Blog Posts

Presents or Presence?

The fickle children of Israel quickly traded in the true and living God who delivered them from slavery for a golden calf formed from their own hands.  Before we are too critical, let us remember the multitude of times that we substitute gods of our own making for the God who truly delivers.  We all seem to prefer gods we can control over the God before whom we must bow.

Moses and God had the type of relationship where “the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex. 33:11).  May we all have this type of relationship with Him!  God confided in His friend, expressing His deserved anger: “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people.  Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you” (Ex. 32:9-10).

Rather than enjoying God’s new, Moses-centered plan, Moses spoke to his Friend, reminding Him of the covenant promises that He made to the nation He called to be His own, and asked Him what the Egyptians would think of a God who delivered His people from slavery to let them perish in the desert.  “And the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.”

The relationship between God and His rebellious people was still fractured.  The LORD said to Moses, “Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give it.’  I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.  Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people” (Ex. 33:1-3).

God was promising the people the benefits of their deliverance from slavery with one stipulation – God, the Deliverer, would not be with them.  He was offering the Hebrew people His presents, but not His presence.  God would be true to His promises and give the Jewish people what He promised them, but because of their rebellious hearts, a righteous, holy God could not dwell with them.

I think many people today would love this deal.  Get the blessings of God without having to be accountable to God?  Enjoy the stuff without having to listen to His commands?  Many would jump at the chance.

But Moses understood that this life having the stuff of God without the presence of God is really no life at all, because God does not just give us life, He IS our life.  Here is Moses’ response:  “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I, and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:15-16).

Moses knew that what makes the people of God the people of God is not the blessing God gives to His people, it is having God, Himself.  Do we understand this?

Being Thankful

I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds.  I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High. (Psalm 9:1-2 ESV)

Facebook is increasingly becoming my prayer list.  I enjoy praying for dear friends and family that I have known for years and also for more recent colleagues and acquaintances.  This time of year, amid holiday get-togethers, vacations, family celebrations, and various ministry events, I praise God for how He has blessed so many of you!  While I rejoice with those of you who now are rejoicing, my heart and my prayers do go out to those of you who now are searching for God’s blessing.  May you see His face clearly very soon!

I love seeing the pics of your beautiful family members.  Some of them are transitioning into new and exciting chapters of their lives.  What a joy to be surrounded by those you love.  Thank you for sharing the news and views concerning your travels both at home and abroad.  What beautiful and fun places you have the wonderful opportunity to enjoy.  Some of you are traveling because you have been given the incredible opportunity and responsibility to share the Word of God among every tribe, tongue, and nation so that Jesus is glorified.  What a gift to be able to do so!  Enjoy!  Celebrate!  Be blessed!

At the same time, why not pray for the many in our own nation and the vast majority of people around the world who will never experience such blessing.  And above all, remember the One who is the giver of all good gifts and the One who blesses us with every spiritual blessing through His Son, Jesus Christ!  Everything you are, everything you get to do, and every experience you live is but a gift from Him.  Why not thank Him today?

For Me?

Say to all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat for yourselves and drink for yourselves? (Zechariah 7:5-6 ESV)

Every time I read this Scripture I am reminded to ask the Holy Spirit to show me what my motives are as I work, worship, and just plain live.  Why do I do what I do?  This question is especially applicable to my religious life, as it was to the Jewish people addressed here.  Why do I sing songs of praise, to honor God, or to make myself feel a certain way?  Why do I do “up front” ministry, to get everyone gathered to focus on Jesus, or to see me?  I can do these things – good things – with selfish motives.  When I do, I rob God of His glory.

In the original Hebrew, the “for me” is repeated.  “Was it for me that you fasted – for me?”  What a haunting echo.  Why do I do what I do?  One question helps when asking this question.  What would I do if no one said anything to me about my up-front ministry?  About my singing?  (Actually, I really hope no one ever listens to me sing.)  About my religious activity?  If I was never noticed, never thanked, never complimented, would I still do what I do?  People who are doing things for themselves rather than Jesus tend to give up if their actions don’t gain the personal attention they seek.

