Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Story of Michael Vick

Michael Vick's story fascinates me and I think it's because his life just reeks of potential. Obviously he's a tremendous playmaker on the football field, and I just happen to live with two devoted Philadelphia Eagles fans. But what's more important is the potential Michael Vick has off the field, because as a follower of Jesus Christ, I believe in second chances and redemption and I get excited about the idea of someone like him living out, for all the world to see, the change that is possible in Christ. Not that I'm sure Michael Vick is doing this. After all, I don't know him personally and am in no way faithful about keeping up with his life, but in my heart I just long for him to be changed. Great stories are stories of overcoming, of using the hardest, the ugliest and most painful things in our lives to glorify God. And this is what I want for Michael Vick. This is what I pray for Michael Vick.

On Monday I was listening to The Diane Rehm Show and fortunately Ms. Rehm was out that day because I'm not particularly fond of her painfully slow and methodical speech. But the guest host was talking about dog fighting and pit bulls and rehabilitating dogs that are rescued from fighting rings. It was sad but interesting, and the panel of guests were dog fighting experts taking calls from listeners. One gentleman called in to say that he didn't know why they were ignoring the real issue which was race. He said that Michael Vick had been made the poster child for dog fighting and that it was a racial issue. This momentarily struck me as overwrought. There was a part of me that said, "no, that's not true."

But then one of the guests disagreed with the caller and said something to the effect that if it had been Peyton Manning instead of Michael Vick, he would have been treated the same way. Does that ring true for you? Because it really doesn't for me. I don't feel at all confident that Peyton Manning also would have gone to jail, that he also would have been the dog fighting poster boy, that through free association the immediate response to "dog fighting" would be "Peyton Manning."

But maybe the race element can also be part of Vick's redemption. Like Esther, maybe his whole life has been preparation for such a time as this. Maybe this incredible athlete, who in his young life has experienced tremendous highs and lows, can bring hope and grace to many. Michael Vick does profess to be a Christian and the message of the Bible is that no experience is wasted for a follower of Christ (Romans 8:28). God can use it all, turning ashes to beauty (Isaiah 61). Will you pray that Michael Vick will seek to honor God with his life? It's obvious that God can use him, but God isn't playing with little dolls here on earth. We always have a choice. Will you pray that Michael Vick makes wise ones?

Do you have people in your life who have incredible potential? Of course you do. I do too. These painful, difficult stories that we have witnessed all around us are ashes waiting to be transformed. May we be faithful in praying for these friends and their stories. And may we seek to honor God with our own lives, trusting that the hardest things we endure can be the means by which we glorify Him the most.

Monday, September 20, 2010

"Where Are Our Angels Now?"

August 7, 2010 was a memorable day for my family --to say the least. The two pictures above mark the extremes that we experienced in that twenty-four-hour period. Elated then worried. Invigorated and victorious. Then exhausted and helpless.

Since 8 and under boys' backstroke was the first event at the All-Star meet for the Northern Virginia Swim League, by 9:15 a.m. on August 7th my oldest son Will was a champion. He had dreamed about this moment, worked hard for this moment, and swam his heart out for it. And I'm not sure Mrs. Phelps has ever been more proud than I was that morning.

Will swam again that afternoon, placing fourth in the freestyle out of the eighteen all-stars. That race marked the end of an amazing season, but we had no intentions of just relishing the accomplishment and the downtime. No, instead our reservations at Maranatha were set to begin that night. My husband was working overnight that Saturday and Sunday and would fly to Michigan on Monday. So when we got home from the swim meet, I packed up the minivan with bikes and scooters and boogie boards and more clothes and towels and food than we needed. The boys crammed into the bench seat, and about six p.m. with the minivan chock full, we set off for Michigan. There would be no way that I could possibly drive the almost 700 miles that night. But I figured we'd get as far as we could. This kind of play-it-by-ear planning is so not my husband's modus operandi, but he knew how excited the boys were to get there so he bid us adieu with lots of kisses and "be careful"s.

And the trip went quite well. The radio in my minivan was broken and I had not had a minute to get it fixed. Plus, we were debating about getting a new car anyway. So we used iPods and my iPhone for entertainment, and really Sammy is just like a traveling comedy act so we talked and laughed and made our way through Maryland and Pennsylvania. But as we neared Ohio the boys started to drift off, and an eerie silence and pitch blackness took over. I might be forever spooked by Eastern Ohio at night. I had to be careful about not using my iPhone too much because I had no way of charging it. It was almost midnight and a few miles into Ohio, and I knew it was time to stop. So I started looking at signs and calling a few places. "Booked up," I heard. Booked. Booked. "Ma'am, there's nothing until Cleveland because of the U.S. Open and blah blah blah." So I started feeling kind of anxious, and yet my eyes were tired and strained, like I just needed to close them for a couple of minutes.

I called Will at work.

"Can you talk to me until I get to the next exit?" I asked. "It's so dark and so quiet. I'm sort of freaked out."

"Are you gonna fall asleep?"

"No, I'm not sleepy. But it's so dark and so quiet."

I was tremendously proud of him that he didn't say anything like, "See, this is why I don't do things like this." Because I know him, and I know he wanted to.

So we had sort of a strange conversation for about ten minutes until out of the darkness arose an exit with a Holiday Inn Express. The lady at the counter had the same story for me: "nope, nothing. There's nothing anywhere near here. You could go back to Pittsburgh, maybe."

So I sat in the car with my eyes closed, and Will called around for us from work. The verdict: nothing in Ohio until past Sandusky. But that would be impossible. I just couldn't do it. Too dark. Too quiet. And now I was way too anxious.

So that's how we ended up staying the night in the Holiday Inn Express parking lot pictured above.

Those five hours were intense and interesting, and the difference in personalities was magnified. Nate was willing to roll with it. Shockingly, he was almost selfless. He accepted that this was something of a crisis and he did not air a single complaint. Sam was restless and feisty because he'd already slept for hours. He could not get comfortable no matter how we arranged ourselves. And poor, darling Dub, it was hardest for him. He was the only one who cried, and he yelled out things like, "We are never getting out of here!" and "Where are our angels now?" It really makes me laugh to think about it. And even then we had these inexplicable bouts of hysterical laughter. Someone would start laughing and we'd all join in. It was the strangest thing. And Dub, sweet and tender, Dub would go from uproarious laughter to tears and back again. No one slept for an hour or two, because there was this heavy and profound feeling that was just incongruent with sleep. So we talked about God and how we had prayed with Daddy for protection before we left. We talked through questions like were we safe? Did God hear our prayer? Were our angels there? Was God in control or not?

I told them that the Bible tells us to pray, but that the Bible also proclaims God's sovereignty. If we think God is like a genie, we will be disappointed. If we think we can produce a certain result by following a certain formula, we will be disappointed.

No, God doesn't want us to be captives of our circumstances, letting our trust ebb and flow with situations we deem good or bad. Instead, He wants us to trust Him in times of victory like that morning, and trust Him in times that are less comfortable, like that night. Our trust, our faith, our love -- none of these should be circumstantial.

Although I certainly don't intend to set out on another road trip like that one, I do hope and pray that my boys learned to trust God a little more that night. Because I really want to raise three little Davids who can authentically echo the Psalms saying, "Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him." (Psalm 62:8).

So whatever comes your way this week, whatever comes my way this week, may we trust Him through it all.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Key to Every Door?

