Thursday, January 30, 2014

Exodus: That was the easy part?

When Moses and the people arrived at Sinai, God told them, "You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself." On eagles' wings? That sounds so easy. Reality check - didn't they find themselves trapped between an angry army and the sea, run out of water, march across barren land, then find only bitter water and run out of food for a while? That doesn't sound like riding on eagles' wings to me.

But, if from God's perspective that really is riding on eagles' wings, then what I am supposed to learn from this? Maybe its a matter of trust. Maybe its the same situation I often had with my children when they were small. To my children it didn't feel like they were being taken care of when the big dog came barking from next door or loud explosions went off at New Years. It surely seemed inexplicably frustrating that they couldn't reach the cereal or juice - hence concluding that they were starving. Yet they never were outside of my care and protection. 

Maybe from a heavenly Father's point of view, Israel never was outside of his care and protection even when they saw the army coming or ran out of water. Maybe today I can remember that and live like my disasters, fears and worries will not put me outside of my Father's care.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Exodus: What's in your heart?

As the Egyptian army bore down on Israel pushing them towards the sea, the people were terrified. All they could see was sure death. Yet Moses saw something else and calmly spoke of the Lord's deliverance. Two groups looked at the same situation but did not see the same thing. All saw the chariots and spears but only one saw an opportunity for God. Most were ruled by the "concerns of men" while one was ruled by the "concerns of God."

Jesus rebuked Peter for mixing up his concerns. When Peter didn't want Jesus to die, Jesus rebuked him saying, "You don't have in mind the concerns of God but merely human concerns."

So today, when a city floods, do I see loss of buildings, money, materials? Or do I see how this might shape the soul and spirit of a people? When my car is hit, do I see financial loss, time spent on paperwork and tremendous inconvenience? Or do I see a window of opportunity to enter into the personal story of others that I would otherwise never meet? When I am sick, do I moan and make everyone else as miserable as me? Or do I rest in the opportunity to spend time refocusing my life?

Concerns of God versus concerns of men. Which one rules my heart? Which one sets my worldview?

Friday, January 24, 2014

Exodus: Why is this so hard anyway?

Robert Reid is a former missionary to Portugal. He is an exceptional man whose ministry was very blessed. Robert has cerebral palsy and needs help with most daily functions. Due to his external deficiencies, many people were not inclined to support his ministry. Often people questioned his desire to be a missionary. One day when we were talking, Robert said, "When I get to heaven, I want to ask God, 'why was it so hard to do what you wanted us to do anyway'"?

Great question. Why is it hard to get church committees to trust Jesus more than the budget? Why is it hard for Christian institutions to accept Christian norms rather than societal norms? Why is it so hard to help people walk closer to the Father even after they said they want to do so? Basically, when there is a clear vision for what is good, why does it seem that God doesn't jump in to clear away the obstacles? Closer to home, why is it so hard for me to walk faithfully when times are hard?

Surely Moses thought the same thing. He had a clear call from God, was given the needed resources for success, and was sent to liberate God's people. The next thing you know, everything went wrong. Pharaoh made the Israelite's life miserable and they turned on Moses. In Exodus 5 they told him, “May the Lord look on you and judge you!” Then in chapter 6 when he passed on an encouraging word from God, "they did not listen to him because of their discouragement and harsh labor." And very likely the first three plagues affected both Egyptians and Israelites alike. Not exactly the greatest start to a ministry.

In the one year reading plan I'm following, today's reference in the New Testament was Jesus and Peter walking on the water in Matthew 14. I wonder if Jesus purposefully sent the apostles onto the sea knowing that the storm would hit them squarely in the face? Did he want them to have to struggle all night before he showed up? Was it part of his plan?

It seems that the Father uses storms - human, political, natural - to stack the odds and make it clear who is really at work. The issue then becomes how do I respond to storms - especially those that stop us from doing what God asked us to do anyway? Do I see them as moments when the Father may show up? Do I stay the course? Or do I become like the other Jewish leaders who complained and actually turned against Moses - and therefore against God.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Genesis: 1991

In 1991, the Cold War ended, a U.N. coalition fought the Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm), Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested in Milwaukee, Rodney King was beaten, the 911 system was being tested, Centel was advertising a revolutionary idea called a cell phone the size of a brick, a gallon of gasoline cost $1.12, I returned to graduate school and my first son was born. I wonder what I prayed about then? I wonder how the Father responded?

Twenty-two years later, 1991 seems like a blip on the radar. There was so much going on at the moment that I believed would be unforgettable. Now, I struggle to remember. The importance of yesterday is overshadowed by the urgency of today. Of the perpetual prayers and special spiritual moments, what do I remember now? What was profound enough that even today I am shaped by its memory? Can I remember?

Those are the questions that come to me when I think of Joseph. From the time he was given a promise by God to the time it was fulfilled, twenty-two years passed. Twenty-two amazing years of abandonment, slavery, false accusations, and prison followed by rising to the office of Prime Minister. Through tragedy and triumph he could trace the fulfillment of those words spoken two decades earlier.

It makes me question how much attention am I paying to life? To God? What promise spoken to me twenty-two years ago still shapes my worldview? What words or prayers lifted up twenty-two years ago influence how I live today? What from today will shape my world in 2026? Am I paying close attention in the moment or just hurrying through life believing the American lie that he who runs through life at the fastest pace wins?