I am not saying that we should not thank others for what they are doing.  Thank them!  Encourage them!  It is sinful if you don’t.  What I am not saying is that it is your job to keep others humble by your silence about what they do.  What I am saying is, “What is your response when people are silent to you?”

Valuing Life – A Pastor’s Perspective

I have always valued life – or so I thought.  I remember from my teen years on how I believed the Bible when it said that I was made in the image and likeness of God.  I was thankful that I was “fearfully and wonderfully made” by my heavenly Father and that He had “formed and covered me in my mother’s womb.”  I worked for a time at a ministry in Texas called “Last Days Ministries,” which had a branch of the ministry called “Americans Against Abortion.”   I served in the print shop there, and one of the most popular tracts that we printed was called, “Children – Things We Throw Away.”  Later, when I became a pastor, I faithfully ordered bulletin inserts for “Sanctity of Life Sunday” and preached how as God is the giver of life, He alone decides when our lives should end.  I was a hospital and nursing home chaplain and served on the ethics committee of our local hospital, and often had to help the sick and suffering see that even their lives had great value and that to end their lives prematurely would be a tragedy.  Yet, none of this prepared me for that trip to my wife’s OB-GYN.

We were expecting our second child.  Our Rebekah Hope was 2 at the time, and we had waited 5 years for her to be born.  We went to our 20 week appointment and looked forward to seeing our little one on the ultrasound.  As the nurse midwife viewed the screen, I noticed that she didn’t respond to my wife’s jokes and that her face turned very pale.  She excused herself and ran out of the room.  A few minutes later, she returned with the doctor, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia who was always smiling and pleasant.  He, too, was serious and silent – until he worked up the courage to tell us the news.  They couldn’t find any kidneys in our baby.  As such, the amniotic fluid would not be replenished once it was used up.  Without amniotic fluid, the lungs wouldn’t develop, as the lungs are strengthened when the baby in the womb breathes that life-sustaining liquid in and breathes it out.  He immediately set up an appointment for us at the Ohio State Medical Center.

On our first appointment, we met with two doctors who both assumed we were coming in to set up a time to abort.  They were shocked to hear my wife, Leah, explain that she believed that the same God who gave her baby life could heal her baby, but that even if he didn’t, it was not her right to end a life that He had given.  They explained to her that the baby would probably be carried close to full term but would die soon after birth and that each time she felt the baby kick, she would be reminded that she was carrying a baby with a death sentence.  “Why go through the heartache?” they asked her.  “Why risk your own health?  Why not end it now and try again?”  They introduced us to a geneticist who would “test” fetuses in future pregnancies and could tell us when to abort until we could get one that was healthy.  My wife stood firm.  Over what seemed to be never-ending visits to many different doctors, the professionals realized that they couldn’t change my wife’s mind.  Her courage amazed me.  Her faith humbled me.  We soon became a “teaching” case because of this rare disease.  I looked forward to the hours of ultrasounds, realizing that seeing my daughter on the screen might be the only chance for me to get to know her.

Our little Christina Joy lived one hour after the delivery.  She peacefully stopped breathing in our arms not long after we heard the hospital sound system play the bells that celebrated the birth of a child.  We put her tiny casket in the trunk of our car and drove her ourselves to Wisconsin, where she was buried next to my own brother, who had also died in infancy.  Not knowing if we would be able to have more children, God has since blessed us with Victoria Grace and Maria Faith.  O, how I value their precious lives!  And how I value the courage of people like my wife, Leah, who have the faith and strength to live out their convictions and who stand up and let their voices be heard.

