Monday, December 26, 2011

Brokenness and Blessedness

My sister sent us the movie “Soul Surfer” for Christmas, about teenage surfer Bethany Hamilton who lost her arm in a shark attack. What an inspiring story!

At the beginning of the movie, Bethany attends a beachside worship service with her family, and joins in with the singing, “You give and take away. My heart will choose to say, ‘Lord, blessed be your name.’” At that point, Bethany didn’t know what was soon to be taken away and the responding choice she would need to make. The “sun was shining down on her,” and her life was full of potential and surfing competitions.

In a personal interview included in the special features of the DVD, Bethany shared how at 13, she and her Mom had started praying about her future and about the plans God had for her. Losing her arm in the shark attack, soon after those prayers, was God’s answer.

Her influential youth group leader shared with her Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” She said she believed that somehow God would use Bethany’s loss for His glory. And how He has! As Bethany has made the heart choice to continue to sing, “Lord, blessed be your name,” her life has been an inspiration to many. My six year old niece Molly dressed up as Bethany for Halloween this year.

Through the incredible support of her family and community, Bethany learns how to surf again with only one arm. She considers giving up competition as she faces difficulties in her first attempt, but then realizes how much her life has impacted others with an outpouring of letters from around the world. The movie ends with Bethany successfully competing against the world’s best surfers. Questioned by reporters afterward, Bethany declared that she can embrace the world better with one arm than she could with two. Wow.

I loved seeing the joy in Bethany’s face as she surfs (most of the surfing footage in the movie is actually her, while the acting was done by AnnaSophia Robb). Clearly, surfing is at the very core of who she is, and when she is surfing, she feels most alive. Her joy reminded me of Eric Lidell in the movie “Chariots of Fire” when he tells his sister Jenny that God made him fast, and when he runs he feels God’s pleasure. Bethany said she is happy because she can still surf and compete, and because of her accident she has many opportunities to tell others about God’s love.

Henri Nouwen said that our brokenness is an opportunity to purify and deepen the blessing that rests upon us. We have the choice to befriend our brokenness and put it under the blessing, lifting it away from the shadow of the curse. Then in the light of God’s blessing, “What seemed intolerable becomes a challenge. What seemed a reason for depression becomes a source of purification. What seemed punishment becomes a gentle pruning. What seemed rejection becomes a way to a deeper communion.” (Life of the Beloved, p. 98)

“When we keep claiming the light, we will find ourselves becoming more and more radiant.” (ibid, p. 62) Bethany is truly a living example of this kind of radiance.

Her life is not focused on herself and what she can’t do, but on how God will enable her to overcome her challenges and be a blessing to others. “In the giving it becomes clear that we are chosen, blessed, and broken not simply for our own sakes, but so that all we live finds its significance in its being lived for others.” (ibid, p. 105)

Her attitude and example inspire me and echo Mary’s response to the angel who brought her the shocking news that she would be the one to birth the Savior of the world. The angel said, “Nothing is impossible with God.” Mary believed and replied, “I am the Lord’s servant, and I am willing to accept whatever he wants.” (Luke 1:38)

Today, Bethany’s life sings along with Mary’s Magnificat: “My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant…He has performed mighty deeds with his arm…” (Luke 1: 46, 51)

Blessed Be Your Name  (words by Beth Redman and Matt Redman)

Blessed be Your name in the land that is plentiful
Where Your streams of abundance flow
Blessed be Your name
And blessed be Your name when I’m found in the desert place
Though I walk through the wilderness
Blessed be Your name

Every blessing You pour out I’ll
Turn back to praise
And when the darkness closes in, Lord
Still I will say

Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be Your name
Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be Your glorious name

Blessed be Your name when the sun’s shining down on me
When the world’s “all as it should be”
Blessed be Your name
And blessed be Your name on the road marked with suffering
Though there’s pain in the offering
Blessed be Your name

You give and take away
You give and take away
My heart will choose to say
Lord, blessed be Your name

