Grounded in love

Romans 5:5

“Hope does not put us to shame.” (ESV) What does that mean? Why should hope be shameful?

I pondered this notion until I realized that it happens all the time. Social media posts about prayer become targets for ridicule. Hopeful people are sometimes treated like they don’t know or don’t care about human suffering. Sharing good news gets contradicted by “but what about.”

The hope here is not a blithe Pollyanna response to life and its hardships. It does not ignore the realities of suffering. It does not belittle fear. It understands that people can be cruel, bigoted, and unjust. However, this hope DOES allow us to recognize God at work.

This hope allows believers to act in love in spite of the evil around us. Hope encourages us to reach out to those who suffer with compassion. Hope lets us come alongside others and walk with them through the challenges of living in this world.

In short, hope produced by character through enduring suffering with joy opens the way for God to work in us and through us for His glory. How? He works in and through because we are grounded in His love instead of our fear. God’s love pours into our hearts and we act out of His love.

By faith

Romans 5:2

We have peace with God because Jesus is the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him (Hebrews 5:9.) What does this mean? It means we have ACCESS to grace and JOY in hope no matter what our circumstances may be.

We stand on a foundation of salvation because Jesus did the work on our behalf (Titus 3:5.) Our faith means we have unfettered access to the very throne of the Creator in both good times and hard times (Hebrews 4:16.)

We are justified, not by what we do, but by faith in the grace of God (Romans 3:28; Ephesians 2:8-9.) Hard times happen to everyone. Sometimes, like with a pandemic or natural disasters, the hard times are shared by communities. Other times, the struggle is an individual one where suffering seems magnified because the world keeps moving forward. Isolation increases suffering.

In faith, however, we have hope because we can be assured that God is with us. That hope gives us the freedom to rejoice, even in the worst of times. Grace to faith to hope to joy: this is the progression of the believers’ mindset in all times. In good times and hard times, God is with us.

Seeking Purpose

Sunday night gathering August 16, 2020

For the last several weeks a small group of friends have met in a church parking lot to dig deeper into what God might be saying to to Church during the Covid-19 pandemic. This week we began a more systematic look at Scripture, pairing Romans and Hebrews. Several people shared the insights they had gleaned from their own study during the week. This post is the narrative I composed based on our discussion Sunday evening.

Hebrews 1:10

Seeking Purpose

These are trying times, and it seems like we are in it for the long haul. Back in March, we thought things would be back to normal by summer. We learned better; this is a persistent virus. Like the false prophets who told the exiles, “Very soon now the articles from the Lord’s house will be brought back from Babylon,” we were assured by some of the pundits that summer heat would kill off the virus and all would be well.  Hananiah gave the exile a limit of two years (Jeremiah 27), giving the people false expectations for quick resolution. To our society, two years seems like an eternity; we want to check off the box marked “pandemic” and move on. However, it seems to become clearer with every press conference that we might be stuck in this space for a long season.  No one wants to hear that, but no one wanted to hear Jeremiah’s word to “Build houses, plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; multiply there and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” either (Jeremiah 29). 

If we are in pandemic mode for another six months or two years, what is our purpose in it? What are the lessons we need to learn, internalize, and share? What do we need to develop in order to be salt and light in this brave new world?

Romans 1:-5 sets the foundation we must build our lives upon: We are set apart for the sake of His Name. Our building materials are the gospel, God’s promises, the perfection of Jesus, the holiness of the Spirit, and the matchless grace of the Lord. Our work orders are simple: bring about the obedience of faith to all the nations. The work is not easy, but it is clearly laid out for us. 

The difficulty of the work before us lays in the nature of the building project: we are not engaged in physical work, but rather spiritual (Ephesians 6:12). The false promises of a quick ending to the pandemic are spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically damaging. As a result, uncertainty prevails among the people, whether or not they are believers. Uncertainty breeds fear, and with fear comes despair. What a contrast to the hope and peace God has for us! Yes, we may be suffering in the uncertainty, but “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” (Romans 5). 

So, why a pandemic? Why does a righteous, powerful, and loving God allow the whole world to be afflicted instead of blessed? And why does He allow chaos and uncertainty? 

The short answer is that God allows these things because humans can’t handle blessings and need adversity to remember that they aren’t gods. Catastrophes remind us of God’s promises and compel true believers to turn to Him. Prosperity is not a bad thing, but it is easy to lose focus on Who is our provider. We get caught up in enjoying the gifts and doing the things that make us feel good about ourselves. We list our activities as evidence of our faith. Like the disciples who heard the words of Jesus and witnessed his miracles, we eat the bread and the fish, but are taken aback when things get complicated (John 6). 

