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Thursday, March 22, 2018

God's Perspective on Humanity

Part 1

Have you ever noticed how much some people are treated like they are royalty and more important than others?  Sometimes they have bodyguards assigned to protect them.  Sometimes they are moved to the front of the line.  Sometimes simply the way people talk to them gives the impression that they are very important, as the speakers become obsequious and overly polite.  

Usually, in our culture, the people treated this way are receive that treatment for one (or more) of about three reasons:  either they are famous, or they are wealthy, or they are in positions of power (which are also considered the measure of whether someone is “successful”).  These people receive special treatment while the homeless man at the curb is despised and devalued.  Sadly, whether or not either of these folks are people of good character, people of integrity, trustworthy and compassionate becomes irrelevant in these situations…their entire value of their worth as human beings. 

I will always remember something I read years ago when President Reagan was shot in the assassination attempt.  About the same time, the people who collect and dispose of the trash in Philadelphia were on strike.  The article pointed out that President Reagan had been shot, was lying in a hospital recuperating, and the government continued to carry out all the daily activities that it does…life went on.  But after a short time of striking by trash collectors (sanitation engineers they were called), the city of Philadelphia was shut down, as garbage piled up in the streets.  The article pointed out how it makes you rethink a bit about who REALLY IS important.

Similarly, during my studies of Jewish writings in Cincinnati, I ran across what I believe is a very profound insight about the story of Moses’s birth.  The studies I was doing at the time related to the way the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) sometimes made little comments without saying them outright, and pointed out one such comment in that story.  The story of Moses’s birth describes the suffering of the Jewish people, and the decree by Pharaoh that newborn Hebrew male babies were to be killed at birth.  (Interestingly enough, these days it is reported that just the opposite often happens in China, where the girls are killed or given up for adoption and the boys kept.)  But there were two Jewish midwives who chose to ignore the Pharaoh’s decree:  Shiphrah and Puah.  You can read the whole story in Exodus 1. 

The observation made by the writings I was studying was that this text quietly reveals GOD’S perspective of who is important and who is not in a very subtle and interesting way.  The insight can be demonstrated by a couple of simple questions.  

What, does the Bible tell us, was Pharaoh’s name?  

What were the names of the midwives?  

Scholars have debated for years which Pharaoh it was referred to by the scriptures, because the Bible never says his name…EVEN THOUGH EVERY EGYPTIAN AT THE TIME KNEW HIS NAME AND WOULD HAVE CONSIDERED HIM THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON IN THE LAND.  

But the names of the midwives, who would have been virtually unknown in the land of Egypt at the time, has been preserved for thousands of years, because it was they, not Pharaoh, who were doing the things God believes honorable and important!

Well, this is going to have to be part one, because it would be too long if I continue.  I started this because there is a New Testament story that brings a similar parallel, and in reading it today, I learned something new I had never really noticed before.  So I will save it for next time, and today simply point out that just because nobody knows YOUR name, and no one treats YOU like you are an important person, while people of highly questionable character are treated like gods, does not determine the REAL value of who you are and what you do.  

God’s perspective that will last into eternity, and by which all people will be judged, is not the same as that of society.  

Remember, Jesus said, “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first,” and that “the greatest among you will be the one who serves.” 

To be continued….

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Facing Regrets


During this Lenten season, our church is focusing on the concept of reconciliation.  And as part of it, remembering passages such as 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 where the core description of Christ’s work is summed up in the concept of reconciliation. 

Yesterday, the passage for the day was Genesis 32, where Jacob is returning to his homeland, after being run out of his uncle’s land.  As Jacob heads home, he does so with a great deal of uncertainty, because he knows that his brother awaits him.  In fact, when he sends word ahead that he is coming, and then hears his brother is coming to meet him with 400 men, Jacob moves from uncertainty to absolute terror!  He is convinced that his brother is coming to destroy him.  Why does he believe that?  Because Jacob remembers how he had mistreated his brother, and he knows he deserves whatever his brother chooses to dish out.  Suddenly, prayer seems like a really good idea to Jacob!

