Thursday, July 9, 2009

Middle East Politics

We've stayed this week in the Palestinian controlled East Jerusalem. A street divides Jewish controlled areas from Arab ones. A wall separates the West Bank and the Gaza Strip from the rest of Israel. Rarely do you find a Jew even a block into the Arab zone and vice-versa. It just isn't done. Thankfully, as an American I felt perfectly safe. No one cares about me - their hatred and bitterness are reserved for each other.
I came to Israel a strong believer in Israel's right to exist as a safe and secure state in the promised land. That hasn't waned. It's not only biblical, but the hand of the Lord has been visibly at work protecting and expanding Israeli land through each of the three wars. The holocaust museum presents a compelling case for the world making a place for the people whose suffering failed to move us in WWII.
I saw the poverty of the refugee camps where well over a million Palestinians have been forced to live. I watched soldiers force a humiliated and frustrated Moslim mother and her young children off a bus because something was wrong with her identity card. It doesn't take a lot of insight to understand the anger of losing land families have lived on for generations.
The problem is as complex as is the depth of the mutual hatred and mistrust. What little I have seen convinces me that man will never solve this. Not really. He may impose a lid - but when the pressure gets to great, or the hold on the lid slips, it will always blow.
Only God can solve this as He moves in hearts and changes lives. The ministry that hosted us has been raised up by the Lord to take food and the gospel to the Palestinian refugees of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and others in east Jerusalem. They gave us first hand accounts of Palestinian Muslims having dreams and visions of Jesus that lead them to Christ. One man dreamed that Jesus no longer wanted him to pray on his Muslim rug any more, but on the rug Jesus gave him. A woman dreamed of Jesus again and again closing the Koran every time she opened it, handing her a Bible to read instead.
Politics can separate and military force can intimidate. But neither can ever change the human heart. Jews and Arabs, both learning to love each other with the love of the Lord, is the only real answer this crisis will ever find.


Earlier this week, I walked the Via Dolorosa. The next day, I touched the spot in the Bethlehem cave where many believe Jesus was born. Yesterday, I sat with my feet in Elijah's Springs, within 100 yards of the ruins of the ancient walls of Jericho. Today, I looked upon what I'm convinced is Golgotha and about 200 feet away entered what perfectly fits the biblical description of the empty tomb. (We won't dwell on the fact that the actual location of the cross is covered over with the asphalt of a Palestani bus station parking lot).
It was all much more than a little surreal. I actually stood in what in all likelihood is the exact spot where Peter stood when he burst into the empty tomb on Easter morning. Outside, I stood where I would have heard the Risen Lord's first word 'Mary' - had only I been there two millenium ago (I could have even gotten to her first and said, 'Psst you might want to look a little more closely at the One over there. Check out His eyes. I believe you'll feel better.)
It all was suddenly very real. I'm not one who believes we're any nearer to God in Jerusalem than in Athens. But, there's no denying I felt several worlds away from Lumpkin Street.
As I sat there trying to take it all in, the thought occurred to me that I don't need to come to Jerusalem to encounter the Lord Jesus. He is, after all, Risen. He is alive and through His Spirit has been poured out for all people of every place. Jesus can be encountered by anyone, anywhere, whose heart burns to know the living God.
I doubt I will ever forget what I experienced this morning. But I hope I take full advantage of the promise He reminded me of - no matter where I am, He will never be further from me than He was this morning in the tomb when I stood on one of the world's holiest spots.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

When God Leaves Us In The Dark

John places the account early in Jesus' ministry. Angered over the temple courts having been filled with money changers and sacrificial animals, Jesus cracked the whip and cleansed His Father's house. Not surprisingly, those in charge ask for a sign. "Do something that will show us that you have the authority to do what you just did."
Jesus invited them to destroy the same temple He had just cleansed, and He would rebuild it in three days. The temple had taken 46 years to build. How could anyone rebuild it in 3 days? Friend and foe alike were equally in the dark. John says that it was years later, only after Jesus was raised from the dead, that His disciples understood what He had meant.
I was struck by how willing the Lord was to leave His disciples in the dark. We approach the Lord as if we should always understand everything He is doing. And yet, Jesus was often content to leave even His closest friends confused and bewildered.
It shouldn't surprise us when we have no clue as to what God is doing or why He is allowing things to unfold as they are. God will periodically give all of us times when we can only walk by faith, when the best we can do is trust that He knows what He's doing.
After Jesus had risen, John and the other disciples finally understood. In our lives too, all things will one day make sense. But until then we don't need to have all of our questions answered. We only need to trust that He knows what He is doing, that all of His ways are perfect, and that one day we will stand amazed at the completeness of His faithfulness.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Some Things Never Change

