Archive | January 2022

How is Your Foundation?

The story is told of a father teaching his son about what a Christian should be—brave as the apostles facing death, honest for Jesus said that the truth will set us free, loving as Jesus commands us to be, and full of joy and hope.  When the lesson was over, the father got a stab that he never forgot.  His son asked him, “Dad, have I ever met one of these Christians?”

G.K. Chesterton observed, “Christianity has not so much been tried and found wanting, as it has been found difficult and left untried.”

From a Biblical perspective, faith is not so much a set of beliefs or doctrinal affirmation, as it is a way in which we live.  Faith is about putting trust into action.    

Jesus tells a parable about two people who listen to his words.  One person hears Jesus’ words “and acts on them.”  Jesus likens this person to a house that is built upon a rock foundation.  When storms come along and pummel this house, its foundation on rock enables the house to withstand the storm.  A second person also hears Jesus’ words but “does not act” on them.  Jesus likens this person to a house that is built on “ground without a foundation.”  When storms come along, this house comes crashing down.

Putting trust into action establishes a solid foundation for our lives.  Not putting Christ’s words into action is like living in a house that has no foundation.  Eventually such a life will come crashing down.  

Tony Evans shares, “There was a man who noticed some cracks on his living room wall, so he called a painter to repair and cover the cracks.  It looked like the painter fixed the problem, but a few weeks later the cracks reappeared.  The man called the painter back, and he once again covered the cracks with putty and paint.  The problem looked like it had been fixed.  However, in several more weeks the cracks came back, and this time they brought their friends.  So the man called the painter again.  Seeing even more cracks than he had seen before, the painter said, ‘Sir, I can’t help you because you don’t have a problem with cracks.’

“The frustrated homeowner said, ‘Can’t you see my living room wall?  Of course I have a problem with cracks!’

“But the painter replied, ‘Your problem isn’t the cracks on the wall.  Your problem is that you have a shifting foundation.  The cracks you see on your wall are symptoms of a deeper issue: the foundation of your house is moving.  If you want to fix the cracks, you have to fix your foundation.  But until you fix the foundation, you will forever be doing patchwork.’”    

The person who puts faith into action is like a house with a solid foundation.  The person who does not act upon Jesus’ words is like a house without a foundation. 

Consider the evidence of Jack Whittaker’s life: When Jack was awarded a lump-sum lottery payment of $170.5 million in cash in 2002, he promised to share his good fortune with the church and with the poor.  Indeed, he created a charity to help people find jobs, buy food or get an education, and he gave money to improve a Little League Park and to buy playground equipment, and he split $7 million between three churches.  But in 2003, a briefcase containing $545,000 in cash was stolen from Whittaker’s car while he was in a strip club.  After that, Whittaker was arrested twice for drunken driving, pleaded no contest to charges he attacked a bar manager, and was accused in two lawsuits for causing trouble at a nightclub and at a racetrack.  Because of the money Jack lost at strip clubs, in gambling, and through legal fees, his charity foundation had to close.  $170.5 million was not an adequate foundation to keep Jack’s life from crashing down. 

On the other hand, consider the evidence of Judith Briles’ life.  She shares that in 1981 her family “‘had it all,’ a beautiful home in an exclusive section of northern California, two expensive cars, investments, private schooling for our children, a vacation condo at Lake Tahoe, respect in our community and many friends.  Life couldn’t be better—or so we thought.”  But a partner’s drug addiction and embezzlement led to the loss of her home, the condo, both cars, jewelry, antiques, artwork, the business, private schooling, investments and savings.  Judith ended up in the hospital for cancer surgery, and they lost their 19-year-old son Frank in a drowning accident.  But Judith shares, “Frank’s death quickly revealed what was important and what was not.  Family was.  Friends were.  Faith was.  God was.  Money was not.”  As Judith acted upon her faith, she found that her life was built on a foundation that could withstand the storms. 

The person who does not act upon Jesus’ words is like a house without a foundation.  The person who puts faith into action is like a house with a solid foundation. 

A Song of Agony & Trust

It hurts to be misunderstood.  It hurts to be falsely accused.  It hurts to have our faults and failures exaggerated by others.  It hurts to be conspired against by others.

In agony of soul, David writes in Psalm 31:9-13: “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also.  For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.  I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.  I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.  For I hear the whispering of many—terror all around!—as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.”

For more than 2000 years, the title of Psalm 31 has included the instruction, “For the leader” or “For the chief musician,” indicating that the psalm was used regularly as part of the worship service.  When I choose hymns for Sunday morning worship services, I generally pick hymns that I hope will fill people’s souls with hope and joy and confidence in God.  I don’t tend to pick hymns in which the hymnist whines about the struggles in his or her life because I fear that I will ruin people’s worship experience if I draw their attention to problems that they may struggle with as well.  But for more than 20 centuries, Jewish worship has seen no problem with inviting worshipers to sing their agony as well as their praise.  Indeed, Charles Spurgeon points out about Psalm 31, “The dedication to the chief musician proves that this song of mingled measures and alternate strains of grief and woe was intended for public singing, and thus a deathblow is given to the notion that nothing but praise should be sung.”

