Monday, December 27, 2010

Everything we need, or, how to live above the fray

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness. Through these He has given us His very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. 2 Peter 1:3-4

Sometimes, like the old Calgon commerical said, we just want to get away.

Something in human nature longs for "otherness" -- something beyond what we see. Even when we are passionate about our work, serve people we love dearly, and have deep relationships, we're susceptible to a longing for "otherness" when we see the reality of evil in the world. At times the evil seems far away. Other times we learn it was closer than we ever imagined - around the corner, in a hidden part of our neighborhood, in an otherwise nondescript office. Worst of all are the times we see glimpses of the evil in our own heart; these glimpses will either drive us to despair or bring us to our knees.

How wonderful, then, that God gives a means of escape. Certainly eternal escape - He offers us the hope of heaven and the gift of salvation when we embrace all that He is for us in Christ as a result of His sacrifice. But He also gives us what we need to escape that worst of all evil, the evil within our own hearts.

Writing to Christians about the Second Coming, Peter actually starts by focusing on a more immediate opportunity for escape: how to escape the corruption in the world. This corruption, caused by evil desires, can overwhelm us at times. Peter refuses to allow his readers to focus entirely on the perfect world that will come when Jesus returns. Instead, he exhorts them toward kingdom living NOW.

All desires aren't evil. Peter's focus is on evil desires and their fruit, corruption in the world. Corruption seen in our own hearts and in broken relationships with other people, with creation, within society, and of course with God. Peter teaches that we can escape this corruption and instead participate in the divine nature - not becoming divine, but becoming a new creature. In 1 Peter 1:23 we learn that we are reborn of "imperishable seed" - we are born of God, as John 1:13 emphasizes. And we are being conformed to the image of Christ.

How does this happen? Through the "very great and precious promises" which God has given to us because of His glory and goodness. What promises? In Peter's context, certainly the Second Coming: "But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells." (2 Peter 3:13). In light of His coming, we can live differently today. Why? Because nothing of "the world" that could be attractive to us will last. It's all temporary. John Piper, in his book Future Grace, defines sin as a desire for something that is stronger than our desire for God. When we realize that our "evil desires" are for things that are fading away, and that He has promised something better to come, we find the power to say no to sin and yes to God.

Certainly there are other promises as well. Promises like "I will never leave you or forsake you". Like "with every temptation He will provide a way out". The New Testament is filled with promises and we are wise to equip ourselves to draw from those promises when we are fighting a spiritual battle. And yet Peter's focus on the promise of the Second Coming is especially significant when we desire to live above the fray of this world. When we long for escape, we need to embrace that He has promised us that and much, much more.

How do we begin to draw on this promise? Peter starts this passage by telling us everything we need for life and godliness is already ours through our knowledge of God. Not through a general knowledge, but our knowledge. It has to be personal. We have everything we need. But we only begin to know that to the degree that we know Him. "This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent," Jesus said to the Father (John 17:3).

Whatever corruption your corner of the world faces tonight, whatever realities near or far you wish to escape, whatever is hanging over your head that you wish weren't there ... you have everything you need to live a godly life in the face of it. There is a hope that goes beyond this temporal world. He is risen. He is coming. We will rise with Him one day. Because of this very great and precious promise, we can overcome through Him today.


Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Magic, Christmas Miracles, Christmas Mystery

One of the ways God reminds me the He's in control is by asking me to trust Him when He asks me to be flexible. In general I'm a planner and in general God uses my strategic approach - after all, He made me this way. But He knows I can easily treat my list and plans as masters instead of servants, and become enslaved to a schedule. Over the years I've grown used to schedules that change, unexpected interruptions that turn out to be divine appointments - you get the idea.

What I wasn't expecting was yesterday's sudden change of Christmas plans. Potential inclement weather in our area changed our Christmas plans from Christmas Eve to Dec. 23. I could deal easily enough with the practical logistics of the change - I managed to get out the door quickly and only forgot one item. What took a little adjustment was getting internally aligned with God's plan for our extended family's Christmas celebration.

While I know in my head that Christmas is all about Jesus, and that it's just a date we choose to celebrate because we don't know when He was "really" born, and that the traditions sometimes distract us from the main focus of the season, the reality of this human heart is that much of what we call "Christmas magic" is wrapped up in those traditions. Certain foods cooked certain ways ... attending services at certain times with certain family members ... listening to specific stations when traveling because you know they have the best Christmas music ... late nights spent with family members in a cozy living room ... none of it bad, all of it precious, all wrapped up in those "Christmas magic" moments for my family. You have your own "Christmas magic" moments.