Brokenness began with but a simple command, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die." There was nothing to misunderstand. God had spoken in black and white, in a time when there were no shades of gray.

But then came the seduction. The fruit was alluring. The serpent assured they wouldn’t die. And who wouldn’t want to be like God? Usually we chalk it up to a simple case of disobedience. God told them one thing, they did another. But more than a sin of rebellion, it may have most essentially been an issue of unbelief. In the light of all that seduced them, they lost their trust. In that moment when they reached out to grasp the forbidden fruit, they no longer believed God knew best and had their best interests at heart.

God has been clear on many things; sex is His gift to the marriage covenant; forgiveness must never be withheld; pornography will never satisfy (because it hasn't the capacity to); our lives are not measured by what we have or by how high we climb (these can’t satisfy either). There's an old saying, 'Curiosity killed the cat.' The cat just had to know for himself. He couldn't trust that what had been forbidden was done so for his own good. There are times when the root of sin is old fashioned rebellion. At other times, sin's origin lies in unbelief; we stop trusting God.

It’s interesting to me that it was when Abraham believed the Lord, righteousness was imparted. God brought things full circle. Though the context was completely different, the Lord offered Abraham the same essential choice He did Adam and Eve, ‘Will you trust Me?’ Trust abandoned first broke the relationship. Trust embraced renewed it.

Still today God has made trust the catalyst for our relationship with Him. Ro11 makes clear faith grafts in, unbelief cuts off. Faith is what activates Grace. It’s what is credited to us as righteousness. Not just an idle belief in a creed. But, a trust that actually inspires one to embrace Jesus as Savior and Lord; to obey, if only because God says so; to leave behind everything the world values to pursue what only God could have birthed in the heart. Some things never change.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Worship's Rhythm

Karl Barth makes the point that before the fall, man was in the naïve state of not fully realizing the difference between himself and God. The Lord walked in the garden in the cool of the day. Adam and Eve didn't behold God in His Glory, but in human likeness. They may well have thought that God was even one of them, not unlike a human parent.

But after the fall, the chasm between man and God became fully evident. Fellowshipping was out. If God was to be encountered, it would be in such a way so as to inspire awe; as when the Lord thundered from Mt. Sinai, Elijah cowered in the cleft of the rock, and Isaiah cried openly of his sinfulness upon seeing a vision of but the train of the Lord’s robe.

Rev21 points to the ultimate restoration of the Edenic Paradise. There will be no more sin or pain or death – this entire order will pass away. But, one thing that will not be restored will be man’s original naiveté. In the garden, Adam and Eve fellowshipped with the Lord. In eternity, more than fellowship, we will worship the Lord in all of His Glory.

There’s always a tension between God revealing Himself in intimacy (as in the garden) and in Glory (as in Isaiah's vision). Jesus brings the two together. He calls us friends, inviting us to walk, eat, and follow as if he were but a kindly rabbi. All the while, He is the Creator and Sustainer of all that is, moment by moment holding all of creation together.

In our finiteness, we cannot always focus completely on all things. Consequently, we tend to emphasize one aspect of the Lord at the expense of the other. Many focus on intimacy, He is the one true Lover of their souls. Others focus on His Glory, He is the One who was with God in the beginning. On the Mount of Transfiguration, the two were manifest together. Peter, John and James beheld His Glory as a radiant light shone forth. All thoughts of Jesus as the familiar Friend they had joked with fled as they fell to the ground in awe and wonder. Coming down from the mount, He was the One who would one day soon wash their feet.

