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Friday, January 4, 2019

God's Inefficiency

    Inefficient providence. Those were the Bible teacher’s words. Paul spends the last six chapters of Acts imprisoned, on trial, shipwrecked at sea. Is that really the best use of his time and talents? He relates the story of his conversion twice within five chapters, after we’ve already read about it in chapter nine. Why give so much space to telling the same story three times? It seems so inefficient. Of course the teacher wasn’t saying that God is in fact inefficient, but it got me thinking.

    I’ve always valued efficiency. Doing as much as possible as well as possible in the least amount of time possible. Completing one job efficiently, then moving on to the next task on my list. It’s the American way. It’s important. Wouldn’t the best god be equally efficient?

    God seems most inefficient to me when I’m suffering. Sick in bed. Injured in an accident. Grieving the loss of a loved one. How can I use the gifts He’s given me at times like these? Like Paul sitting in prison, unable to travel around the Mediterranean world spreading the gospel and strengthening the churches. I can see how God uses Paul even in his confinement, but I have a hard time seeing the same thing in my own life. God could do so much more with me or through me if my time and energy weren’t so limited.

    And yet He has ordained periods of inefficiency in all of our lives. Take sleep. Why on earth are we required to spend so much time unconscious and inactive? Doesn’t God realize how much more we could accomplish for His Kingdom if we put those hours to better use?

    I struggled with this when I was in college. I had a serious case of suicidal depression in the days before antidepressants were widely known. After a couple of years, I’d found that certain aspects of self-care, including sleeping nine or more hours each night, helped reduce the symptoms temporarily.

    But the evangelically correct around me were appalled. No college student has the time to indulge in such a habit. It can’t be God’s will. It must be laziness. Proverbs 6:10-11 states quite clearly, “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.”

    It was a great blessing to discover Psalm 127:2 in the King James Version that I was using at the time: “It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows: for so he giveth his beloved sleep.” A new revelation for me—sleep is a gift from God to those He loves. Shortchanging ourselves on this necessity is usually the result of vanity rather than following His will. God-ordained inefficiency.

    And what about the Sabbath rest revealed to Moses in Exodus 16:23? Why does God command us to rest from our labors when there’s so much work to be done? Yet He stresses the importance of keeping the Sabbath by including it in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11).

    Why does God not only allow, but actually promote, such inefficiency? As I struggle to compose a simple blog post, spending endless hours writing and editing and proofreading, I realize that part of it is the curse. After Adam and Eve sinned by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, God said to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17). All our various kinds of toil for the necessities of life became painful at that point. Work will never be easy or efficient.

    Another part of it is a message that I need to hear repeatedly, one that counteracts our American drive to succeed: life is not all about doing, accomplishing, achieving. It’s about having faith in Him. In the time of Moses, basic survival often required long hours of work every day of the week. To take one day out of seven to rest was scary. In our cushy American lives, we don’t realize how radical this was. What if they ran out of water in the desert? What if their shelter needed repairs to keep out the weather and the wild animals? In requiring a Sabbath rest, God was saying, “Get your focus off yourselves and trust Me.”

    His ordained inefficiency also gives me an opportunity to sacrifice. In an inefficient body that requires sleep and food and protection from the elements, it hurts me when I miss out on those things. Sacrificing for others means willingly accepting that pain in order to meet someone else’s needs. If we were all totally efficient there would be no way to follow God’s example and communicate our love for others through sacrificial giving.

    Recently, a real-life situation emphasized my inability to see the whole picture regarding efficiency. In efficiency mode I try to do as much as I can with as few steps as possible. Literal, physical, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other steps. Save time. Save energy. But as I age, my bones are getting weaker. Walking, running, moving builds them up. Taking extra steps. Even when it seems inefficient. Maybe God’s inefficiency is something like that. What appears to me to be a useless waste of time in one area might actually be building me up in another.

    But I still sometimes chafe under the frustration of my limitations. I could do so much more! I could serve You so much better! I imagine myself following Moses in the desert on the way to the Promised Land, spending the Sabbath glancing up at the sky every few minutes wondering if the sun is ever going to set, impatiently tapping my foot and making a mental to-do list for tomorrow, worrying about all the little necessities that aren’t getting done, rather than praising God for supplying my food and water and shelter and for providing a much-needed rest.

