or whatever.  I explained to them that Power is directly related to “Work” (the amount of force carried over a distance) and is indirectly related to “Time” (time).

Jesus was carrying out God’s work on this earth.  He was the embodiment of God – God represented no longer as pillars of cloud and fire (Exodus 13:21), a terrifying figure within the holiest place of the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:22), or even a whispering voice (1 Kings 19:12-13).  He was a working-class man of a certain height and a certain weight that got splinters in his fingers and sawdust in his hair.  But when He performed miracles, when He taught with authority, when He called people out for what they were thinking, He was displaying His power.  He was performing extraordinary works in the blink of an eye.  According to the P = w/t equation, an enormous amount of work done in an infinitesimally short amount of time yields a ginormous amount of power.  You could even say that no time passed at all, that t=0, despite the fact that division by 0 is (for all practical purposes) impossible.  But, to quote Jesus, “Everything is possible with God.

For example…

When Jesus commanded Lazarus – a man who had been dead for four days (definitely “all dead” and in no way “mostly dead“) – to come out of his tomb, Lazarus emerged from his crypt to the astonishment of his sisters and friends (John 11:14-45).

When Jesus told a paralyzed man to stand, take his mat, and go home, the man leaped to his feet and walked out of the room to the ire of teachers of the law (Mark 2:1-12).

When Jesus thanked His Father for the two fish and five loaves brought to Him, He was able to multiply and divide the food to feed 5,000 hungry families gathered to hear Him speak (John 6:1-11).  If Jesus was able to feed a man, woman, and child with the equivalent of 6 slices of Sara Lee honey wheat bread, He produced roughly 1,364 loaves of bread in the span of one prayer.  It takes me about three hours to bake two loaves of bread at home, if I have all the ingredients on hand.

So Jesus HAS the power – gargantuan, super-colossal, humongous power – that overshadows the power of man.  True, people can do exceptional things: write operas, cure diseases, fly to the moon, give birth to a child, forgive when offended, and love when hated.  But these things take time, effort, and energy for mankind while they take a snap of the fingers to God.  They are but tiny expressions of God’s creativity, intelligence, and strength.  They are merely the results when the creatures made in God’s image explore the potential God gave them.

The Physics Classroom.  (2016).  Power. Retrieved from http://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/energy/Lesson-1/Power.

Jesus was touting mercy long before Shakespeare.

Recently, I took part in a quiz meant to reveal a how a person is spiritually gifted.  The possible categories were “Prophecy/Perception, Service, Teaching, Exhortation/Encouragement, Giving, Leadership/Administration, and Mercy/Compassion.”  I scored highest for Service and Teaching, with which I completely agreed and of which – sad to admit –  I was even a little proud. (Darn right, I’m good at service and teaching.   I deserve more kudos!)  And I scored least in…Mercy/Compassion.  This was not a complete surprise.  I know I don’t perceive other people’s emotional needs very well,  I would make a terrible nurse, and I’m not going to cry with someone whose goldfish passed away from old age.  But was a roll of the eyes, a rueful shrug of the shoulders, or a dismissive “Well, mercy’s just not my thing,” the correct response to this revelation?  No.

In today’s work-centered, self-reliant, self-seeking, “Suck it up, buttercup” world, mercy is not endorsed. It might even be seen as a weakness, as Count Adhemar did in A Knight’s Tale (1).  After all, doesn’t our culture view mercy as allowance for bad or lazy behavior?  But mercy, “compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power” (2), is what all of us truly and deeply desire.  We want a friend to loan us a little money, even if we forgot to pay her back for a previous loan.  We want a reassuring hug in the middle of the night when we are scared.  We want a sympathetic ear when we feel overwhelmed by a diagnosis.  But herein lies the problem: while we all desire mercy,  many of us are loath to grant it.  “No, you cannot borrow five dollars; you didn’t pay me back the last time!”  “No, you cannot wake me up just because you had a bad dream!”  “No, I don’t have time to hear about your disgusting medical problems!”

In William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, mercy is described as being “twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes” (4.1.175-176).  The orator then describes mercy as an attribute that – coming from a king –  is more impressive than his crown or scepter (4.1.178-182).  When a king can command anyone at anytime to be decapitated merely for looking at him the wrong way, forgiveness for a weighty crime is newsworthy for the public and unfathomable for the criminal.  But for most of us, our daily lives are not touched by the mercy – or lack of mercy – from kings.  We are concerned with how our neighbors treat us and how we treat our neighbors.

