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Friday, March 1, 2019

Good Soil

    Thought I understood the parable Jesus tells in Matthew chapter 13 about a farmer planting his crops. Maybe not. Or at least not as well as I’d imagined.

    Verse 3: “A farmer went out to sow his seed.” Jesus describes the various types of dirt that it falls on, along with the results, culminating with, “Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown” (verse 8). The seed fails to produce any fruit in the other locations.

    What does this good soil look like? I’ve always pictured it as being something like me when I became a Christian: eager to learn, ready to commit my life to God, promising to follow wherever He might lead. Putting my talents at His disposal. A pretty good person who nevertheless recognizes that she’s not quite good enough to earn her salvation. She accepts her need for the sacrificial atonement that Jesus provides, but somewhere deep inside she kinda feels like God’s getting a special deal having her on His side. She’s good soil. Isn’t that what He’s looking for?

    Maybe not.

    I can’t believe it’s taken me more than forty years to realize this. How many times have I read Jesus’ words as He says things like, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened” (Matthew 11:28)? Would good soil feel weary and burdened? Or “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Is He really saying that the sick and the sinners are the good soil that He’s looking for? How do you grow fruit in that kind of dirt?
    I’ve known for many years that God has a heart for the broken, the lost, the suffering (Psalm 51:17, Deuteronomy 10:18, Matthew 25:31-46, to give just a few examples). That’s one of the characteristics that drew me to Him in the first place. But I never really applied that to this parable about the farmer. Doesn’t Jesus also say, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24)? Aren’t we supposed to delay that decision to follow Him until we know we can do it well? Until we’ve at least partially earned a place in heaven by being good soil?

    Maybe the question is: Which comes first, sowing the seed on that which is already good soil, or denying ourselves and taking up our crosses? I guess I’ve always assumed that the good soil was that which was ready and eager to take up its cross even before the seed was sown. The soil that deserved to be saved. But maybe I’ve got it backward. Maybe the richest dirt is broken, hurting, damaged sinners. Maybe it’s not until after we receive new life from God through Jesus that we’re able to deny ourselves. Maybe it’s the Holy Spirit, who has now come to live within us, that makes it possible for us to support the crosses that we carry.

    Was I really so eager and willing to give my all for Him at the moment of my conviction that He is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6)? No. I came to Him solely for what He would do for me. I just wanted to go to heaven. No altruism, no passionate commitment, no denouncing the stuff of the world to follow Him alone. Those kinds of things came later. After the Holy Spirit entered my heart. My “good soil” wasn’t good as I would define goodness.

    Maybe the unfruitful soils are actually those who don’t realize just how broken and unworthy they are. The encounter Jesus had with Simon, a Pharisee who invited Him into his home, helps me understand it better. Jesus started the conversation:

    “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

    Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”

    “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said (Luke 7:41-43).

    Maybe the best soil is the one with the greatest debt canceled at the cross. The dirtiest, meanest sinners. The ones I hesitate to even approach.

    I’ve sometimes wondered how believers could do a better job of reaching the lost. I’ve tried to imagine what would happen if we focused more on the good soil, rather than scattering the seed somewhat randomly. Wouldn’t we get better results? Wouldn’t we be more likely to develop dedicated disciples, rather than just winning lukewarm converts?

    But I don’t think I would be very good at identifying that dirt. I’d want to go to the people who seem to have their act together and are just waiting for someone to invite them into the club. I’d walk right by the ones who owe the biggest debt. The ones who would love their forgiver the most. The good soil that would produce an abundant crop.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Disillusioned Youth

    The cry of a Christian teen breaks a parent’s heart. Why does life hurt so much? Why do I face rejection, broken relationships, the death of a friend, failure? Where is the God that I trusted as a child? The one who’s supposed to be kind and loving and faithful? How can He stand by and let me suffer like this? Is He even real? Right now, it’s hard to believe that He cares or that He exists.

    What’s happening among Christian youth in America today? Why are large numbers of them feeling disillusioned with God and turning away from their faith?

    We don’t seem to be doing a very good job, as the Body of Christ, of raising children who can cope with the suffering that will inevitably impact their lives. I hear so many stories of young people who are raised in Christian homes and who profess faith at an early age, but who are later blindsided by unexpected hardships. A crisis of faith, often leading to a loss of faith.

    In twenty-first century America we face an unusual dilemma. On the one hand, we need to emphasize to our little ones, from the time they’re born, how much God loves them, how He’s watching over them every minute, how He wants only the best for them. Young children need to know that they’re loved unconditionally, that their needs will be met by someone who cares.

    Security. Without it, they’re likely to struggle for the rest of their lives with building trusting relationships.

    But on the other hand, kids in our middle- and upper-class homes rarely go through suffering on the scale that occurred in every part of the globe just a couple of centuries ago. Gone are the days when even the most affluent families experienced the death of at least one child before the age of five. Extended families are a thing of the past and life expectancy has increased greatly, reducing the possibility that a young one will see the death of someone close to him.

    Due to advances in medicine and technology, they’re shielded from the suffering that would have been considered natural a hundred or so years ago. Parents and churches don’t have the opportunity to help them through the pain and sorrow early in their lives because there is no pain and sorrow yet.

    We need to offer our kids security, but at what point, and how, do we introduce them to the world of suffering? If they don’t experience real hurt by the time they’re five or seven years old, will they be able to handle it in a healthy way at a later age? Are our youngest overprotected because of the circumstances that they’re born into?