In Psalm 31, along with expressing his agony David casts his hope on God.  Verses 1-2 declare, “In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.  Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily.  Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.”

While David was experiencing spears of gossip and disdain flung at him, and while his strength was failing because of his misery (verse 10), David felt the need for divine protection.  He felt the need for God’s shelter.

Ancient cities protected their citizens by building large surrounding walls, creating a fortress that kept enemies and chaos out, and that kept peace and security within.  That’s what David needed, and he hoped that God would provide it, that God himself would be a protective wall around him, that God would establish within David the peace and security he longed for.

One writer points out, “Building a secure ancient fortress was not an overnight process.  It happened day by day, brick by brick.”  We should not imagine that one prayer will create in our soul a sense of God’s fortress surrounding us.  One prayer is one brick.  Add to that brick another prayer, and another, and another.  Keep coming to God, pouring out your heart to him.  Keep turning to God’s Word, finding more and more comfort and hope and strength in it.  Keep coming to worship.  Keep that fortress growing so that God’s peace and security will grow within.

Jesus invites us to ‘bug’ him

“Please, God,” a man prayed, “you know me.  I’m always praying to you, yet I have had nothing but bad fortune, misery and despair in my life.  Look at the butcher next door.  He’s never lifted up a single prayer, and he has nothing but prosperity, health and joy.  How come a believer like myself is always struggling while he is always doing well?”

A voice from heaven boomed, “Because the butcher doesn’t bug me!  That’s why!”

I must confess that for some time that was close to my perspective.  I imagined that God had more important things to pay attention to than to my prayers.  I assumed that if I prayed for something too often I was bothering God.  Why would the One who holds together the universe and who watches over the affairs of nations take an interest in my piddly requests? 

But when I read Jesus’ parables and analogies in Luke 11:5-13, I am encouraged to adopt a different perspective: Jesus tells a parable about one of us needing three loaves of bread late one night.  We wake up a friend who lives nearby, looking for help, but our friend tells us not to bother him (as I assumed God would say to me).  However, in the parable, if we keep asking, the friend will eventually give us the loaves we are asking for.  The aim of the parable is not to paint a picture of God as a grumpy neighbor who has to be bugged into granting our requests.  The point of the parable is that God invites us to make our requests to God as frequently as we wish.  The message Jesus wants to get across to us here is that God does not get tired of our prayers.

Many Scriptures make this point clearly.  For example: “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6); “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17); “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

If you still find yourself suspecting that God might get tired of our prayers and of us, consider what Jesus says in Luke 11:11-13: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?  Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”    

The point Jesus makes here is that we, who are not 100% good and loving, still do our best to give what is good to our children, so we can be certain that our heavenly Father—who is 100% good and loving—can be counted on to give his good to us.  Most significantly, God can be counted on to give himself to us. 

E. Stanley Jones remarks, “The first thing in prayer is to get God.  If you get him, everything else follows.  Allow God to get at you, to invade you, to take possession of you.  He then pours his very prayers through you.  They are his prayers—God-inspired, and hence, God answered.  Prayer’s like the fastening of the cup to the wounded side of a pine tree to allow the resin to pour into it.  You are now nestling up into the side of God—the wounded side, if you will—and you allow his grace to fill you up.  You are taking in the very life of God.” 

The primary reason why Jesus wants us to keep praying–to ‘bug’ him with our prayers–is because God wants to keep pouring himself into us. 

God’s Love Outlasts His Anger

I am moved by the words of Psalm 30:4-5: “Sing praise to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.  For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime.  Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

The psalm speaks of God’s anger, but it does so with a sharp comparison to God’s love: God’s anger is “but for a moment;” God’s love and favor are “for a lifetime.”

We truly only understand God’s anger by understanding God’s love.  In King’s Cross, Timothy Keller writes, “You may say, ‘I don’t like the idea of the wrath of God.  I want a God of love.’  The problem is that if you want a loving God, you have to have an angry God.  Please think about it.  Loving people can get angry, not in spite of their love but because of it.  In fact, the more closely and deeply you love people in your life, the angrier you can get.  Have you noticed that?  When you see people who are harmed or abused, you get mad…. Your senses of love and justice are activated together, not in opposition to each other.  If you see people destroying themselves or destroying other people and you don’t get mad, it’s because you don’t care.  You’re too absorbed in yourself, too cynical, too hard.  The more loving you are, the more ferociously angry you will be at whatever harms your beloved.  And the greater the harm, the more resolute your opposition will be.