When Jesus preached the famous Sermon on the Mount, He said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”  Later on, Jesus illustrated this statement with the parable of the unmerciful servant.  In this story, a king forgives one of his servants of an enormous debt after the servant begs the king not to send him and his family to debtor’s prison.  Relieved, the man goes home and – immediately forgetting the mercy shown him – demands a man repay him a meager loan.  Unable to pay back the amount, the servant mistreats the man who owes him.  When the king hears what his servant has done, he demands the man be imprisoned until the previously forgiven debt can be repaid.  Now, consider this: the servant was not initially forgiven the loan because he ran an errand for the king, served the king faithfully or years, or even saved the king’s life.  All he did was fall on his knees and sob like a baby, begging not to receive the punishment that was due him.  And the king showed mercy: he gained nothing for his kindness and expected nothing in return.

The king in the parable had power to imprison or even kill the servant if he wished, just as God has power to do with us as He wishes.  As humans, we are by nature sinners, we fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), and for this we deserve death (Romans 6:23).  But while God’s sovereignty should make us tremble in fear, his mercy should make us weep in gratitude.  God gave His one and only Son to die the death we deserved out of His mercy, not for anything we did or could ever do (Titus 3:4-7).  Just as Shakespeare observed of earthly kings, God’s mercy was more remarkable than any show of His power.

So I should not be complacent with my “natural” lack of mercy.  As a Christ-follower, I should be imitating Him more and more.  Like the unmerciful servant, I have been forgiven a great and terrible debt.  Why should I not show such mercy to my neighbors?   One way I’ve worked on being more merciful is to contemplate Proverbs 12:16: “Fools show their annoyance at once, but the prudent overlook an insult”.  When I pause and think, Is this really something to get worked up about?  I can I take ten seconds and help this person?  Can I respond to this in a more gentle tone?, I can conjure up a more merciful spirit.  While I am not as gifted in mercy as I am in other areas, I can focus on growing this area of my spiritual life.  But don’t expect me to cry over goldfish anytime soon.

1. ChippyChopper.  “Showing Mercy.”  Online video clip.  YouTube.  13 October 2009.  Web.  12 March 2017.

2. “mercy”. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 12 Mar. 2017. <Dictionary.com http://www.dictionary.com/browse/mercy>.

photo credit: https://qph.ec.quoracdn.net/main-qimg-02df11ec0c5652239094af55ebaff030-c

 

 

 

Jesus loves me, even when I look like a dizzy octopus

On most mornings, I rise and shine (or rise and whine) and make my way to the living room to sweat it out to a workout video.  I like this kind of exercise: a full body workout that gets my heart pumping and evokes memories of my mother’s Richard Simmons videos.  I try not to repeat the same workout too often to work different muscle groups for different lengths of time and intensity but mostly to avoid boredom.  If I follow the same exercise day after day, the routine becomes just that: routine.  My brain switches to auto-pilot, my body goes through the motions with minimal effort, and I can lose track of which moves I’ve already done.  This is not good.

A new workout video is a good remedy to break up the routine, but on the first few days with the new video, well…I’m glad no one is watching me.  I try to follow the perky instructors as well as I can, but I’m afraid I look like a dizzy octopus with a dumbbell gripped in each tentacle.  But even though I might feel a little clumsy and look a little silly, I know the change is good for me.  My muscles feel strengthened in new ways, and I definitely feel more awake than after  “going through the motions” with an old workout.  After a few more times working out with the new video, I know the moves better and I can perform them with more confidence.

How I view my physical health can also be reflected in how I approach my spiritual health.  Am I content to follow a boring routine that fails to challenge me?  Attending church, praying throughout the day, and reading Scripture can all bring nourishment to a hungry soul.  But if the attendance, prayers, and readings feel obligatory, if they fail to stimulate the mind and touch the heart, what good are they?  They are no longer ways to deepen a relationship with Jesus Christ or to gain wisdom.  They are only characteristics of a lukewarm Christian which God detests (Revelation 3:16).  Baby Christians (that’s “Christianese” for a new believer) just crawling or toddling towards the doors of a church for the first time should be encouraged in all they do to learn more about God, no matter how seemingly small the steps.  But mature Christians should crave what the author of Hebrews referred to as “solid food”: training and teaching that leads to distinguishing good from evil (Hebrews 5:13-14).  Mature Christians should be hiking up mountains while baby Christians are learning to tie their bootlaces.

Wonderfully, growing as a Christian is easy to do – all it takes is effort.  God smiles on all His children when they glorify Him, whether they teach a Sunday School class, bring a meal to a needy family, fix a stranger’s flat tire, mentor a child, or build an orphanage.  Jesus’ life was not defined by record-breaking attendance at the Temple or showy prayers.  He loved the unlovable (John 4:1-42), touched the untouchable (Matthew 8:1-4), and forgave the unforgivable (Luke 23:34).  While it might seem like a “sacrifice” of time and effort to get the whole family dressed in their best and arrive at church right at 9:00 every Sunday morning, or praying the same prayer before dinner every night, it is all meaningless to God if the bodies that go to church and pray before meals do not genuinely show God’s love at other times.  For God desires mercy and acknowledgement more than sacrifice (Hosea 6:6).

