Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Winter clothes and other transitory things

Last night Kelly began taking the kids' winter clothes out of their closets and putting them away until cold weather returns--which is always a tricky proposition in Arkansas. It may be 90 degrees next week or it may snow. But we've always been the kind of people who give a strong, Celtic laugh in the face of danger so we're going ahead with the plan.

When you change out the seasonal clothes it's a time of transition. You are transitioning from one season to another, one need to another, one time of year to another. And as I was looking over all the winter stuff I was reminded that all our lives are times of transition. When you're an infant you are transitioning through various stages of helplessness. You transition to a person who can communicate, move about independently, and control your bowels--all of which prove marvelously useful in the years to follow. As you grow older and begin school you are continually transitioning through different grades and different social situations and different friends.

The transitions continue through college as you study a discipline that you'll use to gain employment. Often during this time you transition into marriage. And with time, you'll transition to parenthood (which is often accompanied by frustration-hood, lack of sleep-hood, and extreme gratitude to God for such amazing gifts-hood).

Life is a series of transitions. Right now I've got a pile of winter clothes that need to be put away. Before long there will be a pile of summer clothes. Right now we're getting ready to transition Owen to Pre K. But before I know it we'll be getting ready to transition Lily into college. Life is a series of transitions. And those transitions happen faster than we realize. James 4:14 says, "What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes." Sounds pretty transitory to me.

So here's the point--we can either fight against these transitions or we can embrace them and make the most of them. We can realize that this transition, this life we live, isn't going to last forever. And we can seek to make the most of it. Charles Spurgeon said, "God gives His people life, not as the clock ticks, but as He helps them to serve Him; and He can make them to live much in a short space of time." I don't know how long I'll be a misty appearance on this earth. I don't know what transitions I have before me. But what I do know is this: I won't be here forever. So I need to make the most of the time God has given me. And I need to realize that this world is not my home. I've been made for a different home. A home where I'll find eternal rest and eternal joy in the presence of the One who loved me and gave Himself for me. May our lives be lived for His glory. And may the transitions remind us of our temporary stay here.

Father, thank You for the gift of life. Thank You for the gift of time. And thank You for the gift of transitions in our lives. You use these to gently remind us that our time here is short, and that this world is not our home. Help us to live passionately, to embrace the life You've given us--but help us also to hold to it loosely, knowing that we are here but for a moment. Help that moment be used to bring great honor to Your name. Amen.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

In which we seek to destroy self-reliance

Ask a group of Christians what matters most, what is the most important thing for them to become more like Jesus and you'll probably get similar answers. Things like prayer, reading the Bible, and sharing our faith with others will dominate the list. And those things are monumentally important in our daily walk with Christ. We're called to evangelize, to pray without ceasing, and to regard the Bible as inspired and useful for making us more like Jesus. But there's something else I would add to that list, something that is just as important as anything on that list. And, that is, as the title might suggest, the importance of destroying self-reliance.

Self-reliance is, as you might have imagined, relying on yourself. And in our culture its put forth as a virtue. "Believe in yourself", we are told; "trust in your heart"; "visualize the life you want to have and it will be yours." Now the problem with this is obvious--it leaves out Jesus. And rather than teaching self-reliance, the New Testament emphasizes a complete reliance on Jesus.

One of the most well known illustrations of this is found in 2 Corinthians 12. As Paul describes a struggle he has faced with a messenger from Satan, and his prayers that were offered to God seeking that this be removed, he reveals that God says, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness." God essentially says that only when confronted with our weaknesses do we run to Him for His power. And its crucial for us to take hold of this in our lives. The only way we learn to trust in the strength of God is by being forced to see that our own strength is insufficient; the only way I learn to rely on God is by the systematic destruction of self-reliance in my life. Paul goes on to say in vs10, "For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong." Paul recognizes what God is telling Him. And he embraces it. He says, "Lord, if the only way to strip away self-reliance is by You demonstrating to me my own insufficiency, then I will glory in those times."

Now that might seem cruel. It might seem heartless that God would expose us to these types of situations. But rather than being cruel, it is actually a demonstration of the great love God has for us. You see, God wants what is best for us. And that doesn't mean He wants what we think is best for us but that He wants what He knows is best for us--and what is best for us is a life given over to bringing Him glory. And the only way this is accomplished is when our lives are devoid of self-reliance, when we boast gladly of our weaknesses, knowing that when we do so the power of Christ will rest upon us.

