"Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home." - C. S. Lewis

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Best of It Is...

To be honest, there's not much I know about John Wesley.  I know that he came from a devout family, with influential parents and at least one well-known sibling.  I know he was a pastor a couple of centuries ago, but that pretty much sums up my knowledge of his life.

There is one other thing I know about John Wesley, and that is something he said.  You see, John Wesley was the author of one of my favorite quotes:

"The best of it is, God is with us."

Heard It All Before
We've heard it so much we forget.  Ironic, isn't it?  We could recite the Christmas story by heart, but how much do we really think about it?

How much
can we really think about it?  How much can our limited gray matter really take in?  How can a human being limited by time, space, and ability grasp infinity?

Jesus didn't have to do it.  Centuries ago, He spoke and the world became.  At His command, the Red Sea parted.  By His decree, kings and kingdoms rose and fell.  Nations came and went at His bidding.

No, He didn't have to do it.  But He did it anyway.  He entered our world - as one of us.

The One who established time now lived in it.  The One who created everything was now limited by human finiteness.  He entered His world as a baby, weak in ability.

Each name of Christ has unsearchable meaning, but I think "Emmanuel" is special.  It means "God with us."  God with us!  God.  With.  Us.

Not fixing our problems from afar.  Not declaring us free but avoiding all association with us.  We praise Him for His power and thank Him for His work in our lives, but John Wesley was right.  The best of it is that no matter our need, no matter our situation, no matter our pain - God is
with us!

"Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

Let earth receive her King;

Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing."

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Listen for the Marching

Whakarewarewa Forest, looking up - Picture of Redwoods Whakarewarewa Forest, Rotorua

The clandestine army of warriors crept as close as they dared to the unsuspecting enemy.  They trusted their leader (and his God), but thirsted to strike out at their foe, however superior the enemy forces may be.

Time slowly passed as the fighting men waited expectantly for their chance to do what they had come to do.  The strength that gave them courage in battle strained to obey the order to wait.  As the men lingered, they heard a faint thum, thum, thum coming from above them.  Looking up, they saw nothing.  But they knew something was there.

Often as I read an account in the Bible, I wish I could have been there personally to witness it.  Seriously - how amazing would it have been to be there when the Red Sea parted?  Think of the incredible grandeur of witnessing Christ's ascension into heaven or the outpouring of the Spirit on the disciples left behind!

What would it have been like to be there with David and his men?

David had just recently been crowned king of Israel.  His first battle as king - against the ever-present Philistines - ended in victory for the rookie.  Now he faced the Philistines "yet again" (2 Samuel 5:22).

But their king knew that he was in good hands.  "The Lord is on my side; I will not fear.  What can man do to me?" (Psalm 118:6).

As the apostle Paul later echoed, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31). The red sea parted for the Israelites.  Christ arose to seal our hope (1 Peter 1:3).  The Spirit came to help us as we tarry on this earth.

It's true, isn't it?  God is for us!  As Benjamin Franklin said during the arduous times of America's beginning, "God governs in the affairs of men!"  How freeing to know that God penetrates the filthy crust of our world and enters the messes of our lives.

Imagine the goosebumps those fighting men must have had as they heard the marching in the tops of the trees.  They couldn't see anyone.  They couldn't tell exactly how this would help them in this specific circumstance.  But they could hear them.  They knew God was working.  He was with them, on their side.

It’s against our nature, isn’t it?  When we find ourselves in desperate situations, like David and his men, we get frantic, seeking for a way to fight, a way to win.  Yet God calls us to leave it in His hands.

Whether we face disappointment, stress, tragedy, inconveniences, trauma, or just plain ordinariness, we are not called to fight in our own strength.  Sometimes we will fight, yes, but not without Him on our side.  Not until He says it is time.

We may never see exactly how He reached into our mess and worked in ways we would never have imagined.  We may never understand His providence in our circumstances.  But sometimes, if we listen carefully, we can hear the sound of marching.