So how will you challenge and strengthen yourself as you walk with God?  Personally, I look for ways to keep my Sunday School class fresh and fun so the kids want to come rather than feeling forced to come.  My husband and I are spearheading an initiative at our church focused on service that will honor God while helping people in our community.  And I’m following a one-year plan to read through the new Bible my husband gave me when we were married last year.  (“Ugh, I have to underline all my favorite verses again because I got a new Bible.” #FirstWorldChristianProblems)  I hope you do not think I’m bragging, reader, or suggesting you have to do these exact same things to grow.  These are just ways that fit well with my spiritual gifts, and how you choose to grow may look completely different than my ways.  What matters is that Christians honor God with their hearts, souls, minds, and strengths to the best of their abilities.  Just as an athlete trains to jump higher, run farther, swim faster, or dive deeper, we should aim to pray more fervently, work more cheerfully, give more generously, suffer more patiently, and live more faithfully.  We might look like dizzy octopuses when we start, but God will still be smiling.

Photo credit: https://lostandfounders.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/workout.png

“Scrubbin’ toilets for the Lord,” as my mom likes to say.

Recently, I began listening to the sermons available on the website of my parents’ church, the church I attended in high school and whenever I was home during my college years.  Though I might otherwise choose to listen to NPR or Pandora radio, sometimes I need a break from hearing about the fight in Congress over President Trump’s nominee for Assistant Deputy Secretary for the Department of the Posterior, and, let’s face it, Pandora’s music stream isn’t as exhaustive as one might hope.

When I listened to the first sermon, I was surprised at the difference between what I remember hearing in the sanctuary on a Sunday morning and what is recorded through the sound system.  When the congregation is singing with the praise leaders, and all the voices are mixing with the band, reverberating off the ceiling and walls, you just might think the sound could lift you straight up to heaven.  But the recording, which cuts out all the congregation’s singing, well…it’s a little less inspiring.  Don’t misunderstand me: the church’s praise team members are all extremely talented (especially the bass player*), but the individual voices and instruments cannot blend as well as when a hundred or so voices are singing with them.

I realized that the watering down of a worship service – when just a few people are highlighted and the rest are removed – reflected how much every Christian matters in God’s Church.  In the small group I attend, we recently shared what we considered our “spiritual gifts.”  1 Corinthians 12:4-6 states that there are different types of gifts, service, and ways of working, but the entire spectra of all three can can be used to serve and glorify God.  I cannot drive a bus full of kids to church camp, but I can teach a Sunday School class and wash dishes after a potluck.  Of course, service for God extends beyond one’s personal church to the world-wide community of Christians.  In both places, the followers of Jesus Christ are called to teach, serve, lead, give generously, and show mercy according to their abilities for the strengthening of God’s Church (Romans 12:4-8).

“But I’m not a missionary or a pastor,” someone might say.  “I’m a plumber/salesman/flight attendant/exterminator.  My everyday business doesn’t really deal with ‘God stuff.'”  Well, fair point.  On this side of heaven, the human race is bothered with needs that must be fulfilled.  Once we reach our glorious reward, then our entire being will be devoted to “God stuff.”  But while we’re here, we still must eat by the sweat of our brow (thanks a lot, Adam).  But even if a career is not carried out in a church, it can still be used as a mighty pulpit.  When the wonderful – nay, miraculous – regeneration of a Christian occurs by the Holy Spirit entering that person, the fruit of the Spirit that person bears is evidence of God’s character.  That fruit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control – can be exhibited by a pastor baptizing a new believer or a plumber installing a sink for a fair price and with a kind smile.  Or a salesman refusing to deal dishonestly.  Or a flight attendant patiently assisting a rude passenger.  Or an exterminator getting rid of pests in the most humane way possible (rats are God’s creatures, too).  Personally, I work in the food industry, and I can serve God by ensuring safe, wholesome food is produced to feed the people He made.

From my past years in various churches, I have too often seen too few people carry too much of the load that is an inherent part of managing the many facets of a church.  I believe God has blessed His people enough that the same person does not need to coordinate the nursery schedule, play piano for the praise band, and clean the bathrooms after Wednesday night activities in addition to working a full-time job and raising a family.  Sufficient service on the part of God’s people can keep saints from becoming broken-down and burned-out.  So consider this: what talents and gifts has God given to you?  How can you put them to use in the local and world-wide church?  Where do you see a need that you can meet?

While I enjoy hearing the sermons of a very insightful pastor and singing along with familiar voices of the praise team, listening to a podcast isn’t the same as attending God’s house on a Sunday morning.  I don’t  experience the feeling of security that comes with being surrounded by fellow Christians.  I also don’t see the ushers greeting guests and handing out bulletins, the audio-visual team hard at work in the back of the sanctuary, the frazzled but satisfied-looking Children’s Church teachers.  But I’m glad to know they are there on a Sunday morning, impacting lives in their community, and I can now use my talents at my current church according to the ways God has blessed me.

