Beginnings are not endings

“I was born a slave … I am not sure of the exact place or exact date … My life had its beginning during the most miserable, desolate and discouraging surroundings.”

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Booker T. Washington* described his start in life as such: “I was born a slave … I am not sure of the exact place or exact date … My life had its beginning during the most miserable, desolate and discouraging surroundings.” I have known personally many people in my life time who start life in difficult and incredibly ‘unfair’ circumstances. Rejecting parents of one child over another and ignored by parents who are involved in an addiction. Then there are those born with crippling and debilitating diseases. Or in the prime of their life are struck down as paraplegics. [Joni Erickson-Todda] There is absent parent[s] who are in prison or too sick to care for them. In today’s chaotic culture, many grow up in families surrounded by family who are murderers, child abusers and con-artists. Some grow up in or are sold into a type of slavery like sex-trafficking, even here in the US.

Consider Joseph, who is held up as a hero of the Bible. Jacob, his father, grew up as conniving and treacherous man. He took advantage of his father’s blindness and stole his older brother’s inheritance. Jacob’s father-in-law Laban cheated him several times with livestock and marriages.

Jacob’s sons took after their father. Joseph who was the 11th son born, was the youngest. Jacob played favorites with his sons. He was not shy about showing favoritism toward one child over other ten brothers. He did this in different ways: Jacob gave more affection, more privileges and less discipline to Joseph who was his favorite. Is it any wonder that this created animosity and jealousy among the other 10 older? One day when Joseph was a young man they saw an opportunity to be rid of him. They sold Joseph into slavery to some Egyptians slave traders. To cover their crime, they created an elaborate story, complete with hard evidence, to convince their father of Joseph’s unfortunate demise by a wild animal attack.

Joseph, the favored son with the nicest clothes, started life as a loved and cherished son. Suddenly he finds himself in a foreign country as a slave among foreign gods. But did he focus on yesterday? No. Let me say this, I believe that there is only one reality, today. Yesterday and tomorrow are not reachable. I cannot change the past or the future therefore, they are not in my realm of reality. All I can change is what is in front of me at this moment.

Back to Joseph. He remained faithful to his God and the Bible says “The Lord was with Joseph…” [Genesis 39:2] That is a game-changer in any circumstance. What changes, if I choose to believe God, is my attitude. Jesus levels the playing field. He is the only One who can change tomorrow. Someone said that “People go through life looking at the wrongs people do to us in the yesterdays.” How sad. They fail to see that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” [Hebrews 13:8 ESV] We may not escape the circumstance we are born into or the circumstances thrown at us either by whim or design or our ignorance or stupidity. The good news is that “if God is for us, who can be against us?” [Romans 8:31 NIV]. When everything is all said and done, if God is in us then it does not matter who is against us! Beginnings are not endings!

It is all about our heart.

It is all about the heart. Solomon comments that “A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed.” [Proverbs 15:13 ESV] A heart restored is a heart that can experience peace. A glad heart is a choice. God is as in Christ given us what we need to be His icon in the world. We are image bearers of the Creator Sovereign King. There is no magic in living the Christian life. There is no magic in walking with God. There are only two choices for or against God. We either choose to trust Him or to reject Him.

Think about it. If we refuse to trust God [Usually we say that it’s too hard.] we are choosing to reject Him. All our struggles and angst is caused by our moment by moment choices. It’s not rocket science. The same choice that we made at our conversion is the same type of choice we make in choosing to trust or reject God in each circumstance of our life. What makes life hard is trying to go it alone. Buddy Greene in one of his songs has this line: “Faith is not counting on me.” Faith always requires a choice. People say “I can’t have faith because I have too much doubt.” Guess what! Faith is not faith without the possibility of doubt. Without doubt, without something opposing faith, saying we believe God really amounts to nothing more than a nice platitude of words; is nothing but God talk.

When life comes crashing in on us and we are choosing life with God, we will have a cheerful face. It is the result of trusting God that His way is the perfect way. The cheerful face is a outward sign of an inward sense of peace that God promises to those who continually choose to trust him when life is hard. To quote Tom Hanks in the movie A League of Their Own:

Jimmy Dugan: … Baseball is what gets inside you. It’s what lights you up, you can’t deny that.

Dottie Hinson: It just got too hard.

Jimmy Dugan: It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.

[ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0104694/quotes ]

It is the same with walking with God in faith. If God made life easy we would have no reason to trust Him. If the Christian life was easy, everyone would be following hard after God.

One final thought. Have you considered the implication of saying “I believe God.” What are we really saying?  We are saying that we trust in, rely on and adhere to all that God does in our lives. We are saying that we are trusting God that he knows best even when it seems counterintuitive. We are saying by our actions that we are relying on his wisdom is life unfolds and not trying to countermand his purposes for us. And finally by saying we believe God we are moving closer to God in the midst of trial and not further away. We bring much sorrow into our lives after by not allowing God to work with us. When we try to go it alone we end up with crushed spirits. Life can be more than we can bear. Trust Him today and He will give you a ‘glad heart makes a cheerful face.’