And we will know He is with us.  No matter what.
Photo of Redwoods Whakarewarewa Forest is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Man Who Didn't Have It All

It must have been spectacular.  After centuries of nomadic life, slavery, and more nomadic life, the children of Abraham were living in their own land.  Their king had built a lavish temple to the God who had sustained the nation through every difficulty.  With a long, eloquent prayer, King Solomon sacrificed an abundant number of animals, cementing his fervor and dedication to the LORD.  There was truly a bright future for the nation of Israel!

But only a short time later, God was angry - angry enough to divide the people He had provided for and led through years of hardship and wandering.  Why?  What happened between the nearly-idyllic dedication of the temple to this catastrophic ripping apart of God's chosen people?

Solomon had it all going for him.  He was the heir of a godly king of a country blessed by God.  He built an impressive temple for God and sacrificed great numbers of animals, as the Israelites were supposed to do.  His father, King David, is often referred to as a "man after God's own heart," but Solomon is not remembered that way.  Instead we read:

"Now King Solomon loved many foreign women...from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, 'You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.”'Solomon clung to these in love. He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father..." (1 Kings 11:1-5).

Did you catch that?  Solomon's "heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God."  As God had told Samuel when Solomon's father was crowned king, "'Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature...For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart'" (1 Samuel 16:7).  And Solomon's heart had a problem.

Here was a man who had it all.  Or so it seemed.  As we read the story of Solomon, it's hard to imagine a man with so much potential or a story with so much disappointment.  Imagine having so much silver that it was considered worthless (1 Kings 10:21) and welcoming visiting world leaders who simply came to hear his wisdom (1 Kings 10:24).

But in the end, it didn't last.  The kingdom who had welcomed their second king with fanfare and pomp rejected their third, Solomon's son, Rehoboam.  The great nation of Israel was ripped in two, with two tribes remaining loyal to Rehoboam and ten tribes seceding from the country.  Eventually, the ten northern tribes would be carried to captivity and disappear.

Israel would never again have that kind of wealth, that kind of international recognition.

It was just as God told Solomon it would happen.  Before Rehoboam even came to the throne, while Solomon still reigned in Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob warned Solomon: "'Since this has been your practice and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you...I will tear it out of the hand of your son'" (1 Kings 11:11-12).

The close relationship David enjoyed with his God did not transfer to his son.  Solomon was visited more than once by God, and he enjoyed blessings we can't even fathom today.  But his heart didn't follow God like his father's had.

So maybe Solomon never did have it all.  How could earthly treasure ever compare to walking with God?  "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?" (Matthew 16:26).

Image courtesy of Photokanok / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Ours to Fight: A Review of "Unplanned"

When Abby Johnson left her job in late 2009, she made national headlines.  That may be unusual for most professions, but not for the director position of a Planned Parenthood facility.

Once a stalwart champion of choice, the director of the Planned Parenthood facility in Bryan, Texas, left her side of the "fence" to join the pro-life team who had witnessed to her - and others - for years.  Shocking onlookers on all sides of the debate, the former director has become a well-known advocate for the unborn.

Abby Johnson tells her story in her book, Unplanned: The Dramatic True Story of a Former Planned Parenthood Leader's Eye-Opening Journey across the Life Line, where she recounts her journey from idealistic and impressionable college student to trusted and tenderhearted Planned Parenthood staff member, with the climax of her eye-opening witness of a live abortion.  Her story travels a long road of pain, guilt, and a sincere desire to help those in need.  In fact, you may be surprised that Johnson's first concern as a Planned Parenthood worker was to be a help and supporter for women in need.

Eventually, as the title of the book hints, Johnson does a complete about-face.  One day she was called in to help with an abortion - something she had never been asked to do before.  As she watched the graphic abortion literally take place before her eyes, she realized the truth of something that many had tried to tell her before: abortion is a death.

"I closed my office door behind me, something I rarely did.  Then I lowered myself into my chair and just sat there, not really focusing on anything.  Just staring.  I wasn't crying.  I simply felt the enormity of the moment.  I found it hard to get a deep breath.  I'd just participated in a death.  A death.  Not a medical procedure.  Not a surgical solution to a life problem.  Not the valiant step of a woman exercising her right to make medical choices about her own body.  The death of a helpless baby...tucked securely inside a womb...with no one to speak on his or her behalf..." (Johnson, p. 124)

Sometimes we can have much to learn from the stories that God has written for others.  With Unplanned, we get to walk into a Planned Parenthood facility and see how many volunteers and staff really think and feel about their jobs.  We see how the local pro-life group's efforts affected the clients, volunteers, and staff of one clinic, and how some pro-life methods are more effective than others.