*my dad

Image credit: http://www.1stchurchjc.org/uploads/4/1/4/2/4142961/_148785.jpeg

Not Exactly A Winter Wonderland

So, I live in Minnesota, and after two almost embarrassingly mild winters, we are definitely living up to our reputation of the land of ice and snow this year. This morning the temperature was 30 degrees BELOW zero…without the wind chill. At times like this it is tempting to long for a warmer environment, and I cannot help but think back to last year when my husband and I were in Hawaii for his brother’s wedding. I was enchanted by the sun, the beaches, the waterfalls…a tropical paradise compared to the frozen tundra in which I live.

You might not be surprised by my longing, and I imagine other people in the Northland have the same desire to escape the cold. After all, that’s why swimsuits appear in stores in February. However, I have a difficult time imagining someone tanning herself on the shores of Kauai suddenly say, “You know, I need to take a break from this land of balminess and coconuts. I need to suffer alongside people who have to shovel their sidewalks and scrape their windshields and pray every morning that their cars will start. I better book a flight to the Midwest right now.”

But if it is difficult to imagine someone wanting to trade a white sand beach for a white snow bank, at least the trade would have some benefits. Outdoor activities abound in my neck of the woods, from snowshoeing and cross country skiing to ice fishing and dogsledding. Plus, who wants to drink cocoa and enjoy a crackling fire when it’s 80o outside? Besides, I’m sure if I stayed long enough in Hawaii I’d find some reason to want to leave…in time. We humans can find comfort in most places because we know no place is perfect. We move around and make the most of the land in which we find ourselves. None of us has ever left a perfect place for an imperfect one…except for one Person.

On the first Christmas, when Jesus entered the world, He became God Incarnate in the form of a Jewish baby born to a teenage mom and a laborer dad. He left His Father’s side in Heaven, a place without fault of any kind – a world without anger, grief, despair, greed, troubles, toils, or terrors. A place without laws or material goods of any kind, a world we cannot imagine. But at the predestined time – a moment when the political and social atmosphere in the world was just right – Jesus traded splendor…for squalor. He was born to common earthly parents in a lowly abode and was destined to endure the harsh realities of this planet from infancy to adulthood.

Today Nativity scenes are often romanticized with a radiant, slightly aloof Mary, a confident Joseph, and spotless shepherds. But let’s get real. Mary was more than likely exhausted, Joseph was probably distressed, and the shepherds were probably caked in dust and sheep-generated emissions. A death warrant would soon be out for little Jesus ( Matthew 2:16) , and the family would live as refugees in Egypt for some time. As an adult, Jesus would work (perhaps as a carpenter, as is traditionally thought) to support himself and his mother, and would face everyday trials and temptations just like any other man his age. But once His ministry began, once He set Himself apart as a Teacher, as the Messiah, He faced humiliation, rejection, and, ultimately, execution.

So why would He? Why would someone leave a Paradise a thousand times more pristine and beautiful than Hawaii to live an ordinary life am ong the lowly? Because God is l ove. The oft-quote d verse John 3:16 states, “For God so loved the world, He sent His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not die but have eternal life” (NIV, emphasis mine). Jesus knew what kind of life and death awaited him on this little lump of dirt, but He did not let that keep Him from obeying His Father by sacrificing Himself for us. Original sin separated us from God. Jesus came to reconcile us to Him.

So think of that when you see a Nativity, whether it is portrayed through Sunday School kids in costumes, oil paints on a canvas, or statues in a town square. That beautifully portrayed moment in time was actually dirty and smelly as the King of the Universe lay on a bed of fodder. An audience made of society’s flotsam was the first to behold this baby King, and that was just the beginning of Jesus’ mission to seek and save the lost. Jesus traded Heaven for the humdrum so He could save humanity.

God is Everywhere, Part 1: Consider the Butterfly

What is a rarer find than an albino deer munching a mouthful of four-leaf clovers that grew in a spot where lightning struck twice?  A Millenial Christian scientist.  I don’t mean a Millenial Christian Scientist – a young adult who emphasizes a connection between spiritual activity and physical healing – but a young adult who believes the orderly outlay of the universe is God’s creation.  I do not believe this only because I take the Bible, which covers the creation of the world in Genesis 1, literally, but because I see the natural world as so organized and intricate that its origins and processes could not have come about by chance.

Perhaps I exaggerated about the odds of a finding a person of my generation who believes in both a Christ and Creator.  But when I was an undergraduate in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology program at a secular university, the scientific community that surrounded me dismissed all notions of Intelligent Design – the theory that a deliberate cause is behind certain aspects of nature – and especially Creationism – essentially, Intelligent Design that gives credit to an intelligent Creator – in favor of unguided evolution driven by mutation and circumstance.

