Tuesday, January 28, 2020

BROKEN FENCES


Psalm 51:12
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

                It is usually very quiet as I leave my house in the morning to begin my walk to the office. I walk through our neighborhood, often making the first tracks in the new fallen snow. Four blocks from our house the street ends at the river. At this point I follow a paved path onto a footbridge that spans the river and leads me into the adjacent neighborhood. Just before the bridge there is a small open area with a split rail fence that borders the drop-off to the river. The weather and the years have taken their toll on this short span of fence. Several of the rails have fallen out and many of the posts are leaning out toward the precipice. As I walk past, I wonder how long it will take before someone restores the fence.

                Fences serve several purposes. Fences are used to define property lines. They are a mute reminder that one piece of property is distinct from another. Fences are often used to secure privacy, especially within town, where the houses are close together. There is such a fence that runs along one side of our backyard, shielding the neighbor’s backyard from ours. Many fences are put in place for our protection. They warn us of danger and keep us from accidentally getting harmed. Some of these fences are formidable, able to prevent a person from crossing into the danger zone. Some of these fences are more like warning signs, such as the short span of split rail fence that borders the edge of the drop-off to the river. Whenever we encounter a fence, we can choose to heed its warning or we can choose to ignore it. Many times, when we choose to ignore a fence, there are consequences.

                King David understood about fences. As the King of Israel, it was his responsibility to maintain the fences that kept Israel safe and the distinct people of God. But one day King David made the choice to climb over one of those fences, by having sexual relations with Bathsheba, another man’s wife. David didn’t start out to climb over that fence. It began with a series of choices that ultimately led him astray. The scriptures tell us that when it was customary for kings to go out to war, David stayed home. David had a duty to lead the army of Israel in defense of the nation. He chose to delegate that responsibility to others. He allowed a gap to be created in an important fence.

                While the army was actively in the field, David was idly wandering his palace. One day, while he was on his roof top overlooking the city, something caught his attention. He saw Bathsheba bathing. What he should have done was turn away, but instead he continued to gaze on this sight. At that point another fence was broken down. His gaze turned to lust and he instructed his servants to bring this beautiful woman to him. Another rail of the fence was taken away. The consequence of his climbing over the fence was that Bathsheba became pregnant.

                In a panic, David tried his best to reconstruct the fence, but to no avail. He called for Bathsheba’s husband to come home, hoping that he would have sexual relations with his wife and cover up David’s sin. But Uriah was more noble that David and refused to sleep with his wife while his comrades were serving in the field. So David broke down another fence and had Uriah maneuvered into a place where he would be killed. David thought that he had safely covered his tracks, but his fences remained broken down, until Nathan, the prophet, confronted David and he had to own up to his deeds. Psalm 51 is David’s honest attempt to rebuild his fences.

                God has placed fences in our lives for our good. These fences are like the split rail fence along the river. If we faithfully maintain God’s fences, then they will protect us from undue hard. But if we neglect God’s fences, we face real danger. The problem is that we are quick to put up fences for other people while our own fences are in disrepair. We are quick to decry the poor condition of other people’s fences and ignore our own. God has not charged us with monitoring other people’s fences. He has given us the responsibility for our own.

                There times in all of our lives when our fences are in need of repair. They may be broken down because we have neglected them or because we have intentionally climbed over. When we become aware of a breath in our fence, it is time to take steps to repair it. God has placed fences in our lives for our good. He has given us the responsibility to maintain them. They are there to remind us that we have been called to live distinct lives in this world. They are there to warn us of danger that we may not be aware of. They are there to give us the freedom to enjoy our relationship with Christ without fear.

                Have you checked your fences lately? Are they in need of repair? Are some of the rails loose or missing? Broken fences need to be repaired. They are there for our benefit, but they will help us only if they are maintained.

Ephesians 5:15-16
Be very careful, then, how you live--not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.

1 Timothy 4:16
Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

WHY DO WE CARE?


Ecclesiastes. 3:11
He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.

                The debate over the existence of God is a relatively recent phenomenon. For most of human history the debate was not does God exist, but what is God like. Throughout the world, in every culture, an image of God emerged. Those images differed from one another based on the prevailing influences for each culture. Yet each culture struggled to grasp the nature and essence of God.

                After the Enlightenment and the rise of human reason, the discussion shifted from the nature of God to the existence of God. Three camps emerged from this new discussion. The vast majority of the world’s population still falls into the camp that believes there is a God, although they do not agree on his nature. A second group, agnostics, assert that they don’t know if there is or isn’t a God. They claim that there just isn’t enough information to make a decision one way or the other. The third group, atheists, vehemently assert that there is no God. In more recent years, this group has become more aggressive in their efforts to convince people that God does not exist.