The story recounted in Unplanned brings a rare find to the pro-life/pro-choice issue: a view from many sides of the debate.  Johnson has experienced abortion from the standpoint of a mother in crisis, the perspective of a Planned Parenthood volunteer, staff member, and director, and now the outlook of a defender of life.  For those of us who most often have spent time on only one angle of the debate, this viewpoint is invaluable.

"The timing of all these factors...had to be more than coincidence," Johnson concludes (Johnson, p. 140).  More than anything else, Abby Johnson's story demonstrates that God's light and truth can permeate any obstacle, be it a stony heart or a Planned Parenthood wall.  No matter how strategized or valiant our efforts are, the ultimate plan and victory belong to God alone.  May we remember that the pro-life battle is ours to fight, but God's to win.

Friday, October 18, 2013

A Hero Is...

Have you ever thought about your heroes?  Who they are, why you chose them, what it is about them that you find heroic?  There's no question that we have them.  But why do we choose them?

What makes a hero a hero?

Recently my family and I spent an afternoon with my grandmother, a couple of aunts and uncles, and several cousins.  Due to the miles between us, it is rare for so many of us to be in one place, and we all jumped at the chance to catch up on each other's lives.  At one point, my aunt shared a story from her work as a chaplain in a children's hospital.

There was a little girl in my aunt's wing of the hospital.  "A precious baby," my aunt said.  She was there because her father shook her "until her brain turned to jello."  The baby's foster parents had two adult biological children, two adopted tweens, and this little girl was their thirty-sixth foster child.  "She knew she was taking her in to die," my aunt said of the foster mom and the baby.  "She was giving her a place to die."

The week we were visiting, the little girl's health had declined, and a meeting was held with the doctors, biological mother, and foster mother.  The child's biological mother was obviously struggling with the painful situation.  As hard as it was, she made the best - and most difficult - decision for her child's care, and then broke down.  The baby's foster mother, no doubt struggling with the situation as well, went over to the baby's birthmom and hugged her.  "You will always be her mother, no matter what," she told her.

Sometimes the heroes we choose have epic stories.  Just think of Captain America, Batman, or Superman.  Even when we choose actual people as heroes, we tend to exalt those like Gabby Douglas, Amelia Earhart, or George Washington.  People we have never met (and never will).  People who have performed amazing deeds, accomplished incredible feats, changed the world.  Their unforgettable stories stick with us, lodging in our minds and coming back to us even years later.  Are these people inspiring?  Yes.  Should we know about their lives and contributions to the world?  Sure.  But does a hero always have to be larger-than-life?  Could a hero be someone...normal?

"A hero is someone who excels in what we prize," I recently heard someone explain.  Remember that, I told myself.  It sounded profound.

"A hero is someone who excels in what we prize."

We pick our heroes because of what we want our lives to look like.  Whether our hero is Captain America, George Washington, or LarryBoy, we look to these figures for inspiration or even guidance as we go about our lives.  We think that, as we look to our heroes, we will somehow become better individuals.  Who we choose as heroes says a lot about who we are - and who we are becoming.

My aunt ended her story as she told how the foster mother loved the baby and the biological mother - reaching out to both in their time of need.  "I have a new hero, I guess," she finished quietly.

It is a story my aunt will always remember.  I know I will, too.  Heroes are usually hard to forget.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Even in the Storm

It was the second-wettest August on record when my dad asked my four-year-old brother to pray before the meal.  "Dear God, thank you for the rain," he began.  "We don't like the thunder.  Please make the thunder quiet.  Amen."

I understand where he was coming from.  Who among us doesn't remember hiding under the sheets or hurrying to our parents' room as soon as we heard the distant rolls of thunder?  I remember how terrified I sometimes felt as I ran to find my parents.