A few posts back I told you about how I was re-baptized, and how the driving force behind wanting to do this was really a difference between proclaiming Jesus as my Lord and merely claiming Him as Savior. I think it's a vitally important distinction, and one we often overlook. There is a tendency to be all about being "saved," with much less emphasis on being transformed. But if we look at the Bible we find a unified message of salvation and sanctification. They are inseparable, and efforts to untie them reveal a misunderstanding of Jesus and what He came to do.

A person is not saved by making a simple "confession" of faith in Jesus when there is no change affected in the confessor. Real belief will produce real change. If there’s no change, there’s no belief. (See James 2:14-26)

So what evidences change? Does going to church? Being involved in Christian community? Volunteering? Tithing? Singing in the choir? Saying the right things? These things may give us some insight into the heart of another person, or they might not. Regardless, it’s not for us to judge. After all, we have no way of knowing someone’s natural state. An outwardly prickly person may have come a long way, and the seemingly kind may have made zero progress. But what we do need to do is to see evidence of change in our own lives. We have a desperate need to be honest with ourselves. And none of the above criteria are as revealing as simply looking at obedience.

Are you obeying God’s Word? Are you living your life in accordance with His law? You can flip through the Ten Commandments and read through Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels. Take a critical look at your life. Are you willing to suffer financial loss for the sake of honesty? Do you take your commitments seriously? Do you covet? Do you put God first? Are there idols in your life? (Read Counterfeit Gods if you are inclined to think there aren’t). Are you careful to observe boundaries to protect your marriage?

George MacDonald said, "Obedience is the key to every door." I've been reflecting on this quote for almost a month and I'm more and more inclined to agree. But I know for certain that obedience is indeed the key to the door of faith. Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship lays this out so well -- belief and obedience are like two points on a circle, and they reinforce each other. The more you believe the more you are able to obey, but interestingly, the more you obey the more you are able to believe. Obeying isn't just the right thing to do, it strengthens your faith.

So may we take the call to obey God's Word seriously, may we examine our lives for evidence that the Holy Spirit is working to sanctify us, and may we continue to make Jesus Lord over all!

As the apostle John said, "We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands." 1 John 2:3 (NIV). With that in mind, may we all know Him better.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Ten Tidbits from Maranatha (2010)

I returned earlier this week from a two-week vacation at Maranatha Bible and Missionary Conference. It is a much anticipated vacation for my family because it is loads of fun. There are a host of activities for our boys, ranging from putt-putt to tennis to rock climbing to zip lining, and yet ample time to relax for hours each day at the beach pictured above. Yet it is not just about fun and relaxation, it is also a time of spiritual renewal. Each day there are two Bible-based teaching sessions. These sessions are led either by the pastor or the missionary organization that are featured that week. For example, our first week we heard from Erwin Lutzer (Moody Church, Chicago) and ABWE (specifically their project to build a hospital in Northern Togo). The second week we heard from Ray Pritchard (Keep Believing Ministries) and Wycliffe Bible Translators. It is humbling to hear all their stories and to witness the sacrifice that these people have made to serve God.

I walked away with many nuggets this year, just as I have in years past. Here is a brief sampling of some of my favorites:

  1. In the Christian walk, God requires us to answer two primary questions: (1) How much do you love me? and (2) How much do you trust me? (Erwin Lutzer)
  2. Faith for the future is based on God's grace in the past. (Erwin Lutzer) This means we need to be reflective and intentional enough to acknowledge and remember God's gracious provision.
  3. Faith never judges God by circumstances. (Erwin Lutzer). In my opinion, there's a growing problem among Christians that overemphasizes circumstances, which is contrary to the message of the Bible. Faith should never be determined by circumstances, nor should ethics.
  4. Sufficient grace comes with sufficient faith. (Erwin Lutzer). 2 Corinthians 12:9
  5. All truth is narrow; God's grace is broad. (Ray Pritchard)
  6. Pray for tenacious, winsome courage. (Ray Pritchard)
  7. Love people where you find them, just like Jesus did. (Ray Pritchard)
  8. Everything we do is tainted, yet twenty-four hours a day Jesus provides the righteousness God demands. (Erwin Lutzer)
  9. Abraham was, of course, a man of great faith. He believed God in three specific areas: (1) he believed in the future and not just the present, trusting God's guidance without demanding to know the plan or destination; (2) he believed in the invisible not just the visible; and (3) He believed in promises, not explanations. (Erwin Lutzer)
  10. Faith always leads to ultimate victory, but we don't necessarily see it now. (Erwin Lutzer)
So this week may we persevere in faith, trusting God's promises without demanding explanations. In short, may we exude the childlike faith that so pleases our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Jesus as LORD, Not just SAVIOR

When I was about five or six years old, I prayed with my mom to accept Jesus as my Savior. Oh the sweet relief I felt to know that I would go to heaven when I died. My faith was simple and pure, and I am thankful that God heard my prayer. Yet I did precious little to grow my faith, praying now and then, reading a devotional here and there, and on rare occasions cracking open His Word. Far from being a devoted follower of Christ, I marched through the next couple decades, with eternal security in hand, living life my own way.

It wasn't until I got married that I begin to realize how unanchored my life really was. My husband exceeded my wildest expectations in every way and I was crazy about him yet somehow marriage wasn't easy. It may have seemed like a fairy-tale from the outside, but on the inside there was a palpable absence of pixie dust. He was human and flawed. And I was human and very flawed. Boy, could I tell you some stories!

But in retrospect our imperfections were a blessing. They made reality clear. My love for Will was imperfect, as was his love for me. Yet I had a longing, even a need for perfection. I desperately wanted someone who would never disappoint me, who would love me into being a better person, a forgiving person, and a more loving person. As I began to truly study the Bible for the very first time, I realized that I had been loved like this all along. Jesus had patiently and faithfully pursued me even when I accepted his saving grace and rejected his guiding hand.

I was baptized when I was eighteen years old. I confessed Jesus as my Savior to the world, but I've often considered over the past five or so years whether I should be re-baptized. Because as Romans 10:9 states: "That if you confess with your mouth that 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." I couldn't say Jesus was my Lord in 1990, but by God's grace, twenty years later, I can.

And that's why on August 12, 2010 I was re-baptized at sunset in beautiful Lake Michigan. It was a wonderful celebration with many fellow believers standing on the sand, many of whom I am related to in one way or another. It was also incredibly meaningful because of who was standing next to me in the lake: my eight-year-old-son, Will. I am praying that his young baptism will mark his life in a profound way. I know he trusts Jesus as his Savior, and I believe he is serious about making Jesus Lord over all. Of course, the Christian life is a process and not just a one-time event.

There is so much I want to share about our time at Maranatha, but I thought it was appropriate to start with this. I do want the world to know that Jesus is not merely my Savior -- He is my Lord. I hope and pray that YOU can say the same!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Appearances, Shmerances -- Stories Are What Matter

Until last July we lived in a condo that was quite unfriendly for visitors. Not only was it small, there was nowhere for anyone to park. So when we moved into our new house I was determined to entertain and faithfully use the ample space that God has provided for us. I have hosted many parties and guests in the last year, and have loved every second of it. In just the last two and a half weeks we've had a number of guests. To be exact, I've had fifteen different people who only stayed for a meal, and sixteen different overnight guests. They hailed from Hong Kong and five different states. What a privilege to have glimpses of all of these stories -- thirty-one different flavors of people.

I heard embarrassing stories, hilarious stories and profoundly sad stories. I heard about suffering, about discrimination, about misconceptions, about perseverance, victory and bravery. I witnessed a baby boy, once abandoned, now lavishly loved by a family who traveled around the world to get him. In fact, four of the children who visited my home were adopted -- all of them little miracles, testimonies to love, the most powerful force in the universe.

Isn't it sad that with all the great stories out there, it is appearances that our culture seems to value most? Magazines at the checkout counter alone supply sufficient evidence that Americans place enormous value on appearances. But the Bible says, "The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart." 1 Samuel 16:7 (NIV)

This week may we strive to look at the heart too. May we remember that each and every person was made in the image of God, deserving honor and respect. May we look past outward appearances, possessions and titles, and take time to listen the stories that God is writing in each life.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Sammy Lessons: Relishing Small Gifts

Why do people heat up when they sleep? I'm sure there's some very scientific explanation, but all I know is that my boys are all little space-heaters. On a cold night, you can warm up to them like you would a fire. But Sam, in particular, is a nocturnal furnace, and since he loves touch, he's like an organic heating pad. In fact, my husband observed when Sam was three months old that he was extremely "tactile." Not a word I frequently use, but it is actually the perfect word for Sam. He loves to be held and to touch. He started giving hugs and kisses when he was about five months old. He used to put his little arms around my neck and just squeeze and release, squeeze and release. He'd pull his darling head back to smile at me and then back to squeeze, release, squeeze, release. Then a few months later he added the back pat. Seriously. Now, when he is falling asleep or just waking up he tries to maximize contact. He hugs my head with both arms like some kind of stuffed animal and puts his hot little feet on my legs. Or he cups his steaming little paws around my face. It is divine, absolutely divine.

Yet in those moments, when I am getting Sam's equivalent of a hot stone massage, I am sometimes prone to think about what I need to do -- laundry to fold, emails to respond to, calls to return, activities to coordinate. But by God's grace, most of the time, I am able to just remind myself how fleeting these moments are. These years of mothering young ones are going by so quickly, and it is such a joyful time. They say the funniest things and are thrilled by the most simple gifts.

Just this morning, Sam located a pair of winter gloves. As many of you know, he has somewhat of a fixation with gloves. So Sam just grinned from ear to ear at the sight of them, "My gloves!" he exclaimed, "You found them!" Actually I'd hid them, but I couldn't take them away when he was so overjoyed. So he wore them to his "brudder's" swim practice and we played ping pong in the rain. His skill level was pretty impressive for a gloved, three-year-old playing on a puddled table.

In Matthew 18: 3 Jesus warns that "unless [we] change and become like little children, [we] will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Certainly we need the willing and simple faith of a child, but as I look at this verse today, I am struck that Jesus' statement is not explicitly limited to faith. He just says that children are prized in heaven and that we need to be like them -- willing to humble ourselves.

In Luke 16:10 Jesus says that "Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much." Although this passage is primarily about handling money, it's also a principle with wider application. Whoever can be trusted with small blessings -- like finding one's gloves --can be trusted with more. It makes sense, doesn't it? If we are thankful for small things we are preparing our hearts for bigger blessings.

We can learn so much about humility and simplicity from our children. We should lovingly study them because Jesus told us to be like them. So what's one tangible way you can carry out this command?

As for me, I'm determined to appreciate every second of cuddle time with Sammy and to grin from ear to ear over some small gift every day.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Ten Commandments of Hebrews 13

I am not a very methodical person, not in the manner that I clean house, plan meals, do laundry, or even blog. I've been going through the book of Hebrews for months now, but my method is pretty simple. I pick up a Bible and read through the next few verses and see what pops out at me. But I've done that a number of times with this last chapter, and I just cannot pick one or two things to focus on -- it is too rich.

So at the pool today, where I have a favorite spot at a picnic table under tall pine trees, overlooking the lap pool where my boys have swim practice, I decided to make a list of the great principles of Hebrews 13. They are not the moral foundation of the Commandments given to Moses, but they are nonetheless transformational.

Hence, the Ten Commandments of Hebrews 13:
  1. Show brotherly love.
  2. Be hospitable to strangers. You may even unknowingly entertain angels.
  3. Remember those in prison as though in prison with them.
  4. Remember those who are mistreated, since you have a body and can appreciate how demeaning it must be.
  5. Hold marriage in high esteem.
  6. Watch out for greed. Instead be content with what you have.
  7. Model your lives after strong disciples of Christ.
  8. Don't be led away by "diverse and strange teachings." Instead be strengthened by grace.
  9. Offer up a continual sacrifice of praise -- "that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name."
  10. Share what you have and do not neglect to do good.
It doesn't take too much self-reflection to make a quick assessment. I'm doing alright on a couple of these, but mostly I could do better, much better. How about you?

May I offer some resources? I am familiar with all of these and contribute to some; each is on point for the respective commands.
  1. Wellspring International The humanitarian arm of RZIM.
  2. CouchSurfing This is not something I've actually done, but my friend, Michelle, has. She exemplifies this command and I admire her greatly for it. Plus, she has made some wonderful friends through Couch Surfing, modeled hospitality for her children like no one else, and gained some utterly fantastic stories as well.
  3. Prison Fellowship A wonderful ministry to prisoners and their families.
  4. International Justice Mission A human rights agency that secures justice for victims of slavery, sexual exploitation, and other forms of violent oppression.
  5. Love and Respect Ministries A great marriage resource, with wonderful tips for getting off the "crazy cycle."
  6. Crown Financial Ministries Our bank statements reveal much about our priorities. This ministry is dedicated to helping people take a hard look at how they spend their money. It is biblically-based and I highly recommend it.
  7. The C.S. Lewis Institute This ministry is a great way for people in DC, Atlanta, and Annapolis to connect with strong followers of Christ. The mentoring ministry of your local church is another good resource. We must be intentional if we hope to have strong believers in our lives. We can and should pray that God will connect us with good mentors, but we should also be humble and vulnerable enough to ask someone to be a mentor.
  8. RZIM Ravi Zacharias is amazing. He preaches grace and truth and reason. He is funny and brilliant and kind. I am also blessed to be at McLean Bible Church each week, where I am strengthened by grace.
  9. Getty Music One way to keep praising Jesus is to read the Psalms. Another way is to listen to great music, like that of Keith and Kristyn Getty.
  10. Operation Blessing and Compassion International are two ministries that are doing great things all around the world. Operation Blessing is more of a relief organization, and Compassion International connects you via sponsorship with individual children. Both are showing the love of Jesus Christ to many in need.
So this wraps up Hebrews. I've been amazed by how much is in this one book. I'm looking forward to reading it through again with notes and commentary. I know I've only skimmed the surface here on the blog, but I greatly appreciate your willingness to read and learn with me.

As the book itself ends, so will this series: "Grace be with all of you."

Monday, June 28, 2010

Bitter Roots

Sometimes life is dang complicated. I need not go into detail, but my complication meter has been reaching some never-before-seen heights. And yet I know that even these record-breaking levels will one day be shattered. Because although life with three boys is busy and important and foundational now, I know my life will grow even more complex as they get older. And quite honestly, it scares me. I want them to know in the depths of their souls that my love is unconditional. I want to be Christ-like, loving them beyond measure -- never fully reaching how deep, how wide, how long and high is my love for them.

But I’m an imperfect person, and therefore an imperfect parent. That means as much as I hate it, I have already done things to harm the fragile psyches of my beloved little boys, and I’ll continue to make mistakes that hurt them emotionally. Yet the last thing I want to do is to embitter them, to plant bitter roots that can grow and infect others. The writer of Hebrews understood this completely, warning “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.” (12:15) In essence, bitterness is like any other weed, it has the potential to take over, to choke out the life around it. The weed killer is the grace of God, and we cannot fail to obtain it.

So bitter roots are eradicated by the grace of God, that's great news. But how do we obtain the grace of God? We simply admit we don’t have all the answers. We admit that we’ve fallen short. We acknowledge that in our human effort we will always fall short. Wouldn’t it be terribly arrogant to maintain otherwise? And yet the existence of sin is forcefully resisted. There’s an ever-present temptation to compare ourselves to others. We tell ourselves that we not as bad as this person and certainly not as bad as that person. But it’s not relative. Other people aren’t the standard. God is. And Jesus lived the standard here on earth in human flesh. A lack of information is not our problem.

So to obtain the grace of God, all you have to do is acknowledge your own need. And to quote Beth Moore, “Once we get it, we give it.”

So my prayer this week is all about grace. I’m praying that I will get grace. That I’ll understand it like never before, that I’ll give it like never before. My prayer is also that my boys will get it and give it, even to their very own mother.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Living in Radical Peace

I'm hoping to close out this series on the book of Hebrews in the next week or so, but to do that I'm going to have to gloss over some fantastic verses, so I hope you'll take the time to read these last two chapters in their entirety. They are incredibly rich: Hebrews 12 and Hebrews 13.

Hebrews 12:14 instructs us to "Make every effort to live in peace with all men." If you stop to think about it, that is an absolutely radical statement. All men? All men! Really? Does that include the people we want to hate? Because if we're honest, everybody wants to hate someone. Right now, many Americans want to hate Carl-Henric Svanberg (Chairman of BP) and lots of Brits want to hate Robert Green (English World Cup goalkeeper). But these aren't unique times, someone is always being demonized by some group. The "Hate is Not a Family Value" bumper-sticker was common during the Clinton era, yet vehement hatred was just as common during the Bush years. So maybe it's not surprising that Barack Obama's message of change has yet to quell the wave of hate. And think of the animus mustered for wayward husbands, from John Edwards to Mark Sanford to Jesse James. To be honest, it is my strong inclination to loathe John Edwards and Mark "Soul Mate" Sanford. But as a follower of Jesus Christ, I am called to live at peace with everyone. I am called to pray for those I'm inclined to hate, even for those who would persecute me, and wish only goodwill towards every single person. It is a high standard. How can we possibly meet it?

The truth, of course, is that we cannot, in our humanness, purify our emotions. Our battle in the flesh is futile, and the fruits of the spirit are divine. No one can just wake up in the morning and decide to be more loving, joyful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle or self-controlled. Apart from God, any progress is small and fleeting. Very simply, we need Jesus. By focusing and relying on Him we can become more like Him. And He is all of these things. Jesus is all-loving, full of joy, ever-patient, always kind, forever good, ceaselessly faithful, gentle and self-controlled.

But the great heart physician, does not perform His work without consent. He does not change you against your will. You will never become more like Him without recognizing that YOU NEED HIM. So may we take a hard look at our own lives. Do you feel like you could never ever be Carl-Henric Svanberg, Bernie Madoff, O.J. Simpson, John Edwards, or Mark Sanford? Do you think you are beyond certain sins, that it's just not in you? Well, until we recognize the dark, dark corner of our own hearts, we will never have compassion on these people, and we will never live in radical peace with all men.

This is a tough road. In fact, it's an impossible road, but for the grace of God. Although I want to hate and feel superior to wretches like those mentioned above, I need to remind myself daily that I too am a wretch, and that God's economy is never merit-based, but grace-based.

This week may we recognize God's abundant mercy and love, and live at peace with all men.

Friday, June 11, 2010

No Discipline?

I am not a disciplined person. My time-management skills are abysmal. If I have a project to do or a party to throw or an article to write, I procrastinate terribly. My husband calls it procrastireading, because I escape in a book instead of doing what I should. Then as the deadline approaches I get frantically focused, packing weeks of work or preparation into the final hours. It's not good. It's a lack of discipline and it seeps into many areas of my life.

The last month has been particularly bad. I've had writing projects, school projects, and I threw Will a graduation party. The trifecta of wrapping up the school year, finishing up the soccer season, and launching the swim season has left me with little time to blog. I've spent nearly every spare minute in the pool with Sam because I am so anxious for him to swim. And he's loving it. He is a self-taught little fish, pushing the limits of what is reasonable for a three-year-old. If I grab him out of grave concern that he needs to take a breath, he gets indignant:"Stop touching me!"

But as I've written here before I miss blogging terribly when I fall away. It is such a great way for me to process what's going on in my life. It helps me remember to be thankful, to be intentional about life, to listen intently to what God is calling me to be and to do. So I'm renewing my commitment to Spur, because frankly I need it. More than once a month!

Because my life is so divinely orchestrated, the next chapter in Hebrews is about discipline. Hebrews 12:11 says, "No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." I can hear little Nate saying this verse. He has always had an amazing propensity for memorization and knew this one, along with many others when he was three. During that pre-school, pre-sports era, Will and I were disciplined about helping the boys memorize verses, and we were disciplined about discipline too. Life is much more hurried now. We are often racing from one thing to the next, and our harvest of righteousness and peace is less bountiful.

There is a balance we've yet to strike. Sometimes we go, do, see, and experience at the expense of reflecting and being. I need more discipline in my life, and my boys need it too.

How are you doing? Are you a disciplined person? Do you see evidence of the righteousness and peace that stem from it? In what areas could you be more disciplined?

The very word "discipline" is humbling for me, yet God gives grace to the humble. I am so very thankful that this is true and that I do not have to earn His love. I can rest assuredly in the fact that Jesus is not only the author of my faith, but the perfecter of my faith (Hebrews 12: 2).

May we heed the call this week and fix our eyes on Jesus!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Strangers and Exiles

Hebrews 11 is the great faith chapter in the Bible and most Christians are probably familiar with its central thesis, found in verse six: without faith it is impossible to please God. The chapter also lists many examples of great faith. In fact, I've heard this chapter described as the "Hall of Faith" with inductees like Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Moses.

I could study Hebrews 11 for months and still not exhaust its lessons, but as I write this, one little detail really stands out. Hebrews 11: 13 says that these faith hall-of-famers all "acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth."

I have moments that just reek of the kingdom of God -- interacting with authentic Christ-followers who know and live God's Word, spending time in Creation, seeing the beauty of truth wherever it is found -- these kingdom encounters are a great encouragement to me. But there are other times that are marked by longing, by an unsettled feeling, that I'm made for something else. There is so much to mourn in this world, and down deep I long for something better.

But where did we get this kind of unsettled feeling, this longing for something else? Does an ideal just evolve over time? Was there a time when humans were just content with cave family dynamics, and senseless and brutal killings? Of course not. That's absurd. Why would a creature evolve to long for something it has never known? No, like so many issues, the Bible itself holds the answer: God has set eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11) and the ideal of unfettered fellowship with Him survived the Fall.

So we really have a choice to make. When we hear about a college student beating his former girlfriend to death, when we hear disheartening statistics about child labor and prostitution, when we witness people we know wound each other emotionally, we have two options. We can cling to hope, or we can give up.

The Hall of Faithers had a death grip on hope. They wouldn't let go, because they knew they were strangers and exiles. Do you?

This week, no matter what hardships we endure, what heartaches we witness, may the Holy Spirit empower us to keep trusting. My name isn't going to be some addendum to Hebrews 11, but I cannot think of a greater compliment than for someone to say, "Kristie Jackson? Yes, she knows she is a stranger and an exile. She is a woman of faith."

Monday, April 26, 2010

Justice: The Cost of Mercy?

As I look back through the first ten chapters of Hebrews three different but related themes stand out. First is the fact that Jesus is greater than all the prophets, and second is that He is our high priest, interceding and sacrificing for us. Finally, we learn that Jesus paid the penalty for sin, once for all. In short, the first ten chapters of Hebrews depict Jesus as the fulfillment of the law, mercifully taking on the sin of the world.

But I wonder if we can read through these chapters and misconstrue who Jesus is, because there is a temptation, even a tendency to make Jesus one-dimensional. Deliberately or not, we sometimes cling to mercy without acknowledging why we need it. Yes, we sometimes live in denial of our own sin, but we also live in denial of the fact that God is just.

As adults we may not think about justice that much, or talk about it explicitly, but we are born with a longing for it. My boys remind me of this roughly 25 times a day by proclaiming "that's not fair." And when we take time to reflect on it, we quickly see how vitally important justice is -- in fact, it's imperative for a free society. If someone were to physically harm your family, how would you feel if the judge, knowing that they were guilty, decided to be "merciful" and set them free without penalty. Bear in mind it is never yours to avenge, not if you are a Christ-follower. So it'd be pretty upsetting, wouldn't it? Mercy to that violent criminal would cost you something. It would cost you justice.

But this is not how it works in the Kingdom of God. Yes, you are forgiven. Yes, the Judge is merciful. But justice is done. The price is paid. Jesus pays it. But how often do we forget that? How often do we fail to acknowledge the cost of mercy? Michael Ramsden, a speaker for RZIM, said that only in the Christian faith does God exercise mercy through justice. In other religions, mercy is exercised at the expense of justice. Do you see how even the simplest vignette illustrates this? If we take just a moment to reflect on it, we see that we do not want mercy at the expense of justice. We have a longing, an unquenchable thirst for both justice and mercy. But we only find them together in one place: Calvary.

The song "Jesus You are Worthy" by Brenton Brown and Don Williams beautifully conveys this truth. Here are the lyrics:

Jesus You are mercy
Jesus You are justice
Jesus You are worthy
That is what You are
You died alone to save me
You rose so You could raise me
You did this all to make me
A chosen child of God

Worthy is the Lamb that once was slain
To receive all glory, pow’r, and praise
For with Your blood You purchased us for God
Jesus You are worthy. That is what You are

Perfect sacrifce crushed by God for us
Bearing in Your hurt all that I deserve
Misjudged for my misdeeds, You suffered silently
The only guiltless man in all of history

Jesus You are worthy. That is what You are
Jesus You are worthy. That is what You are

Justice and Mercy. Justice and Mercy.
Meet at the Cross.

Justice and Mercy. Justice and Mercy.
Meet at the Cross.

Copyright © 2005 Thankyou Music/PRS
(adm. by Songs exc. the UK and Europe which is adm. by Kingsway Music)

You may be wondering how all this ties in to Hebrews 10. But I believe it does, because Hebrews 10:26-31 is a reminder, a pretty graphic reminder, not to forget that mercy has a cost, that mercy is through justice, not in spite of it.

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," and again, "The Lord will judge his people." It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

This week may we remember that mercy comes at a price, that our God is a God of justice, and that we wouldn't want it any other way. And may we be filled with gratitude that justice and mercy did indeed meet on the Cross.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Hebrews 10: Spur

I have so missed blogging. Two weeks ago my boys had Spring Break and I couldn't justify sitting at the computer when we were experiencing some of the world's most beautiful weather. And then last week, I just had an incredibly busy week with many responsibilities at school, a book club function, seeing Ravi Zacharias speak in Bethesda, and the kick of soccer season. In short, the six practices, two games, two interviews, and two meetings left me a bit drained. Plus, Sammy had just about had it with being carted to and fro. Any residual energy I was able to muster had to be dedicated to him.

But I really love writing this blog. It's probably like shopping for some women, or even chocolate, because blogging is my favorite indulgence! And so it seems appropriate, after somewhat of a hiatus, that the vision verse of this blog just happens to be in this chapter of Hebrews.

Hebrews 10:23-24 say: “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."

So the question is how do we do this? How do we hold unswervingly to the hope we profess? And how do we spur one another on toward love and good deeds?

I think one of the primary ways we do this is by sharing our stories -- when we examine our lives we see how He who promised is indeed faithful. And I love hearing personal stories of God's faithfulness. Nothing encourages me more than hearing from friends about what God is teaching them and where God is leading them. And I am so grateful for friends like this, who seeking the heart of God, are willing to share pieces of their lives and lessons that they've learned.

So how are you doing? Have you thought about the unique, once-in-Creation story that God is writing through your life? Do you see the threads of grace and redemption that are present throughout your years? Where do you see His direction in your life? Where do you see evidence of road blocks and stop signs?

Do you hold unswervingly to the promise that you are a work in progress? Are you willing to share the subplots of your story that illustrate God's justice and mercy?

This week may we heed the call here in Hebrews and spur one another on through the stories of our lives.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Hebrews 9: Forgiveness

One thing that's really becoming clear to me as I read through Hebrews is that this book is intense. The theological concepts presented and the constant reference to Old Testament knowledge often make it difficult to understand. I'm probably only gleaning the most elementary of insights; that said there is still so much application! I love that about God's Word -- so much at the surface and yet inexhaustible depth too. Amazing!

Anyhoo, chapter 9 is about the foreshadowing of the earthly tabernacle. We are reminded that the tabernacle built by Moses was a mere copy of the true tabernacle in heaven and that the sacrifices offered in it were temporary. Chapter 9 also discusses why forgiveness requires the shedding of blood. From the "garments of skin" Adam and Eve wore in Genesis 3, to the blood shed by the high priests in Exodus, to Jesus himself -- forgiveness from Genesis to Revelation is blood-dependent. For those who do not know Jesus, this probably sounds gruesome, unsophisticated, even primitive. But if God has given you eyes to see your own heart, or an inkling of His holiness then you understand.

You understand how desperately you need forgiveness, and you understand what it is to long for a clear conscience. Hebrews 9: 9 tells us that the Old Testament sacrifices were an illustration "indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper." The annual Day of Atonement provided fleeting comfort; true and ongoing forgiveness and the peace therein weren't available. I think I often take for granted what a gift forgiveness truly is, that nothing I've ever done is counted against me. Nothing. Not even that time I... Or when I was ... Or that awful thing I said to... Jesus blood is a complete covering for every transgression. As Psalm 103 says my sin is as far removed from me as the east is from the west.

But where does that leave me? Skipping along a forgiven and carefree path? Not exactly, because a forgiven person is called to forgive and that's not always easy. As C.S. Lewis said, "To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you." (The Weight of Glory)

So do you know someone who has done something inexcusable to you or someone you love? I do. This is an incredibly timely message for me, and it is indeed sobering to know that I am called to forgive this person. The idea of doing it in my own strength is laughable. Yet God's grace is sufficient today, and it will be sufficient tomorrow when I'll need to forgive again.

So this week may we pray the Lord's Prayer with conviction, "forgive us, as we forgive others!"

Friday, March 12, 2010

Hebrews 8: Our Inner Tabernacle

The Israelites of the Old Testament were instructed to build a tabernacle which was in essence a mobile sanctuary, and the blueprint given was incredibly precise. If you've ever read through Exodus, you know what I'm talking about. Exact measurements are mandated, the materials to be used are specified, even the orientation and placement of every object is spelled out. The exactness is almost odd. Or so it may seem, until you read Hebrews.

Hebrews 8 is about the "true tabernacle" which is in heaven. Verse 5 is striking: it tells us that the sanctuary constructed by Moses was "a copy or shadow of what is in heaven." That is why Moses was warned, "see to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain." You see Moses wasn't just being shown a yet-to-be constructed plan, he had a glimpse of the true tabernacle. Inexplicably, I lived thirty-seven years without even knowing there is a true tabernacle. I'm certainly guilty of glossing over passages like this one, but I also think the modern church is just deficient in delving into the connectedness of the Old and New Testaments.

Because for me, the connectedness -- the amazing coherence -- is what makes this passage from Hebrews so profound. After all, the purpose of the tabernacle in Exodus was to provide a place for the Israelites to commune with God. The Old Testament tabernacle, or tent of meeting, was the literal place where God dwelled among His people. The true tabernacle in heaven is the literal place where we will dwell with God eternally. So this begs the question, where do we have access to God in this life? Where can we dwell with Him? Must we go to church? Is there a specific, physical place we need to visit? The answer is no! The New Covenant is the promise of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. As the Apostle Paul says, "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?" (1 Corinthians 6:19)

From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is very much about God dwelling with His people. God's desire to commune with the created is consistent throughout -- Jesus is just the culmination and perfect manifestation of God reaching out to us in the post-garden era. Yet how would so many different writers over hundreds and hundreds of years so perfectly portray the heart of God without divine inspiration? I would think that would be a really tough question for unbelievers. How in the world did the Bible end up with such a consistent message?

We miss out by failing to study the connectedness and coherence of the whole Bible. In fact, this is a glaring need in my own life. I can highly recommend Beth Moore's A Woman's Heart: God's Dwelling Place. This study of the tabernacle draws heavily from both the Old and New Testaments. It is sure to leave you with a greater appreciation for the connectedness of God's Word as a whole. Click here for videos or to read more. But this is probably the most systematic study I've ever done; I'd really like to do more and would welcome suggestions.

This time of year we see so many things for Passover. I was just in the grocery yesterday and saw all of the special foods that are used for the Seder. I am always encouraged when I learn about Passover both from the Bible and from Jewish custom, because it so clearly points to Jesus. Jesus is the perfect Passover lamb. He completes the story. And He completes our story too.

This week may we have eyes to see Jesus on every page of Scripture, and pray that God would help us to appreciate the consistency and coherence of His Word. And most of all, may we meet Him in our inner tabernacle!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Hebrews 6 and 7: Once for ALL!

Hebrews chapters 6 and 7 are not easy to understand, at least for me. I know there is depth in these verses that I am just not equipped to plunge. No doubt there is great symbolism in the discussion of the priesthood that the original recipients of this letter understood. They were Hebrews, after all. Their priest had been a very present and important figure in their upbringing. But I'm afraid much of it is lost on me.

What is clear, even to me, is that there is something about Jesus that is like ("in the order of") Melchizedek. Melchizedek blessed Abraham in Genesis 14. Obviously it is significant that his name and title mean "king of righteousness" and "king of peace" and that he brought out bread and wine for this ceremonial blessing. Yet theologically, I do not know if Melchizedek was actually Jesus or just a foreshadowing of Jesus.

But either way, Jesus is our forever priest. Unlike the priests of the Old Testament, Jesus "is able to save [us] completely...because he always lives to intercede for" us. "Such a high priest meets our need -- one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself." (7:25-28 emphasis mine)

Aren't you glad that the sacrifice is complete? That it really was once for all? The Hebrews of the Old Testament never had that assurance, and modern Jews do not have it today. That's why the Day of Atonement is so important. But if you stop to think about it, no religious tradition offers the peace of Jesus. Ask a Buddhist if the work is complete. Ask a Mormon. Ask a Muslim. Ask anyone. All religions have an aspect of striving. The goal might be enlightenment, emptying yourself of desire, living increasingly in accord with religious law, or something else, but only Jesus claimed "it is finished."

There is literally nothing we can do. We are wholly incapable, but it is also wholly unnecessary. Jesus did it all.

If we believe that, if we really live that out, our lives should look much different from the rest of the world. For starters we should exude peace and gratitude. Are you? Are you just pouring out peace and gratitude everywhere you go? I'm afraid I'm not either. But perhaps the problem isn't what we think. Maybe it's not a lack of solitude or blessing or prayer, but a lack of belief. The candid plea of the father in Mark 9 comes to mind yet again, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"

This week may our lives be convincing evidence of what we claim to believe. In short, may our hearts be grateful and our peace contagious.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Hebrews 5: The Milk Diet

Baby Christians need milk, that's what Hebrews 5 tells us. It says that new believers need the elementary truths of God's word fed to them over and over again. Just like the infant's tiny tummy which only permits a few hours between feedings, the new believer needs a constant diet of foundational truth. But this passage that goes well into Hebrews 6 is actually a call to wean ourselves from the milk diet. While we will always need foundational truths, we must mature. We must add solids to our spiritual diet.

But what does solid food look like? The answer from Hebrews isn't exactly cut and dried, yet it is clear that a solid diet leads to righteous living and to teaching new believers. Perseverance is also vital, as is a willingness to fail. After all, failure is part of maturing.

The other night I laid down with Sam to get him to sleep. Yes I know, this is a terrible practice, but I'm afraid we are terrible parents and do it every night. On the one hand, it is disruptive to have to lay down with your child to get them to sleep. Ah, but on the other hand it is a little piece of heaven. Sam is such a darling little snuggler and he is growing up so fast. I don't see myself ever regretting this as wasted time.

Anyway, Sam was laying there practicing counting, which he does in English and Spanish, thanks to Dora the Explorer. He was holding up his pudgy little hand and trying to make his fingers stand upright as he counted them. He was whispering the numbers to himself and I was laying next to him, watching. Unfortunately Sam's fingers weren't cooperating. With two-year-old dexterity, he just couldn't get his third and fourth fingers to do what he wanted. So he just decided he'd yell at them in an angry and indignant voice: "Hey!" Then he started over with the counting. But his little fingers were stubborn, popping up before he wanted them to. "Hey!" he yelled out again. He must have done this four or five times, getting more and more frustrated before I decided to help him.

Like Sam we often fail when we try new things, and like Sam we may even grow frustrated. But no one has ever learned to walk without taking some pretty brutal falls and I think this process applies to our spiritual life as well. If we stay on the milk diet, we won't fail, but we won't fulfill God's plans for us. God wants us to attempt great things for Him and expect great things from Him. (William Carey). This does not mean that all our attempts will succeed. They won't. But as my pastor, Lon Solomon, says, "God steers a moving ship."

This week may we reflect on our spiritual diet. Like the infant we can survive on milk, but God wants us thriving not surviving. So where are the solids in our diet? Are we attempting great things and persevering in faith? Do we have spiritual mentors who encourage us and hold us accountable? Are we praying for wisdom and discernment? Living the Christian life is a process, but it is also a diet -- meaning we must partake daily. May God bless you and me this week with an insatiable appetite for solids!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Hebrews 5: For Praying Out Loud

The writer of Hebrews tells us that "During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears." (5:7) The simple fact that Jesus prayed has tremendous implications for us. If God Incarnate needed prayer, then how did we ever come to believe we could charge through life without it? Yet much of the time that's what we do. We neglect to pray, even though we have time for television, facebook, and the treadmill. And when we do carve out time to pray, we often get distracted. Other times we blaze through a list of petitions without feeling or faith that God answers prayer.

Perhaps then it is quite significant that this statement from Hebrews tells us that Jesus prayed out loud. Obviously we know He did this when He was teaching the disciples to pray the Lord's Prayer, and when He was blessing meals that they shared, but the Bible also makes it clear that Jesus prayed out loud while He was by himself. (See Matthew 26 and John 17). Why would Jesus do that? Jesus criticized the prayers of hypocrites who prayed aloud for the sake of being overheard, so Jesus' motivations must have been different. Perhaps He was modeling for us a way to stay focused. When you pray out loud, your mind doesn't wander off nearly as much because words aren't nebulous. I do not pray out loud all of the time, by any means, but I do find it fruitful to speak out loud some of the time.

On occasion, I also enjoy praying the Psalms, and many, if not most, of them have lines about praying aloud. They have phrases like "To you I call," "I cry out," "I call to the LORD," "when I call to you," and "To the LORD I cry aloud." There is scholarly support that although we've changed these expressions "into metaphors of the soul" the Israelites were literally speaking them out loud. (Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life) It might not feel totally instinctual at first, but for me, praying aloud grows more and more natural the more I do it. As an aside, I also think it helps to have prayed aloud in groups. Corporate prayer has been a source of incredible blessing in my life, and it has probably helped me feel more comfortable hearing my own irritating voice talking to God.

This week may we ponder why it is that praying aloud by yourself feels awkward. Where did those feelings come from? Then may we boldly speak out loud to God. After all, Jesus did and that's reason enough, don't you think?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Hebrews 5: Baby Food

The other night I was laying down with Sam. Yes I know, this is a terrible practice, but I'm afraid we are terrible parents and do it every night. On the one hand, it is extremely disruptive to have to lay down with your child to get them to sleep. Ah, but on the other hand it is a little piece of heaven. Sam is such a darling little snuggler and he is growing up so fast. I don't see myself ever regretting this as wasted time.

Anyway, Sam was laying there practicing counting, which he does in English and Spanish, thanks to Dora the Explorer. He was holding up his pudgy little hand and trying to make his fingers disappear into his fist as he counted them. He was whispering the numbers to himself and I was just laying next to him, watching. Unfortunately Sam's fingers weren't cooperating. With two-year-old dexterity, he just couldn't get his third and fourth fingers to do what he wanted. So he just decided he'd yell at them in an angry and indignant voice: "Hey!" Then he started over with the counting. But his little fingers were stubborn, folding down before he wanted them to. "Hey!" he yelled out again. He must have done this four or five times, getting more and more frustrated before I jumped in to help.

Spiritually, many of us are like Sam. We try the same task that we just aren't ready for.

But we need to graduate to solid food. We need to recognize our own limitations, not by angrily berating ourselves with "Hey!"

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hebrews 5: The High Priest

The book of Hebrews was written to Jewish believers who were falling away from the true doctrine -- the gospel of Jesus. The book was intended to restore them and to eradicate the wrong thinking that had crept in.

In Hebrews 5, we read about the tradition from the Old Testament of having high priests. This description is so sweet and tender. It was the responsibility of the high priest to "deal gently with those who [were] ignorant and [had gone] astray." This model is not what I associate with Mosaic Law. I guess it's because I tend to generalize, imagining it as rigid and void of grace, as if the Pharisees were always in charge. But that's inaccurate, and certainly not what God intended. God didn't want Israelites cut off because of sin; instead He assigned the most revered religious leader among them to gently restore the lost. According to this passage, being a high priest was not a role that involved being removed from everyday life, holed up in a hebraic huddle. No, it was a job that required great interpersonal skills, compassion, mercy and dedication. In essence, being the high priest meant you were a shepherd of the people.

So who then is the perfect high priest? Jesus Christ is, because He is also the Good Shepherd. In fact, all of the beautiful pictures of what God intended for the Israelites are fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the perfect High Priest, sympathizing with our weaknesses and offering his very life to atone for our sins. He deals with us gently, even when we are ignorant and go astray like ingrates. He is ever full of love and compassion. No matter what.

Have we taken our High Priest for granted? Have we fought the loving staff of our Good Shepherd? And what does it mean to be Christ-like in this context? Do we gently restore those who go astray or do we cut them off?

This week may we embrace the atoning sacrifice and restorative love of our Savior, and may we emulate Him as we gently love ALL whom God has placed in our path.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Hebrews 4: The "Me Too" Jesus

I'm making a slow march through Hebrews -- every chapter is so rich that it is hard to choose just one or two things to blog about. But in these last verses of Hebrews 4 we are told that our high priest, Jesus Christ the Son of God, is able to relate to our humanness. And I'm so thankful for that, aren't you? Although Jesus never sinned, He was tempted. Jesus' life wasn't easy either. He suffered -- shedding tears for friends and sweating blood in utter despair. And of course there was the brutality of the cross itself. Through it all He was God, but He was also man. He was misunderstood, misrepresented, and maligned. And He didn't deserve any of it. So Jesus isn't our burden-carrying automaton, He's a compassionate lover of our souls. He's waiting to comfort us and relate to us, saying in essence, "me too, friend, me too."

Jesus' humanity was a very present comfort to me today, because today I was misunderstood. Although Jesus wouldn't have said what I said (His message was always pure), and although Jesus never had anything to regret (like I do), He was misunderstood. He understands my weird and helpless feeling of not being able to straighten out the message sent and the message received. He's lived it, more purely than I have and at a much more intimate level. Jesus' own disciples, his closest friends, misunderstood Him. They had a tough time getting it right, and yet Jesus was ever-patient, ever-loving.

I am so thankful that Jesus loves me, that He understands me, that even though He knows how impure my heart is, He loves me anyway. I am so thankful that in my sorrow He is there, that in my temptation He is there, that He is full of compassion and sympathy.

Chapter 4 closes with these words: "Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need."

I am so thankful that in big things and small I can go to Jesus and receive mercy and find grace. Are you in a time of need? Is there some burden you should take to Him today?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Hebrews 4: Living and Active

Hebrews 4:12 tells us that God's Word is living and active. For unbelieving ears, this must sound like complete nonsense. I can envision the raised eyebrows and bemused grin of the skeptic, "you mean to tell me you think the text is alive? That it speaks directly to you?" But we shouldn't just think it, we should know it. Because God is ever willing to prove this to us.

When we read the Bible we should aim to understand the story, the motivations of the characters, the lessons God intended for them, the general principles that can be applied to the human story, and what the text reveals about the character of God. But we should also ask what the passage means for us. Does it give you some direction for your life? Does it give you insight into some situation you currently face? Does it counsel you to do something? To not do something? If we will carefully examine His Word, we will be amazed at God's clear direction. I am not saying that every time I open my Bible that the words jump off the page, advising me with whatever I'm facing that particular day, but I am saying that it is often the case.

The full verse from Hebrews 4:12 would be a great one to memorize:

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

We can check our thoughts and attitudes against the Word of God. It will penetrate all of our pretenses and airs; it will examine our motives and reveal our impurities. This week may we be willing to use the Word of God to do some serious soul searching, and may we be reminded that God's Word is indeed living and active.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Hebrews 3: Hardening Your Heart?

Hebrews 3 warns against hardening our hearts. So when was the last time you did that, hardened your heart? Seriously, take a minute to think about it. I would guess it's probably been within the last couple days, maybe even couple hours, because we have an amazing reluctance to admit when we are wrong. My husband can readily testify that this is a struggle for me. Oh, can he! But this reluctance is really just pride and it plagues us all. We do not want to acknowledge that something we said or did was inconsiderate or uncharitable. We think in terms of how we were justified in saying what we said, or doing what we did. The issue may be ridiculously trifling, yet most of the time we rationalize away our culpability. We may not use the biblical language, but rationalizing and justifying are just means of hardening our hearts. Simply put, pride is the lacquer that hardens.

Yet Hebrews 3:12-13 says: "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."

A sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from God is one that is full of pride. And as C.S. Lewis wrote in "The Great Sin" chapter in Mere Christianity, "As long as you are proud you cannot know God." (This whole chapter is brilliant and every word is applicable to these verses from Hebrews!)

So what's the solution to this, unbelieving, prideful, "anti-God state of mind"? It's acknowledging our own sin. We need to pray for discernment to see where we are out of God's will, and we need to read and meditate on God's Word.

Lewis closes his chapter with the following:

If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.

So, friend, "it is called Today," may we encourage one another and not be deceived by the hardening work of sin. May we, through the power of the Holy Spirit, choose to believe, to trust and to obey.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hebrews 2: Who Needs Atonement?

In Hebrews 2, we are told that Jesus was made to be "like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people." (v.17)

This verse makes a truly incredible claim: God became man! The incarnate Christ is our merciful and faithful priest. Amazing. But that last phrase, "that he might make atonement for the sins of the people," is also of great importance. In fact, it is absolutely pivotal, dividing the world into two groups -- Christ followers and not. Whether you embrace and live out this verse largely determines your worldview.

Just think about it, people who acknowledge that the human race is imperfect (and most thinking people do!), approach rectifying that imperfection in one of two ways. They work at atoning for their own shortcomings, embracing various religions as means, or they accept the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Simply put, religions are either works-based, or grace-based, and to my knowledge the Christian religion is the only religion that is grace-based. Muslims observe religious laws in hopes of being accepted by Allah. For Buddhists, Nirvana is something you achieve, not something that is graciously given. Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons both faithfully and diligently work to achieve salvation. Hindus achieve liberation. Unfortunately, many "Christians" live like they aim to earn something as well. But true followers of Christ admit that there is no amount of good works that they could possibly do to atone for their sins, and they accept Jesus. It's completely passive. It's 100% grace.

What joy, what freedom there is in not having to earn anything! I'm atoned for. And when you approach life through this lens, good works can be motivated by love instead of points. There is the possibility of being selfless, and other-centered.

But grace is countercultural and counterintuitive -- works is the default setting in our fallen little minds. So we need to continually remind ourselves that we are totally incapable of atoning for anything.

So what's your worldview? Are you working towards salvation, transcendence, or liberation? Or are you basking in God's love, resting in Jesus' atoning sacrifice, and living with freedom? May we accept and embrace the gift we are offered. As Paul wrote, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." (Galatians 5:1)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Hebrews 2: Are You a Worrier?

We all have things we could worry about. My husband and I have a house in Florida that we'd really like to sell, but because we moved there in 2006 before the market crashed, we just can't afford to sell it. Real estate isn't moving, and even if we could find a buyer, we'd have to pony up so much cash to close that, at this point, we couldn't do it. I don't know how we will ever get rid of that house, and I could worry that it will just be a millstone around our necks for the next thirty years. But I don't. I could also worry about my boys growing up in this world that is so dark and far from God. I could worry about the fact that my oldest son appears to have every challenging character trait that my husband has. And even worse, I could worry about the fact that my middle son appears to have every challenging character trait that I have. I could worry about the fact that my youngest son doesn't mind worth a hoot, climbs under the nearest table if you tell him "no," prefers to watch Dora the Explorer to reading books, and is disturbingly wedded to wearing diapers. I could worry about these things, but I don't. I think by nature I'm just not much of a worrier, but I also trust that God is in control and that He has a good and perfect plan.

Now, I realize that my present list of potential worries is light, as in featherweight light, and that many people are burdened with true crises. Some are facing serious illnesses or the breakup of their marriage, some people are in the midst of watching their child suffer, others have even lost a child. And although I haven't experienced these things myself, I've witnessed the heartache of all of them. I also know that our worry list is never static; I'm thankful for the blessings and the absence of heartache and worry in my life today, but I'm also certain that this will not always be true. And when that day comes when I'm worried or broken I want YOU to spur me on with the truth of Hebrews 2.

Because the truth we find in Hebrews 2 applies to ALL situations: "In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him." (v.8) What's the key word in that verse? NOTHING. There is nothing that is not subject to Jesus. He is sovereign. He is in control.

May we hold to this truth firmly in good days and bad. Jesus is on the throne. He is in control. He is good. He loves you. God left nothing that is not subject to Him. Let us believe that and live by it everyday.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Hebrews 2: Are You a Drifter?

There are some things you learn and never forget. Like riding a bike, of course, but other things too. We do not forget simple arithmetic like two plus two, and there are certain facts for which we do not need be reminded, like who served as the first or sixteenth American president. These things we know, and somehow, barring dementia, we will always know them. But spiritual truths are very different. We have an amazing propensity to forget what we once knew. We need constant reminders.

Hebrews 2:1 says "We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away." There is an old hymn, Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing, which has a heartbreaking line about being a drifter, it laments being "prone to wander...prone to leave the God I love." I think we wander because we forget. We forget what is really important (trusting and obeying God), and get caught up in all sorts of meaninglessness.

We forget how God loves us; we forget how He has provided for us; we forget how even in the ugliest moment of our whole lives, that moment we'd give anything to have back, that God loved us in that moment just the same. We are ingrates. We forget. And we forget what God expects of us (Christ plus nothing) and we forget what kind of lives we are supposed to lead (Christ-like). Let's face it, we all have chronic and severe spiritual amnesia.

But identifying the problem is the first step towards a solution, right? So what would someone who truly suffers from amnesia do? What kinds of systems would they have in place to help them remember? I'm not an expert in this area (or any other), but the following would undoubtedly help an amnesiac.

1. Following a routine.
2. Constantly being reminded of the things most vital to their well-being.
3. Using sticky notes and other written reminders for daily life.

And these apply perfectly to spiritual amnesia as well. So, is reading your Bible and spending time in prayer part of a daily routine? Are you constantly reminded by others of the spiritual truths most vital to your well-being? This means we need godly friends and solid biblical teaching. Finally, are you using sticky notes and other written reminders? This might be journaling or might be verses of scripture on post-its and 3x5s.

If we acknowledge our propensity to forget, we should be willing to take these measures to "pay more careful attention." And I, for one, need to do better.