God loves us enough to put us through that sanctifying surgery, for lack of a better term, that strips away the reliance on self. And that's not an easy process. There is no general anesthesia for that surgery. But it's a worthwhile surgery. And the reason is this; the less I rely on myself, the more I rely on my Savior. That's huge for us because when we rely on ourselves we will do all we are capable of; when you "believe in yourself" you'll do all that 'yourself' is capable of. But when I rely on Jesus, I can do all things through the One who is giving me strength.

Now does this take away the pain of those times of insults, hardships or betrayals by friends? Of course not. But as a follower of Christ I must learn to embrace those things because I know that God is using them to destroy self-reliance.

Father, thank You for loving me, for saving me, and for committing to make me like You. Help me to see things through Your eyes rather than mine. Help me to remember the sufficiency of Your grace. And help me to glory in the fact that through times of hardship I am being made more like You. Amen.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Lessons on the Nature of Truth by Emma Cox

As we were heading out the door this morning Lily was telling me all about the new book she's been reading. And God love my Lily-bug, she tells stories like her mother. No detail is left out, no character is unmentioned--often I have to encourage her (in a loving, patient, dad of the year kind of way) to find the point. Don't judge me. So as she was telling me about one of the characters, Emma asked, "Is he good or bad?"

I was struck by the simplicity of her question. To her 5 year old mind there was a simple classification for this character: either he was good or he was bad. That's the way the mind of a child works, isn't it? There are good people and there are bad people. There is right and there is wrong. There is black and there is white.

I thought further about how as adults we are eager to outgrow such simplistic thinking. We pride ourselves on being able to identify moral gray areas. We pat ourselves on the back for our tolerance and our intellectual evolution. Others may view the world through so narrow a lens but we are able to look beyond that. We are able to see that "absolute truth" is a misnomer.

But lost in our self-congratulatory euphoria (which might be my new favorite phrase) is the fact that there are things as simple as right and wrong. There are things as concrete as good and bad. There is, as the photo suggests, a right way to do things, and a wrong way to do things. And maybe what the world needs is more child-like view of things. Please don't misunderstand: I'm not anti-intellectual and I'm not suggesting we all hold hands and sing "Kumbaya" around the campfire. But I am suggesting that sometimes we can overlook the obvious-that there is right and that there is wrong. That there is truth and that there is falsehood. There are moral dilemmas in the world. There are difficult decisions to be made. But there are also things that are true; not "sort of in a round about way" kind of true but "absolutely and without question or equivocation" kind of true. Jesus said in John 8:32, " will know the truth and the truth will set you free." According to Jesus, not only is truth a reality, truth is knowable. We can know truth. And as I thought about what Emma said, her simple understanding that there are things that are right/true and things that are wrong/untrue, I though about some of those things, some of that truth that we can know.

We know, for example that God is. Throw away all your smart sounding arguments and bid words. Throw out your philosophers and people who tell you what to believe. Now go and stand out in a dark place on a clear night. Look upward at the blanket of stars. Look at the innumerable lights in the night sky. Can you really conceive of such things just happening into existence? We know God exists because He has revealed His existence to the world. The heavens declare the glory of the One who spoke them into existence. Every cell, every strand of DNA shouts to the creative brilliance of our King. Every star that shines is a light that points us to the throne of the Master of this world. We know that God exists and we can hold to that with unshakable certainty.

We know that God is holy. His word declares to us His holiness, the perfection of His character. In addition to the testimony of His word we all have within us a desire for what's right, don't we? We are grieved when injustice is allowed to flourish, we desire to see the guilty punished and the innocent vindicated. That desire is there because we were made in the image of a holy God, a God who loves justice and righteousness. That desire that resides within our fallen flesh reminds us that God is holy.

We know that we are not holy. You don't have to be a theologian to understand this. We can argue about degrees of sinfulness but the bottom line is that we are all unholy; we are all guilty of sin. None of us can match the standard of Our creator. The answer to Emma's question about whether or not a character was good or bad is ultimately, "He's bad." And that's true for each of us. We are sinful people; sinful by birth and sinful by choice. This is truth. This is beyond debate.

