Rules vs. Freedom

From my 2009 Journal. Do we have any rules we need to abide by as believers? Moses’ Law says “Don’t murder.” Jesus says it’s what’s in your heart that’s important. Is “don’t hate” a rule? I suppose you could say that. Rules generally govern actions, and hatred is not an action (unless it’s acted upon). But if you take care of the attitude (hatred) in your heart, you’ll have no temptation to do the action (murder).

We usually judge a person’s actions, though I have to say I’m guilty of judging a person’s heart based on their actions. I wouldn’t know what’s in their heart if I didn’t see their action.

Romans 14 refers to religious activity: eating meat offered to idols and special observances of days. I have freedom, Paul says, to eat meat or not eat meat, to observe a day “unto the Lord” or not. It’s not the action that pleases God, but the attitude of the heart. Are you doing it out of obedience to your conscience or out of disobedience? Are you doing it with a grateful heart? If you do it but aren’t thankful, what good is it?

Bottom line: don’t judge someone else’s religious activities (assuming they are believers) and don’t put an obstacle or stumbling block in another person’s way. Verse 14 says food offered to idols in and of itself is not unclean. But if in your heart you believe it’s unclean, then to you it is. Don’t do it!

The Word and the Spirit

Journal 2005

Sometimes I learn more truth through other people’s processing than I do through my own. Yesterday, while praying with a client over the phone, God answered a question for her that answered a question for me: If we have the Holy Spirit, why do we need the Bible? And if we have the Bible, why do we need the Holy Spirit?

Now, I could have given her a plausible explanation that would have satisfied me. However, it made the most sense to her when she visualized a classroom. We need both the Teacher and the textbook. A student gets information from the text—facts, history, stories, and even poetry, but she has a relationship with the Teacher. The Teacher asks and answers questions about the text; He explains, expands, and embellishes it. And how does He know so much about the textbook? He’s the author!

My Eyes

My eyes are continually toward the Lord… (Ps. 25:15)

Sometimes I look at the back of Your head as You say, “Follow Me down this path.” Sometimes I look into Your eyes, and I see tender love and compassion. Sometimes I look sideways toward You—for companionship and fellowship. Other times I look up at You like an expectant child looking toward her father—waiting for the surprise, the delight, the gift, the promised reward. It’s hard to look toward You when I’ve disappointed You. My eyes are downcast then, so I won’t see Your disapproval or displeasure with what I’ve done or thought. I look around me, behind, above, below me—and You are there. No matter where I look, I am “toward you”—if only I open my eyes!

Keep my eyes on You, Lord.

Psalm 41

Journal 2005

How blessed is he who considers the helpless.

The Lord will deliver him in a day of trouble (Psalm 41:1 NASB).

The Psalms are a mystery to me sometimes. I believe David’s words are inspired Scripture, but I don’t read them as universal truths or commands. For example, Psalm 41:2 says, “The Lord will protect him and keep him alive.” If this statement were a truism, a promise from God, and God didn’t protect him just ONE TIME, then this statement is false. So what does this mean? That David meant it figuratively (that he’d be kept alive in heaven?) or was it true for him and he said this applying to all men? Was this simply his perception?

Matthew Henry’s commentary suggests: “Either this is about David, or this is about how his friends have treated him.” This is not a universal promise to all mankind, but more of a comfort to David in his present circumstances.

David writes about himself, his wishes, prayers, and struggles and how he views his world. I think we’re looking into the heart of a man who expresses himself poetically. Perhaps a better understanding of Hebrew poetry is the key.

Anyone care to jump in and wrestle along with me on how to interpret the Psalms?

The Lord Is Not My Shepherd

Journal 2005

David thought in word pictures based on his experiences, so Psalm 23 made sense to him. But it’s hard to put myself in his sandals, for I’m not a sheep-tender. I love the imagery, and I know it’s scriptural, but the concept of “The Lord is my shepherd” doesn’t touch my soul.

I am a tree-lover. Inside the fence of our African compound, my missionary dad planted a variety of tropical fruit trees for food and a thousand neem trees for firewood. Just outside our property, a stately kuka (baobab) tree called my name, and further into the bush grew other exotic fruit for tasting and flowering trees for climbing. As a child, I made it my mission to try them all.

And so, I write my own poem.
The Lord is my Living Baobab Tree.

He wraps His massive branches around my slender frame.