It's amazing to think that the thunder that so scared me is fully and completely controlled by God.  I never saw this illustrated so vividly as I did during a long car ride when I was about eight years old.  There were storms in the distance, so it was a dark, cloudy, dismal day as we drove along, listening to a Rich Mullins CD.  As Rich Mullins sang "Awesome God," there were lightning flashes at appropriate points in the song.  My dad even replayed the song and the lightning and thunder still seemed as if it were coordinated with the music.  My eight-year-old mind was boggled at the thought that our awesome God was truly synchronizing a lights-and-sound show to "Awesome God."

"When He rolls up His sleeves 
He ain't just putting on the ritz
(Our God is an awesome God)
thunder in His footsteps
lightning in His fists
(Our God is an awesome God)...

Our God is an awesome God
He reigns from heaven above
With wisdom, power, and love 
Our God is an awesome God" ("Awesome God," emphases added).

But the storms aren't always so welcome.  Sometimes they ruin our plans or damage something we hold dear.  Sometimes we face lightning and thunder when we long for clear blue skies.  Sometimes we get storms when we have prayed for sunny days.

But you know what?  The lightning and thunder are still in His hand.

"His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet" (Nahum 1:3b).

"He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth, who makes lightnings for the rain and brings forth the wind from his storehouses" (Psalm 135:7).

The expectant parents who receive a devastating prenatal diagnosis.  The couple who faces mounting mortgage payments and overdue bills on top of looming layoffs.  The man unjustly accused.  The woman enduring gossips, rumors, and tell-tale glares.  The family in relational turmoil.

Where is God in the midst of these storms?  I've come to believe that's exactly where He is: in the midst of the storm.

"For you have been...a stronghold to the needy in his distress, a shelter from the storm..." (Isaiah 25:4).

"Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by." (Psalm 57:1).

How do we react when the storms come our way?  Instead of seeking out the One who controls the thunder and gives protection from its terror, how often do we feel the biting wind and the relentless rain and beg, "Please make the thunder quiet"?

Dreams crushed.  Hopes dashed.  Plans destroyed.  This life isn't going to be all we want it to be - ever. Even when things seem to be going well, we will never be at a place where we can truthfully say that everything is going exactly the way we would like.  Because it won't.

But in the midst of that dreadful realization, we can take comfort in the fact that the God who holds the lightning bolts in His hand just as assuredly holds us, too.  No matter how the storm swirls and crashes around us, there is no safer place for us to be than in His hand.

Thunder is supposed to be loud.  Storms are supposed to push us out of our comfort zone, out of our comfortable reliance on ourselves, and into the only fortress where we can truly find rest - even in the storm.

"The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe" (Proverbs 18:10).  Even in the storm.

Image courtesy of Suvro Datta/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

"What are You Trying to Accomplish?"

I was with some friends on the campus of our local university, talking with college students about abortion.  With a tall kiosk covered with thought-provoking questions and pictures, we were hard to miss.  Most of the passers-by either hurried past us or stopped for a calm, thoughtful conversation with one of the staff members or volunteers.

Then I saw him walking up.  With a funny grin he came right up to one of the staff members standing near me.  We had received many different reactions that day - some people were disgusted, some were glad to see us there, and some did their best to ignore us.  Up to that point, however, no one seemed amused.

But as he walked toward us, he kept that silly grin and, gesturing to the kiosk, asked, "What are you trying to accomplish?"

The staff member explained that we were with the organization Justice for All and we were simply wanting to start healthy, peaceful dialogue on the topic of abortion.  She told the student how we talk with others about abortion, gently asking questions to present the pro-life position in a respectful, non-aggressive way.

"Does it work?" he asked.  "Yes," she replied, showing him a brochure and outlining how he could get involved if he was interested.  He wasn't interested.  He was pro-life, he said, but shrugged off any idea of talking to others about the issue.

So he handed the brochure back to her and walked away - with a grin.

Underneath the sarcastic attitude, it was a good question.  What are we trying to accomplish?  What if we don't accomplish it?  What if we don't "succeed"?  What if no law is ever passed or changed or repealed?  What if abortion in America never goes away?

What if?  Will we have failed?