Transformation

All too often, I have seen on a sign outside a church with the words “Come as you are!” Yet when you walk inside everyone is dressed the same. Years ago, during the hippy generation, I was attending a well-known evangelical conservative church. A man in the congregation was developing a street ministry specifically with the hippies in mind. Most in the congregation thought this was a good idea. That is until this one Sunday, he brought about six of “them” into the Sunday service; and they came in as they were. People were shocked. There were audible gasps in the audience. There was much rustling as people turned in their seats. They said “come as you are” but they did not really mean that. Those six never came back. What they believed was not transformational to their lives.

And that problem still exists today [the extreme of that would be Westboro Church]. Religion is not transformational. Encountering Jesus and doing life together with Him is the stuff that makes us change. Becoming more like Jesus means that we have to intentionally listen and then do what He tells us.

That is our part. But there is another side to this transformation. It is only a work of God. Only God is capable of transformation of the heart. It is the game-changer that changes us from doing religion as we think it should be done [read self-improvement] to becoming the person that God created us to be. Doing life with Jesus is not some sort of pressure to conform but a call to live in the Image of God just as Jesus modeled for us.

God wants us to join Him in His redemptive work in the lives of people. It is God’s agenda, not what we think God’s agenda might be. God never says be “conformed” but he does say be transformed. And the only way I know of being transformed is not by group collective actions but by being in close connection with God. Jesus never defines us by someone else.

Being transformed means that I have to be willing to release what I think is scared and allow space for God and His grace to help me learn to live “with God.” Jesus is not interested in my trying harder to change something in my life so that I am more pleasing to Him. That is the sure road to failure. All He wants is for me to learn to be and practice continually to be, in conversational relationship no matter what I am facing.

DNA

Science has told us that we are all created by DNA [Deoxyribonucleic acid]. This is the self-replicating building block material presented in nearly all organisms. It is the main substance of chromosomes, and is the carrier of genetic information that is passed on in reproduction. It does not take long in studying the human body to discover the complexity that cannot be answered by evolutionary theory.

Having said that, it is not a giant leap to intertwine science and faith. Each one of us is wonderfully made. Each one of us is unique. Because we are unique, we can aspire to and accomplish many things. Our DNA hard-wires us physically and psychologically in certain ways. We are not robots. We have freedom in the ability to think and make choices. Part of that DNA has the icon of God imprinted in all of us; the Imago Dei. We are made for God, to represent Him in this world. As with any icon, it can get damaged or cracked and therefore the image gets distorted. But just because the icon is damaged in us does not mean that the Creator whose image it is has tossed out the icon.

We matter to God. Because we matter to God, people should matter to us. People have Imago Dei stamped into their DNA no matter how flawed or broken it looks. It helps for us to occasionally look in the mirror of the Bible. The image staring back at us is flawed and ego-centric. We may see a beautiful face but we know that inside that face is a flawed image. Our internal image is revealed by how we treat our spouses, children, family, co-workers, foreigners and even those in the community of faith. We do not naturally care for others. Because of that we are capable of thinking and saying and doing things that have no semblance of God’s image.

But if Jesus Christ is allowed to transform us from the inside, the outside actions will change. We will become other-centric. It is a process of reformation and transformation. People will start to matter. We will begin to see those around us as God intended us to see them – people with the icon of God in them. We will begin to see the potential in people and not the worse. We begin to treat others with dignity the way that God treats us. When this happens, we are becoming the hands and feet of God reaching out to a world going further and further astray. Incredible advances in technology do nothing to fix the unbelievable evil that comes out of the heart. If there is any shred of doubt the truth of that assessment, pick up the daily newspaper or read history. It keeps repeating itself because men keep missing the Imago Dei in others.

Part of my calling and work as a pastor is to encourage men that God puts in my path to become what God intended them to be. It is part of the hard-wired DNA that God put into me. As I have allowed God to expose that truth in me through His reformation, I get to see the Image Dei in others and learn how to treat them as God treats me. It is a process that continues.

Faith or Unbelief

Have you ever been offended by what God tells us. Jesus stopped into his home town and ‘They were greatly offended’ Not just offended, but greatly offended. They were offended by the miracles. They did not like the fact that he could do them. Jesus offended their mindset, upsetting how they thought things ought to be. [Read Mark 6:1-13 about Jesus’ hometown visit.]

