It’s not easy being cleaned

Drum kit

Long, long ago when I was younger I liked watching The Muppet Show (I’ll let you ponder how old I was when I was watching it). It was just good, clean fun, and yet once in a while the writers would come up with some nuggets of wisdom or introspection that just somehow stuck with me, and I remember those to this very day. One such nugget is the Kermit the Frog song, “It’s not easy being green.”  The allegory in the title and singer combination is quite funny in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, but it’s a pretty poignant tune.  In the song, Kermit laments being the color of so many other things, of things that he mostly blends into and hence doesn’t tend to stand out.  Yet at the end, he reminds himself that even being the same color as many of the things around him doesn’t negate his uniqueness and his value, and ultimately he embraces being green as something special.

In a similar way, the process of being “cleaned,” (by which I mean to say – in an inherently cheeky sort of way – picked-out, processed, and prepared by God for His glory and our growth and good) is also difficult.  Much of the time, it involves pain and difficulty and requires our willingness to be bent, folded, and shaped in ways that can push us to the brink.  But sometimes that is the only way to be made whole, beautiful, useful.  Allow me to illustrate …

Back in 1993, when I started the MBA program at Stanford University, I decided that I wanted to use the two-year period to learn to play drums since I was not working (other than being in a rigorous master’s program … details, details).  But I had alwayswanted to learn to play drums and with four other guys who wanted to start a band, it was the perfect situation.  That is, other than the fact that I didn’t actually own drums. Serendipitously, a friend of mine offered to let me “have” (that is, borrow) his drum kit.  The only snag was that his drum kit was stored at the family farm in Fresno, about 170 miles away, and it had been there for about 20 years. So, if I wanted to use it I just had to go fetch it, clean it up, and away I could go.

I drove all the way out to Fresno, picked up the 1970s-era five-piece all-chrome-shell vintage Ludwig kit.  Vintage.  That’s another word for “old,” “worn,” and “dirty.”  But I was not to be deterred.  Never playing drums, I had no context for what to clean, how to clean, and what pieces worked and what needed to be replaced.  So I took the drums apart piece-by-piece, removed the heads, removed the lugs, checked every piece, polished, scrubbed, applied elbow-grease, and replaced the heads, down to the finest degree of detail.  It was long, it was hard, it was painstaking, but it was necessary.  In fact, it was the only way to get that beautiful drum kit working.  More than working.  Sounding amazing.  Sounding like it was intended to sound.  Frankly, sounding better than it should with the likes of me playing on it.  For that kit, it’s not easy being cleaned.

And so it is with our lives at times.  Many of us have been or maybe are presently in a place where we are spiritually old, worn, and dirty.  Maybe not every part of us, but at least some parts of us.  If we have decided to let Jesus have lordship over our lives, though, the great news is, He is working on us to put us to use. The only challenge is it’s not easy being cleaned.  We get a sense of how God does this in us, however, in Romans 5:3-5

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

I sort of refer to this passage as God’s “pain chain.”  In a way, it seems to me analogous to the old Ludwig drum kit.  There are times in our lives when God has to pull us apart, piece-by-piece in order that He can tend to the individual components, meticulously cleaning and repairing each one.  There is a lot of work performed in the process, and it isn’t always easy (more accurately, it’s always difficult).  But He knows that going to that level of effort, and that specific and detailed a cleaning, while hard for us, is the only way to get working the beautiful creation He made each of us.  More than working.  Sounding – and being – like we were intended to.  Indeed, better than we should be with the likes of us being us.  It’s not easy being cleaned.

Job was broken apart into pieces in ways most of us think was beyond repair.  In a very short time he literally lost everything.  The Bible tells us that the first messenger came to Job to report of the loss of all his livestock to thieves and farmhands to murder, and while the messenger was still speaking another messenger came to report a fire that destroyed all Job’s sheep and shepherds, and while that messenger was still speaking another messenger came to report the theft of Job’s camels and murder of his servants, and while that messenger was still speaking another messenger came to report the tragic death of ALL of Job’s children.  And that was beforeJob was broken down of his personal health.  He was taken apart piece-by-piece and reconstructed in ways he never could have imagined, and at the end of the book we are told that God restoredto Job far more than Job started off … “So the Lord blessed Job in the second half of his life even more than in the beginning.”  (Job 42:12a, NLT)

Even more than receiving back all Job’s “stuff,” God grew Job in faith and understanding, and created through Job’s life a wealth of wisdom and witness by which generations have been blessed since. That is, in breaking Job down and undertaking a specific and detailed cleaning, while hard for Job, was the only way to establish a beautiful creation through Job.  Making Job be what Job was intended to be, even through the hardship.  Indeed, Job’s life and impact was far greater than it could be without going through the cleaning.  But I think it’s safe to say that Job would say it’s not easy being cleaned.

And what about you and me?  Maybe life is feeling like we’ve been broken down piece-by-piece and are being rubbed, polished, scrubbed, and cleaned.  But it’s hard.  Well, let me assure you that IF you are undergoing that cleansing in concert with your Creator, then even though it’s not easy being cleaned, you will come out on the other end far better off for the cleaning, and sounding – and being – like you were intended to.  If you are not letting your Creator bring that about, then the cleansing is just more difficult and undoubtedly to a dubious end.  While it’s not easy being cleaned, maybe it’s the very way that Jesus is reaching out to you in this very moment, just asking for your acknowledgment and trust, so He can bring you through to a glorious and far better end. Please … if He is knocking on the door of your heart, you are WAY better off to answer and let Him complete the cleaning.  It’s not easy being cleaned … but you (and I) will be like we were intended … indeed better if we let Him do the cleaning.

Soli Deo gloria!

MR

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Are we there yet?

mater

Perhaps every parent has heard this before, much the same way many of us in my generation know the sounds of fingernails on the chalkboard.  “Are we there yet?  Are we there yet?  Are we there yet?”  The melodically whiny, if not annoying, chant of our kids on a road trip of virtually any distance is enough to have us parents running longingly to any nearby chalkboard to apply our fingernails.  Literally anything is preferable to, “are we there yet?”  No doubt we’ve ALL heard it, and alas, no doubt we’ve ALL said it.

Yet as annoying and frustrating and wit-ending as it might be, could anything be more accurately descriptive of how we approach God in His providential direction of our lives?  Let me speak only as to myself.  If I’ve asked once, I’ve asked a thousand times to God, particularly in this past season over the last year or so, “are we there yet???”  You see, there are many times when we know God is at work in or through a season in our lives that we impatiently beseech Him to hasten whatever destination to which He is leading us.  It could come during times of expected rescue from a distressing situation or the hoped-for arrival at a place or outcome He allows to be on our hearts.  Regardless, we whine, “are we there yet???”  Or at least, I do.

The thing is, just like in those times of the road trips of our youth or our kids’ youth, God is always leading and driving us to a destination.  But our timeline isn’t His timeline and He always has purposes in the journey as much as the destination.  So how do we temper our eagerness, and rely on the trustworthiness of the Lord?  I guess, it’s sort of like Mater from the Cars franchise of movies.  In one segment of the original movie, Mater excitedly and recklessly drives in reverse much to his own enjoyment and Lightning McQueen’s incredulity. After he completes his white-knuckle jaunt, he proclaims some applicable truth for you and me … “Ain’t no need to watch where I’m goin’; just need to know where I’ve been.”

But in view of the fact that Mater was neither priest nor prophet, neither apostle nor disciple, perhaps we can grapple with some superior wisdom, yet similar application, through the Biblical texts. And when it comes to the, “are we there yet?” question, I think Abraham and Sarah can teach us quite a bit.  Genesis 12:1-4

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you.  I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others.  I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.”  So Abram departed as the Lord had instructed, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.

There isn’t necessarily evidence that Abram knew God prior to this time.  This is essentially the first we hear of him after the genealogy of Abram’s father Terah in the prior chapter.  But the Lord speaks to Abram and says to him, “take off and go to a land that I will show you later.”  Not only that, but he promises Abram to make him into a nation.  But there was a problem … for Abram and Sarai to become a nation it was probably a good first step for them to perhaps start with a child.  But they were unable to have one. And worse yet, they were old.  If anyone in history was in a position to wonder, “are we there yet,” it was going to be Abram and Sarai.  And yet, what did they do when told to go?  They went.  But wait, there’s more … Genesis 15:1-6

Some time later, the Lord spoke to Abram in a vision and said to him, “Do not be afraid, Abram, for I will protect you, and your reward will be great.”  But Abram replied, “O Sovereign Lord, what good are all your blessings when I don’t even have a son? Since you’ve given me no children, Eliezer of Damascus, a servant in my household, will inherit all my wealth.  You have given me no descendants of my own, so one of my servants will be my heir.”  Then the Lord said to him, “No, your servant will not be your heir, for you will have a son of your own who will be your heir.”  Then the Lord took Abram outside and said to him, “Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants you will have!”  And Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith.

Now Abram made his way to the land God promised him, but this is now “some time later,” and Abram was yet to see the fruition of becoming a “great nation.”  He and Sarai didn’t even have a single child, let alone a nation.  But despite the passage of a long time, Abram did not say, “are we there yet?”  He kept going and kept trusting.  It wasn’t until Abram (after he was renamed Abraham and Sarai was renamed Sarah) was 100 years old that Sarah gave birth to Isaac, who was the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise to make Abraham into a “great nation.”

For those of you keeping score, Abraham waited 25 years for God to fulfill His promise to Abraham.  25 years!!!  I don’t want to even think about how many times I would ask, “are we there yet?” if I had to wait for 25 years.  And unlike you and me, Abraham and Sarah didn’t have the Word of God to draw upon to see historic accounts of God’s faithfulness and miraculous delivery of His providence.  But … we do!!!

And this is where the Mater comment comes in. “Ain’t no need to watch where I’m goin’; just need to know where I’ve been.”

That is, if you want to be confident in God’s faithfulness in the future, remind yourself of God’s faithfulness in the past. Isn’t that in fact what the Bible is all about?  God tells us what He’s going to do, and then He does it.  Then we can attest to His faithfulness in advance, never having to ask ourselves, “are we there yet?”  Because we have the certainty that He will get us there, in time.

The past year and a half of Helen and my life, we have had a clear sense of God bringing us somewhere.  In fact, in some ways, it feels like the culmination of many years of expectation God has allowed us to have about a journeying “to a land that I will show you.”  Along the way, I have had countless, “are we there yet?” moments.  The wait, and the resulting disappointment from time to time of the wait, has admittedly been challenging.  My faithfulness has lacked, many times.  But God’s faithfulness has NEVER diminished.  It hasn’t been 25 years, to be sure, but we stand at the precipice of what appears to be Him fulfilling his purpose in this season. Of course, it’s possible that He isn’t just yet.  But another aspect of this period He is bringing us through is that I have frequently reflected on His loving faithfulness throughout my life, even during times when I wasn’t following Him.  Along the way, He has reminded me that I can rely on His faithfulness in the future because of His faithfulness in the past.

And such is true for you.  I don’t know what you’re going through, what is making you wonder, “are we there yet?”  But what I do know is that God will be faithful in delivering you to a destination that brings Him maximum glory and you maximum blessing, in time.  If you are struggling to be faithful in this season, think back on how He has been faithful to you in the past.

“Ain’t no need to watch where I’m goin’; just need to know where I’ve been.”

Soli Deo gloria!

MR

Ad hominem

ad hominem 2

In debates, the goal is to convey one’s position on a topic and to rebut or defeat the position of the other debater.  So the objective is to break down the argument the other is making and to attack the veracity or logic of the argument.  Generally-speaking, it is less effective to make an ad hominem argument, that is, rather than directing an attack at the argument, the attack is directed at the arguer.  To an extent, this tactic is performed when the opponent doesn’t have the ability to attack the argument.  Thus, she or he has to resort to an ad hominem assault.

It’s probably safe to say that this is not just a debate issue, but a human issue.  Certainly we all probably have dealt with people making attacks on us rather than on the statements we make or the behaviors we exhibit.  I daresay that attacks like these are fairly common in our society right now.  The paint brushes we all tend to use are pretty broad and so when someone says something stupid, we focus our battering on the person rather than the behavior. We say in an ad hominem manner, “so-and-so is a such-and-such,” rather than, “so-and-so did such-and-such.”  There’s a difference.

But these reactions aren’t necessarily always outward-facing.  Many of us have difficult pasts, and many of us struggle to leave those pasts behind. If you lied in the past, you may berate yourself for being a liar.  If you have suffered addiction in the past, you may not be able to allow yourself to see yourself as anything other than an addict.  If you have failed educationally, professionally or relationally in the past, you may not be able to have any other view for yourself than as a failure.  In a sense, we direct the ad hominem attack against ourselves.  I think there could be hopefulness in looking at how God sees it.

Many of us have a false impression that God see us in an ad hominem way.  That is, once we screw up in life, God just tosses us into the “screw up” column on His list.  Basically we fall victim to the thinking that God can’t see us as worthy of saving because of who we are, as an extrapolation of what we did. Fortunately, that’s not quite the case and I think the Bible conveys this abundantly.  One of my favorite passages of Scripture is Matthew 9:9

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. So Matthew got up and followed him.

Simple, straightforward, and powerful.  In order to catch the significance, we need to understand that Matthew, as a tax collector, was despised by his fellow Jews. Why?  Because he was complicit with the Roman infrastructure in not just taxing, but over-taxing and enslaving in many ways, the Jewish people.  Moreover, it was common practice for the tax collectors to skim off-the-top of their collections.  That is, they stole money for their own benefit and enrichment.  In short, they were liars and thieves. Jesus could have not only walked along past Matthew, but could have berated him for being an evil, lying, thieving scumbag.  Those adjectives have applied in all fairness.  But Jesus was not one to focus on ad hominem notions and instead saw past the behaviors and into the person.

Now, I don’t want to get in trouble and have you think I am not being theologically-sound.  The Bible is crystal clear that we have all sinned. More than that, it is clear that as a consequence, we are all sinners.  So in a way, our nature combined with our behaviors, indeed indicate that when it comes to sin, we are what we do.  But there is a bigger, more important and eternal truth I am trying to pass along.