After all those years of being away, when he hears that his brother is coming out to meet him, his first thought is to the selfish errors of his past.  It is clear that those memories have been haunting Jacob.  During all the time he was helping his uncle Laban, and his uncle was cheating him, I suspect many a day Jacob thought to himself that had he only not done his brother wrong, then Jacob could have been at home with his dad, working in his homeland, working with his own herds there.  But he remembered what he had done that got him into the situation, and as his uncle Laban tricked and cheated Jacob, Jacob began to understand what it feels like to be on the receiving end of deception such as he had perpetrated on his brother. 

In the story, Jacob flees Laban, and heads home, but heads toward an uncertain greeting.  Jacob realizes now the mess he has created, but he still heads toward home.  He is told that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men, but instead of running away, he continues to head home, to head directly toward the individual he has wronged and all the consequences of his past actions.  Jacob had lots of regrets, but instead of ignoring them, or running away from them, he realized that he needed to reconcile himself to his past, and to the consequences of his actions.  He had to face the past head on.  So although he must certainly have been tempted to run the other way, he doesn’t.  He is ready to deal with his past, to take responsibility for his actions, to eat a little humble pie, and to lay to rest the regrets that have troubled him for so many years.  And he chooses to do those things whether or not his brother is willing to forgive him….because he is not doing it for his brother’s sake, he is doing it for his own peace of mind, and for the sake of his relationship with God.

Many people I have talked to can name some things they wish they had done differently, or things that they regret in their past.  Some of those people have let those regrets drag them down and keep them discouraged.  Divorced people often express regrets in terms of whether they had worked hard enough at their marriage, or why they hadn’t listened to good advice and not married that person in the first place, or they regret that they didn’t end the marriage sooner and prevent all the years of heartache in a miserable relationship. 

You may have other regrets you live with.  I’d like to make a suggestion today.  As we discussed in worship this week, we can let our regrets weigh us down and fill us with sorrow for the past and fears for the future.  Or, we can choose, as Jacob did, to have the courage to face those regrets, take responsibility for the choices we made and the consequences of those choices, make what amends we can, but then instead of letting those regrets dominate our present, we let them inform our future to help us make better choices in the days ahead.

Life is not structured in such a way that we are given the chance to go back and redo most of the mistakes we make.  But it is structured so that we can learn from those mistakes, and grow into a better, wiser and healthier person as a result.  It takes courage to own up to your own shortcomings, and to go back to the people you have hurt to try to make things right, whether they are interested in hearing it or not.  But a little courage now can go a long way toward a peaceful conscience later.  

Don’t let yourself get dragged down in the swamp of regrets.  Instead, own up to what you have done that you now regret, make amends where you can, accept that you have screwed up just like everyone else, and then let God use those things to shape you into a better person, as he did for Jacob when he transformed him into Israel, the prince of God!

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Constructing Devotion


Life creates a lot of tumultuous times.  Divorce is certainly one of those, but it is clearly not the only one.  When something comes in life and turns your world upside down, you often find the reordering of life difficult and managing your schedule almost impossible.  Things that are important get shoved to the side as time and energy are in short supply.  One of the important things that can easily suffer neglect is our relationship with God, either by faltering church attendance, personal compromise in ethics, or when daily time with God in the scriptures and prayer is neglected.  

It is to the overcoming of the last one that I want to offer some suggestions.  These ideas have come out of communications with individuals actually struggling with these concerns, as well as my own experiences.  Perhaps some of the ideas may be helpful in developing your own relationship with God.