For Jesus said, “The truth is, a kernel of wheat must be planted in the soil. Unless it dies, it will be alone—a single seed. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives.” (John 12:24)

He went on to say, “Now my soul is deeply troubled. Should I pray, ‘Father, save me from what lies ahead’? But that is the very reason why I came! Father, bring glory to your name.” (v. 27-28a)

Blessedness through brokenness. Jesus showed us how.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Trust Deeply

On Tuesday, we will have a visit by our social worker to update to our adoption home study, because we have moved to a new location and our paperwork has to be reprocessed every 18 months. Our original home study was done in the spring of 2007, and these past 4 ½ years of our adoption journey have been some of the most stretching and challenging years we’ve ever had.

God has remained faithful throughout and has been gracious to teach me a lot through this painful process about Welcoming Unmet Expectations and Experiencing God's Goodness. At the point where we stand today, we still don’t know what the future holds for us. But God is reminding me again as we face our paperwork renewal that He wants me to trust deeply in Him.

Henri Nouwen has become one of my favorite authors. I borrowed several of his books from some friends recently and have been greatly blessed by them. The following quotes from Here and Now: Living in the Spirit have spoken to my heart about our adoption journey.

“There is an intimate relationship between joy and hope. While optimism makes us live as if someday soon things will go better for us, hope frees us from the need to predict the future and allows us to live in the present, with the deep trust that God will never leave us alone but will fulfill the deepest desires of our heart.

Joy in this perspective is the fruit of hope. When I trust deeply that today God is truly with me and holds me safe in a divine embrace, guiding every one of my steps, I can let go of my anxious need to know how tomorrow will look, or what will happen next month of next year. I can be fully where I am and pay attention to the many signs of God’s love within and around me

When we trust profoundly that today is the day of the Lord and that tomorrow is safely hidden in God’s love, our faces can relax, and we can smile back at the One who smiles at us.” (p. 41-42)

“We have to keep asking ourselves: ‘What does it all mean? What is God trying to tell us? How are we called to live in the midst of all this? Without such questions our lives become numb and flat.

But are there any answers? There are, but we will never find them unless we are willing to live the questions first and trust that, as Rilke says, we will, without even noticing it, grow into the answer.” (p. 98)

“Why is it so difficult to be still and quiet and let God speak to me about the meaning of my life? Is it because I don’t trust God? Is it because I don’t know God? Is it because I wonder if God is really there for me? Is it because I am afraid of God? Is it because everything else is more real for me than God? Is it because, deep down, I do not believe that God cares what happens…” (p. 101)

“True spiritual gratitude embraces all of our past, the good as well as the bad events, the joyful as well as the sorrowful moments. From the place where we stand, everything that took place brought us to this place, and we want to remember all of it as part of God’s guidance. That does not mean that all that happened in the past was good, but it does mean that even the bad didn’t happen outside the loving presence of God.” (p. 108)

Children are gifts from God. They are given to us so that we can offer them a safe, loving place to grow to inner and outer freedom. They are like strangers who ask for hospitality, become good friends, and then leave again to continue their journey. They bring immense joy and immense sorrow precisely because they are gifts. And a good gift, as a proverb says, is “twice given.” The gift we receive, we have to give again… “our” child isn’t really “ours” but given to us to become a true gift for others….They do not belong to us. They belong to God…” (p. 166-167)

I believe that God wants me to know that my three precious children are gifts from Him, and that any future children (while not guaranteed to come) would also be gifts from Him.

God, may my hands be opened to allow You to do as You determine best.

Not my will, but Yours be done.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"I Don't Want Him to Die"

We celebrated Thanksgiving last Saturday with special friends and shared communion together. As the plate of bread was passed around the living room, our friend quietly explained to her three year old daughter that we eat the bread to remember Jesus’ broken body when He died. Rosa responded with sincere concern and innocent understanding, “I don’t want Him to die!”

It was one of the sweetest things I have ever heard. And I imagined Jesus’ death through her eyes.