    Help me, Father, to rejoice in Your wisdom as You work in this world with an efficiency that exceeds my finite observation and imagination. Help me to follow as You lead, resting when You know that I need to, trusting Your love to meet my needs, sacrificing in response to Your will—without resenting every seemingly inefficient moment in my life.

Friday, December 14, 2018

O Little Town of Bethlehem



    Jesus’ birth. Spiritual warfare. Has the battle between good and evil ever been seen more clearly on this planet than it is in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke? Satan tempts Joseph to break off his engagement to Mary (Matthew 1:18-19). It takes an act of Caesar to bring the couple to Bethlehem, the town where prophecy says the Messiah will be born (Micah 5:2, Luke 2:1-7). King Herod tries to trick the Magi into revealing Jesus’ whereabouts so that he can kill Him (Matthew 2:1-8). Through it all, God’s will wins out even in difficult circumstances.

    Sometimes I find myself questioning His Word when it says over and over again that God used an angel or a dream to tell someone exactly what they needed to know or do. (Five times in  Matthew chapters 1 and 2; three times in the first two chapters of  Luke.) Why would He rely so heavily on such an unusual means of communication?

    Maybe the intensity of the warfare required the use of rare weapons. Maybe the people involved needed clear and obvious directions from God in opposition to the wily lures of Satan. Maybe the uniqueness of the form of communication underscores the uniqueness of the times.

    As I’m reading the story, I rejoice every time evil is thwarted and good prevails. Then I reach the part where Herod orders the slaughter of all the boys in and near Bethlehem who are two years old and younger, in a desperate attempt to kill the King of the Jews. Jesus’ family escapes to Egypt, most likely using the gifts from the Magi to finance their trip (Matthew 2:11-14). In spite of the danger and the need for sudden flight, God provides for Jesus’ safety and for His family’s travel expenses.

    But what about the boys who were murdered after Jesus, Joseph, and Mary escaped? What about their parents’ terrible loss? Has evil won out at this point? Wouldn’t a good god have prevented this? The Bible doesn’t downplay the pain and grief. It describes weeping and great mourning (Matthew 2:17-18). The suffering produced is important enough to God that He included a prophecy about it in Jeremiah 31:15. But as we sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in church at Christmastime one year and the pastor comments on how very small Bethlehem was, I realize that the events also convey God’s mercy.

    Jesus wasn’t born in a booming city like Jerusalem, as might be expected of a king. Centuries earlier, God had announced His birthplace, including a comment on the small size of the town. The religious leaders knew that the Messiah would appear in Bethlehem. Wouldn’t you think that large numbers of Jews would flock there in the ensuing centuries, hoping to be among the first to see Him? Shouldn’t Bethlehem be a thriving metropolis by this point?

    But no. Jesus was born in the little town of Bethlehem. Some estimates put the number of boys murdered by Herod at less than ten. Had Jesus been born in a larger town or a big city, many more families would have suffered from Herod’s wrath.

    Of course Satan would wreak havoc on the place where the Christ was born. Because of the Fall, people everywhere are subject to his cruelty. But God in His mercy limited the pain and loss to the little town of Bethlehem. Somehow, through all the centuries following Micah’s prophecy, He discouraged people from moving there. He kept the town’s population, and thus the number of baby boys, small.

    It helps me to see this illustration of God’s protection. Too often, I think I’m living in a world in which Jesus was born in populous Jerusalem where Herod would destroy hundreds of baby boys to get to the one. Where God would seemingly stand by as Satan had a field day slaughtering innocent children.

    Too often, I forget the truth that I live in a world in which He was born in the little town of Bethlehem where God limited Satan’s influence and ability to inflict harm. Too often I see only the very real suffering, which the Bible never denies and never attempts to cover up, and close my eyes to God’s even greater mercy and provision.