That is, there is a way out.  Our sin does define us as sinners … until Jesus went to the cross to take the full penalty upon Himself.  Now, to the extent you have trusted in that saving sacrifice – trust meaning place your confidence in it and accepting the forgiveness – the Father looks at you and me and doesn’t see sin, He sees his Son.  Now here’s something even better …

When Jesus took our penalty on our behalf, He also purchase for us freedom from the ad hominem nature of our past behaviors.  While my lies may have made me a liar before, Jesus wiped that clean. While your previous addiction may have labeled you an addict to others (and yourself), Jesus has cleared the slate. God no longer sees our behaviors as our identities.  He sees our identities as identical to His son, by his immense mercy and grace.

We see numerous examples of this in the Bible. Consider the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:1-11).  Or Jonah, a prophet of the Lord who decided to disobey and go to Tarshish rather than to pass along a message of salvation to the hated people at Nineveh (Jonah 1:1-3).  The examples go on and on.

Again, please don’t misunderstand me. Addictions are real and serious, requiring real and serious treatment.  But with the help of God, many have been freed.  Lying, stealing, etc., have tangible and lasting consequences, and may derive from other psychological or experiential issues.  Again, those are not to be diminished in severity.  And yet … God is powerful above ALL things and can save us from ourselves and our afflictions.  About that, Scripture is clear.

The takeaway … first, we shouldn’t persist in ad hominem attacks of others.  The fact that Jesus died for them as well as us should allow us to separate the behavior from the behaver.  The adage, “love the sinner, hate the sin,” comes to mind aptly. Maybe this orientation will allow us to truly love our neighbors as ourselves.  Maybe those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ will act in a way that attracts others to become so.

Secondly, we should consider the fullness of His grace as extensible to ourselves.  That is, let’s not attack ourselves ad hominem either.  We have a sin nature, yes, but it’s freed if we call Jesus our Lord and Savior.  That which we have done in the past no longer needs to define us.  You and I don’t have to do anything.  Jesus did it all already.  All we have to do is acknowledge what is already true.  We are no longer that which we have done in the past.  We are free.

Finally, if you don’t know Jesus and have not accepted His salvation, I am sorry to report that you are stuck in an ad hominem existence.  Not necessarily only by your prior behaviors, but also by your nature.  So, for the moment, you are what you have done.  But the good news is this … Jesus has already done all you need in order to uncouple your deeds from your destiny.  You can be free of the ad hominem attacks on yourself and the ad hominem attacks of Satan, whose sole purpose it is to accuse and degrade you away from the freedom Jesus already bought.  Ask Him, He is waiting eagerly to share His gift!  He can forever drown out the ad hominem noise!

Soli Deo gloria!

MR

(Not so) friendly fire

Friendly fire - little league sportsmanship

L-O-V-E this time of year.  For those who know me, you can rightly guess that it’s because college football season is about to start.  But that’s not the time of your that I’m talking about.  I just finished watching the Little League World Series and have watched a number of the games over the past few weeks.  There’s just something about that tournament, with kids from all over the world competing, that just nails me in the heart and chokes me up every single year.

I know.  It’s a bunch of kids playing baseball.  What could be so intriguing?  As with many things in life, perhaps it’s the simple things.  Numerous times as I watched the games you see the kids – often who can’t even speak to one another because of language differences – giving an opponent high-fives when they hit a home run, hugging member of the other team after the game even when they lost, consoling an opposing player when the agony of defeat was overwhelming, and even joking around in the stands after both teams were eliminated from tournament contention.  The selfless care and humility of these kids, who let’s face it are competing at the highest possible level for someone their age in baseball, is beyond instructive for us older folk.

Perhaps it’s a “Captain Obvious,” thing to say but there seem to be so many divisions in our country (and world) today. Especially in the US, it seems like there is a pressure to be on a “side” and when someone is on that side, the equilibrium of our existence is to yell and scream about the other side.  But more than just about the other side’s viewpoints, we’re yelling and screaming about the people on the other side. There’s vitriol the likes of which I am not sure I’ve seen at least in my lifetime.  I don’t want to overstate anything or be especially glass half-empty (that is the antithesis of my normal leaning), but with all the arguing and anger it’s pretty hard to hear one another long enough to understand what exactly it is the other side is even saying.  There’s too much (not so) friendly fire to even figure out what the heck the war is about.

As I read through my daily devotions this week, I came across a poignant reminder from Paul that it seems was a crucial reminder to the church at Philippi.  Perhaps our days today are not all that unusual after all.  I’m not sure, but I am sure that if each one of us adopted the truth of this admonition, little by little our families, communities, cities, states, and maybe our nation would begin to see some healing and avoid the (not so) friendly fire.  It comes from Philippians 2:3-8

Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves.  Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.  You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.  Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.  Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.  When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

 Perhaps you think me a simpleton.  Perhaps it really isn’t as simple as all that.  Or perhaps it is.

Take the first two sentences (vv. 3-4) by themselves and invert them.  Is there any doubt that at least some of the issues in our families, communities, cities, states, and nation derive from the opposite of those admonitions?  From the manifestations of being selfish, of trying to impress others, of not being humble, of not thinking of others as better than ourselves, of looking out for our own interests and ignoring the interests of others? To me, it’s an open-and-shut case. Admittedly, I am painting with a broad brush but as people there are ample examples of us failing to heed these very basic human kindnesses.  I’m not trying to pontificate.  The failures common to all of us generally apply to me personally.  I admit it.  But as they say, isn’t that the first step toward healing?