Sometimes a crisis separates the true disciples from the cultural christians. When Jesus told his followers that only the Spirit gives life and that the flesh is powerless, many of them left. They could not accept a gospel on God’s terms; they wanted the miracles without the suffering. Similarly, if this current pandemic persists and churches are restricted in their physical meetings for an extended time, people who go to church for cultural reasons will ultimately fall away. The faithful, however, will use the time to dig deeper into the Word. When Jesus asked the Twelve whether they wanted to leave with the others, Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). We reclaim the time that we once spent doing by focusing on being connected to the Father, not because things are easy, but because He is good. The things we suffer now are nothing compared to His glory (Romans 8:18). This is our testimony.

Our testimony begins by declaring the Lord’s righteousness. The psalmist wrote, “My mouth will tell of your righteous acts, of your deeds of salvation all the day for their number is past my knowledge. With the mighty deeds of the Lord God I will come; I will remind them of your righteousness, yours alone” (Psalm 71:15-18). Every believer has opportunities to testify of the mighty deeds of the Lord, whether that is in a children’s Sunday school class, a ride-sharing trip, or in a small group coming together for mutual encouragement (Romans 1:12). We need to be aware both of God’s sovereign movements in our days and for the divine appointments He puts before us. 

We are set apart and called to this work (Romans 1); we can be confident that God will work everything together for our good (Romans 8:28). We place our hope in Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12). He is greater than the angels (Hebrews 1:5), greater than creation (Hebrews 1:10), and certainly greater than anything the enemy might dream up (Ephesians 6:11). We are dwelling in the liminal spaces of time, the place between what once was and what will be. What we do now determines how we will respond to whatever it is that comes next. When we focus our time and attention on God’s eternal power, divine nature, and tremendous love for us, we can be assured that He will use even this time of pandemic to work out His sovereign will in and through us (Romans 1:20; John 3:16-17; Ephesians 2:10).

TAW

Psalm 119:169-176

Psalm 119:175

This final section is a synthesis of what has gone on before. In it we read about what God does, what we do, what we desire, and how God responds to us. The whole of Psalm 119 is this: Let my soul live and praise You, and let your rules help me. It’s pretty simple, but oh, how hard it often is!

So what does God do? He gives us understanding, He delivers us, He teaches us, and He helps us.

Our role is to cry out, plead, praise, sing, choose, delight, and remember.

There are no excuses, extenuating circumstances, or circumstances that can interfere with our focus on the Lord. When we cry out, He gives understanding. When we choose His testimonies, He delivers. When we remember His commandments, He teaches. And when we praise and sing of Him, He helps us.

We must desire His salvation, seeking to abide in Him and longing for Him to find us when we go astray.

He responds to us according to His Word. His word is life (Philippians 2) and truth (2 Timothy 2). His word is both seed and sword (Matthew 13; Hebrews 4). And in Jesus, His Word is made flesh (John 1).

No matter how tumultuous the times or how complicated the circumstances, God is faithful to be with us. He speaks to us through His Word. When we remember His promises, we will live and praise Him with all that we are forever.

Wednesday interlude

Jehovah Rohi. The Lord as Shepherd.

I checked the news today. It appears that curfews are working to distinguish between protestors (99% of the people involved) and rioters in most places. When protesters go home, police are able to focus on the people who want to incite violence. The rioters are attacking police, 99% of whom just want to protect and serve their communities. I suspect there may be an uptick on June 9 for Mr. Floyd’s funeral, but I think much of the violence is subsiding.

The question becomes, what next? As a people, where do we begin to experience God’s healing? More than ever, we need a shepherd.

Shepherding is a hard and humble occupation. Sheep are notoriously dumb, so the good shepherds are always on the alert for danger: predators, poisonous plants, uneven footing, etc. If one runs off, others follow. A good shepherd knows where the sheep are and whether any have gone missing. They are outside in all kinds of weather and often the only humans in the middle of a flock of sheep or goats. It is smelly, dirty, and usually boring. If the animals are happily grazing, there’s not much to do.

However, without a shepherd the sheep are prone to wander in circles, missing the good food, the solid ground, and vulnerable to predators.

What we need after the last weeks more than anything is a shepherd who will direct, protect, and lead us toward reconciliation and love. The Good Shepherd is Jesus. As believers we need to look to Him for how best to love each other and rebuild our communities together. Jesus is never tired of shepherding us – a good thing since we keep trying to make our own ways, away from the flock. We must be reliant on His Word and His will in order for Him to accomplish His work in and through us.

