Friday, August 18, 2017

God’s merciful persistence .......... Parables 629

February 9, 1999
 

Lana (not her real name) is dying. The medication prescribed to treat a serious disorder has destroyed parts of her throat and esophagus. Soon she will be unable to eat. A tube will help for a time but the damage will eventually eat away her ability to breathe.

Lana gets angry at anyone who offers to pray for her. She is not interested in God or the gospel of hope for eternal life. Fiercely independent, her faith is in herself. Further, she wants to die as she has lived — her way, not anyone’s, not even God’s.

Her friends feel helpless. Whether or not she made choices that brought her to this, Lana’s own way is not working. Everyone sees it so clearly, except Lana. They want to help her but she doesn’t want any help. Those who know how to pray, pray anyway, without her permission. What else can they do?

Some say if prayer is against her wishes, it should not be offered. If Lana wants to turn her back on God, it is her choice. Do not interfere. Let her make her own decisions, even if they are not what we want. Others say the problem is not her stubbornness but that she just doesn’t understand how anyone can die with hope and in peace.

Regardless of our personal experiences with God, the Bible makes it clear that He does not give up easily. Lana may not be interested in God but God is interested in her. Even as she resists Him, He will not turn his back on her. God is like that. He even shows mercy on the least likely. In one example, Jesus stopped at a well during the heat of the day, long after the villagers had been there to draw water. A lone woman appeared on the path and when she got to the well, Jesus asked her to draw enough for Him to have a drink too.

This was an unusual encounter. In those days Jewish men did not talk with women, especially a woman by herself. Strike One. Second, she was a Samaritan. Samaritans were a half-Jew, half-pagan race hated by the Jews and banned from worshiping God with them. Strike Two. As Jesus talked with her, it came out that she had been ‘with many men and now lived with one who was not her husband.’ Strike Three. Why did Jesus break at least three social norms of His day and bother with her?

He had His reasons. Throughout the Gospels accounts of His life, He gave his attention to both men and women. He never once indicated any contempt or discriminated against a woman. He reflects the attitude of His heavenly Father who created both in His image and loves both without prejudice.

In the same vein, He had no prejudice against Samaritans. He knew the plan of God did not exclude anyone, regardless of their race or background and how or what they worshiped.

Third, Jesus was interested in sinners. In Matthew 9:13, He challenged people to learn what God meant by saying He wanted ‘mercy, and not sacrifice.’ He then said, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

By this lone incident, the Lord reveals His merciful heart. The woman was surprised that He talked to her. She knew the norms. She was late coming to the well because she knew others looked down on her, yet Jesus did not. He persisted in the conversation until she understood who He was and that He could give her ‘living water,’ a euphemism for eternal life.

Lana’s friends who know God will persist in praying for her. They do it, not to push something on her, but because they have Christ in their lives. His merciful persistence is showing up in theirs. They also hope God will touch her life despite her resistance and the many strikes against her. They know as God does, that her thirst for life is greater than her thirst for independence. She needs that living water.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Love is the higher law .......... Parables 628

February 2, 1999

A group of religious teachers and Pharisees dragged a woman into the courtyard and dumped her in front of Jesus. “This woman was caught in the very act of adultery. The law says we should stone her to death. What do you say?”

Jesus held His tongue. I wonder if I could have done the same?

On a different day, another woman came into the synagogue where Jesus was teaching. She was crippled and bent over, unable to stand. Jesus called her over and then healed her. The worship leader was indignant. He yelled at the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”

Jesus immediately retorted, “You hypocrites!” Had I been there, I wonder what I would have said or done, especially if someone had violated my religious convictions?

The more I read about Jesus, the more I am amazed at how He responded to people. He was often unpredictable yet each surprising instance underscores the fact that He understands human hearts. We tend to look only on the surface but He know our motivations.

For instance, Jesus knew the religious leaders of His day were not concerned about mercy. They did not care about the shame and pain of both the adulteress and the cripple. Their idea of justice was that everyone ought to keep the law to the letter and be punished to the greatest extent for all infractions. This notion motivated all their actions.

Jesus was not like that. He was deeply merciful, from the heart. However, His mercy enraged the Pharisees. To them, God’s laws were not suggestions but strict rules that must be kept. Why wouldn’t this man who called Himself the Son of God hold a hard line? Why would He be merciful to an adulteress? Why would He break the Sabbath to heal a mere woman?

Jesus did not defend His compassion. He knew God’s intention concerning the Law that He gave to Israel. As God’s Son, He had been involved in their formulation. Like the Father, He was interested in a response from the heart. He said the greatest commandments were to “love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself.”