    I don’t understand why God allows suffering on the scale of World War II. But this small picture of His hand actively interceding to minimize the pain in Jesus’ earliest years on earth gives me a glimpse of His wisdom and compassion, a wisdom and compassion that prevail not just in the little town of Bethlehem, but in the world as a whole.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Wounded by God

    Bad news. The diagnosis of a life-threatening illness in a precious young loved one. It hits me hard. It takes my breath away. It throws me into a spiritual tailspin. The main impact is feeling like the God that I’ve trusted for years has wounded me deeply.

    I know I need Him now more than ever, so I follow all my usual practices—worshiping, studying His Word, spending time in fellowship with other believers, praying, walking in obedience to Him. But suddenly there’s this wall between us. I throw it up quickly and I build it out of solid materials. I don’t really want it there, but I can’t help feeling incapable of taking any steps to remove it.

    Over time God patiently tears it down. At first, brick by brick. Through new songs in church that express exactly what I need to say and hear. Through deeper insights into His nature and character. Then, suddenly, after three long years, as I’m struggling spiritually with yet another undeserved catastrophe in the same young person’s life, through supernatural, peaceful acceptance that far transcends all my understanding (Philippians 4:7).

    This peace comes out of nowhere and it envelops me on a level that I’ve never experienced before. It’s all God’s doing. It’s not denial or psyching myself up in an effort to ease the pain. The pain is still there, but so is the peace. And it lasts. Day after day after day.

    I’m marveling over this unexplainable, unexpected blessing a few weeks later. Praying, thanking God, praising Him for knocking the wall down flat. Then the words enter my mind uninvited, unintended, “Help me to forgive You.”

    Whoa.

    Wait.

    No.

    How could I ever think such a thing? (Is it too late to take it back, God? Can we just pretend You didn’t hear that?)

    Me forgive God? He who is without sin, without the capability of ever doing evil? He who is all good, all wise, all the time? He who is love (1 John 4:8 and 16)? He who sacrificed so much to save us from those filthy, stinking, rotten sins that make our lives so miserable? Me forgive Him? How backward is that?

    And yet that’s how it feels. Like the pain runs so deep that of course He must have done something terrible to me, something wrong, something evil, something that I have a right to either forgive or continue to hold against Him. The god I want to worship wouldn’t do this to me.

    It’s not like I’ve been shaking my fist at God these last three years. I know Him well enough to firmly believe that in all things He works for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). He has touched my heart in some incredible ways since my rebirth. But the sense of being hurt by Someone that I’ve dedicated my life to has permeated my relationship with Him. He’s now bringing me face to face with the fact that I’m still harboring resentment against Him. The bizarre idea that I need to forgive Him.

    A post on my favorite website, The Babylon Bee (featuring Christian satire), describes how, after reading some self-help psychology, God realizes that, for His own good, He should set more boundaries and cut ties with toxic influences, which of course means destroying the entire world.

    My response the first time I read it was the recognition that I need to love people with the love of God. I need to stop considering anyone toxic and unworthy of my love and friendship. I’m too quick to judge and too quick to walk away. That’s not what God desires from His people. He sets the standards and provides the example for me to follow.

    But in the midst of this gracious blessing of peace and contentment, glancing again at that headline reminds me of just how holy and perfect and pure God is. When I’d discovered the article, under the surface a little voice in my mind was arguing with the statement that human beings continually choose to rebel against Him. Surely that doesn’t include us Christians. Surely we’re not so bad that we could be considered toxic. Would He really have to destroy the whole world, or only those who refuse to believe in Him?

    Now, with this horrifying thought that I hold God in such low esteem that the restoration of our relationship actually requires my forgiving Him, I know that I am one of those toxic people. Ouch.

    The article reminds me that in my fallen, sinful condition, God’s love for me is pure grace, totally undeserved. That’s hard to believe in a culture that constantly bombards me with the message of my great worth. I’ve been a dedicated, growing Christian for all these years. Surely I’ve earned His respect and love.

    But no. Here I am, unable, even at my best, to offer Him anything but a toxic relationship. And here God is, not destroying me as in the Bee article, not cutting me off anytime I fail, but loving me, blessing me, walking with me, knocking down the wall between us. Forgiving me.