    My baby-boomer generation was one of the first to question the wisdom of sharing the old fairy tales with young children. Too scary. Boys’ and girls’ lives at risk. Evil stepparents. How could a good mom tell such fearful stories to preschoolers?

    But I wonder if there was a healthy side to these tales. Maybe young ones can process their trauma and fears in the security of their own homes through the world of make-believe. There is real danger in the world. The old fairy tales don’t disguise this fact. But they also offer the role models of courageous children and caring adults (alongside the evil ones), plus happy endings. In addition to the real pain of the world, there is love and hope and the strength to overcome.

    The Babylon Bee, a Christian satire website, demonstrates the paradox that Christian parents face in an article depicting Nathan, a three-year-old boy whose room is newly decorated with pictures of Noah’s ark. Nathan is shocked by the illustrations of an event “in which almost every creature on earth was wiped out by drowning as punishment for mankind’s rebellion against the Almighty.” He says that it was “made all the worse by the cutesy, pastel presentation.”

    Here we see parents who understandably want to teach their child about a significant Bible event and at the same time protect him from the terror of God’s judgment. The illustrations are intended to draw Nathan’s attention to the lovable animals in God’s creation and to His protection of Noah’s family, rather than the devastation occurring all around them.

    But is this the best approach? Is it okay to place so much emphasis on the “cutesy” side of the situation that we ignore or downplay the harsh reality, in order to build a foundation of security? Or should we avoid painful Bible stories until our kids are old enough to process them? Can we find a way to share the truth of God’s judgment, along with His grace, with our three- and four-year-olds, as we would with older children? Would that undermine their childlike faith? Or would it strengthen them to face the suffering that awaits them in the future?

    At the same time, the secular culture around us has been exposing children to the dangers of the world at younger and younger ages. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal of the 1990s, I heard a newscaster state that one of the aspects of the whole affair that he found most challenging was that he now had to teach his five-year-old about oral sex.

    Secular America no longer feels a need to shelter our most vulnerable family members from adult topics. If it’s in the news we have to explain it to them. And the news is filled with sensational stories involving sex and violence. Is it any wonder that Christian families are withdrawing from the larger culture in order to protect their youngest from everyday screen views that they’re not mature enough to process? But is this withdrawal also adding to the problem by shielding them too much?

    How do we deal with the lack of suffering in our young children’s lives? How do we introduce them gently and without a loss of security to the realities of death and danger? Of course I don’t want to go back to the days when harsh circumstances impacted every family on a regular basis. And of course I’m not advocating exposing our kids to more pain than they can handle. I’m just hoping to introduce a topic of discussion that I rarely hear mentioned in American evangelical circles. A topic that might be critical in raising Christian kids who continue to trust Him when a loving, faithful God allows them to go through difficult times as they grow up.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Up

    It’s only one sentence, only one line, just a brief statement. But coming from the pastor, speaking to the congregation on a Sunday morning with all the authority of his pastoral office, it carries a lot of weight. And it reflects an evangelically-correct attitude that should be strenuously denied by our leaders, not encouraged.

    “A Christian is always up!” Exclaimed with energetic fist pump and great enthusiasm.

    I can’t look at the friend sitting next to me. We’ve had this conversation too many times before. The one about believers denying that they feel any pain. I know that if our eyes meet, it will trigger a reaction that would be noticeable to everyone around us. I’m not in church to dispute the pastor’s words openly and publicly. I don’t have the kind of relationship with him where I could diplomatically question his comments to his face. But I will blog about them here in hopes that evangelicals everywhere will recognize this statement for the false teaching that it is.

    How will we reach a world that’s hurting if we deny the fact that we, too, can hurt? How will we minister to Christians who are suffering if we keep telling them that they’re always supposed to be up? Is it any wonder that we’re not reaching our culture? Is it any wonder that younger generations are leaving the church? They see the lie taught by many evangelically-correct Christians. Why are we so blind to it?

    Isaiah describes Jesus as being “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isaiah 53:3). Was He up in the Garden of Gethsemane as He agonized over His coming sacrifice? His words to His disciples were, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38). Doesn’t exactly sound up to me. And we certainly can’t argue that He wasn’t being a good Christian by not being up. Or that He had a temporary lapse from His usual perfection by failing to be up. If either of those were the case, there would be no Christianity. Jesus, Who was perfect, Who never ever failed, was not always up. Why would we teach that His fallible followers must be?

    Was Paul up when he wrote to the Corinthians “out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears” (2 Corinthians 2:4)? Was he wrong to grieve over the difficulties the church was experiencing? Should he have just smiled and said, “Don’t worry, God will fix it”?

    “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). Does someone who’s up need to be comforted?

    “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). Isn’t Paul recognizing here that Christians will mourn? And that it’s okay? Rather than teaching that we should always be up, isn’t Paul saying that our souls should be in sympathy with both the joys and the pains of those around us? This verse wouldn’t exist if Paul’s theology proclaimed that a Christian should always be up.

    David was a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). Yet some of his psalms express deep sorrow and suffering (e.g. 6, 13, and 22). And have you ever read the book of Job? Check out chapter 3, where he goes to great lengths to express his regret over having been born. Yet God Himself describes Job as “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8).

    Please, pastor, don’t ever say that again. Let the members of your congregation hurt when they’re hurting. Walk beside them in their pain. Let them be honest about their sorrows. That is what, in time, will bring healing. Our God is a God of truth. If we’re to follow Him, we must be people who value truth. Including the truth of how we’re feeling inside.

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.