Let our prayer be, “Father, help me to acquiesce to Your shepherding. Rescue me when I wander toward worldly solutions to the issues the swirl around me. Keep me on the solid ground, keep me nourished on Your Word, and keep my ears attuned to your voice. Amen.”

Lamentations

I have been broken by the events of 2020, and I feel like I need to take a short break from Psalm 119 to examine the most profound lament of the Old Testament in light of the current Church and culture in the US.

Illuminated Scripture Journal cover. Crossway, 2001

I did some background reading on Bible.org, BibleScripture.net and in the Tony Evans Bible Commentary. Context is always king when it comes to any kind of literary analysis, and especially so for Bible study. As I am writing this, many cities in the US are reacting to an alarming number of murders of black people by racist white men. The most recent, and the one that set cities ablaze was the videotaped murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for several minutes, and only stopped when the man was unresponsive. It was cruel and violent and vile behavior. What made it even worse is that the officer was looking for someone else, someone who was accused of forgery.

This kind of behavior by anyone is evil, but law enforcement officers are supposed to be held to a higher standard. Most officers are good men and women, committed to protecting communities and the individuals who live there. Sadly, only a few power-hungry individuals (both legal and judicial) can ruin the relationship between police officers and the people they serve. Several recent officer involved deaths have not be prosecuted or investigated properly, and in Georgia, Ahmaud Arbury was stalked and murdered by a white father-son duo who claimed Arbury looked like someone who had been burglarizing their neighborhood (he was not a suspect, nor is there any evidence he had anything to do with any misbehavior). The last time I checked, laying in wait and ambushing a jogger is intent. Vigilantism is illegal, along with being immoral, yet until a video surfaced of the murder, neither men had been charged.

These events, and others like them, are leading the US toward destruction, and we are witnesses to it. The undercurrent of sin as acceptable behavior will not be long tolerated by a holy God. When believers justify the actions of murderers or rationalize the injustices that are continually revealed, they participate in the sin that will result in the chaos and rage that cities like Minneapolis are living in this week.

Lamentations is the heart cry of a witness to the destruction of Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar. The burning of the city was devastating, and the destruction was complete. The historical account is recorded in 2 Chronicles 36, and Jeremiah’s protection from it in Jeremiah 39. Chuck Swindoll preached a series on Lamentations in 1980, and his background work is stellar. I recommend starting with his words here. It is interesting to listen to Swindoll’s application points in 1980 and to think about where we are now. It’s more evidence that the Word of God is timeless.

The Heart of the Matter
Most of us have never been involved in a mop-up scene after a battle or following a calamity. But those who have can testify that it is one of the most painful and pathetic experiences a human can endure. The ravages of war and the consequences of disaster are usually beyond belief or description. Few are those who can capture the tragic scene in words. Jeremiah was one of the few. His brief, biting journal of what he saw and felt following the fall of his beloved nation is contained in this short book. It is one of the most vivid reminders in all the Bible of that verse in Galatians: “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap” (6:7).
And so will a city. And so will a nation.

Swindoll, C. (1980) God’s Masterwork, Volume Three Poets, Prophets, and Promises—A survey of Job–Daniel Lamentations: A Prophet’s Broken Heart A Survey of Lamentations. Charles R. Swindoll, Inc.

As believers, we must join the lament for the sins of our country and our churches. We must lead the way for repentance. As Tony Evans (2019) wrote, “When God is your biggest problem, He is also your only hope” (p. 721). We, as the Church, must lead the way to racial reconciliation by demonstrating the love of Jesus in all its facets: care, compassion, speaking truth, serving one another, and standing with all our brothers and sisters against injustice and evil.

TETH

Psalm 119: 65-72

What does it look like to keep the Lord’s precepts with our whole heart? From this passage, I see three main qualities:

1. Know that God is good.
2. Know that God does good.
3. Recognize difficulties as opportunities.

The Bible reminds readers over and over of the goodness of God. From creation to crucifixion, God’s goodness is demonstrated through both beauty and love beyond measure.

Everything God does is good. That’s sometimes hard to imagine, especially when evil seems to prevail in the world. But God does not do evil. God gives freedom to choose, and inevitably, humans overwhelmingly choose evil (usually as self-centered quest for power over others) over good. History speaks to the nature of people to prefer happiness over holiness and personal gain over good. Current events magnify just how hopeless humans are without the atoning love of Jesus.