But I could not swallow that.  I did as Jesus commanded: “Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Luke 12:27, KJV).  Jesus was inviting His disciples to practice the first step of the Scientific Method: to observe the natural world around them.  Jesus wants us to look at the world around us – a wonderful reminder that God is powerful enough to keep the entire universe moving, yet loving enough to care about the petals of every flower.

And so ends the preamble to a series I am starting called “Consider the lilies…and other things.”  The first “other thing” will be…butterflies.  Today is National Learn about Butterflies Day  (Seriously.  I found out on Facebook.), so it’s appropriate for me to post this today.  Butterflies are amazing for many reasons: they “taste” with their feet, some species can fly at 37 miles per hour, and the monarch butterfly can successfully migrate over a distance of 2,000 miles without the aid of Google Maps (San Diego Zoo Global, 2016).  But what I find most fascinating about butterflies is the complex metamorphosis from caterpillar to adult butterfly.

When I was younger, I would capture swallowtail caterpillars I found munching on dill plants in my parents’ garden, place them in a large plastic container lovingly furnished with sticks, grass, dill, and air holes in the container’s lid, and wait for the day the creeping caterpillar would be replaced with a conical chrysalis.  I could only imagine what was taking place inside as the ugly duckling was turning into a swan.  Thanks to modern technology, we can have a better understanding of what takes place during this transition.  Recently, the method called micro-CT was used to take cross-section images of a chrysalis at different stages of metamorphosis (Young, 2013).  These images were put together to form virtual models showing how the organs and structures of a butterfly develop (Young, 2013).

While the processes of this event can be explained, much like the formation of a baby within its mother’s womb, both still carry an aura of mystery.  For me, both are evidence of God: elements and molecules come together to make organs and membranes exactly as He designed them to, yet no one’s hands but His can touch and mold the new life.  The author of  Psalm 139:13-14 praises God for this: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”  

The transition of a crawling caterpillar into an airborne butterfly is also an illustration of the rebirth a person experiences when he is saved through Christ.  Jesus told Nicodemus (a Pharisee who was interested in Jesus’ teachings) that a man must be born again to see the kingdom of God.  Nicodemus was puzzled by these words which probably gave him a very weird mental image.  Jesus explained He was not talking about physical birth, but spiritual birth: “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:6-8).  Spiritual transformation cannot be gained through physical, earthly means.  It can only be gained through the grace given to us through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  And once we are transformed, we are not just caterpillars wearing a new set of clothes; we are fluttering, soaring, unbounded butterflies no longer confined to the lowly world.  As Paul wrote to the people of Corinth, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).  

Even though this front pew kid is all grown up, I still am amazed by the transformation of caterpillars into butterflies, of despairing hearts into joyous ones.  Such creations as the butterfly are wonderful reminders of the new lives God wants us to enjoy to the full.  Of course, He does not want us to forget who designed the caterpillars and butterflies in the first place, so this Christian scientist will be okay with leaving a few mysteries unexplained.

 

Photo credit: Author.

San Diego Zoo Global.  (2016).  Arthropods | Butterfly.  Retrieved from http://animals.sandiegozoo.org/animals/butterfly.

Young, E.  (2013, May 14).  Not Exactly Rocket Science: 3-D Scans Reveal Caterpillars Turning Into Butterflies.  Retrieved from http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2013/05/14/3-d-scans-caterpillars-transforming-butterflies-metamorphosis/.

Unless noted, Bible verses are from the New International Version (NIV) Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Faith in Humanity? I Think I’ll Pass…

In recent years, I have heard more and more about the cultural shift in the U.S. away from belief in a Higher Power to belief in Human Power.  The human heart that has never known the goodness of God might instinctively cheer this at first: “Woo-hoo; we’re in charge!  We can do what we want!”  But just wait for that heart to be cheated and hurt by other humans doing what they want, and the cheers will fade to silence.  For while we are capable of showing kindness and charity, humans are also vehicles for unspeakable evil.  The evening news does not broadcast a story on the adoption of all the orphans in the world, then report on an end to animal cruelty.  There is no interruption of an on-site report of peace in the Middle East with breaking news that poverty has been eradicated worldwide.  Instead, updates on murder trials are followed with recaps of nasty political debates, summaries of economic decline, and accounts of the latest corporate scandals.  These major stories, the times I have been let down, as well as my own personal faults and flaws make me wonder why anyone would want humans to be in control of this world.

But we’re not in control.  God is.  (cue Twila’s Paris’ hit from 1993).  When Adam and Eve – the first two humans to inhabit Earth – were first created, they enjoyed intimacy with God and were free from trouble.  To maintain this life in paradise, all they had to do was follow one command: not to eat fruit from one tree (the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; Genesis 2:16).  The Bible does not disclose how long Adam and Eve enjoyed this existence, but by the third chapter of Genesis, Satan is on the scene, bent on destroying these perfect lives.  He questions Eve on God’s sovereignty, and she decides to ignore God’s command.  She eats the fruit.  (Many front pew kids probably cry out loud, “Nooooo! Don’t eat it!!” whenever they read this story in the Bible.)  Eve convinces Adam to share in her disobedience, and perfect humanity comes to an end (Genesis 3:1-7).

