Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Common Temptation

I love the stories of the Old Testament because they are so rich with adventure and ladened with principles of how to live the Christian life. An incident out of Abraham’s life will demonstrate this. In this narrative he is still called Abram, and he has just completed a successful military operation rescuing his nephew, Lot and all the other people that were taken captive. Abram is met on his return by the king of Sodom who says to him, "Give me the people and keep the goods for yourself" (Gen. 14:21). The king’s offer was disingenuous and self-serving.

Abram’s response is inspiring. “But Abram said to the king of Sodom, "I have raised my hand to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, and have taken an oath that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the thong of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, 'I made Abram rich’” (Gen. 14:22-23). The king’s offer didn’t throw Abram for a loop. He was prepared with an answer. The reason is that somewhere in obscurity Abram had a conversation with God that went something like this: “God, if you bless me or deliver me from my enemies, I promise to give you the credit.” This was a sacred conversation between God and Abram. He kept it to himself and never announced it to the world. He found a conviction that developed into a principle to guide him through life, and it made him strong. This is why he never wavered when offered this load of goods by this pompous, little king.

However, what I like about Abram even more is what follows. He articulated in no uncertain terms what he would do with the king’s offer, but he never presumed to decide what his three friends would do: “I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me — to Aner, Eshcol and Mamre. Let them have their share." (Gen. 14:24)

What a magnanimous action this was. He doesn’t say, “Aner, Eshcol and Mambre are you going to accept nothing?”—thereby putting pressure on them. His convictions are his, and he allows others to be who they are. One of the most common temptations for all of us is our desire to control others. This comes so easy for all of us, and it is difficult to identify and learn to refuse this temptation, as Abram did. We are convinced if others would just be this way or if they would just do this or that, it would make our life more comfortable. It won’t! In fact, it never will, because even if they did what you want, it wouldn’t be enough.

Even in the church there is the temptation to control others. I want my brothers and sisters to pray this way or sing that way or act my way. What is so necessary is to do what Abram did, identify what “I” should do and then do it, but refuse to control others. Give them the freedom to be and do as they believe they should.

Unfortunately, some people try to control other people in search of their own happiness or emotional satisfaction. It is a selfish move. Contented and secure people don’t have to resort to controlling other people to be happy. They draw their contentment from God.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Trip Home

A few days ago I took a flight from St. Louis, Missouri, where I live, to Fresno, California, where I was raised. I have come to spend a few days with my parents and to celebrate my father’s 90th birthday. There is always something nostalgic about returning to the place where we grew up. Although I have been back to visit on other occasions, I have not lived in this San Joaquin Valley for 36 years.

Everything seems so familiar: The fruit and nut trees, the vineyards, the alfalfa fields, and the dairies with countless cows. Citrus orchards and just about every kind of vegetable that will grow are here. Surrounding this valley is the majestic view of the Sierra Mountains with their snow-capped peaks. This is a nice place to live. However, this morning I realized temperature is always relative. The news featured a reporter on the street bundled up from head to toe, reporting that it was a very cold morning of 38 degrees. I thought to myself, that all depends on where you live. A few hours later it reached nearly 70 degrees, so I have been willing to handle the 38.

My memories of growing up are good. My parents provided for all of my basic needs as a child, so I grew up feeling loved and cared for. In this valley, many people taught their children a strong work ethic from a very young age. I happen to have been born to those kinds of parents. It hasn’t hurt me in life, and to the contrary, it has come in handy.

Both of my parents were born in the Midwest and came to California with their parents when they were adults. In fact, the San Joaquin was settled by millions of people like my folks who came here looking for a better life. Many of my family have become farmers, truckers or businessmen.

When I left California, I followed my calling—the ministry. That calling took me to the Midwest, then to Argentina, and now back to the Midwest. I have no regrets about the life I chose to follow. It has been challenging, but extremely rewarding.

My call to ministry actually happened when I was sixteen. I was part of a missions trip to Hermosillo, Mexico. During one part of the trip, we sang in a prison, and it was there that God spoke to me about sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the world. I looked at the prisoners and realized that we are all prisoners of our own sin until Jesus sets us free.

First, I experienced forgiveness for my sins when I received Christ as my savior, and since then I have been telling other people about Jesus. He is one who sets the prisoner free. Jesus said this about his ministry:

Luke 4:18-19
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."  

Thursday, February 7, 2013

God Picks Up the Pieces

What image do you have of God? Most of us have several. Maybe you see God as the gentle shepherd, or the strong tower we run to in the storm. One image that I have of God is that of a God who picks up the broken pieces of our lives. God never gives up on all of us who are imperfect people—people who mess up, who have broken lives and haven’t a clue as to how to put the pieces back together. He takes one piece at a time and begins to make something out of the brokenness of our lives.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Children of Israel in the wilderness. God had given them his Commandments to help them know how to live, but they broke them. This culminated in the fabrication and worship of a golden calf. When Moses came down from the mountain carrying the first set of the Ten Commandments and saw the disappointing results of their sin, he threw the tablets to the ground. The broken pieces symbolized their disobedience and broken relationship with God. However, God didn’t give up on the Israelites. He still wanted his people to have his law. He invited Moses to ascend the mountain a second time where he gave a second set of the Commandments to his people. I love the image we see here of God’s willingness to pick up the pieces of that broken relationship and renew his covenant with his people. So he told Moses to make a fresh set of tablets and come up the mountain. Here is a picture of God picking up the pieces and making something new out of the broken relationships.

“So Moses chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning, as the Lord had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands. 5 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord” (Exodus 34:4-5).

I am struck with the words, Then the Lord came down. No matter how high we ascend, God has to come down to us for there to be any contact. No matter how good we try to be, God has to come down to our level. God did the stooping in this encounter with Moses and the children of Israel. However, the greatest act of humility happened at the cross when Jesus stooped down to save us. We broke God’s commandments, but God stooped so low as to send his son to restore the broken relationship.

There are so many people today who suffer from fractured relationships. There are marriages on the rocks, sons and daughters who don’t speak to their parents, and brothers and sisters that are at odds with each other. As terrible as these broken relationships are, the greatest brokenness is when a man or women is cut off from God. The God of the Bible stooped to pick up the pieces for his people Israel, and he is still doing that today. When God puts the pieces back together vertically, we begin to mend our horizontal relationships, too.