Difficult times are opportunities to learn good judgment and godly wisdom in the face of challenges. That’s really hard sometimes. It’s the actionable part of knowing and there are days where it’s easier to sit in the funk of just how disappointing or unpleasant or hard life and people can be.

Jesus dealt with the same human emotions we do. His response to them? Luke 5:16 says, “Jesus would often go to some place where he could be alone and pray” (Contemporary English Version CEV). Time with the Father reignited Jesus in his work, and it can do the same for us. Hard things and hard times need to push us closer to God and His goodness and out of our own heads.

God is good. God does good. Difficulties are opportunities to know God’s goodness.

Steadfast to the end

James 5:1-11


Throughout this letter, James wrote about the lure of materialism and the danger of believing that success was God’s reward. At the end of chapter 4, James called out those who claimed their success was a measure of God’s pleasure, saying they boasted in arrogance. James continued his condemnation of that arrogance, being clear that the material makings of success in this world would decay and be the source of ultimate destruction. The arrogant will destroy themselves by putting their faith in material gain.

James then reminded his readers that the characteristics of godly people are patience and steadfastness. He reminded his readers of the prophets like Habakkuk, Nahum, Micah, Amos, and Joel, all of whom asked God, “How long will we suffer?” God’s reply was inevitably, “Wait and see.” The kingdoms the prophets spoke against have long since turned to dust. The kingdom of this current age, with its faith in secularism and humanism will also turn to dust.

Our responsibility is to focus on building relationships, not quarreling or grumbling. We look forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises, while remembering that the mercy and compassion we found in Jesus is still being extended to all the world (Matthew 23- 25; John 3). While we wait in steadfast expectation, we should spend our time, not worrying about the future, but in establishing our hearts in the trustworthiness of God’s promises (Psalm 1; Habakkuk 3; Joel 2; Nahum 1; Zephaniah 3:17).

A new commandment

Maundy Thursday, 2020

TO MARY WILLIS SHELBURNE: On keeping to a regular pattern of religious life during the storms of life.

9 November 1955

I agree: the only thing one can usually change in one’s situation is oneself. And yet one can’t change that either—only ask Our Lord to do so, keeping on meanwhile with one’s sacraments, prayers, and ordinary rule of life. One mustn’t fuss too much about one’s state. Do you read St. Francis de Sales? He has good things to say on this subject. All good wishes.

From The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III
Compiled in Yours, Jack

I started this morning looking for a reading on Maundy Thursday, the day that ended with the last Passover supper and Jesus’ arrest (John 13-15). The name of the day comes from the Latin “mandatum,” from which we get our word “mandate.” Mandatum novum do vobis; a new commandment I give you (John 13:34). I stumbled upon the C.S. Lewis quote above and looked up St. Francis de Sales. I found a treasure trove of writings that encourage and inspire readers to daily show faith by action, remembering that everything believers do should be for God’s glory.

Lewis admonished that in difficult times we who call ourselves followers of Jesus must continue our daily habits of prayer and devotion, working out the will of the Father in spite of the culture and crisis surrounding us. God uses calamity to help us grow in love for Him. As we remain faithful in difficult times, we see His goodness and mercy more clearly. De Sales wrote,

My God!, how happy we should be if we could love Thee as we ought; Thou, Who hast prepared for us such good things, such rich blessings. Hold fast to this amid all the various trials with which you are surrounded in this present world. How can we better manifest our faithfulness than by being faithful amid distractions.

St. Francis de Sales on Joy among Trials

James said the same thing to the churches of the Dispersion: Count it all joy; let steadfastness have its full effect; be doers of the word. COVID-19 is the current crisis, but it isn’t the first and it won’t be the last. If we love God and demonstrate that love by loving each other in the middle of the chaos, how much more will He be glorified when the crisis ends? We will be changed by the Father in the situation as we persevere steadfastly to His mandate to love.

Change is inevitable. The I Ching says that change is the only constant, but it is not. God the Omnipotent, Omnipresent, Eternal, Creator, HE is the constant by which people identify change. And it is in this eternally constant God who loves us so much that he became one of us, that we can endure change. Not only can we endure change, but we can accept it, learn from it, grow in it, and even rejoice in it. And as we endure, accept, learn, grow, and rejoice, we can love.

This Holy Week is different for believers around the world. We are physically separated because of a pandemic. Church buildings will be as empty on Sunday as the tomb was that resurrection morning. That change is disquieting, but it will not diminish the power of God over death. Sin is still conquered on our behalf by the sacrifice of the perfect Lamb.

Love for God and love for each other are the foundation and the crown of the Church. COVID-19 can be a spiritual distraction as it wreaks physical destruction, but it must not become an obstacle to living out the new commandment given on this day:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

John 13:34-35

The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950-1963. Copyright © 2007 by C. S. Lewis Pte. Ltd. All rights reserved. Used with permission of HarperCollins Publishers. Yours, Jack: Spiritual Direction from C. S. Lewis. Copyright © 2008 by C. S. Lewis Pte. Ltd. All rights reserved. Used with permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

Faith in action, part 2

James 2:14-26

Faith is made known by works

If I were to choose two people from the Old Testament to illustrate what faith in action looks like I would probably include Abraham. Patriarch of three major religious traditions, blessed by kings of multiple nations, and known for direct conversations with the Almighty, Abraham is an easy choice. If you want to read his whole story, start in Genesis 12 when God calls him to leave everything he knows and goes to a place that God will show him. God didn’t even give Abram (his original name) the destination! The Father said, “Go…and I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2). And Abram packed up and went. No argument, no questions, and no hesitation. At 75 years old, he gathered up his possessions and moved.

Abram had his moments of insecurity, to be sure (including passing off his wife as his sister twice), but ultimately, he trusted God more than his own wiles, and his faith was profound enough that God made a binding blood covenant with him, promising him a great nation from his descendents. Abram had no children, but he believed.

Long story short, Abram tried to make things happen on his own (Genesis 16) when his wife, Sarai’s faith was not as strong as his, but eventually (Genesis 17), God renamed Abram (which meant exalted father) to Abraham (meaning father of multitudes) and established His covenant with him. Abraham’s wife, renamed Sarah, gave birth to Isaac (another fun story from Genesis 21).

Then God called on Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22). At this point, Abraham had to know that God would work things out, but he had no idea how. Just like packing up and leaving his home close to 30 years before, Abraham acted on his faith. Eventually, Isaac married Rebekah, gave birth to Jacob who married Leah and Rachel, whose 12 children made up the tribes of Israel (Genesis 24, 26, 29, 30, 46, 49).

So, as an example of active and living faith, Abraham makes perfect sense. But of all the people to call out as a second example, Rahab? Not Miriam, sister of Moses (Exodus 2)? Not Deborah, the great judge of Israel (Judges 4)? But James chooses Rahab, whose story is found in Joshua 2.

There are good reasons to not understand why Rahab is part of James’ letter. She was a woman. She was a prostitute. She was not Jewish. She lived in Jericho, an enemy town. What could Rahab possibly have in common with the father of multitudes?

Rahab acted. That’s what she had in common with Abraham. She had heard about the God of Israel, and she believed HE was the all-powerful God over all the familiar gods she knew from childhood. She didn’t understand all the details, but she knew in her heart of hearts that hope for salvation would come through Israel. Her actions, hiding the spies, marking her position, and keeping her word, demonstrated her faith in the Unseen God. The Israelites promised to preserve her and her family, and they were faithful to their word (Joshua 6). She had no way of knowing what might happen to her once she got out of Jericho. She might have been taken as a slave or some man’s concubine. She could have been shunned, maligned, and marginalized for being a pagan prostitute. But she acted on faith is a God she did not yet know, trusting His salvation. Her faith in action gave Israel the victory, and this woman, in spite of all the strikes against her, became part of the lineage of Jesus (Matthew 1).

I think James chose these two to make a point. God uses whomever will believe and act on that belief without hesitation and without necessarily know how all the details will work out. Abraham was 99 years old when God told him that Sarah would give birth to a son, at age 90. They had no children before that–and Sarah actually laughed at the idea. But Abraham believed. And Sarah had a baby boy, naming him Isaac, which means laughter. I love that. This boy bore a name that reminded his parents of their initial response to God’s words, even as they acted on them. Abraham modeled faithful action based on his knowledge of God.

Rahab, on the other hand, did not have a knowledge of God, but she knew His people. She could not have known what might happen even if the Israelite spies rescued her and her family, but she knew their God was superior to hers. Abraham had a visible covenant but was physically weak. Rahab had youth and vitality, but no connection to this God she chose to trust. Both, however, took action in response to a call they recognized as coming from outside themselves. In both Abraham and Rahab, faith was active along with works and faith was completed by works (James 2:22).

The lesson to take away from this passage is clear: faith apart from works is dead. And dead faith is worthless. But faith is available to everyone, not the select few. And all of us who believe have both the power and the choice to demonstrate that faith through action.