Friday, December 10, 2010

Splitting wood and splitting hairs

Got to spend the morning with Owen today. Kelly was in the Little Rock & the girls were at school so it was just me and my boy. And so naturally, we planned lots of manly things to do. Actually just one manly thing. But it was about as manly as you can get-we had to split and stack firewood. Since we had such studly, beastly chores awaiting us we needed to fuel up with a manly breakfast. So we went to the truck stop for a healthy serving of grease, salt, and pork fat (3 of the 6 man food groups, by the way). With our bellies full, we headed out to tackle the job ahead of us.

Now understand that Owen was crazy excited about helping. But after a few minutes of stacking his enthusiasm began to wane. So I, in my wisdom, knew a trick that would get his attention back-I let him chop some wood. Now before you report me for turning a 3 year old loose with an axe, understand that I didn't just give him a pole axe and let him run wild. I gave him a small hatchet, one that he could handle, and lectured him thoroughly about safety. After the lecture it was time for the fun. He set up his first piece and gave it all he had...and almost made a mark on the wood. So he tried again. And again. Seeing that his confidence was getting shaky I did the next best thing. I found a really green piece and told him to chop away at it. And chop away he did. He was having a grand old time. When he got done it looked like a rabid beaver had attacked that stick. And then I noticed he had started "splitting" wood again. And I put that in quotations because he really wasn't splitting wood-when faced with the difficult task of actually splitting wood, he changed the definition. Rather than try and split firewood, he took large pieces of bark that were knocked loose from the wood and chopped them into smaller pieces. Each time he did this he said, "Look Daddy, I did it!" And being the great dad I am, I encouraged him, gave him an attaboy each time.

Now what's the point here? I'm glad you asked. As I watched him redefine success I realized that we often do the exact same thing as we try and serve God. We see what God wants from us, we learn about what He expects of us. And we give it a try. But then we find it difficult. And so what do we do? Do we cry out to God for strength? Do we surrender to Him and let the Holy Spirit work through us to accomplish what we can't? Nope. We do something even better. We change the definition of success. Or more specifically, we split hairs. We call partial success (or even complete failure) success. Want some examples?

We know we ought to read God's word consistently, right? And many of us do. But how often do we spend the day acting on what we've read that morning? If you're like a lot of folks, you read scripture each day not because you want to commune with God, and not because you want God to show you something that you can do to bring Him glory; you read it to check it off your spiritual 'to-do' list. Jesus said the proof that we love Him is that we obey His commands. If all we do is read His word, and don't actually put it into practice, there's no reason to believe we love Jesus. James says that when we hear God's word and not do it, we deceive ourselves. Here's another example.

We know we ought to love others, right? And we say that's important to us. But be honest; nobody's looking or anything. How often do you really love someone and how often do you just fake it? Sadly we often fake it. We put on an outward, look all spiritual and Christian-y but inside we are thinking about how much we can't stand that person. And somehow we've convinced ourselves that this is what God expects of us. But if scripture teaches us anything, it's that God is more concerned with who we are on the inside than with what we do on the outside. If just being good outwardly were enough then the Pharisees would be held up as a standard for all of us. Instead, Jesus vilified them, calling them "white-washed tombs", i.e., pretty on the outside but full of death and decay on the inside. Jesus demands that we love each other. In fact, He says that the way the world will know we are His followers is that we love each other-not with an outward show but with an inward reality.

So what do we do with this? 2 things. First, don't try and change the definition of success. God is perfect, He is infinitely holy. And He calls me to that same kind of holiness. God deserves so much more than half-hearted effort and lazy attempts at holiness. He deserves my soul, my life, my all. May I never dishonor Him by arguing with Him about what He wants for me. He wants perfection. Second, I've got to rest in the finished work of Jesus Christ. The paradox of Christianity is that God calls me to a perfection I can never attain. And the natural response to that is to split hairs; to change the definition of success. To say, "I did it!" when I actually failed. The proper response is to rest in the work of Christ. To understand that His righteousness has been imputed to me, and that my good works aren't the grounds by which I'm made acceptable to God-the good works of Jesus are. And even though I can't always be who God has called me to be, God knew this when He saved me. And so I rest in Christ. I commit to serve Him, to love Him, to obey Him, to do all that He's called me to do-and when I fail, I cling to the cross, I receive the forgiveness that was made available by the sacrifice of King Jesus. We don't have to split hairs-we have to live in the realization that God has declared us to be righteous, based on the finished work of Jesus. So don't try and make excuses-embrace your weakness and rest in the One who loves you in spite of it.