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Matrix

    We’re preparing the family Thanksgiving dinner, four of us ranging in age from about thirty to sixty in the warm kitchen as the others mill around the house, when my niece brings up the subject of The Matrix. It’s a 1990s movie about Neo, an apparent twentieth-century man dissatisfied with life in general. He can’t put a finger on it, but something about the world doesn’t quite seem to fit. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s right.

    Neo’s entire environment, as he sees it, is actually an illusion. He’s living in a futuristic world where machines have taken over the planet. They’ve relegated humans to the status of batteries, providing power for the machines. To keep their captives’ brains occupied, they’ve created “the matrix,” a virtual reality so real that men and women, who are confined to small liquid-filled tubs, believe that they’re walking, talking, working, marrying, living, and dying in contemporary America.

    But a small band of renegades has somehow become free of the matrix and is on a mission to defeat the machines and liberate mankind. Anyone who shows an unusual perception of the incongruities of their lives is contacted by this group. After being presented with a brief explanation of the actual state of affairs, they’re given a choice of two pills. One will allow them to remain in the matrix with no memory of the encounter. The other will release them from their tub to join the fight against the machines. Neo takes the second pill.

    Here on Thanksgiving Day, my niece poses a question: Why would anyone choose to enter a world of suffering and fighting when they could simply continue to live in the unreal world of the matrix? The other two family members agree that they would also remain in their tubs. It seems so obvious to them.

    I’m stunned. I know the movie emphasizes the difficulty of making the transition from the matrix to the real world, but that’s because the victims have been living in virtual reality for so long. It’s a shock to them to discover that what they’ve always believed to be real isn’t.

    In contrast, we’re discussing the options from a distance. We can see both sides clearly: on the one hand living what appears to be a relatively comfortable life, but is actually an illusion to distract us from our slavery; on the other hand facing reality, as unpleasant as it may be, and fighting for the freedom of people everywhere. Isn’t that one of the things we’re so thankful for on this day—those who’ve fought so we could be free? Sitting in the theater watching the movie for the first time, I’d assumed that everyone in the audience was identifying with Neo and crowd, wanting to be just like them.

    I can be so naive.

    But this is America! Americans, of all people, thrive on freedom, on autonomy, on my right to make my choices about my life. We idolize, as few cultures do, those who free the oppressed. What’s happened to my country? Intelligent, successful Americans are standing here telling me that they would choose to live a meaningless life in slavery to the enemy, supporting an evil empire rather than fighting it, if that involved less suffering than the alternative. How many other Americans feel this way? And what does that mean for our future?

    In sharp contrast to my family, when a Christian friend and I first saw The Matrix, it triggered an ongoing conversation about the greatest realities in life. Which is the more real, the more permanent world—the physical one or the spiritual? As in the movie, we face a choice. We can deny the greater, spiritual reality and commit our lives to our own comfort and security (take the first pill), or we can serve God and others regardless of the cost (second pill). Which option does the Bible demand of us? Which will have the greatest impact, not just in this life, but for eternity?

    And yet here are three Christian relatives saying they would deny reality rather than face a life of suffering. No apologies, no regrets. To them, it seems like the most logical thing to do. If I’m a bit frightened about the future of our country based on this conversation, I’m even more frightened about the future of Christianity in America. By some standards, my relatives would be considered pretty good Christians. They serve in their evangelical churches, they give generously, they treat others with kindness and respect.

    Sure, they have their shortcomings, but don’t we all? The youngest haven’t followed biblical standards of sexual ethics. But how many Christians among their generation wait until marriage anymore? Does it really matter? And yes, they put a great deal of value and emphasis on money, youth, and appearance, but is that really so bad? How can they be witnesses to the world if they can’t relate to it?

    Is this living the Christian life? Serving self, serving desire, serving the need to belong. Avoiding suffering if at all possible. What did Jesus say? “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35). We are called to give up the comfort of the matrix, the illusion that this world can satisfy all our desires and needs. To willingly, gladly, joyfully stand for what’s right when we have the opportunity, even it involves suffering.