What would our world look like if more often, even just incrementally, we were more selfless?  If we sought not to impress others, but rather to be humble and put others’ interests before our own?  That is, if we were truly selfless with no motivation to get anything in exchange for it? Think to a time in your life when someone extended you that kind of love.  When they clearly had nothing in it for themselves but were demonstrating an altruistic care for you, maybe even to their own detriment.  Those moments, small and episodic though they may be, have a way of making ineradicable imprints on us.  Now take that and multiply it … no, have it grow exponentially … and imagine how different our world might be.

There is a reason Paul had to address the Philippians this way.  I guess they had the same problems in the first century that we do today.  Heck, I gather that sin has been around since the garden.  But the other side of the coin is that Paul is also providing the rebuke because the behaviors will lead to recovery and restoration.  Verses 5-8, in fact, cut all the more to the quick and point out that it’s not just about being “nice.”  It’s about being Christlike.  Love is not love if it isn’t sacrificial and self-minimalizing.  The model of Jesus (vv. 5-8) was the fulfillment of Paul’s guidance (vv. 3-4).  And it’s the model for us.  It’s the only model that will ever work.  Jesus wasn’t selfish, he acted purely against His self-interests and in fulfillment of our interests.  Jesus was the very embodiment of humility.  He didn’t try to protect Himself, His body or His reputation.  He abandoned all of them to serve humanity. Folks, that includes you and me and everyone around us.  Maybe the point is, if it was good enough for the Creator of the universe … for God … what argument against it can you and I have?

There’s a pecking order, and it’s not about “looking out for number one.”  I don’t know if it’s the one and only solution to the many divisions in our society today, but I do know that God has outlined a way for us to see beyond differences and unite.  If you call yourself a Christian, then I daresay this isn’t a suggestion, it’s a command, and the way to avoid (not so) friendly fire.  Put others first. Don’t be all about yourself.  Be humble.  Seems to me, this stuff is not just in Philippians, but it’s generously spread throughout the entirety of Scripture for a reason.

I love how Jon Courson expounds on this in his daily devotional book, A Day’s Journey, “If we looked into people instead of down on people, we would be filled with compassion for people.”  Is there any downside to at least trying this in our society today?

And if it’s going to have any place in society, it needs to start somewhere.  How about you?  How about me? If the (not so) friendly fire is to cease, one of us has to be first.  Pray this week and ask God to help you little-by-little (or if you like, in totality) to start being selfless, to not make impressing others a motivation for behavior, to be humble, to put others first before yourself. Trust me, I have a long way to go, but as they say, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Soli Deo gloria!

MR

Don’t let go, let grow

Hanging by a thread

[It has been precisely 10 months since my last blog post.  To me, it’s staggering to think about it because writing had become so much of my routine and what helped my walk with the Lord to stay at a level of depth that I sought.  But as with everything, I sense that God had a reason that I put the blog on a bit of a hiatus.  And increasingly of late, I’ve had a sense of needing to get back to it.  So here we are.  Whether or not anyone reads, as always, is sort of secondary.  My desire has always been to share what God has shared with me and to let Him bless others if that is His intent.]

Does it ever feel like you’re just hanging on by a thread?  Like the circumstances of life are managing you WAY more than you’re managing them? Or, perhaps that things are just happening randomly, and that there is almost NO rhyme or reason to things? Moreover … maybe what you expected to happen not only didn’t but almost the diametric opposite did?  In a way, all of those are elements of the past year of our lives in our family.  And you know what?  We are SO excited.  In most respects (there are some more bleak circumstances I would admit may not totally qualify), I would say so should you.

Why?  It’s because in these times we have the opportunity to focus on not letting go, but letting grow.  I’ll explain …

But first, let’s peer into an interesting insight that God provided to Abram, who understands quite a bit about letting grow. It comes from Genesis 15:12-16

As the sun was going down, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a terrifying darkness came down over him.  Then the Lord said to Abram, “You can be sure that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign land, where they will be oppressed as slaves for 400 years.  But I will punish the nation that enslaves them, and in the end they will come away with great wealth.  (As for you, you will die in peace and be buried at a ripe old age.)  After four generations your descendants will return here to this land, for the sins of the Amorites do not yet warrant their destruction.”

Now remember, this is the Abram (shortly after renamed Abraham by God) who God told to basically pack up, leave his homeland and go to somewhere.  Where?  God told Abram He would let him know.  Not what Abram and his wife Sarai were planning in that season of their lives. Abram was 75.  I have to imagine he and Sarai were settling into the twilight of their lives and enjoy sunsets from their porch in their waning years. Nope.