It is interesting to note that in Genesis 3:22, God says that man now knows “good and evil.”  I will not delve too deeply into the philosophy of “If ‘evil’ does not exist, can ‘good’ exist since there is no way to contrast them?”  (I will let someone with a Ph.D. handle that.)  While Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, living in God’s presence, walking and talking with Him, that life was…just the way it was.  There was no choice to worship God; to be was to love God and be one with Him.  But once Adam and Eve were given the boot, the struggles and demands of their new realities got in the way of communion with God.  Their choices, and the choices of their descendants, ranged from reverent to decent to okay to questionable to downright wicked.  They turned away from God, then they turned to God, only to turn away from Him again. But God showed them He is always in control.

The Bible accounts myriad sins of mankind as well as the prescribed sacrifices and rituals to cleanse people from their sins until the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Still, once salvation and forgiveness were offered through Jesus, sin did not disappear.  In fact, that’s why people need Jesus’ grace and mercy today: we cannot live perfect lives because we are the children of Adam and Eve, fallen from grace.  We can know and believe God is in control, but by instinct we like to take the reins away from Him.  We want to charge when He says, “Slow down,” or halt when He says, “Go forward.”  We cannot help it; we’re only human.

But for some people, the thought of obeying God – or another deity – is distasteful, and they prefer to follow the idea of humanism.  According to the American Humanist Association, humanism – belief in the goodness of humanity rather than a Higher Power – may take on a “religious” or “secular” form, but both types have several points in common.  Among them, that “Humanists recognize that intuitive feelings, hunches, speculation, flashes of inspiration, emotion, altered states of consciousness, and even religious experience, while not valid means to acquire knowledge, remain useful sources of ideas that can lead us to new ways of looking at the world” (Edwords, 2008).  Herein lies the danger, since humans know both good and evil.  What if one person has a “flash of inspiration” to buy a new car because, well, why not?, while another person sees the shiny new car and has a “flash of inspiration” to steal it because, well, why not?  Without a Higher Power, without God, who holds us accountable for our actions, humans can justify living by their own desires.  But if all people believed that God, who said, “You shall not steal”  (Exodus 20:15) should be obeyed as our Creator and Judge, theft could not be justified.

The American Humanist Association summarizes humanism this way: “Humanism is, in sum, a philosophy for those in love with life” (Edwords, 2008).  Well.  Hands up, anyone who is in love with life every second of every day of every year.  Hands up, anyone who never experiences the pain of a broken heart or a broken bone, anyone with limitless wealth who does not toil for it, anyone who lives in a sunshine-filled paradise, anyone who never mourns about modern-day slavery, anyone who is not trapped in slavery himself.  The first sin spawned countless others that leave humanity in a conflicted world.  Of course, we experience bright points as we move through life, but darkness can easily overshadow them.

Humanists do not believe in life after death, which makes me 1) pity them, and 2) wonder why they would want to live this way.  Personally, the promise of a heavenly home keeps me strong through moments of weakness.  While He was on Earth, Jesus comforted His disciples, saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:1-3).  To be with Jesus, the One who died for me, and to be in perfect union with God, the Creator of this world, for that I am willing to give up control.

Jesus told us to love others, but He did wants us to love God first.  He wants us to look to Him both when we are distressed and when we are delighted.  He wants us to remember He is in control, and when the world rails against us, we can take refuge in Him.  This front pew kid hopes that the rush to humanism will slow to a trickle as people remember the goodness of God.  But even if the rush instead turns to a tidal wave, I will remember God is in control, and He offers so much to those who love him.  Man passages in the Psalms,  especially  Psalm 25:20-21,  sum up this determination so well:

“Guard my life and rescue me;
    do not let me be put to shame,
    for I take refuge in you.
May integrity and uprightness protect me,
    because my hope, Lord, is in you.”

 

Photo credit: http://allpix.club/pages/q/quality-clipart/

Edwords, F. (2008). What is Humanism.  Retrieved from http://americanhumanist.org/humanism/what_is_humanism

Unless noted, Bible verses are from the New International Version (NIV)

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

On Chocolates, Lies, and Bottomless Fish Fries

When I was a kid, I never gave up anything for Lent because, well, that was a Catholic thing.  Granted, some Protestants follow the traditions of Lent, but I did not grasp that in my younger days.  In my immature, impressionable mind, the rites of Catholicism had been established as showy and superficial.  I never read in the Bible about having an ashy cross drawn on one’s forehead and participating in a mandated abstinence from hamburgers on Fridays.  I considered myself a good little Protestant by treating the days between Ash Wednesday and Easter as ordinary as any other and, shamefully, scoffed at kids in my class who said they had given up meat, pop, chocolate, or sugar for Lent.  Hopefully you can forgive this unfair prejudice; it wasn’t the first instance of Protestants and Catholics not understanding each other (can you say, “Ireland”?).