I hide myself in the crook of His arm.

He is my place of peace and solitude and a gathering place for social encounters.

I view the world differently from Your height.

I soar in Your high branches and rock comfortably on your lower ones.

I might itch when I touch your pods, but the inside fruit tingles sweet-sour on my tongue.

You reveal Your secrets as I spend time in You.

You spread Your cool leaves above me and shelter me from sun and rain.

You invite me to climb, but I can never attain the topmost branches.

You are too lofty for me.

I want to dwell in Your branches forever.

I run to you when I feel pain or pleasure.

I run barefoot to Your roots and climb into Your lap, content.

You restore my soul.

Is God more than a shepherd or a tree? Of course. But the symbolism focuses on the senses. Can I taste God?  (“Oh taste and see that the Lord is good.”) Can I hear His rustling branches in the Spirit’s wind? Can I smell Him in the dampness of the roots of the earth? Or the odor of rain as it cleanses the dusty leaves? Can I touch Him? When I touch the unlovely, the poor, the prisoner, the orphan child, I touch the face of God. I can’t see Him with physical eyes, but I can see His handiwork, and I get to know the heart of the artist. I see His creativity, His passion, His bigness, His attention to detail, His order, His comfortableness with chaos. I sense His emotion in the fury of the hurricane as well as the gentle caress of whispered breeze on my cheek.

A 2022 Update. One day, while trying to still my heart on a hiking trail bench, the Lord said to me, “Be a tree.” I want to be an oak tree—stable and strong, where many can come and rest in my branches. Some of my leaves become diseased when outside forces ruin their beauty, but it’s okay for the bad parts to fall off so new growth can replace them. I want to feed the squirrels and provide shade for the tired and weary. And I want my branches to whisper, “Jesus loves you. God is here. Come and find peace.” He’s the invisible sap, the life inside me, flowing from root to healthy branch.

The Lord was David’s shepherd, but He’s my tree, and I want to be like Him.

“One that would have the fruit must climb the tree.”
1980. Revisiting what was left of my old, beloved baobab.

What Would Paul Say?

Journal 2005

I have been taught all my life that we are to believe and follow every word written in the Bible. But we are inconsistent. We decide which rules and principles we want to follow and then gloss over the rest. (See The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight.) And if we question some portion of another person’s pet doctrine or rule, we’re accused of going against the Bible.

There’s a reason, obviously, why the Apostle Paul’s letters are included in the canon, but one must keep in mind that he wrote to specific individuals or churches about specific issues in the context of their culture. How different would these letters read if he were alive today and wrote to the American church or the Korean or Ethiopian or Brazilian? Different needs, different pastors, different times, different issues.

Would Paul, for example, still address the role of women in the church? Would he still preach, “Women, don’t usurp authority over men,” or would he instruct, “Exercise your God-given gifts, and don’t hinder each other’s spiritual growth”?

Would he still say, “Wives, submit to your husbands,” or would he say, “Be mutually respectful of each other”?

How would he address the subject of clothing, hairstyles, and modesty? Would he tailor his words to the country he’s writing to?

All the instructions regarding the widow list don’t apply so much to us in our U.S. culture where widows have more resources. Perhaps Paul would preach about ministering to the homeless instead.

Would Paul address employee-boss issues in the USA instead of slave-master dynamics?

Would he still need to give instructions on the use of spiritual gifts?

A 2022 Update. How politically correct do you think he’d be? I suspect Paul would not mince words to the churches about his opinions on issues he didn’t address in the first century, such as abortion, euthanasia, cloning, transgender choices, and gay marriage.

Thoughts on Luke 9-10

Journal 2005

Jesus’ disciples came across someone who was expelling demons using Jesus’ name, and they told the man to stop. But Jesus said, “Don’t stop him. If he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally” (Luke 9).

I confess I am guilty of being critical of other Christians with whom I disagree. Have I hindered the work of God? When does it become a work of Satan? And how do we know the difference?

Later, on their way to Jerusalem, Jesus and the disciples were going to spend the night in Samaria, but when the Samaritans found out they were traveling to Jerusalem, they refused hospitality. James’ and John’s immediate response was: Shall we call lightning down on them? (How creative! Or had they seen Jesus do this at some point?) But Jesus said, “No,” and they continued to another village.

Somedays I’d like to call down lightning on someone! But that’s not my prerogative. Revenge belongs to God in His own time. God’s patience and grace are longsuffering.