Yesterday it took some work for "Christmas magic" moments. Most stations along the way weren't playing Christmas music exclusively (making me appreciation 101.1 KLRC all the more!). I forgot and left our reindeer antlers behind (one of our traditions is wearing them into gas stations and restaurants at our stops along the way to make people smile). We had already finished our traditional Christmas novel. The trip was, by necessity, rushed. And yet at the end, it was just perfect. Precious time with family, a gift from my brother of Handel's Messiah which gave us the perfect music for the trip home, reading some Christmas short stories, just being together.

As I've reflected today, though, I realize that "Christmas Magic" moments are always tenuous at best. Looking back over my life, many "Christmas Magic" moments have changed. The grandparents who used to be a big part of that for me are now with the Lord. I no longer pretend to believe in Santa Claus so my little brother doesn't get disappointed. There are no Christmas light tours with Pawpaw, pretending that I believe the airport navigation light is Rudolph's nose. My parents don't live in the house I grew up in. New "Christmas Magic" moments have arisen in their place, precious traditions that we've grown to love such as attending a Christmas Eve service with Bob's son and wife. Yet as this year reminded me, even these traditions are subject to change.

Ah, but the Christmas Miracle. That never changes. As I've refocused away from the Magic and onto the Miracle, I've been reminded of the awesomeness of the story. It's not just a sweet tradition. It's the Greatest Story Ever Told. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory." Immanuel, God with us ... the One who, although He existed as fully God, emptied Himself and took on flesh. Not just any flesh - but a lowly baby of a poor family in a forgotten corner of the world. A birth unheralded by the world but so important to God that He sent angels to announce it and a star to mark the location. Like any proud Father, He wanted the world to know all the vital facts about His Son.

And there enters the Christmas Mystery. How could Jesus be fully God and fully man? How could all the fullness of the Godhead dwell in this infant's body? Why did God choose this method for salvation? As a contemporary Christian song says, "This is such a strange way to save the world." Strange, but true. And for those who believe, the Christmas Mystery never loses its awe.

You may be struggling today at feeling the "Christmas Magic". Whatever circumstances have you down, wherever service to God's kingdom has led you that may not feel a bit like 'home', remember the Miracle and Mystery of His birth. Our human attempts to make this holiday special are only dim reflections of the heart of God who heralded His birth like none before or since. He will give you a way to make this day special.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Book review: Unto the Hills by Billy Graham

Much of life is lived in the valley, not on the mountaintop.

With this reality in mind, 25 years ago Billy Graham compiled 365 daily devotionals out of his more than 50 years of Gospel ministry. This volume has been updated for clarity and accuracy and re-released by Thomas Nelson Publishers. Unto the Hills is traditionally structured, with readings for each day of the year along with a scripture passage and suggested prayer.

Graham’s life message is quite simple: The Gospel of Jesus Christ is worth believing, and is sufficient for anything life might bring. That life message is also the message of Unto the Hills: From the valleys, we can still look to the hills, as David did in Psalm 121:1, and be reminded that our help does, indeed, come from the loving hand of God Himself.

Graham compiles some of his best-known anecdotes and quotes in this volume, and for those familiar with his ministry the result is a devotional that feels familiar even if you’ve not previously read it. The focus is not Billy Graham, however. On every page, the reader is pointed to the Word of God, His character, and the sufficiency of Jesus Christ. Like Graham’s ministry, the author is secondary to the Author.  

Unto the Hills avoids the non-essentials of the Christian faith and just reminds readers of the simple yet profound essential truths. It’s a great book to give a new Christian, to build on the foundation Christ has established in his or her life. It’s also a great devotional to refocus on the fundamentals of our faith … the “old, old story” of redemption through the blood of Christ, the message that never grows old.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the <> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Kingdom lessons from Hogan's Heroes

I'm not going to pretend that my love for the 60s TV show "Hogan's Heroes" is primarily spiritual in nature. Its actually my "mindless entertainment" - my way of unwinding and sharing a laugh or two with my husband. As I've blogged before, I love it because good and evil are clearly defined and in every episode, the evil Nazis get their comeuppance at the hands of the good Allies.

But I can't help noticing that there are some real parallels to being on mission with God. Tonight's episode was no different, but it left me reflecting in new ways on this journey to be a World Christian, a kingdom-focused believer in the world but not of the world.

