Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Willing to die for Jesus? .......... Parables 655

October 5, 1999

How would I respond to the question “Do you believe in God,” if the person asking pointed a gun in my face?

High school students from Columbine High, Taber, a town in Texas, and all over the United States and Canada have asked themselves what they would do. Thousands have decided they will not wait until it happens again to find out. They want the same assurance as their peers who said “Yes” and then died. They are turning to faith in Jesus Christ.

What is it about these current deaths that have made many think about faith? Is it because people want to see something before they believe? Faith ceases being abstract when someone dies for it. Now there is proof. Those who claim to believe are not just making noise.

Consider the disciples. They could only have talked about eternal life and faith but they went further; all but John were martyred because they believed. (John was exiled to a deserted island.) All of them were convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead and that His resurrection guaranteed them life after death too.

The Apostle Paul was equally convinced. He gave up everything anyone in his day considered valuable and followed Jesus Christ. He risked his health and even his life because he believed that what God had revealed to him was absolutely true.

He says it like this: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also...” (1 Corinthians 15:3-9).

Paul saw Jesus, alive and in person. That was enough for him. We do not see Him but we can consider the testimony of these who did. Are they reliable witnesses, or deluded fools who died for nothing? Even a brief investigation shows that their lives matched what they claimed. They considered that the resurrection of Jesus is the most important element of the Christian faith and were willing to stake their lives on it.

For them and for us, if the resurrection is not true, then all Christian teaching and preaching is useless. So is faith. What good is it to believe if they lied about the power of God or faked the whole thing? Examine the witnesses. Did they live as liars and fakes?

If Jesus did not rise, then who can? He is the only person who ever lived a life worthy of spending eternity with a Holy God. Further, He said if we put our faith in Him, He would forgive and cleanse our sins so we can spend eternity with God too. If He is still dead, what hope do we have? Our lives are not spotless. Faith without forgiveness means nothing and sin wins.

What about “seeing is believing?” If we cannot see Jesus as the disciples claimed, can we still believe in a risen Jesus? Jesus said we can. He told Thomas the doubter, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

How is believing without seeing possible? Consider the jury who acquits an innocent man — but did not witness the crime first hand themselves. They heard witnesses, decided they were credible and believed their testimony. We did not witness the resurrection but we read the accounts and look at the lives of those who did. We can easily see that their lives were changed. They lived in a godly way. They were filled with confidence as they told everyone that we can live again. Most significant, they died because they believed what they saw.

Because they were equally convinced, some young Christians also died. Through their witness, others are convinced that the Bible is true and that Jesus is alive.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Are rules for life helpful? Or harmful? .......... Parables 654

December 4, 1999

A church ad showed a picture of two hands holding stone slabs inscribed with the Ten Commandments. The ad copy read: “For fast, fast, fast relief, take two tablets.”

Dr. Laura would agree. She says the sick moral climate in America can be cured only if people listen to God and do what He says.

Others disagree. In fact, some even say we have too many rules already, that religion imposes only restrictions. What we really need is more freedom.

Seeing that morals are not as important as they used to be does not require a degree in sociology. However, can more rules bring up moral standards or change people’s behavior? Or do rules simply raise our awareness of guilt?

That church sign implies that obedience to God will bring relief not guilt. Relief from what? God says we should not steal. If everyone obeyed, crime rates would decline. God says we should not commit adultery. If everyone obeyed, divorce rates would nose dive.

But life has other problems that call for relief. What about single mothers who need jobs with enough pay to cover their needs and the cost of daycare? What about sickness, financial debt, strained relationships, unemployment or other pressing issues? Would adding these commands give relief for these problems? Or complicate them?

We could say that keeping the laws of God has value in society but argue with the “fast relief” part. Ask any teacher. Ask any parent. People simply do not change overnight.

On the other hand, a few self-righteous folk might see this church sign and applaud. They wonder why people act the way they do. They insist everyone should put God first and live decently. Then the world would not be in this mess.

In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees fit this profile. They looked down at those “less religious” but made the mistake of thinking they themselves were okay. Jesus called them hypocrites.

So, can taking these “two tablets” actually give relief? The Bible teaches that the Law of God stands forever. It is important. However, the Bible also teaches that no one can keep His Law perfectly, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

So why have these ten? If putting them on the classroom walls had no effect, why did my Sunday School teachers do it? The New Testament gives the reason: “The Law was our tutor, to bring us to Christ.”

The self-righteous think that obedience to God’s commands is their ticket to heaven. They assume their adherence will give them favor with God. They do not understand or will not accept that everyone falls short. Our efforts at law-keeping do not impress God. The Apostle Paul wrote that keeping the commandments could not impart life. In Romans 3, he says people “are justified by faith apart from observing the law.”