Now that this front pew kid is all grown up, my views on fasting during Lent have changed somewhat.  Also, now that the Internet can answer virtually any question, I can find terrific articles to educate me about the history of Lent, the exact rules regarding fasting during Lent for Catholics, and whether, if a person is giving up eating meat on Fridays,  chicken counts as a meat.  But more importantly, I do not assume that all people who fast during Lent give up the same thing for the same reasons for the same amount of time.  I can imagine that some people give up things quietly, telling no one or only those who need to know.  This is how I believe people should fast, since this is what Jesus said on the matter:

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18).  

Bragging or making a show about what you are giving up for Lent is just as repugnant to God as belittling someone for fasting during Lent.  After all, during Lent or at any other time of the year, God cares about the motives of our actions rather than the actions themselves.  When Saul was king of Israel, God commanded him to destroy a group of people called the Amalekites and everthing that belonged to them.  Saul had no qualms about annihilating the people, but instead of killing the best livestock, he thought he’d make himself big in God’s eyes by giving Him the best spoils.  When Saul wanted to know why God was furious at him for this, the prophet Samuel said,

“…Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
    as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22).

When you give something up during Lent, you might be sacrificing, but are you still obeying?  If you go to Greasy Spoon Cafe on a Friday and order the “Bottomless Catch” fish basket because you’re abstaining from red meat but are rude to the waitress, are you following the commandments to love God with all your being, and to love others as you love yourself?  If you “fast” by giving up television but do not fill your now TV-free time with activities that turn your heart to God, what is the point (see Joel 2:12)?  You might impress someone with a claim to be abstaining from sugar until Easter, but if a sugar withdrawal makes you sour and bitter, God is not impressed.  After all, “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7b).

I like the idea of fasting.  I like the idea of making a decision to abstain from something and spend the time instead praying, reading the Bible, or listening to praise music.  But for me, I do not see how giving up one type of food makes more room for God in my life.  Jesus said, “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them” (Mark 7:15).  What would please God more: giving up chocolate…or cheating? lamb…or lying? steak…or sarcasm? pot roast…or pride?

Fasting has been a way to honor God since the Old Testament times, and many Christians still do so today.  This front pew kid has a better understanding of why and how it can be done and just might make it a bigger part of her life.  Giving up a food can remind us how blessed we are to be able to give something up.  Giving up a sinful habit can bring us closer to God’s righteousness.  Either way, it should be done quietly.  Others might notice the effects.  God will definitely know our intentions.

Photo credit: http://oneidacountywi.com/three-spots-to-try-a-fish-fry/

All Bible references are from the New International Version (NIV)

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Confessions of an (almost) Pharisee

Full disclosure: I am a sinner.  Sin is anything we think, say, or do that does not glorify God.  All have sinned by the default of being human, as 1 John 1: 8 and 10 describe: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us…If we claim we have not sinned, we make [God] out to be a liar and His word is not in us.”  A multitude of sins can stain our lives and hearts, and sometimes a common theme can describe our personal sins.  It might be Anger, Deceit, Violence, Materialism, Conceit…or Legalism.  Ashamedly, I admit so many of my sins have fallen under the last category.

In the Christian sphere, Legalists tend to stress strict adherence to God’s laws.  They hope obedience to a set of rules will grant them salvation, and they look down on people that do not follow the rules as they do (1).  In the Bible, a group of people called “Pharisees” believed both God’s Law (Torah) and Oral Law were strict codes to be kept by God’s people.  (A great video explaining what the Sadducees and Pharisees believed is below.)  The Pharisees did not like Jesus’ new message, and they were constantly looking for ways to thwart people from hearing His Word.  But Jesus often called them out for this, as in Matthew 23:13: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

 

Recently, I have realized that I have acted too much like these people who were so bent on following God’s law and the laws developed by men.  When I grew up in the front pew and attended Sunday School, AWANA, Vacation Bible School, and Bible camp, in addition to having Christian parents, my absorbent brain was quickly and incessantly filled with knowledge of God and the Bible.  However, I became too caught up in the verses describing what I should  not do rather than what I should do.  My personality that strove for high achievement in school and activities did not help me be the most patient or loving person, either.  During my last years of undergraduate school and time as a graduate student, I became so preoccupied with making grades and doing things “right” that I avoided people and situations that I considered unhelpful for reaching my earthly goals.  Too often I looked around at the “sinners” around me and shuddered.  Why should I have allowed them into my life?  They did not go to church, they did not use time or money wisely, they did not…  My criticisms went on and on.  I justified my actions with 1 Corinthians 15:33: “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character’.”  But while this single pithy saying defended my choices, Jesus’ entire life contested them  I was, essentially, a Pharisee: shunning the people that did not live up to my Christian “ideals.”