When Jesus sent out the 70 (by now the group had grown—it wasn’t just the 12 He was preparing), He told them to travel light—just as He had told the 12. But also—to get out if they were not well received and go where they were welcomed and wanted.

How far do we take this model? Missionaries often enter hostile environments. Should they be following Christ’s words to the 70, or were His instructions for a specific time and place? I know many stories of triumph where missionaries pushed through and stayed where they were unwanted, and God eventually blessed their persistence. Were they there at God’s calling or their own inner voice? Who am I to judge? I just know I must follow the dictates of the Holy Spirit in my own heart and let all others answer to God themselves. Personally, if I encounter opposition to an attempt to advance the kingdom of God, it makes sense to me to move on to an open door instead of continually knocking on a closed and bolted one.

Your thoughts?

His Choice, My Choice

Journal 2010

I struggle with the concept of predestination. Romans 9 makes it clear that before the twins Jacob and Esau were born, before they’d made any life choices, God declared that the elder would serve the younger.

Why?

To carry out God’s purpose of selection “which depends not on works or what man can do, but on Him who calls them” (v.11). God decided ahead of time. It had nothing to do with man’s choices. God loved Jacob; He hated Esau.

Question: Was God unjust to do this?

Answer: No! “I’ll have mercy on whom I want to have mercy and compassion on whom I want to have compassion” (v. 15).

Think of it this way:

            He didn’t reject Esau; he just didn’t have mercy on him.

            He could have hated Jacob, but instead He had mercy on him.

Verse 16 says God’s gift of mercy is not a question of human will or effort, but rather of God’s mercy. God doesn’t have mercy on me because I deserve it.

Somehow in my self-righteousness, I believe God owes me because I’ve done something right. Some part of me wants to take credit for how good I am. But I’m looking at the world through faulty lenses, not from God’s perspective. (Job’s friends made the same mistake.)

This same chapter in Romans says God raised up Pharaoh for God to display His power so that God’s Name could be proclaimed around the world. God is the Potter. He gets to choose and decide what He wants to do with the clay in His hands—the clay that He created and formed out of nothing. My part is to submit and be grateful for His mercy. Even my ability to make good and right choices is a gift from Him.

All humanity is in a big pit, wretched and blind, with sores all over our bodies, up to our waist in filth, “ripe for destruction” (Romans 11:32). God’s mercy reaches down and offers to pull us out of the pit. I am too weak, however, to even raise my arms to Him. In His mercy, He chooses me. He bathes me, puts salve on my sores, and restores my sight. I didn’t do anything to deserve His love, grace, and mercy. But once I’ve been chosen, in gratitude I pledge allegiance to serve Him with my whole heart and for always.

I see Him reaching down to pull another one out of the pit. But this one resists God’s efforts to rescue him. He wants to try to get out of the pit on his own, but he can’t. He, too, needs God’s mercy, but he blames God for the condition he’s in.

God’s choices are all about His glory and His Name:

           . . . display My power, My name proclaimed (v 17)

         . . . make known His power and authority (v 22)

           . . . wealth of His glory (v 23)

If I view God as self-serving, arrogant, and egotistical, I become a reluctant worshiper. It feels like a power struggle, like a kid who doesn’t want to take a bath—petulant, balking, what’s-the-point, I-like-being-dirty, leave-me-alone kind of feeling. I’ll take one because I have to because you’re the parent, bigger and stronger than I am, and you have the authority and power to force me into the tub. Never mind that it’s good for me! Stubborn, arms crossed, crying, “I’ll get the water all dirty!” How foolish! I’m caked in red-clay hair, filthy feet, and body sweat.

When at last I give in, God sends a gentle shower and sweet-smelling soap for silky soft hair, moisturized skin, and scrubbing bubbles between the toes. And then He engulfs me in a gigantic fluffy wrap, gives me warm flannel PJs with feet in them, and tucks me between clean sheets.

So, what about “His Name? His glory? His power”? After I’m all safe and secure, He returns to His job—the most powerful ruler of the universe. He has work to do in His executive office, affairs of state I don’t need to know or worry about. But if I get scared in the night or need a drink, all I have to do is call His Name. It’s not that He’ll come running to meet my demands, but He’ll assess the need and respond accordingly. He knows if I’m truly thirsty, or if I just need the reassurance of His presence.