This does not nullify the law as if it were unimportant. God’s standards are high. However, the Bible teaches that “all our works of righteousness are like filthy rags” in His sight. The gospel declares that our only hope is in His grace, not in our own efforts. As the Bible says, we “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

For those who believe in Christ, the commands remain to show us God’s high standard. Repeatedly, we see that our hearts are prone to sin. We are in constant need of God’s grace. In that sense, taking two tablets does give relief — it relieves us of the ignorance of sin — but the tablets do not cure the problem of sin nor any of the results of sin. Only Christ can do that.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Aging Gracefully .......... Parables 653

September 21, 1999
Hockey player Esa Tikkanen was back on the ice last week. He says he wants to finish his career by playing during three decades. Maybe he wants to prove he is still a master of the game too. After playing well for many years, he might not be happy doing anything else.

Tikkanen is only thirty-four, but even at that age, thoughts of retirement can be frightening. Imagine turning your life goals over to the youngsters. Imagine at thirty-four admitting your body isn’t up to it anymore.

I don’t play hockey but sometimes I say “I am not getting older, I’m getting better.” Who am I kidding? I am getting older. Age is a fact of life, one that sneaks up on you. Even when you expect it, the changes associated with growing older require some adjustments.

People in the Old Testament had a longer time to adjust than we do. Noah was 500 years old before his sons were born. Generations later, Sarah, the wife of Abraham lived to age 127. However, adjusting to old age was complicated for her. She had her first son at age ninety-one!

When God promised the child would be born, Sarah tried to hide her reaction but could not help laughing, “After I am worn out and my master is old, (master was a cultural title for her husband, like our Mr.) will I now have this pleasure?” It was as if she responded, “God, take a look at us. You must be joking.”

As distressing as bearing a child must have been for her, Sarah adjusted. Other Bible characters met old age gracefully too. They faced challenges and changes, such as turning over their inheritance to their children, or giving their position of leadership to younger people. Through reading their stories, we find that God gave them insights into aging that we can use.

Age with wisdom. In Psalm 90, Moses asks God to “teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” My father says “there is no fool like an old fool.” Growing old is not so bad if one also grows wise.

Age with purpose. Another Psalm writer says, “Since my youth, O God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds. Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come.” Growing old is not so bad if you are employed by God with something meaningful to do.

Age with grace. Proverbs 16:31 says, “Gray hair is a crown of splendor; if it is attained by a righteous life.” Living in a righteous way leaves a person without regrets. While that kind of life requires the grace of God, grace is freely available to everyone through Jesus Christ.

Age without fear. God promised His people, “Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you.” With God, growing old does not need to be filled with anxiety. He promises to take care of us.

Age knowing what comes next. Job experienced terrifying trials. He was not always optimistic about the outcome in this life. However, he was confident of the eventual outcome. He said, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God.”

Job looked beyond his calamities, and even beyond death and decay to when Jesus, the Redeemer would come. Job knew he would stand before God in a new, resurrected body. His aches, pain and sorrow would all be gone. Because of his faith, he managed his challenges.

We too can manage the challenge of aging by putting our faith in the Redeemer. When we do, He removes our fear of death and dying but also takes away our distress over the speed we whiz by those milestones.

Age with a good attitude. My son says, “Don’t worry about growing old, mom. Some people never get the chance.” God has blessed us with life. Because of him, we can be thankful — which is probably the most gracious way to welcome those advancing years.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Hold your tongue! .......... Parables 652

September 14, 1999

Exercise buffs may try to change it, but so far the strongest muscle in the human body is the tongue. Perhaps God created us that way for a reason, but could it be our tongues are the strongest because they get the most exercise?

While not fanatical about exercise, I have been using light hand-held weights for the past few years. Constant repetition is sufficient to firm up some of my flab and improve my endurance. Exercise might do the same for my tongue, but is that a good thing?

Talking too much is generally not my problem yet I can put my foot in my mouth as easily as anyone. Sometimes my conscience nags me for interrupting people, speaking out of turn, or not letting someone say what is on their mind. I’m not surprised that the Bible is filled with warnings about over-exercising this muscle.

Proverbs 10:19 is a good place to start: “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” The implication is plain: those who hesitate before speaking are less apt to say the wrong thing and thus sin with their mouth. Who can argue with that!

Still in Proverbs we find: “The mouth of the fool gushes folly” and “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.”

My dad used to say something similar: “Better to be quiet and have people think you are a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt.” When we think of wisdom, the picture that comes to mind seldom includes lots of noise.

Other biblical warnings abound. One says: “He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity.” Who hasn’t got in trouble because they spoke too soon? Or been annoyed by someone who finishes their sentences?

Another warning from the New Testament says, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness . . . this should not be.”