This is the Abram who in the process of relocating, along with his nephew Lot, had to split from Lot in order to preserve the peacefulness of their settlement.  He offered Lot the first choice and accepted whatever Lot did not select.  Some might consider that foolish or careless, given that Lot was, after all, Abram’s nephew and by all rights Lot should have deferred to his uncle.

This is the Abram who God promised not only that He would allow Abram and Sarai to have a baby at a very old age (Abram was 99), but also that God would give them more descendants that the stars in the sky, and that his descendants would become a great and favored nation.

As shown in the passage above, it’s also the Abram whose descendants God prophesied would be taken into bondage for 400 years, but that ultimately would overcome their captors and would “come away with great wealth.”

Abram and Sarai, it’s safe to say, have been through a whirlwind.  They were going through the unexpected, the undesired, the unimaginable.  They were, no doubt, hanging by a thread in the twists and turns.  And yet, the Bible tells us that when God told Abram to pack up and move, he did. It tells us that he let go of what was probably rightfully his and let Lot choose the land first.  It tells us that when God promised Abram that an entire nation would come from his lineage, he “believed God.”  I think it’s safe to say that Abram didn’t let go, he let grow.

By that I mean, God doesn’t take a pair of cosmic dice and roll them to see what He’s going to do in our lives.  He doesn’t just play a universe-sized game of “pin the tail on the ‘life story of Michael’ donkey.”  It’s not the eternal wheel of fortune.

In the past year-plus in my professional life, things have gone almost in no ways the way that I’d planned.  I joined a company assured that the circumstances were such that we were going to ride a rocket ship to the stars, and yet I came to find it was more akin to some of the cataclysmically sorry failures of the 1950s and 1960s rocketsNASA worked on.  Instead of serving as a catalyst to change the world of cancer with amazing genomic technologies and data, I had to drive hard decisions to cut staff and expenses. Then, as what I felt would be my dream job came about in a separate situation, it all but slipped right through my fingers.  And to top it all off, further restructuring, new leadership, and cost-cutting resulted in my unanticipated departure.  At least, unanticipated by me.

We went through the unexpected, the undesired, the unimaginable.  At many times I felt as though we were hanging by a thread in the twists and turns. But it was in those circumstances, in the moments of fear, doubt, and disenchantment that we remembered that we’re called not to let go, but to let grow.

God was not absent in any of our situations any more than God was absent in Abram’s.  In fact, as we look at our Bibles in the stories of God’s interactions with Abram, we have a subtle but crucial reminder.  That is, God was actively engaged with Abram, and was powerfully providing for Abram, and He wasn’t letting Abram go, He was letting Abram grow.  And so it is with you and me.

When we decide to walk with God, to trust Him for the details of our lives, and to be about His business, we never, ever have to worry that He is going to leave us dangling in the wind, hanging by a thread. No, God remains with us, as “through the valley of the shadow of death,” and grows us in the process.  Our faith, our tenacity, our effectiveness in ministry, and our impact on His kingdom.

Are you hanging by a thread at the moment? Dangling in the wind?  Do you know Jesus personally?  Do you trust Him implicitly?  Do you realize that He is at work not despite your circumstances, but IN your circumstances?  Don’t just read the story of Abram and say, “Wow, God was so nice to Abram and Sarai.  Isn’t that neat?”  Instead, realize, believe, that God is actively engaged in YOUR story, THROUGH your circumstances.  He is providing the way for you even as you hang by the thread.  He is at work for your benefit.  Trust Him.  Don’t let go. Let grow.

Soli Deo gloria!

MR

It’s good to be kneaded

Kneading dough

[I would consider it a mistake to start this message without offering prayers to all affected in the horrific Las Vegas shooting, or those affected by the hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and throughout the Carribean]

 

Mmmmmm!  I can smell it.  Maybe you can too.  In fact, I can almost taste it.  What is it, you ask?  Warm, fresh, homemade bread.  Whether it’s at home, or in a bakery, there’s really nothing more amazing than the smell of fresh bread.  That is, maybe other than the taste of warm, fresh bread.

But have you ever seen the process of making the bread?  In all seriousness, it’s a physical process.  I mean, just the mixing of the ingredients is challenging enough, but watching the preparation of the dough before it finds its way to becoming that irresistible, delicious, warm loaf of goodness, is pretty daunting.

The dough has to be prepared just so, and to get it to “just so,” requires some physicality.  Sometimes it’s a hand-driven pounding the dough takes, sometimes this big wooden (or plastic, but wooden is way better) stick called a rolling pin has to be pile-driven on top of the dough seemingly incessantly, flattening and flattening.  Then, just when it seems the pummeling is through, you re-dough the dough, and commence with the pummeling again.  The process is called “kneading.”  But it looks like something that should be in a ring and require the services of a referee.