                The question that arises for me in this debate is why do we care at all? Why do we even debate the existence of God? If God is just a human construct, as some assert, then why do we get so upset about it? I do not waste any time trying to convince people that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, yet many atheists spend an enormous amount of time trying to convince people that God does not exist. For those who believe God does exist, they have spent an enormous amount of time trying to convince everyone else that their image of God is the right one. Many people, who find themselves somewhere in the middle, are content to live in a spiritual void, leaving open the possibility that God does exist, yet living as if God does not. So why do we care what other people believe about God?

                The answer to that question is clearly stated for us in Ecclesiastes 3:11; He has also set eternity in the hearts of men. The reason that it matters is because God has hardwired a desire to know Him within each of us. For some that desire becomes a quest to find out all they can about God. For others that desire because a fight to distance themselves from God. On either side of the equation, God stands firmly at the center of the debate. It is the place that He has intentionally chosen to occupy.

                I recently finished reading Sigurd Olson’s book Reflections from the North Country. The final chapter of that book in titled The Emerging God. Sigurd Olson was a naturalist and a bit of a philosopher. I don’t know where Mr. Olson stood spiritually or theologically, but throughout his books he relates a naturalist view of God. At the beginning of the afore mentioned chapter he talks about the many traditions that have endeavored to explain God. Then he states that if a person really wants to encounter God, all he or she has to do is to venture into the unspoiled wilderness. There they will encounter God in the beauty, power, and awe of nature.

                The Apostle Paul’s words at the beginning of his letter to the Romans resonate with what Mr. Olson wrote.

    The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (Romans 1:18-20)

                Although Paul’s words are much harsher than Mr. Olson’s words, the basic idea is the same. If we will look around at the amazing world in which we live, we will see the hand of God everywhere. Being able to explain how things in our world work does not negate that God is behind them. In fact, the more that we learn about this amazing world, the more it should point us to God. Which brings us back to my original question. Why do we care?

                We care because we were created to live in a harmonious relationship with God. Of all the creatures on the face of the earth, humanity alone was designed to carry the very image of God within them. We were created with more than an awareness of God. We were created with a desire to be in relationship with God. King David expresses the unique nature of humanity in Psalm 8.

Psalm 8:1-9
O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory
above the heavens.
From the lips of children and infants
you have ordained praise
because of your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.

When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.

You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet:
all flocks and herds,
and the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air,
and the fish of the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

                God created humanity to be unique in all of creation. He created us with a desire to know Him. He designed our spirits to resonate with His Spirit. He designed us to partner with Him in managing His world. But more than that, He designed us to experience His love and to respond to that love in genuine ways. Throughout history God has continually revealed Himself. The climax of that revelation came in the form of Jesus Christ. God continues to reveal Himself today to everyone.  He reveals Himself through his Word, through nature, and through the Holy Spirit. We can choose to fight against this revelation or to embrace it. Either way, we must deal with it.

                God created us with a spiritual void that only He can adequately fill. We can try to fill that void with other things, but we will always come up short. There will remain an insatiable longing for something more. That something more is God Himself.

                Why do we care? We care because God cares. He will not simply leave us alone. He will continually make us restless until we find our rest in Him.

Matthew 11:28
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

STAYING IN TOUCH WITH JESUS


John 10:27
    My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.

                The other night Suanne and I watched the movie “Two Popes.” It is the story of the interaction between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis when Pope Benedict decided to “retire” from being the head of the Catholic Church. It is a compelling look behind the scenes at the political and spiritual struggle that went on. I was struck but the genuine spiritual struggle that was depicted in the lives of both men. Each had to struggle with their own demons from the past. Each genuinely desired to follow Christ. At one point, as Benedict is trying to convince Francis that it was time for Benedict to step down, he said, “I no longer hear the voice of God.” Pope Benedict had become so embroiled in the political and ecclesiastical struggles of the church that he had lost touch with the very essence of his faith. He longed to return to the place where he could hear the voice of God again.

                Do you even feel like you can no longer hear the voice of God? Benedict’s struggle struck a chord with me. As a follower of Christ, and especially as a pastor, is it possible for me to get so caught up in the outward trappings of my faith that I lose touch with Jesus? Can I go through the motions yet fail to hear the voice of Jesus? When I was in seminary, I was warned that a danger I faced was becoming a theologian and losing my faith. Throughout my years of ministry there have been times when I have struggled with this. There have been times when, like Pope Benedict, I longed for the simple, almost na├»ve faith of my youth, unencumbered with the weight of theology and church polity.