1)  Don't try to do your prayer/devotional life based on how somebody tells you to do it.  Instead, experiment to find the method that works best for you.  I also suggest think in terms of establishing a "baseline" and then the other things you would like to do.  In my case, I have a simple little quarterly published devotional book that I have used years which is my minimum baseline.  Over the years, I have supplemented that baseline with other things, such as programs to read through the Bible, focusing on memorizing verses, using a written prayer list, journaling thoughts and prayers, other devotional materials…it has varied.  But throughout the years, I have made a point to maintain the baseline:  I have always kept the one booklet going; other things have varied...without guilt.
A side piece to this is that using variation, trying some different things can help you discover what best fits who YOU are in YOUR relationship with God.  While the Bible is clear, prayer and Bible study are uniquely central to our faith, working out how to apply those to your daily walk with the Lord may well be different from what works for others (or even what worked for you at other, less disruptive times of your life). 
2)  Begin bite sized.  Don't jump into the idea of an hour prayer time every morning and evening.  Instead, think in terms of five minutes as a baseline.  The first five minutes before you get up, or five minutes at the end of lunch.  Don't try to read chapters, read a paragraph, or focus on one meaningful verse, and talk about THAT with God.  Don't try to go over all your prayer concerns each time, select one to talk with God about.  On days you have more time, fine, but focus on making the HABIT, not the amount of TIME or ACTIVITY. 
3)  It seems best to prioritize a specific time each day that you set aside and protect.  Some people do so early in the morning (me!), while others prefer the end of the evening; some find lunchtime their consistently best opportunity, while some use their break at work.  I knew of a man once who actually marked it into his appointment book at work, and would not accept phone calls or visitors or other appointments during that time....(obviously he had the kind of job where he had that option).
4)  Consider redefining prayer.  What if you simply had conversations with God through the course of the day, could that count?  You hear an ambulance siren, and say, "God, help those workers and the victim in that emergency."  You get more bad news from you ex, "God I can't handle this alone, help me."  At the lovely spring flowers or striking sunset, "Thanks God, you did really good with that one!"
5)  Find a way to include listening in your time with God as much as speaking. 
6)  Give yourself reminders.  My wife sometimes tapes little cards with verses on them onto the inside of her bathroom mirror where she kept her makeup, or on the face of the mirror where she does her hair.  Another man I knew taped a verse onto the dash of his car.  Something along those lines can be helpful so that, if you get busy and forget or don't have time, you can still have a moment...

7)  Maybe a way to help you keep on task as you start could be to include your child.  Perhaps as a bedtime prayer, or prayer over breakfast.  Share with your child that it is a habit you are trying to start, and for him or her to remind you if you forget.  That could be a good example and learning experience as well...
8)  Ask God to help you.  He wants to spend time with you even more than you do with him...he can help. 
9)  Give yourself grace.  Don't make this another LAW in your life, or a RELIGIOUS WORK....make it something that is relationship based and positive and upbuilding.  When something happens and you miss one day, "call in sick"....reschedule for another time, just like you would with a client. 
10)  Some people find it helpful to get a partner in these kind of things, someone who calls or whom you call for a prayer time together once a week say, or with whom you just touch base with to see how each other is doing.  This can become something that can feel like pressuring or guilting, but done well, it can be helpful.

11)  Finally, if you don’t know where to begin in the scriptures, a few ideas I have run across might be helpful. 

One is to read one chapter a day in the book of Proverbs, which happens to have 31 chapters in it, which works well for many months of the year! 

Another idea is to read 5 Psalms a day, using the formula of the day’s date and multiples of 30.  It’s easier to illustrate than explain--  On the 1st of the month, read Psalms 1 (add 30), 31 (add 30), 61 (add 30), 91 (add 30), 121.  On the second of the month, it would be Psalms 2, 32, 62, 93, 122….etc.  This formula will work for 30 days, since there are 150 Psalms.

A third option would be to focus on certain books and do a careful reading of them.  The Gospel of John is a great place to start, but any of the four Gospels is a good starting point.  It could also be helpful to choose to start with some of the shorter books of the Bible…1 John, 1 Peter, 1 Timothy, Hosea, Ruth….those kinds of books.

There are lots of devotional materials out there you could also access to help guide you.  When you are starting to build that ballast, that baseline to keep you going, it is more important to get the HABIT going, than it is which program you use.  As time goes by, you can adapt and adjust, experimenting with various ideas until you find what works best for you.

Well, maybe those will help.  Getting some kind of baseline going can serve as good ballast to steady your ship through the times of rough waters.  Even the fact that you WANT to spend this kind of time with God touches his heart...