 

Compassion Fatigue

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23 ESV)

I first came upon the idea of “compassion fatigue” when I was working at a rescue mission.  Many times, those who begin serving the poor, marginalized, and wounded because of a true desire to help, after a time become cynical, suspicious, and hardened.  Sometimes dealing with difficult situations involves dealing with difficult people.  Not all those you deal with are difficult, but there are enough out there to make even the most caring grow cold.  Trying to help those truly needy means that others will take advantage of you.  It is easy to justify this “fatigue.”  After all, aren’t we told not to cast our “pearls before swine”?  Aren’t we to be “wise stewards” of our Lord’s resources?

The late Keith Green reminded us that the only way to never be taken advantage of is to never help anyone at all.  Daily, I try to ask the Lord to help my heart stay soft as I deal with people, or I fear I, too, could develop “compassion fatigue.”  And as I pray for my own heart, I am reminded that my compassionate Lord never grows tired of me.

I don’t deserve God’s grace.  When I ask for His help, it is sometimes because I got into trouble because of things I did wrong.  Maybe I didn’t act wisely.  Perhaps I made a serious mistake.  Possibly I am suffering because I sinned against the very God I am asking for rescue.  Yet He hears my cry and redeems.  I don’t receive His aid because I deserve it.  I receive it because He is longsuffering, good, kind, and merciful.

Is it a good (or even spiritual) thing to refuse to help people because they have proven they are not worthy of help?  I can hear the thoughts of some as they read these words.  “We need to be careful to give people what they need, not just what they want or are asking for.”  “If I give this person money, they will spend it on drugs.”  “Maybe this person needs to suffer the consequences of their poor choices so that they learn a lesson.”  These things can be true, and remind us that we need to help wisely.  We need to help them in a way that truly helps them.  Yet, we need to help them – not give up because we may possibly be taken advantage of.

There is even another level to this.  Let’s say that someone is trying to take advantage of you.  Let’s say they will spend what you give them on drugs.  Maybe they are hopelessly addicted because of poor choices and sin.  Do we then not help them?  Do we let them starve?

What if our judgment about them is wrong?  What if like Job’s friends, we see their suffering through the lens of our own faulty experience?  What if they are actually suffering because they are more righteous than we are?

As a pastor, I observed this problem in the church.  Often those who are needy are “put up with” impatiently by the people of God.  Sometimes needy people are helped for a time, but when they don’t experience “instant sanctification” those who are helping grow weary.  When helpers grow weary it is easy to grow distant.  They don’t make phone calls as often to check up on their “friend.”  After a while, the phone calls stop as they focus instead on people and projects that yield quicker results.  We are rightly told to focus on our strengths and not just our weaknesses if we are to accomplish more for God.  Doesn’t this also mean that we should focus on people experiencing success rather than failure?  After all, needy people drain us and take up all our time, and when we share their stories during testimony time or in our latest newsletter, it is not very impressive.  So, we ignore and then forget those who are needy.  And they silently stop attending our churches, and no one even notices.

Similarly, lately I have been contacted by pastors who were in the licensing/ordination process in various denominations.  Because they were dealing with personal or church-related problems, or even when they were faithful but were not experiencing impressive results, their mentors and leaders shifted focus to those charismatic, type-A pastors who were seen as being quite successful.  My now ex-pastor friends stopped receiving phone calls from their mentors.  They faded into the woodwork and seemingly disappeared.  And no one in their denomination/association even noticed them disappear.

I often fail God.  I often live Romans 7: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”  And what does God do?  Every morning, after I failed the day previously, He reminds me of Romans 8: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Why does He do this?  It is because Lamentations is true: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”  Should I not extend this same undeserved compassion that I received from God to others?

 

Envy

Rob Reimer, in his wonderful book, Soul Care, writes, “Envy starts with the question, ‘What about me?’ and ends with the accusation, ‘God isn’t fair.'”

Do you struggle with this self-centered question that then leads to the ultimate false accusation?  Note how envy is completely selfish.  It is all about what you think you deserve and how unfair God is to you because you feel He should give you more (or at least “different”).  You look at how God is blessing others and you think you deserve better than they are receiving.