The Pharisees did not understand that love is a ‘do’ command. They interpreted God’s Law with an emphasis on ‘do not.’ They failed to understand that God intended the Law as a measurement of their love, not as a set of regulations they could impose on everyone else.

Love is the higher law. It is also the law that Jesus lived by. For example, He did not drag people caught in sin into a public courtyard and heartlessly demand that they be punished. He knew the shame in their hearts. He also knew the power of God to change their lives.

In the case of the adulteress, Jesus also knew the Pharisees were using her to trick Him. They knew His reputation for mercy and used it in hopes that He would deny the legitimacy of the Law of Moses. They could use that against Him.

But in a surprising move, Jesus turned the trick back on them. He asked if any of them were sinless. If so, He said that person could cast the first stone. One by one they left. Then Jesus turned to the woman and said to her, “Go, and sin no more.”

As for the crippled woman in the temple, Jesus taught that the Sabbath was made for our benefit, not to put us in bondage or force us to be inconsiderate. Love is interested in helping and healing, regardless of the day.

The Pharisees pretended to love God by insisting everyone must keep the rules, but they had no regard for the needs of people. They topped it off by condemning Jesus for His mercy. Today, religious people can also become so zealous about rules that they forget mercy, even condemn those who remember it.

Maybe we need a fresh visit from Jesus.

Monday, August 14, 2017

How we get our image of God .......... Parables 627

January 26, 1999

A talk show hostess interviewed a black woman who fought illness, poverty and racial tension. She became a successful business woman and mother. Her family, part of the studio audience, rose to bless her. One son said something like, “Mother, thank you for allowing me to stay in your body and be born, for raising your family and sticking it out for us.”

Most of us know that God tells us to honor our father and mother. What we do not realize is how much our children depend on us for their concept of God. That is, if they see us as loving and wise, they think God is loving and wise also.

However, children whose parents are thoughtless, selfish or abusive have a difficult time imagining God as someone who could possibly care for them. To them, the word ‘father’ can have unpleasant connotations. When they hear it they feel, at the least, disappointment and are often angry and fearful, emotions that carry over to their concept of a heavenly Father.

The father image that God choose to use in His revelation of Himself was never intended to be a bad image. God created marriage and the family unit. His design included loving parents who give their best effort to raise children who love, obey and respect them.

Occasionally, we meet a family that seems close to this ideal. I think of the Pattisons, a couple whose lives recently ended in a car accident. Married 63 years, they had sons and daughters who honored and respected them because this couple loved and nurtured their children.

Yet for many, the image of father and family is deeply marred, not because poor parenting is God’s pattern but because human nature, in general, has also been marred. Even the Pattisons were not perfect yet many more families fall far beneath their standard.

In a marred family, parents resent their children. Children curse their parents. Sometimes, headlines tell of tragic situations in which parent or child goes so far as to injure or even kill others in their family. How can this be?

God made man and woman in His image. That is, we have characteristics that are like God and that reflect His nature. These characteristics appear whenever we selflessly give time and effort toward raising our children. They also appear when our children honor and obey us.

Yet the nature of God in us is marred by sin. Who is perfectly like Him? The Bible says, “There is none righteous, no not one . . . . All have fallen short of the glory of God.”

To get back on track, we need our sin and imperfections forgiven by God and cleansed from our lives. The Pattisons experienced that, even before they were wed. For most of their lives, they honored God in their personal life and in their home and community. God blessed them in return. Their children love and serve God and are wise and loving parents themselves.

The lady on the television show also honored God. She said that she owed all the good that was happening in her life to Him. Proverbs 31 says, “A woman that fears the LORD, she shall be praised” and that “Her children arise up, and call her blessed.” What a joy it must have been for her to have her son rise up on national television and bless her.

These and others like them are examples of how to be a great parent. They clearly show that when we obey God, we are not only living up to His intention in our creation but making a difference in the lives of our children.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Human Rights? .......... Parables 626

January 19, 1999

Will the VLT question ever be settled? A provincial vote recorded public opinion but somehow the matter is still up in the air. Human rights continue to blur the issue.

Rights, a worldwide hot topic, spans the extremes. For instance, minority groups cry for the right to be heard and teenagers demand the right to drive the family car. Women ask for equal pay for equal work and my grandchildren each want the right to the TV remote. Criminals ask for the right to vote and dissatisfied spouses think they have the right to be unfaithful. Writers demand their copyrights and everyone wants to stand at the front of the line.