Father, thank You for Your patience with me. Thank You for loving me not because of what I do, but in spite of what I do. Thank You for providing a perfect salvation in Jesus. Thank You for granting me His perfect righteousness. Help me to serve You with all that is within me; but help me to rest in the finished work of Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Kitty Cats, Medical Diagnoses, and Other Things we Can Not Understand

If you've followed my facebook postings the last few days you've seen that I've spent a lot of time praying for one of the families that I shepherd at Beech Street, the Blackwells. In case you haven't, here's a short summary: Dee had been sick for a few days last week. On Sunday afternoon, Allen tried to wake her up and she was unresponsive. She was taken to Baptist in Arkadelphia, then quickly flown to Baptist in Little Rock. As of this writing she has made some improvements-she's off the ventilator and her liver continues to show signs of improvement; however, she still hasn't woken (woke? awoke? awoken? you grammar nerds help me out) up yet.

It's always hard when a family that you love and care for is going through a hard time. It gets even tougher when your kids are crazy about that family. My kids love Ms. Dee. They love going to her house, they love hanging out with her, they love spending the night over there. And so they were naturally a upset to find out that she was sick and in the hospital. Owen asked me, "Why did Ms. Dee get sick?" To which I honestly answered, "I don't know, son." He thought about it for a second and said, "I think it was kitty cats."

I sort of chuckled to myself for a minute, thought that was pretty cute. I also thought it was a little funny that 3 year old Owen was ready to make a diagnosis of Dee's condition. But then I had another thought-I realized that this is pretty much what it looks like when I try to explain why God does the things He does.

Let me explain. Often when things come about that I don't understand, things that I don't like, my first inclination is to try and figure out the reason, to explain why it happened; to diagnose the problem if you will. But there's a passage of scripture that I ought to remember; it's Isaiah 55:8-9 and it says this: "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts." Now often when that verse is read people will say, "What a cop out." But the longer I live, the more I hold to the fact that this isn't a cop out; it's a humble submission to an obvious reality-God does things differently than I do. He has a whole different way of looking at things than I do. And when things happen that I don't understand-like a dear friend getting dangerously sick-there's no way that I'll figure out why it happened. There's no way I can reason myself to the point where the light bulb comes on and I say, "Now I see, God. It all makes sense now!" Unless God decides to tell me why He has done something, I can't figure it out. I've got as much chance to figure out why God is doing something as my 3 year old does of arriving at the correct medical diagnosis.

Remember when Job was questioning God? If anyone had reason to ask God, "Why did this happen?" it was Job. And for 4 chapters God makes it painfully clear that Job is in no position to question Him. He says, "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?", Job 38:1. "Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness?", Job 38:19. "Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars?", Job 39:26. God's point isn't to blast Job for asking a question; His point is to make certain that Job-and all of us-understand that the things that are very basic for God, things like laying the foundation of the earth and keeping the light & darkness in their dwelling places, and teaching the hawk to fly, all these things that are so basic for Him are above our understanding. And if the basic things are above our understanding, how much more are the things that are truly complex-like how God can be glorified even when His people suffer?

And so we're left with a couple options. If, like Owen, I'm completely unable to diagnose a complex medical condition, and figure out all the reasons why an eternally wise and gracious God would allow such a condition to come about, then here's all I can do.

First, understand that God is completely within His rights to do whatever He wants. Psalm 24:1, "The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein..." If the earth belongs to God, and everyone who dwells in it it His, then guess what? He can do whatever He wants, whenever He wants, however He wants, and to whomever He wants. Why? It's His. We belong to Him. He has the final say in what happens, not us. Now we don't like that; sort of chafes, doesn't it? But the fact is that the world is God's. And whatever He does with the world is His prerogative. That's easy to say when things are easy; hard to say when one you love is suffering. Or when you are suffering. But circumstances don't affect who God is. So when things happen that I don't understand and don't like, I have to understand that God is completely within His rights.

But secondly, I have to understand that God is trustworthy. Joshua 1:5, "I will not leave you or forsake you." God has promised that He will remain with me. Not just in easy times, but in all times. Psalm 23:4, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil." Why? "For You are with me." God has promised to never leave me. He's promised to never forsake me. And He always keeps His word. So when things happen that I don't understand-and they will; when things happen that I don't like-and they do; I simply have to bow my knee, submit to my King and say, "Not my will, but Your will be done." And I have to rest in His unchanging goodness.

Father, thank You for loving me. Thank You for promising to never leave me or forsake me. Thank You for being big enough to understand the things that I can't. Thank You for being so awesome that you can take times of hardship and trouble and still use them for Your honor and glory. Forgive my unspeakable arrogance in assuming that I can understand the ways of One who is higher and greater than I'll ever be. Forgive me for not trusting in You. Help me to bow before Your sovereignty. And help me to remember Your faithfulness. Amen.