And the funny thing is, one way He protects His Name is by demonstrating to the world His love and care for His family. Moses appealed to His sense of power, authority, and reputation when God was ready to destroy the Israelites. “What will the nations think? he queries Yahweh.

God may be the most powerful force in the universe, but He’s my Daddy!

Tragic Women in David’s Life

I don’t harangue on this often, but have you noticed how many male preachers focus on only 50% of the congregation in their sermons? When David is the topic of conversation, for example, we hear about all his exploits—shepherd boy, giant-killer, musician, refugee, king, adulterer, and murderer. But what about a list of the tragic women he left in his wake?

Michal, David’s first wife, is a bride-price from her father Saul in exchange for David killing 100 Philistines. She loves David initially and helps him escape from her father’s murderous intentions. After Saul gives her away to another man (who obviously loves her), she’s ripped away again back to David’s side. Next, she has to share her lover with many other wives. No wonder she’s angry and hurt. Yet God still holds her responsible for her attitude toward David when he dances before the Lord in his joy that the ark has returned to Jerusalem. Her punishment is barrenness. I feel sorry for her.

Next, David marries Ahinoam (which means pleasant, though this woman lived a hard life.) Along with Abigail, she would have been with David while he was on the run. She was also taken captive when the Amalekites raided Ziklag, David’s Philistine base. And, sadly, her son Ammon ends up raping his half-sister, Tamar.

Tamar, David’s daughternow there’s a study! A rape victim, she ends up living in her brother Absalom’s house, a desolate woman. Talk about tragedy!

Abigail was married to Nabal, a churlish boor. She wisely confronts David about his intent to harm her husband, and David is grateful to her. When Nabal dies from apoplexy, David takes Abigail as his next wife, and God rewards her for her faith. Yes, she’s rid of a nasty husband, but she now has to live the life of a desert refugee, fleeing from Saul with her husband and his band of outlaws. I admire this strong woman!

Bathsheba is a victim who loses both her husband and her son because of King David’s lust. Did she struggle with resentment? But because of David’s repentance, God rewards her with Solomon, the next king of Israel. I wonder how she worked through her grief.

And then we meet David’s concubines. When David flees from his rebellious son, Absalom, he leaves behind ten of his concubines, now vulnerable and helpless. And Absalom rapes these women in plain sight of all Israel. Chosen by a king and living in a palace does not shield them from heartache and disgrace. How did their stories end?

And finally, there’s Abishag. This beautiful, young virgin is chosen to curl up with the elderly king David to help his hypothermia. Seriously!? How’s she supposed to find a husband after that job!? Or was this such an honor she’d be guaranteed a higher position? In any case, I wouldn’t want any daughter of mine to have to sleep with an old codger.

Any preacher care to tackle this list from the pulpit next Sunday?

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Winning Souls

Journal 2005

The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he who wins souls is wise.

The legalistic Bible school I attended felt like a trap, sucking the life out of its students. They taught that “soul-winning” (a phrase lifted from Proverbs 11:30) was the only/primary goal of the believer. All else paled in significance in the Christian walk. And the associated church’s supreme goal was increasing their numbers, proudly announcing each Sunday how many souls they had won for the Lord, like a collection of scalps on their belts.

But there is no glory in collecting scalps from dead people on a battlefield. God gave these scalp-takers the job of searching the battlefield for dead soldiers and waiting there until the General arrived. Only He can bring them back to life. And so it’s a bit amusing to watch these braggarts showing off their trophies of war.

God has assigned me the job of getting wounded soldiers to the medic tent where the Great Physician can set their broken bones, remove bullets, and put healing ointment on their wounds. He has assigned other people to water boy duty. Some are healthy, front-line soldiers. Others are responsible to cook for the army. And then there’s the chaplain who prays with dying men.

It takes a whole army to win this battle—and the enemy is not people. To a select few, God gives the gift of scout/see-er who recognize Satan’s invisible hoards and know effective weapons for dismantling their power. Some take great delight in swinging wildly in all directions, hacking off their heads. But the General told His army all they have to do is stand still, fully armed, and He will fight the battle for us.

A 2022 Update. I have a lot more grace toward my alma mater now, for I see them as untrained soldiers, blind to the need for an army to work together against an unseen enemy. Over the years, I’ve watched some of them fall in battle, while others matured and became stronger in their faith.

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