Which demands are legitimate? How can anyone know? In many cases, if all are equally valid still some must give in to others. So who decides which rights take priority?

It is irrational to give looters the right to enter broken windows and take what they want whenever they want it. It is also irrational to give angry people the right to express their feelings by spraying a shotgun in a school ground. Is it irrational to give people the right to gamble?

Of course playing VLTs is not the same as stealing or killing but excessive or compulsive gambling takes a toll on innocent people. How much is excessive? Can human rights have limits in this case? Is it possible to agree on what those limits should be?

Endless questions with debatable answers should make us ask what God says but the Bible says nothing about VLTs and very little about gambling. It does mention human rights.

God defines rights and freedom far differently than we do. While He allows us choices, He does not define that freedom as a right to do whatever we want. Instead, He says “not all things are beneficial.” In God’s mind, making choices is a privilege, a responsibility, even an opportunity. He also says if we think we are free to fulfill our own wants, we are actually slaves.

How can this be? To understand God’s perspective, we have to realize that the essence of sin is selfishness. When we do our own thing contrary to the commands of God, we sin. The New Testament book of Romans asks, “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey . . . ?”

God says: choose to either serve Him and be free to become all He intended when He created us, or choose to be a slave to ourselves and sin. This is strong talk, but He gives no other options.

Slaves are unpaid workers who cannot say no to their boss. This sounds like a person addicted to gambling. VLTs rarely pay back the people who use them. Instead, they are designed to make a profit. Not only that, they rob people of discernment. In thinking they are doing as they please, gamblers are actually in bondage to an expensive, thrill-seeking habit they cannot break.

Families of gambling slaves also pay the price of this so-called “freedom.” They lose their “rights.” Money for their groceries and utility bills is spent on “roads, education and health care” or it goes into the pockets of whoever owns the establishments that house the machines.

You and I also pay a price for this “freedom.” Our taxes go up because families draw more deeply from social services. Gamblers who want to quit need therapy too, and someone must pay for their increased needs. We also pay in pain if the addicts are people we love.

Those who make money on the machines are caught in a “love of money” trap that the Bible calls the “root of all evil.” They cannot set themselves free and will eventually “pierce themselves with many griefs.” This demand for “rights” is costly and deceptive, not true freedom.

Freely giving everyone the “right” to gamble results in huge losses. Everyone is trapped by one side of it or another — and everyone pays a price.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Ultimate communication .......... Parables 625

March 9, 1999

Electronic mail has revolutionized business and personal communication. With a computer and modem, anyone can send messages around the world in minutes, even make and cultivate friendships in cyberspace.

However, e-mail has the same annoyances as regular mail. Total strangers somehow get my address and send me Spam or unwanted advertising — electronic junk mail. Occasionally, I get chain letters too. “If you make ten copies of this and send it on to ten friends...”

Yikes, I have enough to do. I use this technology when I want to say a few words without feeling guilty that I didn’t have time to write fourteen pages.

Carnegie Melton University in Pittsburgh researched people who spend far more time in cyberspace than I do. According to their data, the more that people use e-mail, chat rooms and discussion groups, the more depressed, stressed and lonely they feel. They also add that being on-line replaces time people should spend building deeper relationships with family and friends.

In my limited experience, electronic discussions, no matter how intimate they seem, do not reach true intimacy. Impressions easily created in mere words fall flat in face-to-face relationships. With e-mail, it is easy to fake who you are and how you feel. Even regular mail and the telephone fail the intimacy test. To pass, we need to look into each other’s eyes.

The Bible says the eye is the lamp of the body. Philosophers say it is the window to the soul. Ordinary people know that the look in someone’s eye can tell them a great deal about that person’s heart and mind.

At least that is true for human relationships. It simply does not apply to the ultimate cyberspace communication — prayer. We do not have to look into the eyes of God to get close to Him. We just talk or even think and God knows exactly what we are trying to communicate. He speaks back through the Bible or sometimes without words into our minds — and we hear Him. We know who is speaking and we grow deeper in our relationship with Him.

I am amazed how we can fool each other with the best of technology yet our hearts are open to God using none whatsoever. It is as the psalmist wrote, “O Lord, You have searched me and You know me. . . . Before a word is on my tongue You know it completely, O Lord.”

Spoken or written prayers help us express ourselves to Him but His understanding goes deeper than what we say. He knows what we really mean and how we really feel before we even tell Him. Not even our closest friends can do that with the same accuracy.