Jesus was criticized by the legalists of His time when He associated with people who were banned from the society of “godly” people.  Yet he gathered them to His side.  He talked with them, listened to them, had meals with them.  On one occasion described in Matthew 9:10-12, Jesus was hanging out at the home of Matthew, a tax collector – a member of special class of sinners – having a meal with other tax collectors and sinners.  Some Pharisees on the scene, shocked and appalled at this, asked Jesus’ disciples why He dared to be seen with these people.  In response, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”  The sins of the people were known and obvious to Jesus, but He still chose to be near them.  A good doctor is not afraid of disease, and he must get close enough to see, touch, and hear his patient to prescribe treatment.  But the good doctor also knows how to avoid getting the disease so he can keep on caring for his patients.

 

Fear of earthly failure inspired my dark moments of pride and lack of love.  Rather than trusting God to protect me from worldly influences while reaching out to others, I instead focused on myself and how well I was following my religion.  I now painfully regret the moments lost when I could have shared the love of God with others.  I gave up potential friendships and the chance to tell others about Jesus because of my legalistic ways.  During my transient life as a student, I had the this mentality: “I just need to focus on my work for two years and then I’ll move on.  There’s no point in making relationships that will be broken sooner than later.”  I thank God that, after six months at my current job, my boss pointed out my less than sociable ways.  I admit it: I cried.  I realized I was not acting like a true Christian – someone Jesus would want to claim as a friend.  Since then, I have made more efforts to be inclusive, patient, and loving.  True, I still have said or done the wrong thing at times, but I have more often chosen to say and do what God what want.  And, wonderfully, despite my spotted past, Jesus still wants me to be His friend!  Even though we are all sinners, “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).  Jesus will have anyone with a sincere heart – tax collectors, Pharisees, and front pew kids who know a little too much for their own good.

Photo credit: http://cedricstudio.com/tag/jesus/

  1. https://carm.org/what-is-legalism

Prayer, Praise…and Potluck

Changing churches is tough.  Sadly, conflict within churches made this front pew kid sit in a lot of different front pews throughout childhood.  (It’s terrible when Christians don’t act like Christians, but that’s for another post.)  I worshiped God in the auditoriums of mega-churches and the living rooms of home churches.  My family even helped start a new church, but then we moved to another state and began the search yet again.  Again, we went through the awkward first few Sundays trying to remember the names of the people we met last week, sizing up the offered ministries,  hoping the church is a good fit because the people are just so darn nice to us, we’d feel rude not to come back.  Thankfully, I was never embittered by any church I attended, and choosing a church to attend was a first priority when I moved around as an adult.  Choosing to leave each one was difficult, mostly when it meant leaving behind people who had welcomed and invested their interest in me.  But even when a person leaves a church, they never leave the Church.

The Church (the collection of Christ’s followers) is more powerful than a church (a building where people gather to worship).  Though separated by physical distance or personal preferences, all Christians share salvation through Jesus.  This is a powerful, uniting force, and, amazingly, makes extremely different people do incredibly similar things.  Acts 2:42 describes the activities of members of the early church as such: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”  I’m not a scholar on First Century Church Life, so I don’t know what exactly happened when the earliest Christians worshiped.  But the basics of worship – learning about Jesus’ message, spending time together and caring for each other, sharing meals, and reaching God through prayer and praise – well, they haven’t changed much over 2,000 years.  Despite the differences among Christian denominations (the “top 35” by membership size are described here), all Christians are equally valued by God and have Christ within them. Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  Salvation unites men and women,  princes and paupers, Alaskans and Australians.

I’m a relative newcomer at my current church.  It is the home church of my fiance, and his family is deeply rooted there.  On this past Sunday the church celebrated its 125th Anniversary.  It was indeed a special Sunday with the presence of former pastors and congregants as well as other unique touches, but the songs we sang, the fellowship we shared, and the prayers we lifted were all meant to honor God and bind us closer together.  Chosen verses for the occasion included Hebrews 10:24-25: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.  Let us not give up meeting together…but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  Besides the chance to worship God, the point of church is to support the Church.  We pray for each other, we praise God together, and we potluck like nobody’s business.  (We were instructed to break bread together, right?)

The uniting bond of salvation among Christians has always given me courage to try a new church as I’ve felt led.  It’s a supernatural feat for this introvert to enter a building full of smiling, handshaking strangers.  How can this be?  Well, just like the Powdermilk Biscuits mentioned on A Prairie Home Companion,  the Bible in my arms and the Holy Spirit inside me “give shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.”

 

Photo credit: http://www.penwag.org/december-potluck-challenges-revealed-and-super-stash-sale/