Abortion has been legal in America for longer than that college student has been alive - for longer than I have been alive.  No wonder he felt as though there was no point in trying to do anything.  Abortion has always been around for us.  It's hard to imagine society without it.  What can we do about an issue that has existed legally for years (even decades) before we were born?  What do we think we can achieve?

What are we trying to accomplish?

I don't remember his name, but I remember the names of other people I talked with that day.  I remember watching Justice for All staff members and volunteers interact with people of different ages, different backgrounds, different walks of life - and very different opinions toward abortion.

Some people came without an opinion and left with something to think about.  Several people already had very strong convictions on the issue, but appreciated the peaceful, thoughtful dialogue a staff member or volunteer presented.  Others considered themselves pro-life, but were encouraged to take the next step and begin respectful dialogue with others they know.

Does it work?  For many, yes.  For others, we don't know yet.  Only in eternity will we know the true influence of our actions.  Even if no one listens, we can still be faithful to present the truth.  We can be loving toward everyone we meet (no matter their background or opinion on abortion).  We can be Christlike in everything we set out to do.  There's just too much at stake for us to keep our peace.  And most likely, at least someone will listen.  Others have.

What are we trying to accomplish?

"...to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God..." (Micah 6:8).

Justice for All's mission statement is "Training thousands to make abortion unthinkable for millions, one person at a time."  If you are interested in hearing more about the work of Justice for All and how you can get involved, please visit their website here or feel free to contact me (just leave a comment on this post with your e-mail address.  I won't publish the comment, but I'd love to get in touch with you!).

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Heaven's Open Door

The book of Revelation is often characterized as confusing and divisive, and I think I can understand why.  I am certainly no eschatologist, so I have only a very limited grasp of the Bible's explanation of what will come when the world as we know it ends.  This is one reason why (I hate to admit) I often find reading Revelation...tedious.

But it is part of the inspired Word of God, and it is included in the Bible reading plan I have been attempting to follow.  Recently, I opened my Bible to my assigned reading for the day, unsure if I would even understand what I read - or if I could possibly relate it to my life.  But the first verses of Revelation 4 stopped me in my tracks as my eyes hurried through the mysterious verses.

"After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, 'Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this'" (Revelation 4:1, ESV).

"A door standing open in heaven..."  That phrase alone is packed with mind-blowing truth.  Imagine: an open door in heaven!

Those who have heard and studied the Gospel know of the uncrossable chasm our sins have created between fallen human beings and the holy, perfect God.  This was once symbolized by the temple curtains dividing one temple partition from another.  The Israelite masses could congregate outside the temple, the priests could go into the first area (after undergoing purification rituals), but only one person - the high priest - could go into the final partition of the temple: the Holy of Holies.  Even the high priest could only go into the Holy of Holies once a year, and only after painstakingly preparing himself to approach the living God.

A curtain separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple, and another curtain separated the rest of the temple from the majority of the Israelites.  These curtains would have spanned the entire length of the tabernacle; there was no door, no opening, no entrance for sinful man to approach his Maker.

Think of it!  A door open in heaven!

That God would even care to notice our earthly predicament is a grace itself.  That He would make a way for us to enter His perfect presence is...inconceivable.

During His time on earth, Jesus made a shocking declaration: "'I am the door. If anyone enters by me, 
he will be saved...'" (John 10:9a).  What incredible grace!  The only One who perfectly fulfilled all requirements to enter the presence of God is the One who freely offers us His perfection.  There is only one way to heaven, and that is through - what else? - the door: Jesus Christ.

The Door Won't Always be Open
"'Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.  For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, "Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him." Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, "Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out." But the wise answered, saying, "Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves." And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut" (Matthew 25:1-10, ESV).
As God closed the door of the ark once Noah and his family had entered, so one day the door to heaven will be closed for all eternity.  The offer of His pardon, peace, and perfection still stands, but it will not stand forever.  One day, when the time is up, this door, too, will close.

Which begs the question:

the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.  Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be..."? (2 Peter 3:10-11, emphasis added).

Think of it: a door open in heaven!  There is nothing tedious about that.

Image courtesy of ponsulak / FreeDigitalPhotos.net