“When we think of God’s wrath, we usually think of God’s justice, and that is right.  Those who care about justice get angry when they see justice being trampled upon, and we should expect a perfectly just God to do the same.  But we don’t ponder how much his anger is also a function of his love and goodness.  The Bible tells us that God loves everything he has made.  That’s one of the reasons he’s angry at what’s going on in his creation; he is angry at anything or anyone that is destroying the people and world he loves.  His capacity for love is so much greater than ours—and the cumulative extent of evil in the world is so vast—that the word wrath doesn’t really do justice to how God rightly feels when he looks at the world.  So it makes no sense to say, ‘I don’t want a wrathful God, I want a loving God.’  If God is loving and good, he must be angry at evil—angry enough to do something about it.” (p. 176-177)

God’s anger is an act of love.  As an act of love, it is temporary.  When anger completes its work of discipline and restoration it is finished.  What is permanent is God’s love.  God’s favor toward us will continue throughout our lifetime.  What we can count on through the whole span of our lives and into heaven is the certainty and permanence of God’s love for us!

Alexander Whyte expresses it well: “The love of Christ has no border; it has no shore; it has no bottom.  The love Christ is boundless; it is bottomless; it is infinite; it is divine…. We shall come to the shore, we shall strike the bottom of every other love; but never of the love of Christ!  You will never come to the length of it, or to the breadth of it, or to the depth of it, or to the height of it.  To all eternity, the love of Christ to you will be new!”

For now: Toleration

There are hypocrites in the church, and we must decide what to do about them.

Admittedly, everyone in the church is “a sinner saved by grace.”  We need to be in church because church is a hospital for sinners; we need the healing ministry of such a hospital.

But the issue with hypocrisy goes further.  Hypocrisy is a poison to Christian fellowship.  It is a cancer to Christian witness.  It brings dishonor to the name of Christ. 

We have two options: We can make it our task to get rid of all hypocrites from the church, or we can tolerate them for now. 

In addressing these options, Jesus told a parable about a farmer who sowed good seed into his field, but in the night an enemy came and sowed bearded darnel (otherwise referred to a bastard wheat).  In the early stages of development the bastard wheat looks so much like the real thing that it is impossible to tell them apart.  By the time they can be distinguished the roots of one have become so entwined with the other that to pull out the bearded darnel would also tear out the good wheat.  But the bearded darnel cannot be ignored and left among the wheat after harvest, for the bearded darnel is slightly poisonous, with a bitter and unpleasant taste, causing dizziness and sickness.    

The farmer has two options: Make a pure field by tearing out the bastard wheat, though doing so will destroy much of the good wheat, or tolerate the bearded darnel amidst the good wheat for now, waiting until harvest to separate them. 

Jesus expresses his recommendation clearly: “Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn” (Matthew 13:30). 

The history of the Christian church reveals a tendency to try to come up with a pure church by pulling up all whom we think might be impure.  Thus we are left with many thousands of denominations around the world, many more fragmented and damaged local churches, and many more individuals who have been ripped away from church and disillusioned with faith.  Our compulsion to make pure churches brings about great destruction. 

Many years ago (in May of 1987), National Geographic included a feature about the arctic wolf.  Author L. David Mech described how a seven-member pack had targeted several musk-oxen calves who were guarded by eleven adults.  As the wolves approached their quarry, the musk-oxen bunched in an impenetrable semicircle, their deadly rear hooves facing out, with the calves shelter safely in the center.  But a single ox broke rank, and the herd scattered into nervous little groups.  A skirmish ensued, and the adults eventually fled in panic, leaving the calves to the clutches of the wolves.  Not a single calf survived. 

When the church divides, the most vulnerable are ravaged by the evil one.

There will come a time when it will be essential for hypocrites to be separated from God’s true children—but now is not the time.  If we try to do it now, we cause too much damage.  For now, we need to learn how to tolerate one another and trust God to sort out, at the right time, whatever needs to be sorted out. 

For now, we need to recognize that we need one another more than we need stainless purity in the church.  Rachel Held Evans summarizes her book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church with this discovery: “I’m not exactly sure how all this works, but I think, ultimately, it means I can’t be a Christian on my own.  Like it or not, following Jesus is a group activity, something we’re supposed to do together.  We might not always do it within the walls of church or even in an organized religion, but if we are to go about making disciples, confessing our sins, breaking bread, paying attention, and preaching the Word, we’re going to need one another.  We’re going to need each other’s help” (p. 255).

Psalm 29: The Promise of Peace

Psalm 29 speaks repeatedly of the power of God’s voice:

Verse 4: “The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.”

Verse 5: “The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars.”