Perhaps the prayer that should shape my life is, "Lord, help me pay more attention to the important and less to the urgent." Something will shape my life in 2026; why not let it be a relationship with the Father from today?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Genesis: Wrestling with hard times

Jacob is an amazing person. He deceives his brother twice, his father once and tries to cut a deal with God after seeing a vision. I've always wondered how God felt when he promised to give Jacob thousands of descendants and all the land he could see only for Jacob to respond with "I'll give you 10% back." Seems a little anticlimactic to me; yet the Father didn't give up on him. Rather God led Jacob to Laban who conned the young con. Imagine working seven years for a bride only to have the dad switch daughters at the last minute. Is it any wonder that the relationship between Jacob and Laban was a little strained?

So when Laban caught up with the fleeing Jacob (Genesis 31), a rather interesting conversation followed. Jacob complained that he suffered heat by day, cold by night, worked 14 years for his wives, 6 for his flocks, had his wages changed 10 times and would have been poor if God had not intervened. Laban responded that all the wives, children and flocks were technically his anyway. The next chapter is the famous scene of Jacob wrestling all night with what turns out to be an angel - an angel powerful enough that he could have beaten Jacob at any moment. Jacob finally realized what  happened when he proclaimed, "I saw God face to face and yet my life was spared."

My question is whether these are indeed the same story? Not chronologically but metaphorically. What does it look like today when we wrestle God? Maybe it looks like frustrating life conditions, unfair treatment and the feeling that only by God's mercy are we not totally depraved. Maybe Jacob's life with Laban was really a prolonged wrestling match with God. Was God trying to teach Jacob something? Temper him? Grow him?

So what do my wrestling matches look like? Is frustration on my job or hard times in my family actually God at work, wrestling to get through my defenses and teach me something? Is unfair treatment his attempt to grow me? Is frustration for my benefit? And what will it take for me to realize this? To come to my senses and understand what the Father is doing to, in and for me?

Jacob limped away a new person from the wrestling match; he entered the fight as Jacob but left as Israel. Surely I will wrestle with God and/or life again, the question is will I leave as a new person or simply with a limp to add to my list of complaints?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Genesis: Determinism and free will Abraham style

I am fascinated by the interplay of God's will and human will. The extremes pit one against the other. Is God sovereign so that what he determines is done and human free will is really non-existent? Or do humans have free will to make decisions and the poem Invictus is correct when it states "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul?"

Abraham seemed to live somewhere in between; his stories reveal the interplay of divine and human will. When Abraham sent for a wife for Isaac, we actually get to hear him explain his belief. His servant feared that finding a wife might not be so easy. Abraham explained, "[God] will send his angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there. If the woman is unwilling to come back with you, then you will be released from this oath of mine." In a nutshell, Abraham believed that God would orchestrate some encounter between his servant and a good wife for Isaac. Then the lady would exercise her free will by accepting or not. Both God's will and human will were involved.

So what does this mean? For one thing, it means "thy kingdom come, they will be done" in the Lord's Prayer makes more sense. Rather than tell a sovereign God to "zap the world with his will" - which would be automatic if he is sovereign and humans have no free will - the line has more to do with my acceptance of his will. It is the counterpart to Jesus's prayer in the garden - "not my will but yours." It was the same prayer at the beginning and ending of his ministry and should be the same at the beginning and ending of mine.

It also makes today a little more exciting. Rebekah became a part of God's story, living out God's will by simply being open to the needs of the people around her. That re-frames what it means to stand in line at the store, meet a new student on campus or sit by a stranger at a game. Who knows what story I might step into? Who knows what plan God has set in motion around me? Who knows what saying "yes" might lead to next?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Genesis: Angry God?

In the second century, Marcion proposed that the Jewish God of the Old Testament and the God represented by Jesus were not the same god. Marcion did not stay in favor with the church for long - he was excommunicated. Yet his idea lives on in many of us. In the past month I have heard church leaders refer to the "harsh Old Testament" and give thanks for the mercy now available to us through Jesus.

But if Jesus is God, then Jesus is also the God of the Old Testament. Either he changed - which scripture says he does not - or I missed something. And I think the "something missed" is an unbiased - or at least less biased - reading of the Old Testament. After years of confronting this in myself and starting over once again reading through the OT for the New Year, I am struck by the mercy of the Old Testament God.

Consider this -
EDEN: Rather than come down in anger at the first sign of sin, God comes walking in the garden, asking questions, clothes the offenders and does not end their lives physically.
CAIN: God gives him advice ahead of time, comes asking questions and marks him so that others will not kill him.
FLOOD: Instead of total annihilation and starting from zero, God delays for years and saves a family who found favor in his eyes.
SODOM: God appears to Abraham ahead of time, explains that he has come in response to outcries, allows Abraham to bargain with him, rescues Abraham's family in Sodom, and even allows them to bargain for a different escape route.

If Jesus per John 1, John 17, and Colossians 1 and the Holy Spirit per Genesis 1:2 were per-existent to creation, then prior to creation our God was relational. It is his nature to come seeking, asking, connecting and showing mercy. Its what relationships are all about.

If this is who God is and if scripture has not changed for thousands of years, then the real question here is not about God but about me. Why do I come to scripture and fail to see mercy? How can I look at a series of events where mercy is lavished on people and be blind to it? Why do justice and punishment jump off the page while mercy can go completely overlooked? What does it say about my outlook on life? What does it say about my heart?

When I practiced veterinary medicine, an older doctor once told me, "I look for today, what I diagnosed yesterday." Perhaps we can't see what we don't look for. And we don't look for that which is not significant or valued. So when I look but do not see the mercy of God, I am confessing my values. Thus in the revelation of a merciful and relational God, I find reflected a revelation of my own heart.

And I do not always like what I see.