Then when the kneading is through – essentially when the dough and the preparer yell, “uncle!” – the reward for the dough’s resilience is to be stuck in an oven at 425˚.  Hardly a kinder, gentler experience for the dough.  When, and only when, the heat chamber (er, oven) has enveloped the dough sufficiently, can the dough be proclaimed to have entered the intended state of being delicious, warm, fulfilling bread.

Therein lies the topic that arose in my mind as I completed my reading the past few weeks (yeah, I’ve been away from it for a while … tough, busy season at work … or perhaps God has ordained it for a purpose – more likely).  For the bread, and I’d suggest for us as we progress through life, it’s good to be kneaded.  For the bread, frankly there is no other way for it to reach its most scrumptious existence.  For us, I’d argue there’s really no other way at times for us to reach the pinnacle of God’s loving plan for our lives.  But we’ll get to that point shortly.  By way of Esther 1 – 10, Zechariah 1 – 14, Haggai 1 – 2, Ezra 1 – 10, Psalms 137, Daniel 1 – 12, Joel 1 – 3, Ezekiel 24 – 48, Nehemiah 1 – 13, and Malachi 1 – 4, this point jumped out at me in Ezekiel 34:25-31 which states …

“I will make a covenant of peace with my people and drive away the dangerous animals from the land. Then they will be able to camp safely in the wildest places and sleep in the woods without fear.  I will bless my people and their homes around my holy hill. And in the proper season I will send the showers they need. There will be showers of blessing.  The orchards and fields of my people will yield bumper crops, and everyone will live in safety. When I have broken their chains of slavery and rescued them from those who enslaved them, then they will know that I am the Lord.  They will no longer be prey for other nations, and wild animals will no longer devour them. They will live in safety, and no one will frighten them.  “And I will make their land famous for its crops, so my people will never again suffer from famines or the insults of foreign nations.  In this way, they will know that I, the Lord their God, am with them. And they will know that they, the people of Israel, are my people, says the Sovereign Lord.  You are my flock, the sheep of my pasture. You are my people, and I am your God. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken!”

The Israelites in both the northern and southern kingdoms had been kneaded.  Painfully, thoroughly kneaded.  Through their own actions, of course.  Falling into idolatry, disobedience, and disregarding God’s continual provision, protection, and blessings, God allowed the surrounding nations to attack and overcome His people, taking them into exile.  The oppression they underwent was as much for their remediation as it was for their punishment.  In the Ezekiel passage, God is speaking through His prophet to unveil His ultimate restoration of His people.  In short, the kneading was complete, the baking was underway, and God was about to take fresh-baked bread from the oven.  In no small measure, the kneading had accomplished its purposes, but the kneading brought the pain and anguish one would associate with a lump of dough.

I’d have to imagine that if the dough were anthropomorphized, it would hardly enjoy the process of being kneaded.  It’s physically-intense and looks painful.  The pseudo-violent manner in which the dough is kneaded, thrown around, re-lumped, thrown around, kneaded, etc., isn’t particularly enticing, if you ask me.

But like it or not, it’s necessary for the dough to become its eventual destined self.  That is, dough isn’t what it’s supposed to be in the end.  It’s supposed to be a loaf of bread, and there is no way for it to become a loaf of bread without the kneading.  It’s good to be kneaded.  Now, after the kneading, there’s a process wherein the beat-up dough is left to sit around for a seemingly incessant period to “rise.”  For it to become the expected final product, it needs to recover from the kneading and capitalize on the yeast, sugars, carbon dioxide, and alcohol within it to enhance its stature and prepare for the final stage of its fate.  There’s no way for it to become a loaf of bread without the kneading and the rising.

Same thing with the oven.  Who in their right mind would want to spend 20 minutes in a 425˚ enclosure?  Well, I daresay, neither does the dough.  But the burning and baking unlocks and promotes expansion, substance, structure, and growth.  It’s the stuff that nightmares are made of, being locked in a small box at an ungodly temperature.  And yet, there’s no way for it to become a loaf of bread without the kneading, the rising, and the baking.

And so it is with us.  Life presents itself at times a combination of kneading, rising, and baking.  In no way am I saying that God always provides the kneading for correction or punishment, as was often the case for the Israelites.  But He does allow the kneading for our growth and transformation into what He is creating of and in us.  He allows the process of kneading to form and shape us into our future selves.  There’s often an emotional impact, and there’s sometimes a physical contact and yet the kneading is necessary for the change.  Kneading is essential for the beautiful, delicious, wonderfully odoriferous loaf of bread.  The bread that feeds, satisfies, fulfills, and sustains with pleasure and joy.

Is kneading painful?  Yes.  Is kneading necessary?  Yes.  It’s good to be kneaded.

Soli Deo gloria!

MR

Being a sponge

sponge

If you buy into the whole evolution thing, there isn’t much that divides you and me from sponges.  Seriously.  Personally, I find that offensive but that’s not a topic I’d like to try to tackle in this message.  At least for now 8-).  While our anatomical, physical, and metaphysical attributes are nothing like that of a sponge, I have to say that there are aspects of us that are sponge-like.  By now, you’re probably asking yourself, “where in the world could he possibly be going with this?”  Fair enough.  Perhaps a little insight would shed some light.