    How many other good American Christians are choosing the comfort of the matrix over truth and sacrifice, even as they offer thanks for those who make the better choice? Is this the norm or is it the exception? Is it getting better or is it getting worse? What does that mean for our future?

Friday, November 2, 2018

Changing Churches

    Things I’ve seen and stories I’ve heard:

    ● Committed Christian baby boomers, the backbone of evangelical churches for decades, joining the ranks of the unchurched and the church-shoppers. Or switching to more liturgical churches, with their greater sense of reverence.

    ● A local evangelical church demanding that every activity must be intergenerational. Never mind that the older folks have long periods of lonely availability during the daytime and hesitate to drive after dark, while the younger ones work all day and can only participate on evenings and weekends. Seniors have been forbidden to gather without younger generations being present. Result: Older members have felt unwelcome and unheard, and have left.

    ● Men and women in their eighties and nineties sensing that their lives are no longer valued by the very churches that they’ve supported for years. That which was most precious and meaningful to them within those churches has been discarded, leaving them feeling like they’ve been discarded, too.

    I don’t think our worship leaders realize how much real suffering they’ve brought on our seniors with the radical changes that have occurred in the last twenty years or so. Based on the biblical model, they expect mature Christians to graciously accept the authority of the pastors and elders when decisions are made. Those who complain or criticize are seen as selfish, disobedient, and unwilling to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.

    I think these leaders are honestly seeking to please God and are trying to do what they believe is best overall. But the pain is there and it’s often unrecognized. It’s not just a matter of stubborn resistance springing from rebellious hearts, although I’m sure that happens in some cases. For many, though, important theological issues are at stake.

    One assumption made by those who support more modern worship styles is that God doesn’t care how we worship Him. Style is irrelevant in His eyes. But if that’s true, why was He so specific about how the Israelites were to worship Him when He brought them out of bondage to Egypt? Part or all of the following chapters provide His specific instructions on worship: Exodus 25-30 and 39-40; Leviticus 1-8, 16, and 22-23; Numbers 15, 18, and 28-29; and Deuteronomy 12 and 16-17.

    Was the God of the Old Testament different from the God of the New Testament? No. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Psalm 102:27, James 1:17). How we worship matters. It matters to God. It should matter to us. One weakness in today’s evangelical churches is the lack of a theology of worship that is based on examples of worship in the Bible.

    What is it about modern worship styles that mature Christians object to? One big issue is the focus on self, which naturally leads to less emphasis on God—who He is and the deeper reasons for worshiping Him. If I worship Him solely for what He does for me, as much Contemporary Christian Music seems to imply, what happens when He doesn’t live up to my expectations? I have nothing solid to stand on during the tough times. In contrast, many hymns of the past praised God’s unchanging character and nature, His working throughout the world and throughout history, His thoughts and ways that reach far higher than satisfying the needs in my little life.

    It’s been ten years or more since I heard a derogatory comment on National Public Radio about those “narcissistic evangelicals.” First I was startled and offended, then I was embarrassed and humbled by what I knew to be a somewhat accurate assessment. Roughly ten years before that, Christianity Today ran an article in which they stated that there were more songs starting with the letter “I” in the contemporary files used in evangelical worship services than with all the other letters of the alphabet put together. What happened to Jesus’ teaching that “if anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24)?

    Many seniors struggle with this stress on self and lack of emphasis on God. At a time when they’re suffering multiple losses—family members and friends, mobility and independence, physical health—they have an increased need for a transcendent God who rules the universe and whose love and justice extend far beyond simply pleasing individual human beings.

    I don’t expect our churches to turn back the clock as far as worship styles are concerned. Every era, every generation, has its flaws and shortcomings, including those found in the ways Americans worshiped in the past. While I pray that we’ll find a better balance in communicating both the intimacy and the transcendence of God, this is primarily a plea for mercy and compassion and healing after the pain inflicted on our seniors for the last two or three decades. A plea for a greater understanding of that pain and its origins, and for attempts to be made to treat our seniors with greater love and respect.