Actually, prayer is not really cyberspace communication. The Bible says if we put our faith in Christ, He comes to live in our hearts. We are “a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in us, whom we received from God.” Our messages do not have to go from ‘server to server’ around the universe searching for His address because He is right here with us. Nothing could be quicker.

Further, going on-line with God doesn’t require a modem or computer. Anyone can do it anywhere and anytime, without any costs and in any language. No one has to learn how to type on a keyboard or open any software. Nothing could be easier.

If spending too much time online makes people lonely, prayer has the opposite effect. Consider evangelist Billy Graham’s definition of loneliness. He says it is the way we feel when God is calling us to spend time with Him. When we do that, we are filled not emptied.

These days, I’m beginning to wish I could get paid to read and respond to e-mail but when I pray, there is no sense of lost or wasted time. God never sends Spam or junk mail, only peace and a sense of being with Him.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Defeating stress .......... Parables 624

January 5, 1999

One brave Canadian couple allowed a television crew to follow their home renovation project. Like most renovations, theirs evolved into a bigger mess than they expected.

First, they thought they could live in it while the work was being done. They quickly realized this was impossible and rented a town house. As work progressed, so did unexpected extras and with them, difficult decisions. Some days, their contractors or sub-trades failed to show. Everything took longer than anyone planned. Deadlines moved back. The weather interfered. What else could go wrong?

Well, with December arriving, they realized their rented town house had no room for a Christmas tree. The family felt isolated. Then their landlord served notice. He had sold the place. In two weeks, they would have to move, but their house would not be finished for two months. Finally, the husband lost his job. On national television, the couple admitted that stress was putting a strain on their lives.

According to statistics, 60 per cent of Canadians experience a high level of stress at least once a week. Two out of ten are at their stress limit. This means if they needed to detangle several strings of tree lights, they would crack under the strain.

A certain amount of stress is important. Without it, we would not stand up straight and most people would never get out of bed in the morning. However, unwanted circumstances and difficult relationships produce an inner resistance that is unwanted and unhealthy.

How can we manage stress? We could avoid stressful situations. Consider the couple with the renovation project. As they fear losing their home, they admit that instead of letting this renovation project take over their lives, leaving it the way it was would have been easier.

We could also reduce stress in some way. If the man could find a new job or the contractors could work overtime, perhaps that would reduce their stress. Others reduce stress by taking a holiday, enjoying a hobby, even turning to drugs (prescribed or otherwise) and alcohol.

How did Jesus manage stress? There is no doubt He experienced situations that were stressful. Imagine being on a small fishing boat in a terrible storm with twelve terrified men. Imagine being pressured all day long, day after day, by people wanting you to do something for them. Imagine being rejected by the very people you came to help and eventually being tried and convicted for something that was not a crime.

Jesus had two things going for Him. He knew that His Father in heaven was sovereign over everything. That is, God did not necessarily instigate any of these situations against His Son but He could stop them if He wanted to. Jesus knew who was in control.

He also knew that people would be cruel and mean. While rejection and harsh treatment do not feel good, this never surprised Him. I know that much of my stress comes from thoughtless or unkind actions that I did not expect.

The Bible says that Lord took a different attitude than we do toward stressful situations and harsh treatment. A passage in 1 Peter talks about how we should react to unfair treatment and says of Jesus, “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”

Jesus did not welcome the stress curves thrown at Him. However, instead of meeting them with inner resistance or any form of retaliation, He trusted God. By yielding to the things that threatened Him and knowing God would use them into good, He defeated their power over Him.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Enjoying a healthy body? .......... Parables 623

December 29, 1998

Rheumatoid arthritis and AIDS are quite different disorders but both are related to the auto-immune system. In RA, the body becomes confused and attacks its own joint fluid as an enemy. Without lubrication, bones grind and wear against each other causing pain and disability.

In AIDS, the auto-immune system is not confused; it just quits. The body loses its capacity to fight external enemies and dies from illnesses such as pneumonia.

While the human body is an amazing organism, these two conditions illustrate how one part working contrary to its intended purpose produces painful and even deadly results.

The New Testament uses the human body as a metaphor for spiritual unity. Those who believe in Christ should function together, just as the parts of our body should.

For instance, the Apostle Paul talks about spiritual gifts by pointing out that each believer has a different gift, just as each part of the body has a different job to do. The eye is not the hand and the hand is not the eye. Each needs the other so all can function.