The basic premise of the show focuses on a handful of prisoners of war in a German POW camp. These Allies from England, France, the U.S., and occasionally Russia volunteered for an unusual assignment when they were captured: Rather than escaping at the first opportunity (the SOP for POW's), they committed to not escape and instead use whatever means available to help other prisoners escape and undermine the German war effort. Here are just a few of the kingdom lessons I've observed watching Hogan's Heroes:
  • What bonds us together is more significant than our differences. The Heroes are defined by their commitment to a common goal: defeating a common enemy. Their differences are very real and often come out during their good-natured ribbing at each others' cultural quirks. But Hogan never lets them forget who the real enemy is. Scripture reminds us of the same truth. In Mark 9, Jesus taught His disciples not to get distracted by unimportant issues: Mark 9:38-40 (NASB) John said to Him, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us." But Jesus said, "Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is for us."
  • It takes a team. The prisoners in the camp have different talents. There's Hogan, the leader; Newkirk, the complaining safecracker; Kinch, the quiet radio man; Carter, the nerdy ammunition expert; and Lebeau, the proud French chef whose apple strudel can distract a guard in a heartbeat. There's also the frontline underground, who risk their lives in ways the prisoners can't, the coordinating team in London, as well as the military personnel still fighting. Yet they back each other up and never forget they are on the same side. Similarly, being on mission with God is a team effort. Whether we are on the front line, working "underground" in a secular environment, gathered with teammates or working alone, in a support role or a primary leadership responsibility - we are all on the same team. It's been said that everyone on "the field" needs at least 12 back home actively engaged in prayer and practical support roles (as well as financial supporters). Whether you are the one or the 12, we have to remember we're on a team.
  • Don't major on minors. In tonight's episode, the team's goal was to obtain top secret troop movement information. To do that they staged a boxing match. Kinch lost the match intentionally, and the guys who bet on the match lost a lot of money to the German guards. They were complaining about the losses and Hogan reminded them "We have something more important - pictures of those maps". Often we get distracted by the minor elements, the staging ground God lays out to accomplish His bigger purpose. As we lift our eyes to Him, He will shift our focus and help us stay aware of what really matters. Keeping a kingdom perspective is crucial to being on mission with God. 
  • Evil comes in obvious - and not-so-obvious - clothes. Sometimes the evil in Hogan's Heroes is easy to identify. We know that the truck carrying German weapons represents the evil Nazis. It might take a while to determine whether the beautiful girl is really with the underground or actually Gestapo. In Hogan's Heroes, the enemy knows the weaknesses of the prisoners and tries to exploit them. The same is true of our enemy. If he can get to us as an "angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14) then he never needs to bare his teeth and show us his full demonic nature. Unfortunately we discover that later - often too late 
  • There is more going on beneath the surface than we will ever imagine. Hogan's Heroes have built an elaborate underground structure - tunnels that contain storage areas, radio rooms, fake printing presses, even food. The enemy walks on top of these tunnels daily, usually without suspecting a thing. Similarly, what God is up to in the world is beyond anything we can fathom. He is orchestrating the movement of nations and people, the minute details of life and the big picture of the world, for His glory to open doors for the Gospel to all people. Habakkuk never could have imagined the kingdom purpose God had for Babylon surrounding Israel - but God was definitely at work. Habakkuk 1:5; 2:14 "Look among the nations! Observe! Be astonished! Wonder! Because I am doing something in your days - you would not believe if you were told....For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea." As Paul noted to the Romans (Romans 11:33) "Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!". When the enemy prowls about like a roaring lion, He has absolutely no idea what God has planned just under the surface of what's going on. 
Whether you're a Hogan's Heroes fan or not, I hope this quick look has encouraged you in thinking about God's kingdom purposes. I like to say that no one will ever be more passionate to fulfill the Great Commission than God Himself. He has a purpose and invites us to join Him in it. Our assignment might look a little out of the ordinary - and it definitely won't be as safe as escaping to heaven would be - but the rewards are eternal. May you be encouraged today to stay in the battle - if you're on mission with God, you are one of Heaven's Heroes!

Advent Week 2: Peace

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 
(Isaiah 9:6, NIV)

Peace. We often know it most by its absence. We can go for weeks or months resting well at night and easily take peace for granted. We don't think "Wow, I feel really peaceful today". We recognize immediately, though, when it is absent.

An unexpected medical diagnosis. A middle-of-the-night phone call. A child who doesn't come home one night. All things that throw us into immediate anxiety. In crisis mode, peace is naturally elusive.

As much as we might wish otherwise, Jesus didn't come to erase all challenges to our peace. God never promises the absence of struggles. Instead, He gives us something much greater: a Son - one who will be called "Prince of Peace".

The Son, of course, is Jesus. Jesus came first of all to bring us to peace with God. Romans 5 says that we were God's enemies, but He sent Jesus to demonstrate His love for us so that we could enter His peace. Secondly, Jesus came to be peace between people. Ephesians 2:14 says "For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups [Jews and Gentiles] into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall ...". The presence of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, brings peace to individuals and to people groups. When we unite around Jesus, we find that He brings peace into situations we thought were hopeless.

Then when we do face those inevitable struggles of life, we have the guarantee of His presence. Like Peter, who slept while imprisoned, or Paul and Silas, who led a worship service at midnight from jail, we can find peace despite our circumstances. Not because of the absence of challenges, but because of the presence of a Person.