We know that Jesus saves sinners. Now this is good news, isn't it? We know that Jesus Christ saves sinners. He came to this earth for that purpose. Luke 19:10 tells us that the Son of Man came to seek and save that which was lost. Jesus came to the earth to save sinners. His life was the life I couldn't live. His death was the death I should have died. And His resurrection was the proof of the truth of His words. Through faith we can be forgiven. Though we didn't live a perfect life, the perfect life of Jesus can be imputed to us. Though we didn't die for our sins, the death that Jesus died was a substitutionary death--He took our punishment in our place. And since He rose again, we who are dead in our sins can be raised to walk in newness of life.

We know that Jesus will return. The past, as they say, is prologue. That means that what has happened before is a pretty good indicator of what will happen next. God promised a Redeemer would come to save the world; and He did. That redeemer promised that He'll return; and He will. If all the prophecies of the Old Testament were proven true, if everything in the New Testament has been verified, why would we doubt that this same Jesus will return?

Jesus said that we will know the truth, and that knowledge of the truth will set us free. I encourage you to take hold of the truth; and as you do, experience the freedom it offers. Freedom from worry, freedom from guilt, freedom from anxiety or fear. The truth is that we have a God who loves us and has given Himself for us. We have a God who has promised to return for us. And we have a God who has promised to never leave us or forsake us.

Father, thank You for Your truth. Thank You that You love us, that You saved us, and that You'll return for us. Thank You that in a world of confusion and chaos, we can hold to what Your word tells us. We can hold to Your truth. Give us a childlike acceptance of what Your word says. Help us to see the world as You do-through the lens of right and wrong. But even more, help us to love the world as You do. Help us to share the good news with them. And use our lives to glorify Yourself. Amen.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

In Which We Learn About Reality

This morning started off like most weekday mornings at our house. I went into the girls' room to get them up. I told Emma it was time to get up and she said, "There's no school today", rolled over and covered herself back up. It's not that she was confused about the day of the week. She knew it was Tuesday. She further knew that Tuesday means school. However, she was making a declarative statement. She had decided that today would be a school-free day. Unfortunately, Emma had to learn a difficult lesson this morning: we cannot create our own reality. In Emma's world there would have been no school today. It would have been a day full of lollipops and gumdrops, video games and princess movies. But alas, Emma doesn't live in Emma world. She lives in the real world. And no amount of declarative statements, regardless of the force and conviction with which they are delivered, will allow us to change our reality.

The reason this stuck with me is that I see so much of myself in Emma's statement, in her desire to make things be as she wishes them rather than accept them as they are. How often have I done the same thing? How often have I tried to justify my own sinful behavior by comparing myself to others rather than to God's perfect standard? I'll say, "It's not that bad, not that big of a deal, not really that sinful." But no matter how often I say that, God's word is plain-all sin is abhorrent to God.

How often do we see this in other people? I read the other day where Bernie Madoff, the guy who swindled so many people out of billions of dollars said, "I'm not a bad person." My apologies, Mr. Madoff. I was under the impression that being a liar and thief, that stealing people's savings accounts, and college funds, that lying about it and covering it up and living in luxury at the expense of others did in fact make one a bad person.

We can't change our reality. But the good news is that we serve a God who can. Rev. 21:5, "And He who was seated on the throne said, 'Behold I am making all things new." We serve a God who was not only able to create the world we live in; He is able to recreate our world, to recreate our reality. And this isn't some abstract concept. This goes to the core of who we are. The reality we all live in is that we are sinners who are separated from God. The reality is that there is nothing we can do to change who we are. We are sinners by birth and sinners by choice. We return to our sins, like a dog returns to its vomit. But in Christ, who we are can be changed. 2 Cor. 5:17 says, "If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come!" In Christ, our reality can be changed. Rather than being sinners, we are made into saints. Rather than being separated from Christ we are baptized into Christ. And who we are is no longer who we were.

Remember in John 2, when Jesus was at the wedding in Cana? The host ran out of wine. Jesus told them to fill 6 jars with water; when they drew the water out to serve it, it was miraculously changed into wine. Jesus changed the reality, didn't He? He made it into something completely different. And that's exactly what He can do in our live. When we come to Him in faith and repentance, when we bow to Him and acknowledge His rightful place as Lord and Ruler of our lives, He makes all things new. Who we are, where we're going, everything is changed. For that we ought to worship Him. Even when we have to go to school.

Father, thank You for being able to recreate my reality. Thank You for saving me, for forgiving me, for placing Your affection on me. Help me to live not in the reality I desire but in the reality You have given me. Help me to find my joy, my fulfillment and satisfaction not in other things but in You alone. Help me to rest in You, and be content with wherever you place me. Amen.