When people get angry and curse others, they have not considered this truth from Proverbs 18:21: “The tongue has the power of life and death.” While it may not be a lethal weapon physically, words can kill a person’s spirit and rob us of emotional vitality.

A New Testament writer says, “the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”

Those are strong words. That is why James also says, “no man can tame the tongue.” We need God’s help. He promises better control of this muscle to anyone who wants to change the way they think and therefore the way they talk.

(Of course not all talking is bad. Proverbs 15:2 starts with “The tongue of the wise commends knowledge” and verse four continues with: “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life.” Our speech can praise God and bless others, just as the Bible says. We are encouraged not to use corrupt words but talk so that others are built up and receive grace.)

One thing about exercise at home or in the gym; if your form is not correct, you can injure yourself. It is a little like that with the tongue; if we do not use the right words or have the right attitude as we speak, we can hurt not only ourselves but others.

Flabby muscles firm up and become more alert with exercise but just using our tongue does not necessarily improve anything. As 1 Timothy 4:8 says, “Physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things.”

In this case, an old truism matches Scripture: if we cannot say anything nice, we are better to let our tongue muscle become atrophied.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Darkness is desired more than dollars? ...........Parables 651

August 24, 1999

According to one statistic, Hollywood makes 17 times more restricted or R-rated movies than it does G-rated flicks yet films for general audiences make 8 times more money. Go figure.

The obvious question is “What makes movie producers crank out reels full of sex and violence if they do not make as much money as films without them?” In a culture that places high value on making money, this is abnormal. The Bible may say “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” yet according to these statistics, there must be another root.

Sometimes those who produce pornography call it “art.” Do those who produce R-rated movies consider themselves artists of a sort? We question the motivation of artists who paint nudes. Are they perverted or not? Yet most of us know the difference between a Michelangelo and a Hugh Heffner. A playboy bunny is not the same as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Or maybe they have a hidden agenda? The more fearful among us would say these films are part of a conspiracy to destroy the minds of our youth. We can agree Hollywood doesn’t seem to care much about what they feed into anyone’s mind, but isn’t the box office competition too keen to grant movie makers a desire to band together with subversive motives?

Does social pressure make them do it? Is the demand for blood and smut loud enough to make the squeaky door thing a motive? If that were true, do they measure demand by noise over box office receipts? Society is sending a message in money but Hollywood seems to ignore it.

Or do they care what anyone thinks? Obviously, some in the motion picture industry are not into pleasing the public. Maybe they operate under the theory that if viewers see this stuff often enough and long enough, it will become more popular and more profitable. Are they that dumb? It seems economics and popularity have little to do with this strange statistical phenomena.

Perhaps another, more sinister reason lies behind their production. Could it be that some of them simply enjoy watching their sexual or violent fantasies come alive on the screen? Could it be that their deepest urges and desires, not generally allowed in society, find an “acceptable” expression in film?

Some would say no, it is simple ignorance. If producers only understood statistics, or even the ramifications of what they are doing, they would stop. Smut and violence would cease. Does education stop a glutton from eating that extra helping of chocolate cheesecake? Or is there an inner drive far more powerful than either ignorance or education?

This is the core of our human dilemma. We have high aspirations to be artists, to change lives, to please people, to be strong against the things that hurt us, yet who of us can say that our aim is always high? Sometimes we pick the wrong thing. Sometimes we simply spiral downward into evil without any obvious motivation other than we want to do it.

We forget that the root of evil begins with our sin nature. We enjoy doing what we know we should not do. Sometimes people claim, “I can’t help it” but those who choose evil are not interested in getting help — unless it enables them to have their cake and keep their waistline, or it allows their self-expression and earns them accolades.

Jesus came offering help to those who struggle against evil, yet He understood people. He said, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Every one who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.”

Money is not the main issue for those who like sex and violence. Instead, they find they can enjoy their passion by producing (or watching) it on film. Take note: these films are viewed in the dark. Also note: evil disappears if the Light is bright enough.

Friday, October 6, 2017

No Rest for the Wicked .......... Parables 650

August 10, 1999

Because lots on both sides were vacant for months, our neighbor could not develop her yard. Finally, she started. However, she soon ran into contractor problems, weather delays, and other unexpected setbacks. When the yard work was finished, she could not contain her relief.

A week or so later, we were both outside. She weeded her flower bed and remarked, “Just when I thought my yard was finished, now it needs more work. I guess there is no rest for the wicked.”

We laughed together. Later, I couldn’t help thinking how we use Bible verses in ordinary conversation, sometimes without thinking. When she talked about “no rest for the wicked” my neighbor referred to an Old Testament verse from Isaiah. When most people say it, including her, they mean something like, “If I was a better person, God would let me sit down and put my feet up more often.”