From all that her three year old mind and heart knew about the blessed goodness of Jesus, and from what she understood about suffering and death, she wished that Jesus didn’t have to die.

But 2000 years ago Jesus did die. His body was broken. His blood was voluntarily poured out as the new covenant for the forgiveness of our sins (Matthew 26:28) And He passed through death to resurrected life. So that we could live the life that He offers us because He died. When He breathed His last breath on the cross, Jesus said, “It is finished.” (John 19:30). Our choice now is how we will respond to what Jesus has done.

“Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—Jesus also became flesh and blood by being born in human form. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the Devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he deliver those who have lived all their lives to the fear of dying.” (Hebrews 2:14-15)

There was no other way but through death. Jesus endured horrendous physical and emotional suffering in addition to the even more terrible and inconceivable separation of His Spirit from His Heavenly Father. The weight of the sin of the world met with God’s full wrath upon Jesus the Sinless One. As He hung on the cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) The communion of Father and Son was broken to enable us to experience communion with them.

The apostle Peter resisted the idea of Jesus’ death, just as Rosa did. After Peter identified Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God (Matthew ), Jesus “began to tell his disciples plainly that he had to go to Jerusalem, and he told them what would happen to him there. He would suffer at the hands of the leaders and the leading priests and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, and he would be raised on the third day. But Peter took him aside and corrected him, ‘Heaven forbid, Lord,’ he said. ‘This will never happen to you!’ Jesus turned to Peter and said, ‘Get away from me, Satan! You are a dangerous trap to me. You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, and not from God’s.’” (Matthew 16:21-23)

As His time drew near, the choice not to pass through suffering and death became a real struggle for Jesus Himself.  He earnestly prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, and “his sweat was like drops of blood on the ground.” (Luke 22:44). In anguish and deep distress, He sought His Father, "Might this cup be taken from me?" But there was no other way to completely fulfill the requirement of God's perfect justice. And so Jesus resolutely responded, “Yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)

This is our beloved Jesus:
“who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
(Philippians 2:6-11)

And so we have hope both in this life and in the life to come. For “we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet…For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed…When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’…But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-57)

Victory through death. May Your will be done.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Teachable Moments

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.
Love the LORD your God
with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.
Impress them on your children.
Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road,
when you lie down and when you get up.
Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.
Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”
(Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

Moses knew the Israelites were quick to forget what God wanted them to remember. He knew that they were a stiff-necked, rebellious people (not very unlike us). So he constantly reminded them of what God had done, of what He had commanded, and of all that He had promised them. He also emphasized how critically important it was to teach these truths to the next generation.

Love God with all of your being. Store up His commandments in your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them. All the time. Look for opportunities. Use physical reminders on your hands, foreheads, doorframes and gates. Don’t forget. Remember Well.

One of my favorite parts of home schooling is the amount of time our family is able to spend together.  We have ample opportunities for conflict resolution and for teachable moments. I seized one of these moments a couple of weeks ago when I discovered that the boys had brought their discussion about unfairness of chore distribution into the kitchen while Jordan and I were cleaning up after lunch. My ears detected grumbling.

So, I explained my view on the purpose of chores: a means by which everyone contributes to the family. If your workload ends up being more than another’s on a certain day, you can rejoice and not complain. You get to do more. You can be a joyful contributor! But if you carry with you a constant comparison of work and an evaluation of whether the distribution is unfair to you or not, you will be a critical complainer.

I was really feeling positive about this teachable moment with my kids on such a relevant issue, with a definite impact on what kind of people they will become in society. And I triumphantly concluded with a paraphrase of Philippians 2:14-15. “Do everything without complaining or arguing so that you shine like stars in the universe in this crooked and depraved generation!”

“They’re gone.” Jordan informed me.

Yes. She was right. I don’t know how I didn’t notice them slipping out, but CJ and Joshua had already moved on. At what point I’m not sure, but I think it was probably toward the beginning.  

“Oh well. You got it, right?” I asked Jordan.