Due to their pride and expectations, they could not discern the divine in the human. Instead of looking to see the connection to God, the town elders made it a point to study to debunk his wisdom and miracles. They purposely raised prejudices in the minds of the town’s people. Their reasoning was simple. How could anyone with a home-education, who had never traveled, had never been to any university or even been tutored at the feet of one of Israel’s learned doctors, be what he claimed to be? In spite of the overwhelming evidence, they could not get past the question: “Is not this the Carpenter?” They even contradicted themselves in looking for excuses to not believe in Jesus. They said: “He is the son of Mary; his brethren and sisters are here with us.” In other words, we know his family and kindred. And then they turn around and say: “As for this fellow, we know not from whence he is.” [John 9:29 KJV and the controversy of the blind man healed.]

’because of their unbelief, he could not do any mighty miracles among them’ [Mark 6:5 NIV] In other words, they hardened their hearts and continued their prejudices against him. Because they knew his parentage, they had seen him grow up playing the same games they did, getting the same education and knew of his local professional career as a carpenter among them, they could not account for the proofs of Christ’s deity that were so plain and uncontestable. To Jesus, as a human, it was amazing that there should be any who would continue to be unbelievers. I wonder if Jesus concluded, when faced with the attitude of his ‘home boys’ and their overwhelming unbelief, that he thought that they were simply stupid. Their hardness of heart blinded their minds. When the disciples saw the reaction of Jesus’ hometown people, they had experiential knowledge of why Jesus told them as he sent them out “And if a village won’t welcome you or listen to you, shake off its dust from your feet as you leave. It is a sign that you have abandoned that village to its fate.”

So what does God see as the difference between faith and unbelief? I think that John Bunyan may be a help here. This is a partial list [there are 14 more] I have adapted of the differences that he saw in the Bible between faith and unbelief. It is very insightful.

Faith believes the Word of God; but unbelief questions it. When God had brought his people to the river that was the border at the edge of the land that He had promised them: Then they despised the pleasant land; they did not believe his promise.[Psa 106:24] The psalmist goes on to say that they were just sitting in their tents grumbling about God’s treatment of them.

Faith brings us near to God when we are far from him; but unbelief puts us far from God when we are near to him. “let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings” [Heb 10:22] And “see to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” [Heb 3:12]

Where faith reigns, it declares men to be the friends of God; but where unbelief reigns, it declares them to be his enemies. “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars–they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” [Rev 21:8).

I am not just saying. This is what God himself says. Believe it or not to your benefit or detriment.

Who is listening to whom?

There is a lot of dialogue among Christians of varied persuasions about the techniques, abilities, and theology of how to listen to God [or even if God speaks today]. A young man told a group of us last night that he has often wondered “Where do the words come from that are a benefit to others, when they are not in my head to begin with?!”

How often have you felt like you were being prompted to say something to someone and immediately the following thoughts ran through your mind? “They won’t trust me. They won’t listen to a word I say. They’re going to say, ‘GOD? Speaks to him? Hardly!’” Or this objection: “Lord, please, I don’t talk well. I’ve never been good with words, neither in the past or today. I stutter and stammer.” Or the ultimate objection: “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” Sound familiar? Too often we think that we are not the right person for the job God has in mind for us. Of course, stopping to think our objection[s] through, we will see clearly it implies that God does not know what He is doing. It implies that He has randomly just picked me to go do or say something because I happen to be handily available.

I suspect that the real reason that we are resistant to following the prompting of God has to do with it taking us out of our comfort zone. We do not like being uncomfortable. And why are we uncomfortable? Because we have set boundaries around what we will do in obedience when God prompts us in some direction. The author of Hebrews quotes God writing: “… my righteous ones will live by faith. And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back.” And then he adds “But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.” [Hebrews 10:38-39 NIV] If we are to believe God, then shrinking back from doing what He wants us to do is to invite God’s displeasure in us.

God understands better than we do how uncomfortable it can be stepping outside of our ‘comfort boundaries.’ Jesus was there. He experienced that also. Our fear of stepping out be it to talk to a stranger or give a message really has to do with slavery. Who or what do we fear the most? Are we a slave to our fears; are we a slave to our individual preconceived boundaries of trust? Do we really believe it when God tells us, in writing, that “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear …” If we doubt that God really means what He says, than we will miss out on opportunities of receiving blessings from God’s hand by failing to minister to others that He Himself put in our way. We are a slave if we fail to obey, which is an oxymoron because being a slave has to do with unwavering obedience.

Supernaturally Speaking

Many people will tell you that the universe is void and empty. Since there is no one out there then there is silence. But if we listen, we will find that the universe was created by God and therefore is fundamentally personal. There is a story out there. If we are related to the Lord Jesus than we are part of the bigger story being written called His story. If we are willing to listen then we will hear God speaking in a multitude of different ways. It is supernatural. We strive today to be informed as to the latest happenings and events. We hate being uninformed so we attach to many streams of social media. We look for trending. But without a connection to the Creator of the universe, we are being led astray. We are influenced by mute idols. Because we refuse or are confused by all of the chatter in the world does not mean that God has stopped talking.