After checking it out, I notice this verse does not talk about being a better person or even being more moral. Nor is it referring to relaxation or time for recreation. Instead, in its immediate context the verse says, “But the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud. ‘There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked.’” (Isaiah 57:20-21)

While everyone is a sinner, the Bible does not call every person wicked. In the Old Testament, wicked people were thoroughly immoral and actively evil. They were ungodly, continually guilty and without any faith. In other words, they had no use for God nor any intention to trust Him. This verse applies to these people, not the average person.

As for its concept of rest, Scripture uses a word that sometimes means being idle with your feet up, but it usually means “tranquility.” In our culture, it is difficult to imagine being free from inner or outer tension and strife but in the Bible, a person at rest was not agitated or troubled in any way. They had an inner peace that made it possible for them to face all sorts of trials and circumstances. It is this kind of rest that eludes wicked people.

According to God’s Word, this rest is not a psychological gimmick. The way to achieve such peace is by trusting or resting in God through a deep faith in Him. This faith knows He is far greater than any threat we might face. That gives us confidence to focus on Him. When we do, our hearts are at peace. But the wicked cannot find this rest. They are not interested in its source. Even if they were, they would try to manipulate God rather than simply trust Him.

My neighbor used the word “rest” rather than “peace” which is used in that verse. Her choice is legitimate. The one is closely related to the other. The word “peace” comes from “shalom.” Shalom is used over 250 times in Scripture. Jews still use it today as a greeting. It basically means a state of completion and fulfillment, wholeness and unity. This condition includes restored relationships and deep contentment. The Bible links shalom as a result of being in the presence of God.

The bottom line seems to be that rest is a state of mind, a gift from God, yet partly our choice. We can be agitated by the weeds and the necessity of using our lawn mower or we can choose to enjoy the presence of God — who lives both in the back yard and in the hearts of those who trust Him.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Knots untied .......... Parables 649

August 3, 1999

When someone is impatient, my dad used to say, “Don’t get your shirt in a knot.” After a stressful day at work, my husband often has a few knots in his back. When I’m asked to make an impromptu speech, my stomach knots up.
To a boy scout, knots are over hands, half hitches and sheep shanks but these are knots of a different kind, knots that tell us stress is ruining both inner peace and physical comfort.

Someone made a poster picturing a huge, knotted rope with the words, “Let Jesus untie the knots.” Despite the picture, the slogan is not about over hands or half hitches either. The artist who designed the poster encourages others to find God’s secret for dealing with stress.

So how does God do it? Does He take away the problem? Sometimes. More often than not (no pun intended), He deals with everything from root causes through to painful symptoms.

One root of stress is unwelcome experiences such as a loss, deep pain, unresolved conflict with others, accidents and other trauma. However, the world’s “worry warts” knot up just thinking about them, so another root of stress is needless anxiety. People worry that something bad is going to happen or something good is not. Maybe there will not be enough money to put food on the table or buy a winter coat or pay the mortgage.

Health issues create stress too. Some worry about cancer or heart attacks. Most people fear death. One illness takes a toll; what about two more? These stresses can tie us in knots.

However, even with the basics covered, we can get our shirt in a knot. What if there is not enough money to pay for Susie’s education or Johnny’s braces? What about that new carpet or those winter tires? How will I handle my new promotion? How much more of my time will be eaten by this commitment or that? What will I cook for dinner? What will I wear to the party?

Stress relates to performance. What if my work is not acceptable? What if I lose my job? Deeper still, what if my life has no significance? Where will I go when I die? What if God will not let me into heaven? More knots.

To untie these knots, Jesus offers us an unusual alternative. If we take His offer, we will find ourselves living in two worlds. One is our existence here with all these threats and stresses. The other is residence in the kingdom of God where the rules are not the same. When we allow His kingdom to have the primary place in our lives, His rules override life’s stresses.

For example, in this world, we must work for a living. In the kingdom of God, we live under a promise that He will take care of all our needs. Jesus said, “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things (referring to the basics) will be given to you as well.”

God ensures we will not go without. If we need a job, He provides it. If we need a raise, He can work that out too. He knows all about us and provides whatever we need. He never leaves us stuck, either with decisions or to do it ourselves. He asks that we simply trust in His care.

In this world, we also experience loneliness and rejection, but in His kingdom we have unlimited love and acceptance. He promises He will never leave us nor forsake us. His Spirit lives in our hearts and we can continually communicate with Him through His Word and prayer.

In this world, we experience pain, illness, and all the stressful negatives of life, yet those who live in the kingdom of God rely on His unchanging promises. He does not allow more than we can handle. He works all things together for our good, even the negatives, to make us more like Jesus.

Just as there are two kinds of “knots,” there are two ways to live; on our own with whatever resources we might have, or in both worlds — relying on His power from one to untie the knots in the other.