Verse 7: “The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.”

Verse 8: “The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.”

Verse 9: “The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare.”

The message proclaimed in these verses is that the God we call out to in our prayers is all powerful!  All of creation is subservient to his voice!

The psalm concludes with a statement and a blessing: “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.  May the Lord give strength to his people!  May the Lord bless his people with peace!”

Even in the midst of the turmoil of life, peace can settle in our souls when we take to heart that God Almighty sits on the throne.

Catherine Marshall told a parable about peace: Once there was a king who offered a reward to the artist who could paint a picture with the best depiction of peace.  After all the paintings were submitted, it came to a decision between two.  One was the painting of a calm lake which perfectly mirrored peaceful towering mountains surrounding the lake.  Overhead was a blue sky with fluffy white clouds.  All who looked at this painting saw in it a perfect depiction of peace.  The other painting also contained mountains, but these mountains were rugged and bare.  Overhead was an angry sky, with rain falling and lightning flashing.  Down the side of the mountain roared a waterfall.  Most observers were struck by the turbulence in the painting.  But when the king looked closely, he saw behind the waterfall a tiny bush growing in a crack in the rock.  In the bush a mother bird had built her nest, and she sat upon her nest in perfect peace.  The king decided to give the reward to the artist of the second painting, explaining, “Peace does not necessarily have to do with being in a place where there is no noise or trouble.  Peace can come in the midst of those things if there is a calmness in one’s heart.”

Such is the assurance we find in Psalm 29: “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.  May the Lord give strength to his people!  May the Lord bless his people with peace!”

Glimpses of the Kingdom of God

Martin Luther sang, “A mighty Fortress is our God,” but Jesus declared, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed” (Matthew 13:31).  Martin Luther compared the kingdom of God to “a bulwark never failing,” but Jesus compared God’s kingdom to “yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour” (Matthew 13:33). 

We long for the assurance that God’s kingdom is great, powerful and impenetrable—a “fortress” or “bulwark.”  But Jesus speaks of God’s kingdom entering our world in small and unassuming ways.  It comes like a mustard seed—the smallest seed known to the people of Palestine at the time.  It comes like yeast or leaven which a woman mixed into a batch of flour. 

The kingdom of God entered our world in the unassuming form of a baby in a manger, then in the unassuming form of a carpenter’s son from Nazareth.  It continued in the world through a small and unassuming band of disciples who initially hid away in fear following Jesus’ crucifixion.  It continues on even today in small and unassuming ways in and through common, ordinary people like you and me.

Though the kingdom of God begins in small and unassuming ways, it does not remain small.  The kingdom becomes like a tree that provides shelter for the “birds of the air.”  It brings nourishment and flavor to those who are hungry.  As Thomas G. Long puts it, “One cannot see the kingdom pervading the world, but when its covert fermentation is accomplished, the bland flour of the world will have been transformed into the joyous bread of life.” 

As people who are taught by Jesus to pray, “Thy kingdom come,” and who seek to be faithful followers of the King of kings, we too are part of the small and unassuming ways in which God is establishing his kingdom and making a difference for the good in the world around us.  William Willimon shares an example: 

“Philip Haille wrote of the little village of Le Chambon in France, a town whose people, unlike others in France, hid their Jews from the Nazis.  Haille went there, wondering what sort of courageous, ethical heroes could risk all to do such extraordinary good.  He interviewed people in the village and was overwhelmed by their ordinariness.  They weren’t heroes or smart, discerning people.  Haille decided that the one factor that united them was their attendance, Sunday after Sunday, at their little church, where they heard the sermons of Pastor Trochme.  Over time, they became by habit people who just knew what to do and did it.  When it came time for them to be courageous, the day the Nazis came to town, they quietly did what was right.  One old woman, who faked a heart attack when the Nazis came to search her house, later said, ‘Pastor always taught us that there comes a time in every life when a person is asked to do something for Jesus.  When our time came, we knew what to do.’”

That was the kingdom of God providing shelter for those in need.

In their book Fearfully & Wonderfully Made, Philip Yancey and Dr. Paul Brand add further perspective: “

“After World War II, German students volunteered to help rebuild a cathedral in England, one of many casualties of the Luftwaffe bombing.  As the work progressed, debate broke out on how to best restore a large statue of Jesus with His arms outstretched and bearing the familiar inscription, ‘Come unto Me.’  Careful patching could repair all damage to the statue except for Christ’s hands, which had been destroyed by bomb fragments.  Should they attempt the delicate task of reshaping those hands?  Finally the workers reached a decision that still stands today.  The statue of Jesus has no hands, and the inscription now reads, ‘Christ has no hands but ours.’”

We are the hands of Christ in the world today.  Jesus would have us be the small and unassuming spreading of the kingdom of God.