Under the old code, diversity was not tolerated. There were no options to obeying the code. It was unity under the code or penalty of separation or worse, death. 2000 years ago God updated the code. He undertook a new humanity project and this was all about unity through diversity. Under the old code there was a rupture causing alienation in our relationship with the Creator. God, wanting to repair the rupture, came to the earth as Jesus, who headed up this new humanity project. Jesus bridged the rupture and created a new man. It was like Gandalf suddenly showed up on our door step and our relationship to the Shire was never the same again. Here is the problem. Nothing makes sense in the Bible unless we are rightly related to the Author who is speaking supernaturally to us.

Ultimate Mandate

What direction are you taking in 2013?

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 NASB)

This is the greatest motivation speech ever given by a man. Millions upon millions of people and uncountable monetary and material resources have been mobilized by this single speech given over 2000 years ago.

Jesus gathered around Himself a ragtag group of twelve men, and together they changed the world. After He died and rose again, those same disciples gathered around them other men and women, who were much the same kind of ragtag people, kept multiplying down through the centuries and are still changing the world today!

Without God’s direct intervention in our hearts our lives are reflective of ocean tides … they’re constantly changing. We as humans change our standards and make our talk and actions match what is currently culturally expedient. All during human history, God has not changed His standard for acceptance. All during human history, God has not changed His message. All during human history, God has not changed His methods of restoration or transformation. God does not change. “Jesus the same yesterday today and forever.”

That is the best news for the new year. There are those who are waiting to hear the Good News. If you have given your heart to Jesus then He has given you, as His disciple the authority to go. In our multicultural nation, other nations and cultures are waiting, just outside your doorstep. Will you go, just as you are, as Jesus commanded? God is eager to share His love but He only does it through ordinary folks like us. Go!

Trials

‘Consider it all joy…when you encounter various trials.’ James 1:2

Trials are one of the common denominators for being human. However, my trials and yours are going to look and feel different because we are different. We all react differently to physical, financial, and relational trials. The operative word here is “when” not “if” we meet various trials. Trials can come about when we refuse to listen to counsel. Trials might result of someone we are connected with making a mistake [a spouse gossips] and we are caught up in the it. Trials can build over time [such as a disease] or crash in on us suddenly [like the unexpected death of a loved one]. Some trials will be public while others will be private. With a certainty all trials will test our faith. And all trials will bring us to a crossroads. The crossroad is the decision to resist the trial or to embrace this as an opportunity to grow more Christ-like. The most common response we start with is “Why is this happening to me?” Peter answers this age-old issue by telling us that  ‘…don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you.’ (1 Peter 4:12 NLT). It is a matter of application. It is one thing to say that I believe in the sovereignty of God and quite another allowing God to be sovereign while we are experiencing a trial. Listen to the counsel of James under the inspirations of the Holy Spirit: ‘Consider it all joy…when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance…that you may be perfect and complete.’ (vv. 2-4 NAS). Trials have a way of clearing out the religious baggage we accumulate over time if we are willing to go back to the basics of our faith. Am I willing to stop whining about the trial and get quiet before God? Am I willing to cease my activity and spend some time listening to the One who wants me to mature?

Beginnings are not endings

Many people start life in difficult and incredibly ‘unfair’ circumstances. There many around us who begin life rejected by parents. Many grow up in families surrounded by murderers, rapist, treachery, addictions and con-artists. Some grow up in slavery or are sold into slavery, even here in the US. Consider Joseph, who is held up as a hero of the Bible. Jacob his father was a conniving and treacherous. He stole his older brother’s inheritance. Jacob’s sons took after their father. Joseph was the 11th son, the youngest. Jacob played favorites with his sons and Joseph was his favorite. This created animosity and jealousy among the other 10 older brothers. They made a plan and sold Joseph into slavery to some Egyptians slave traders. Then they created an elaborate lie complete with evidence to convince their father of Joseph’s unfortunate demise by a wild animal attack. Joseph started life as a loved and cherished son and suddenly found himself in a foreign country as a slave among foreign gods. But did he focus on yesterday? No. He remained faithful to his God and “The Lord was with Joseph…” [Genesis 39:2] That changes everything. That changes most of all our attitude. God being with us levels the playing field. He can change tomorrow. Many people go through life looking at the wrongs people do to us in the yesterdays. They fail to see that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” [Hebrews 13:8 ESV] God can help us with the wrongs and heal our hurts. That does not mean that God is necessarily going to ‘fix’ those who have wronged us. We may not escape the circumstance we are in or resolve it to our liking. The good news is that “if God is for us, who can be against us?” [Romans 8:31 NIV]. When everything is all said and done, if God is in us then it does not matter who is against us! Beginnings are not endings!