As a body has many members so it can work properly, so does the Body of Christ. This analogy helps Christians appreciate both our oneness and our differences. It also illustrates the importance of working together. When each part of a healthy body cooperates, that body is strong and productive. The Bible says, “From Christ the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and build itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

However, this analogy also can describe what happens when Christians set themselves against one another. If we do not appreciate our differences, reject unity and refuse to cooperate, we are like a malfunctioning auto-immune system. The results are just as disastrous.

In love, we function like healthy bones and ligaments but if we do not keep ourselves in right relationships with mutual support and instead begin fighting, we are like rheumatoid arthritis. We are destroying necessary “lubrication” and begin to wear and grate against each other.

Loving one another is vital, not only to our health but to our appearance. Jesus said the world will evaluate us by our love (or lack of it) for one another. If the Body of Christ malfunctions, we experience personal and corporate pain and become crippled, even totally disabled, in our ministry to others. Besides, the Bible says if one member hurts, all hurt. In-fighting is like shooting ourselves in the foot.

A malfunctioning Body of Christians has another problem suggested by the analogy and how a human body suffers if it has AIDS. Spiritually, the Bible is clear that the Christian struggle “is not against flesh and blood” but is against “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” When we pit ourselves against each other, we become helpless against external enemies. Satan and the powers of evil can easily defeat us.

Paul wrote that if we “yield to God and resist the devil, he will flee” from us. Notice what comes first: yielding to God. The Bible defines that simply as loving Him and loving one another. Jesus said that we show our love for God by loving other Christians.

Everyone wants a healthy body. We do what we can with rest, proper diet, exercise and regular care. In fact, these exercises occupy a major portion of our lives. What a difference it would make if we gave as much attention and effort toward maintaining health in the Body of Christ.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

What is the spirit of Christmas? .......... Parables 622

December 22, 1998

What is the “spirit of Christmas”? After a survey, here are some opinions.

Some say it is family being together, eating and giving gifts. It is a pervading sense of good will. Even strangers go out of their way to say ‘Merry Christmas’ (at least they used to!)

Others call it an anticipation, like that of a child filled with wonder and excitement. Many claim it is a spirit of generosity, an open-heartedness that thinks benevolent thoughts and gives gifts. Others say it is remembering the reason for the season yet they do not define it.

Some respond by saying they put up a tree, put lights on their house, and play their Christmas CD’s to get into the spirit of Christmas. For them, you don’t have it until you unpack the decorations or play the music or open the gifts. Others counter by saying no, the Christmas spirit is in your heart, a warm, glowing feeling that you cannot buy in a store.

But many still think the spirit of Christmas is out dazzling your neighbors with more—more ornaments, a bigger tree, more presents, more flashing lights, more moving figurines, more parties, more of everything.

Today’s celebrations are foreign to the first Christmas. That day there were no parties, lights, turkey dinners, brightly wrapped gifts or Christmas carols. The people who took part in the event may have had a song in their hearts, but they were not at all as we imagine them today.

For instance, our Christmas cards picture clean, gentle shepherds, but the genuine tenders of sheep were rough and unkept. Their bodies and clothes both needed a bath and they had little or no education. Shepherds were considered the lowest on the social scale.

Yet the shepherds were joyful. They returned from seeing the newborn Christ “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.” They had the spirit of Christmas.

After Jesus was born, few recognized His significance. One who did, a devout Jew named Simeon, “took Jesus in his arms and praised God.” He had the spirit of Christmas.

Mary and Joseph seemed amazed at their baby. The Bible says they “marveled at what was said about him.” They had the spirit of Christmas too.

The “spirit of Christmas” as indicated by the story in God’s Word, is partly an incredible awe, an awe that fills the air and touches even those who have no idea where their joy comes from. It is the awe of response to a great message: God became a baby and entered our world as one of us. It is the awe of hearing angels saying this is “good news of great joy for all people.” It is an awe that touches those who haven’t even heard that good news because the spirit of Christmas fuels the joy and the music, and touches people with a warmth from outside themselves, a sweet delight from the heart of God.

Would it be the same without the birth of the child? One man complained about carols ruining his Christmas because “those religious people have to get into everything.” He and others like him fail to make the connection between the celebration and the reason for the season. They are like people who go to a baby shower, eat the food, laugh, enjoy themselves and pass around the gifts, but never bother themselves to admire and praise the baby.

They miss the point but they also miss that ancient and original spirit of Christmas. The Bible says that “God inhabits the praises of His people.” That is, if we throw a Christmas party filled with the praises of our lips, the goodness He puts in our lives and the carols that honor His birth, then He is the guest of honor. For those at the party, the spirit of Christmas becomes a deeper and richer awareness of His presence.