The horrors and cataclysm of the recent Hurricane Harvey are well-documented.  I don’t even pretend to understand what the folks in and around the gulf coast of Texas and the surrounding areas are going through.  And I actually say that in a far broader sense than you’re understanding.  That is … clearly the loss of life, property, safety, and security are beyond comprehension, particularly to the simpleminded like me.  But over the past few days, the story of one young lady, Ms. Victoria White, who in the face of the horrific somehow saw the glory of God rocked me.  In an angelic voice as much because of its beauty as its faithfulness, she sang worship to Jesus staring straight in the face of her plight.

I guess that’s what I mean when I say I can’t possibly understand what the folks that have been through Hurricane Harvey are going through … in more ways than one.  I mean, I can’t understand even for a second the loss they’ve gone through.  That’s clear as day.  But moreover … I would say that I also am challenged to understand how someone in a shelter who has clearly gone through inexplicable loss responds in worship the way she did.  You see, the point is she’s a sponge.  That is, we’re all sponges.  My reading this week (Jeremiah 41 – 52, Lamentations 1 – 5, and Ezekiel 1 – 23) will help explain what I mean, and in particular, Jeremiah 44:15 – 19 …

Then all the women present and all the men who knew that their wives had burned incense to idols—a great crowd of all the Judeans living in northern Egypt and southern Egypt—answered Jeremiah, “We will not listen to your messages from the Lord!  We will do whatever we want. We will burn incense and pour out liquid offerings to the Queen of Heaven just as much as we like—just as we, and our ancestors, and our kings and officials have always done in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. For in those days we had plenty to eat, and we were well off and had no troubles!  But ever since we quit burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and stopped worshiping her with liquid offerings, we have been in great trouble and have been dying from war and famine.”  “Besides,” the women added, “do you suppose that we were burning incense and pouring out liquid offerings to the Queen of Heaven, and making cakes marked with her image, without our husbands knowing it and helping us? Of course not!”

Sponges can soak up a lot, and quickly.  When squeezed, however, they release whatever’s soaked up.  Hence, a sponge can only release what has already been soaked up in it.  The Israelites were reaping judgment from God because that’s what they, like sponges, soaked up.  That is, they sought the admiration, approval, power, and protection of worthless idols.  In their devotion to the meaningless, tangible, physical pieces of wood, they left the one true God, the one who had not just created them, but entered a covenant relationship with them, saved them from bondage in Egypt, and who sought only their faith and devotion.

Instead, the Israelites soaked up falsehood.  They soaked up perversion.  They soaked up faithlessness.  They soaked up evil.  And when they, like sponges, were squeezed, when what was soaked up in them was released, it was falsehood, perversion, faithlessness, and evil.  Because that’s what they had soaked up.

That’s true for us today.  When we hit difficulties or challenges in life, when we’re squeezed, what comes out of us?  Is it faithfulness, perseverance, and steadfastness?  Is it God’s word and the truth of it?  Or is it pride, anger, blame, faithlessness, and uncertainty?  Like a sponge, what we put in, what we soak up, is the only thing that can be released when we’re squeezed.

If we soak up God’s word, when we’re squeezed, God’s word will be released.  If we soak up fellowship amongst other brothers and sisters in the Lord, when we’re squeezed, fellowship will be released.  If we soak up faith that God is sovereign, holy, and merciful, when we’re squeezed, faithfulness will be released.  And because those are all rooted in the truth of the all-powerful, unchanging Creator of the universe, when we’re squeezed, what will be released will be of a fresh and calming aroma.

On the other hand, if we soak up selfishness or self-sufficiency, when we’re squeezed, that will be released.  If we soak up pride, when we’re squeezed, that will be released.  And because those are all rooted in the evil of the enemy, who prowls around like a roaring lion looking for whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8), when we’re squeezed, all that will be released will be putrid, dank, and repulsive.

Two weeks ago, the people of Houston and the Gulf Coast of Texas were unaware of their plight, and yet that plight loomed.  In our lives, Hurricane Harveys perhaps of a different sort queue up for an eventual destructive path.  While we rarely contemplate that reality, in some way we all acknowledge the inevitability of those times.  So given that, what are we soaking up?  What are we ensuring is in us so that when, not if, we’re squeezed, what comes out of us will be of the right and good sort?  Are we in God’s word regularly?  Are we communing with Him in prayer routinely?  Are we engaged in a faithful, fruitful community of believers actively?  Are we seeking the Holy Spirit for His help in growing our faith deeply?

If so, when we’re in the shelter from the storms of life, God’s truth and gospel will gush out of us, for His glory, for our good, and the good of those around us.  Just like Ms. Victoria White, Lord bless her!  When she was squeezed, what came out of her was …

Soli Deo gloria!

MR