                The writer of Hebrews warns us that it is possible for us to harden our hearts toward God and lose touch with Him. We can allow the challenges of life to block out the voice of God.

Hebrews 3:12-15
                See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. As has just been said:
"Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion."

                These words were not written to unbelievers, but to believers. Hebrews warns us about letting the deceitfulness of sin to dull our hearing. We are shaped by the voices that we listen to. The more that we entertain the voice of the world the harder it is for us to hear the voice of God. This is a constant battle for us all. Daily we are being bombarded with Satan’s lies. The more that we listen to those lies, the more they seem to be true.

                The good news is that our salvation is not dependent upon us but upon the grace of God. Christ has given to us the Holy Spirit, who is the guard of our hearts. His role is to continually bring us back to the place where we can hear the voice of God. He convicts us of our sin, not to condemn us, but to draw us back to Christ. When we honestly acknowledge our sin, He applies Christ’s forgiveness to our souls. This something we should not take lightly or presume upon. As Paul writes in Romans 6:1-2, What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? To presume upon God’s grace is to do the very thing that Hebrews warns us about; to harden our heart.

                Jesus knew that this journey of faith would be a daily struggle. He is honest with us about what it really means to follow Him. Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) Daily we need to retune our hearts to be able to hear the voice of God. But we don’t have to do this on our own. Jesus has promised to come alongside of us and empower us to follow Him. "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30)

                We will all struggle along the way. There will be times when we stumble and fall. There will even be times when we act in open rebellion toward God. But the greatest danger is when we get to the place where we stop listening to the master’s voice. Each day is a new opportunity to tune in to the voice of Jesus and to follow Him. Through the study of God’s word, through intentional prayer, and through genuine fellowship with other believers we can sharpen our hearing. Jesus is never far away. If we are careful to listen, we will hear His voice.

Mark 9:7
    Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!"

   

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

THE COMPANY WE KEEP


1 Corinthians 15:33
Do not be misled: "Bad company corrupts good character."

                My son Adam sat across the table from me as our hostess placed plates of food on the table. We were seated in a small room in the home of our host family in Ukraine. I had stayed in this same home for six consecutive summer visits. We were in the village as a part of a yearly mission experience called Love Lift for Ukraine. I had developed a positive relationship with this family. I had also discovered a few things about village life in Ukraine.

                One of the items that was placed on the table was a small bowl of local honey. Our host kept bees and was very proud of their honey. After we were alone, I told my son not to eat the honey. I explained to him that they stored the honey in the root cellar under the barn and that it tasted like cow manure.  My son looked at me skeptically and replied, Dad, how do you know what cow manure tastes like? Cautiously he avoided the tempting honey.

                Later that night, our entire team was invited to another host home for the evening. A large table was set up in the courtyard and was laden with all kinds of treats. In the center of the table were several large bowls of tempting chocolate pudding, which had been cooled in the root cellar. Eagerly, my son took a large spoonful of the pudding and deposited it into his mouth. A funny look came over his face as he turned to me and said, Dad now I know. We both burst into laughter, sharing the private joke.

                Ultimately there was nothing intrinsically wrong with the honey or the chocolate pudding. The problem was that they had been tainted by their environment.

                Paul warns us in I Corinthians 15 that bad company corrupts good character. Paul is alerting us to the reality that our environment has the ability to taint our lives. The people that we choose as our closest friends, the places that we most often frequent, will have a major influence in our lives. If we choose to hang out in the world’s root cellar, we will inevitably be tainted by the atmosphere.

                As we journey through life as followers of Jesus, we will constantly be in contact with the influences of the world. We cannot live totally separated from the world. In fact, like Jesus, we have been called to reach out to the people around us with love and compassion, leading them to the Savior. But we always need to be careful that we do not take up residence in the world. Peter reminds us that we are to live distinct lives within the world, lives that reflect who we are in Christ.

                But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
                Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:9-12)

                Psalm 1 reminds us that we have a choice about which path we will travel in this life.

Psalm 1:1-6
    Blessed is the man
        who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
    or stand in the way of sinners
        or sit in the seat of mockers.
    But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
        and on his law he meditates day and night.
    He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
        which yields its fruit in season
    and whose leaf does not wither.
        Whatever he does prospers.

    Not so the wicked!
        They are like chaff
        that the wind blows away.
    Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
        nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

    For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
        but the way of the wicked will perish.

                Throughout the Bible we are warned to choose our companions wisely. The company we keep will shape who we become. That is why God has given us the Church, the Body of Christ. The Church is our safe harbor in this wild world. Spending time regularly with other believers can be a positive buffer to taking on the flavor of the world.

Hebrews 10:23-25
    Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching.