Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The desires of your heart


A Christian man (a church elder and Bible teacher) joked that when he died, he wanted to “come back” (be reincarnated) as my pampered cat. Sadly, he passed away at the age of 85, but happily, he accepted the gift of eternal life in his Lord.

Several ironies have captured media attention recently. A big-budget film called The Bucket List (the things you want to do before kicking the bucket – dying) was released in 2008; author and professor Dr. Randy Pausch, famed for his Carnegie-Mellon University “Last Lecture: Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” succumbed to cancer; and Dave Freeman, co-author of 100 Things to Do Before You Die, actually died in an accident in his home, not on the horns of a Pamplona bull. (Dave Freeman CNN obituary)

Some people make lists of things they’ve dreamed of doing before they die: riding an elephant, running with the bulls, bungee-jumping in New Zealand, climbing Kilimanjaro, swimming in an Icelandic thermal lake, riding every roller coaster in America, or touring the Holy Land.

Others measure their lives in monuments such as walking their daughter down the wedding aisle, meeting a financial goal, patenting an invention, earning a scholastic degree, expressing music, dance, or visual art, or winning a prestigious award. Someone once said, “My goal in life is to be as good a person as my dog already thinks I am.”

What’s on your “bucket list”? Have you made one? Making goals and keeping track of your progress in reaching them is actually a predictor of success. Just wishing and visualizing, but not acting strategically, won’t get your items checked off or that sense of satisfaction or reward when you reach accomplishment.

Your objectives, at least the priorities, will almost certainly change through the years of your life. The list you made 10 years ago will not be the same as the one you’ll make five years from now. But a list is the first step in your plan to reach the desires of your heart.

My bucket list includes:
1 Learn to speak French
2 Have my book published
3 Live and work a year in a foreign country
4 Play Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu at tempo
5 Learn to play drums and other percussion instruments
6 Discover every last ancestor on my family tree
7 Improve overall health by balanced living
8 Reach the bottom of the ever-growing to-be-read book stack

They’ll take application of tuition, budgeting, persistence, research, patience, and some risk-taking. They’ll take some phone calls, some first steps, some networking, some sacrifice. Probably a large sacrifice!

As Christians, we know that it’s not our goodness, performance, or ability to keep God’s laws that will make the difference at the judgment. It’s not even God’s grace plus our best efforts.

“This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, ‘It is through faith that a righteous person has life.’” Romans 1:17 NLT.

Faith in what? Faith in God’s ability – and desire – to fully love, fully forgive, and save eternally. Even our faith doesn’t come from internal fortitude. Faith itself is also the gift of God, as you’ll see in the verse below.

So what is the point of life-list-making in a Christian’s life, if it doesn’t get us to heaven? Glad you asked that! The apostle Peter made an all-purpose bucket list for use in this world:

"His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 1:3-8 NIV.

Notice that Peter’s bucket list is about BEING, not DOING, and that he said “make every effort… in increasing measure… effective… productive.” Sounds like a strategic plan to me!

Maybe we need more than one bucket list. There are lists for temporal accomplishments, the relationships we form along the way, and the eternal list (the one we can take with us, the treasure laid up in Jesus’ care).

What would you put on your list before Jesus comes? How about:
1 Positive and sunny
2 Sweet and humble
3 Ready with a soft answer
4 Encouraging and ever-thankful
5 Affectionate and compassionate
6 Patient and understanding
7 Forgiving and merciful
8 Seeking grace with every step
9 Honorable and upright
10 Discerning but not judgmental

This last list, not really a bucket list, but maybe a kingdom list, will have eternal consequences, but not only for the list-maker. Everyone on the planet will be blessed in some measure. You can’t really check items off this list, but they are worthy of pursuit!

The kingdom list of Peter’s, or the one you develop, will be about a state of being, which is what the psalmist is talking about: “Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.” Psalm 37:4-6 NIV.

It’s not about God providing a nice home, a great job, healing from disease, or a spouse if you pray hard enough or show enough faith. This verse is about the desires of your heart for commitment, trust, justice, and righteousness. These desires are about WHOSE you are, not WHAT you do. They are echoes of God’s desires for us.

So sharpen that pencil and apply it to paper. Make your bucket list, make your kingdom list, and maybe even a list that bridges both. Make a plan to accomplish your items. Live with purpose and forward direction. Don’t think so much about kicking the bucket, as “livin’ the life” with gusto. Do it Sans plus attendre, "without further waiting."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Created in an image

In the steamy Amazon jungle of Peru, the Bora tribeswoman wore a natural-material skirt. She was topless except for the bead-and-feather necklace. There was a brown-skinned, naked baby perched on her left hip. She stood unsmiling for the photo, with a four year-old boy in white jockey shorts next to her. The Peruvian woman posed for the university group who were touring some of the sites served by the their denomination. 

Last year, when my employer, a nonprofit ministry, needed graphics for a fundraising newsletter, we knew we couldn’t use the image as-is, because a few constituents would be offended by the nudity. One designer manipulated pixels to lengthen the feathers on the necklace, but the image was still too revealing. So our artist, an award-winning quilter, graphically designed a halter top for the woman in the photograph. She “Photoshopped” the image to make it acceptable to a North American audience. 

Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' Matthew 25:34-36 NIV

There’s a man in my Bible class who says he knows that God loves him. God loves everyone, even the worst sinner, but he wants to know that God really likes him, too. Like Abraham and David, he wants to be known as a friend of God. It has nothing to do with keeping commandments or doing good works to earn his ticket to heaven. It is all about loving and accepting other human beings. My friend was thrilled to learn of this verse in Deuteronomy 30:9 MSG: "Yes, God will start enjoying you again, making things go well for you just as he enjoyed doing it for your ancestors." So God really does like people above and beyond the unconditional love He gives!

Is obtaining the Lord’s approval and friendship as easy as cutting, pasting, cloning, layering, and color-matching in Photoshop? Or replicating a meal or beverage, or healing with a handheld device, like in Star Trek?

God created us in His image. Not like altering pixels in photo editing. Not even physically, with two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. He created us in the image of His Spirit. God is Love. He created us in that image.

Our giving to others (the real stuff, not the virtual) is not something that God needs. He owns everything. He speaks limitless quantities of precious materials into existence. To the Creator, pure gold is just paving material.

God wants us to give because in doing so, we become like Him. Giving is something that we need. He so loved the world (meaning all humanity), that He gave! When He wipes away our sins, He is for-giving. He gives us so much that He instills the need of repentance before we confess! God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. Acts 5:31 NIV. (Repentance is not a gift we can give God, because He got there first and supplied it!)

So no, God doesn’t need your tithes, offerings, good deeds, your hands uplifted in worship, your cultural or religious ritual, or the proceeds of your estate sale. He repeatedly said that He doesn’t want sacrifices of “stuff.” God wants you to give love, and give yourself in His name. Often that does translate to money, because it empowers others to enlarge the kingdom through hands-on ministry and mission projects. But primarily, giving—whatever it is that God calls you to—means being submitted to the Holy Spirit’s leading. Listen to His voice and obey. The sacrifices He desires are mercy, compassion, justice, and love of others. He’ll share with you the creativity to know how to express those virtues in tangible ways.

When Jesus comes, there won’t be an examination of how much we know about the Bible, the offices we held at church, the cans of beans we gave to the homeless once a year, or an audit of our tax-deductible donations. He will select the givers who loved in His name, to “enter into the joy of the kingdom.” He will take His friends, the people He likes. 

Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Colossians 3:12-14 NIV.

The Lord will accept (and like!) the people who are created in His image: lovers and givers.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Sign me on!

Forget for a few moments that you are already a Christian and know your Bible answers as well as you know your own name. Forget that you know the correct answer to Jesus’ questions, “Who do the people say I am?... And you – what are you saying about me?” Mark 8:27-29 MSG

For a moment, listen to the voice of a young man who is socially unskilled, jobless, and not well-educated: “I was in a car accident today, and I have to say that I am lucky, although my car is totaled, my clothes were cut off me, and I have a nasty bruise and some soreness in my neck. I started to go into shock. The hospital visit wasn't fun, I was breathing heavy in the ER, and my heart rate was in the rafters. I wasn't relaxed. I am glad Pastor Bob was there and for everyone's prayers. Pastor Bob was holding my hand at the hospital; I keep thinking about that. Does God care that much about someone like me? Think about it: girls run away from me. I don't blame them – I call too much, come on too strongly, and I can be just plain stupid in my social attempts. I have gotten mad and said things I wish I never did, but why would God care about me? But if this is what God is really like, if He will hold my hand when I am scared for my life and filled with anxiety, then sign me on.”

So what is this young man saying about Jesus? That he experienced the physical touch and presence of Jesus Christ. That Jesus accepts the socially unacceptable, and tenderly holds his hand, and won’t leave him. That’s who Jesus is. His love shows up in actions and attitude, not only in words.

Jesus’ brother James, who once had considered Jesus deranged and was embarrassed by his Brother, is sometimes derided by our culture as being a legalist who is at odds with the concept of salvation by faith in God’s grace. But early in his epistle, James echoes the themes of the Sermon on the Mount, and says that those who are loving people are blessed. He counsels understanding and acceptance instead of judgment. Then he writes the most famous and controversial parts of his letter, the discussion of faith and works.

Consider that John wrote that “God is love,” and Paul wrote that three things abide: faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love. And: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.”Galatians 5:6 NASB

So what if, when you read James chapter two, you substitute the word FAITH for LOVE? Try it this way:

“What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has [love] but he has no works? Can that [love] save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so [love], if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, ‘You have [love] and I have works; show me your [love] without the works, and I will show you my [love] by my works.’ You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that [love] without works is useless?” James 2:14-20 NASB

That makes faith and love less ethereal and more concrete, doesn’t it? Love, without action, is useless. It’s unemployed, unengaged. It’s not working. For love or faith to mean anything, they must be in motion: working, helping, holding the hand of the fearful and broken, cheering the hopeless, nourishing and refreshing the hungry and thirsty with meals of Jesus’ righteousness. In other words, expressing your love by your works.

Is there anything more endearing than when you’re embracing a child or a pet, it lays its head on your shoulder and sighs happily? When Jesus’ love flows out of you, through that hand laid on the fearful person, you are also blessing the Lord. It’s one thing to say, “Praise the Lord, bless His holy Name,” and another to do so by your acts of kindness and love to His children, even the “nerdy” ones. Their response will be, “If this is what God is like, sign me on.”

That is evangelism. Changing the world by “signing people on.”

You have it in you to make Jesus happy (blessed) by showing Him in your acts of love. Lay your head on His shoulder and sigh, and hear His heartbeat of love for you. When Jesus whispers to you, “Who do you say I am?” your answer will be: “You are Love, and I love you with all my heart, soul, and mind.” And He’ll remind you, “And you love your neighbor as yourself. As I do.”

Thursday, July 9, 2009

God in the ungodly

Richard and Ingrid are across-the-street neighbors. Richard’s mission in life is to rescue, help, feed, and protect the helpless. They captured feral cats from a junkyard, then neutered and released them. After work every evening, they took dry cat food to the junkyard and set it out for the wild cats. When the derelict fence was chained shut after the property sold, they recaptured five of the most-likely-to-succeed cats and brought them home to their other two pet cats. The frightened, feral cats are now sleek, groomed, friendly, playful, well-adjusted pets.

Puccini, a tuxedo cat, had feline urinary syndrome, and required several thousand dollars’ worth of microsurgery (50 miles away) and special handling for weeks afterward. But there was no question that Richard and Ingrid would do whatever necessary for their fur-child. Another neighbor works long hours, so Richard and Ingrid go every afternoon to let her poodle out for a walk around the block, followed by face time with them and their cats. Ingrid takes her ladder to a friend to help pick hundreds of peaches in 95F July heat.

My family always treated the autumn Thanksgiving holiday as a special “sabbath” celebration of gratefulness for God’s mercy and providence. But last year, we were not able to be together. So who invited me to share the feast with them? The neighborhood agnostics, Richard and Ingrid. Richard is a non-religious Jew from New York, and Ingrid was born and raised in Austria, so neither think of American Thanksgiving as anything other than “Turkey Day,” a time to share a meal with family, but not a time to think of God.

God is just a “good feeling” to some people. There’s the whole secular humanist, New Age, eastern philosophy touted on talk shows, bandying phrases like “the Universe will tell you what you need to know,” and “pay it forward.”

Or, as some people say on occasion, religion is just fairy stories or myths to teach great themes of human history. But the people who say that are the same people who make large donations of money and goods to charity, and willingly pay 50 percent taxes to finance social-welfare programs so that the elderly, mentally ill, and helpless can be taken care of. They often volunteer service and risk their lives to do compassionate care in refugee camps, orphanages, and AIDS clinics. They devote everything to working for peace.

This is not meant to be a political or social commentary. It’s a devotional article. So here’s the question to ponder: Can these people, who do not claim Jesus as Savior but have tender hearts, become citizens of the kingdom of God? They seem to be godless people to us, but they often exhibit the traits of one gracious God, who described His glory to Moses: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” Exodus 34:6,7 NIV.

God's priorities are clear: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8 NIV.

Although they don’t consciously choose Jesus as Savior, those tender hearts beat with love for animals, children, the needy, the sick, the forgotten. They invite singles into their family circles. They participate in marathons for charity and sacrifice precious resources to help strangers. We should hesitate to call them godless, because we can actually recognize a spark of God-sourced, God-given, unconditional love in them.

Jesus surprised those who asked Him who would inherit eternal life. They were pretty sure that working for the church in God’s Name was sufficient payment for the chariot fare. Instead, He disappointed them by saying that some people they’d thought were surely goats, would actually be declared sheep!

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’” Matthew 25:37-40 NIV.

Do you know agnostics? Atheists? Your own grown children who have left the church? Everyone has a passion. Everyone loves someone or something. Maybe it’s a liking for nature, expressed in hiking or camping or gardening. Perhaps it’s a love of animals or children. Or the compulsion from “the Universe” to help the homeless, the addicted, or abused. Those passions are signs that the Divine spirit is working on their hearts.

Use the entrĂ©e to build relationships. Let your witnessing and invitations to Christianity be your actions, long before your words. Be comrades with them. Be the cat-sitter, the dog-walker, the sharer of garden flowers or fruit. When their kids sell trinkets for a school fundraiser, buy something. Secretly pray for them, rescue their newspaper from the rain, and take them a plate of cookies. In doing so, you will fulfill Jesus’ commandment to love, and further bear witness that Christians aren’t fairytale kooks!

You’ve heard this statement, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” It’s a modern construction of St. Francis of Assisi’s actual words, “Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds.”

You know a Richard or Ingrid, who say they don’t believe in God, but have merciful, generous hearts, the kind God “requires” of us. That’s the heart of flesh that the Lord can write His law and will upon. (Hebrews 8:10-12)

Recently, when I mentioned that I believed my life's course is in God's hands, Richard said he respected my statement because he's observed that I live my faith, unlike people who only "preach." Hmm, it's like he knew St. Francis's writings. And the Lord has a toe-hold on Richard!

We don’t know how God will judge them, or if He’ll lovingly reveal His grace to them in a special way before their time is up. But we’ll have made friends, grown happy relationships, and gently enhanced Jesus’ reputation among the unbelievers. That is evangelism.

You can do it without how-to books or traveling halfway around the world. And you’ll get back all the benefits you give. God is good!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Signs on the way

A few months ago, the funniest news on the Internet was that Google Maps had mapped a route from any address in the United Kingdom to any address in the United States. At about Number 29 on the instructions, one is told to drive through the Channel Tunnel, then through France, then to swim to Boston and start driving again. Time at sea, 29 days.

Karen, the driver, and Jill, the navigator, drove slowly through the New Zealand resort town on the way to the geyser park entrance. Karen kept her eyes on heavy traffic and asked which intersection they’d just crossed. Jill couldn’t see, so they stopped at the curb and Jill hopped out to see the street sign. But it was information only, not street names. Arrows pointed in different directions to landmarks. As Jill slid back into the car, she laughed and said, “That was the corner of Hospital and Toilet streets!”

Along Hwy U.S. 89 in northern Arizona, there is a small, green sign on the Navajo Indian Reservation which reads, “Six Mile Village (3 miles).”

A signpost on a dusty, rutted road in rural Queen Creek, Arizona, says “Happy Rd. Dead End.”

Signs are meant to tell us where we are. What to expect. Or where to go. It’s very helpful to have signs on street-corner poles or nicely lit at night. It’s more difficult when they’re placed at different heights on walls, obscured by vegetation, vandalized, or missing altogether.

When we read words on the computer screen or the page, we’re reading alphabet letters combined into phonemes and words (mind-images in themselves); words join in phrases and sentences to convey a concept. Here’s a similar process: black dots on a grid signify a pitch; when they’re joined in a melody line or in harmonic chord progression, we call it music. Mathematics: let’s not go there!

On national holidays, we salute the flag, sing patriotic music, and celebrate the culture and traditions of our fore-parents. When we sign a name to documents, we promise, on our reputation and temporal goods, to honor the agreement.

God has given us signs which are timeless. There are hundreds of them, including the rainbow, the cross, communion, and the natural world. Many people had visions of the future which included symbols and metaphors.

Jesus performed “signs” and wonders, but never on demand or to prove Himself; rather, His signs showed only the love of God for humankind: healing, resurrection, grace, provision, restoration. He signed His name to the covenant which guarantees not condemnation, but eternal life for our souls. On the cross, His wounds and lash marks signified our healing. His perfect baptism is ours by faith, whether we’re baptized in a church’s font, a lake, or a barrel. The yoke that symbolizes our unbearable burden of “trying” to be saved is not ours to shoulder—but Jesus’ yoke entirely.

The signs and miracles of God and His saints are not a thing of the past. They’re not a distant-future event to be wished for. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are ours, NOW. The voice in your heart that says to turn to the left or right is God’s voice writing His will for your life. He is empowering you to be the sign of God on earth. You are God’s signature to unbelievers. What an honor and what a responsibility!
Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it. Mark 16:20 NIV.

God has changed your life. Even in the moments of reading this article, He is giving you the spark that will flare up and dispel the darkness. Take the name of Jesus with you. It’s a sign that will mean different things to different people. But He will put His sign in their hearts, too. Lives will be changed. And changed lives have a large and legible sign—a testimony that changes other lives.

Signs on the way can tell us where we are, what to expect, or where we’re going. What does your sign say?

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