Of course, the key to being set free from envy is to understand God’s amazing grace.  Grace is God’s “unmerited favor.”  It is when He doesn’t give you what you deserve (separation from Himself because of your sin), but instead lavishes upon you blessings you would never deserve (life forever with Him).  This is the Christian gospel – the God of this universe who should punish all of us because of our rebellion and sin, instead becomes a man like us to live the perfect life we could never live and die the death we deserved to die.  “For our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV

When we truly understand what we deserve, and what God offers instead (based on what Jesus has done for us), envy disappears.  We no longer demand justice from God.  Instead, we thank Him that He doesn’t give us what we deserve.

The Scriptures tell us a lot about envy:

A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.  Proverbs 14:30 ESV.  How many of you have experienced this?

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant…  1 Corinthians 13:4 ESV.  Note how this passage about God’s self-giving love implies that envy is anything but self-giving.

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.  Galatians 5:19-23 ESV.  Again, the life of selfish men is contrasted with the life of God, which is completely self-giving.  Which category is “envy” in?

Here are a few tips to help you deal with envy:

  1. Be thankful! Always be thankful to God.  Express your thanksgiving aloud.  Thank Him for all He does for you.
  2. Be thankful – for the things you see in other’s lives that make you envious. Thank God, again aloud, for how He is blessing them.
  3. Pray for more of God’s blessings to be given to those you are envious of. If we are to pray for enemies, and bless those who persecute us, certainly we can bless those we are envious of.  In our own selfishness we struggle with this, but as we are filled by the Spirit, His fruit and His life will enable us to be and do what we could never be and do on our own.

Figs

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. 

As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”   Mark 11:12‭-‬14‭, ‬20‭-‬22 ESV

Earlier, we explored the story of Jesus cleansing the temple during the “passion week.”  An interesting story story takes place before and after that account.  It takes place on the mountain ridge road overseeing the Kidron Valley, which Jesus  walked many times that last week as He entered Jerusalem during the day but stayed on mountain at night.  In addition to the Mount of Olives, this ridge was also home to two villages.  Bethany was the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  Bethphage was very close to Bethany.  Interestingly, both of these villages mean “house of figs.”  Bethany refers to figs that are ready to eat.  Bethphage refers to figs that are not yet ripe.

As Jesus was walking from Bethany into Jerusalem on the Monday after “Palm Sunday,” He became hungry and noticed a fig tree.  He saw that it had leaves, but found no fruit.  Even though Mark explains, “it was not the season for figs,” Jesus curses the tree by saying, “May no one ever eat from you again.”  

On the next day, Jesus and His disciples again passed by that tree.  The disciples noticed that the tree was “withered away to its roots.”  Did Jesus unfairly judge the tree?  Did  He in anger kill the tree because He was hungry?

This story makes sense when we understand that fig trees in this part of the world begin to have early, somewhat smaller figs that would grow from the previous year’s sprouts each spring.  These early figs and leaves would fall off, giving way to another set of leaves and figs, which would come in abundance (usually after August) and would then be harvested.  The smaller figs were not much good for harvest, but were sometimes used to give the poor some sustenance as they traveled.  This tree had its spring leaves suggesting it had these early figs, but was fruitless.  Jesus cursed the tree for its hypocrisy.  It looked like it was fruitful, but was not. 

The fig tree in the Scriptures was often a symbol for Israel.  During Jesus’ day the Jewish people claimed to be living for God, but in fact were living lives of hypocrisy.  Their lives bore no spiritual fruit, even though they “looked good” on the outside.  Luke tells us that at this same time, Jesus wept over the people of Jerusalem, mourning their lack of spiritual life and prophesying about​ their upcoming destruction. 

I pray that my own life is not all leaves but no fruit!  May we not be hypocrites, but bear fruit for God’s glory.