My sense is the Lord is calling us to a healthy balance, a rhythmical movement between the two poles. There are moments God would have us be in awe of His Glory. At other times, He invites us to crawl into His lap to feel Abba’s embrace. Always when we are most aware of the one, there is to be an accompanying understanding of the other.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The 'So What?' of Grace

Years ago, when I was sharing with my wife some theological nuance I had learned that day in seminary, she looked at me and said, “So what? I’ve got three children, two of whom are in diapers. If your theology can’t help me on Tuesday morning when I’m changing diapers while you’re off at seminary, then I don’t have any use for it."

I tire of theology for theology’s sake. Deep down I want to please God and the older I get the more convinced I am that God is far more pleased with people who live well than with correct theology. He keeps reminding me of Paul’s words in 1Co13:2, “…if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

So what do we do with the theological treatise we know as the first 11 chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans? (Which I’m spending the first part of the summer studying). What’s the relevance of Paul’s concept of Grace (his central tenet)? How does it impact the one changing diapers on a Tuesday morning?

When it comes to Grace, Paul is trying to say essentially two things. First, by his own definition, Grace is God doing what only God can do in order to make/declare people to be righteous. Grace is God giving us right standing before Him; making people whole and free; doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Which is what distinguishes Grace from works and from anything we might do to try to accomplish these things for ourselves. Paul’s primary premise is that righteousness has to be something God accomplishes and imparts.

Secondly, if Grace is God doing for us what we cannot, then Grace is received when we come to the end of ourselves. We experience Grace when we abandon any effort to somehow make ourselves acceptable to God; when we confess our helplessness and ask Him to do for us what we have come to realize we can never do for ourselves.

This is where Paul most completely echoes the Lord Jesus. Jesus was adamant that it was the poor in spirit, the one who beats his chest and cries out ‘Lord, have mercy on me a sinner,’ the repentant prodigal who has rehearsed his confession of unworthiness - who experience mercy and forgiveness.

Often God will orchestrate our lives for the express purpose of bringing us to the end of ourselves. A bankruptcy, a personal failure, a marriage in crisis, a ministry that seems to be going nowhere, all can be used by God to bring us to our own “Bruce Almighty moment.” (Jim Carrey kneeling in the street, crying out to God.) Which means that blessing a cash strapped seminary couple with three children, two in diapers, may have purposes beyond simply the building of the Kingdom. It could be that through all of that they abandon all confidence of handling things themselves, and for the first time cry out in a sustained dependence on God, opening themselves up to the 'much more' of God.

Those who experience God do in them the most, have always somehow, someway, first come to the place where they have abandoned all hope of ever doing those things for themselves. Which may be the most relevant ‘So what?’ of Grace.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Mary and Martha Revisited

"As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"
"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." Luke 10:38-41

Mary and Martha are often trivialized. Mary is portrayed as the one who seeks to be still, contemplating the Lord; Martha as the one who gets things done. As it often the case today, Martha resents Mary’s idleness.

Rather than focusing on Martha's complaint, listen instead to the Lord's response. “…you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.” Martha complained about the surface issue, the visible tension of the moment. But, Jesus addressed the heart.

Martha needed many things. There were many things that had to be just so, before she would allow herself to abandon her worry and upset. And even then she would have been anxious knowing how short lived are the moments when life’s circumstances favorably align.

"Lord, why am I not yet married? My spouse isn’t who I thought he was. Why won’t you help us get pregnant? My children are out of control, they have no heart for you or me. Why can’t I get a good job? I’m so tired of this run down house. We never have enough money. Why is everyone else’s ministry growing and larger than mine?"

Jesus said, “you are worried about many things, but only one thing is needed.” Anything beyond our reach or that can be lost isn’t absolutely necessary. We are Martha when our joy and peace are dependent upon a host of things that are not promised. That’s why we’re upset and afraid. The many things we’ve told ourselves we have to have, are either beyond or reach or only precariously within our grasp.
Janis Joplin sang, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." That doesn't mean we need to lose it all in order to be free. It simply voices the call to reduce our 'have to have' list to the one thing needed. At that moment, we will be truly free.