“Yep,” she answered in typical Jordan fashion and went on with her work.

What they “get” I don’t always know. But I’m trying. I try to be attentive and discerning in those teachable moments. I want to say the “right” thing at the “right” time that will make a difference in my children’s lives. I often look back and see moments that I missed. Then I pray that God would help me next time not to be so focused on myself or on the task at hand. Other times, the moments don’t play out in the ways that I hope they will, and so I have learned the importance of being able to laugh at myself (like in this story about chores).

Two years ago, my greatest prayer request was to learn to laugh with my kids, because I knew I was taking life and home schooling too seriously. God has been helping me to relax and to enjoy them more. I really do love to laugh with them!  Motherhood is both one of my greatest joys and one of my greatest challenges. I know my children are learning from me, but I think it is probably more from how I live than from what I try to teach them.

Psalm 78 is one of my favorites about generations.

“O my people, hear my teaching;
listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in parables,
I will utter hidden things, things from of old—
what we have heard and known,
what our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children;
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD,
his power, and the wonders he has done.
He decreed statutes for Jacob
and established the law in Israel,
which he commanded our forefathers
to teach their children,
so the next generation would know them,
even the children yet to be born,
and they in turn would tell their children.
Then they would put their trust in God
and would not forget his deeds
but would keep his commands.
(v. 1-7)

I love the way this psalm ends with a description of David: “And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.” (v. 72)

One of my favorite parenting books is Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp. He says, “As the shepherd, you want to help your child understand himself as a creature made by God and for God. You cannot show him these things merely by instruction; you must lead him on a path of discovery. You must shepherd his thoughts, helping him to learn discernment and wisdom.

This shepherding process is a richer interaction than telling your child what to do and think. It involves investing your life in your child in open and honest communication that unfolds the meaning and purpose of life. It is not simply direction, but direction where there is self-disclosure and sharing. Values and spiritual vitality are not simply taught, but caught.

Proverbs says, ‘He who walks with the wise becomes wise.’ As a wise parent your objective is not simply to discuss, but to demonstrate the freshness and vitality of life lived in integrity toward God and your family. Parenting is shepherding the hearts of your children in the ways of God’s wisdom.” (xix)

Teachable moments. Lord, first help my heart to be teachable. And grant me your grace to shepherd with discernment, integrity, and vitality.

Joshua's 15th birthday celebration today

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Remember Well

“You may say to yourselves,
‘These nations are stronger then we are. How can we drive them out?’
But do not be afraid of them;
remember well what the LORD your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt.
You saw with your own eyes the great trials, the miraculous signs and wonders,
the mighty hand and outstretched arm,
with which the LORD your God brought you out.
The LORD your God will do the same to all the peoples you now fear.”
(Deuteronomy 7:17-19)

Moses knew the Israelites well. He had led them for forty years and had listened to their grumbling and complaining in the desert. His heart longed to see them trust in their God whose promises were sure and whose power was limitless.

Moses urged this younger generation of Israelites not to forget all that He had done for them, to remember all that they had seen with their own eyes. If they remembered well, they would not shrink back in fear of the peoples in the land they were about to enter, as their fathers had when the ten spies came back with this report of the Promised Land:

“We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large…We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are…The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size…We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” (Numbers 13: 27-33)

Two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, gave a much different report: “The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the LORD is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not be afraid of the people of the land because we will swallow them up. Their protection is gone, but the LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them.” (14:7-9)

But the people listened to the bad report of the ten. “That night all the people of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, ‘If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ And they said to each other, ‘We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.’” (14:1-4)

They had lost heart and had forgotten the song they sang with Moses just after they crossed the Red Sea. “And when the Israelites saw the great power of the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” (Exodus 14:31)

“I will sing to the LORD for he is highly exalted.
The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.
He is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name.
Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he has hurled into the sea.
The best of Pharaoh’s officers are drowned in the Red Sea.
 The deep waters have covered them; they sank to the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, O LORD, shattered the enemy.
In the greatness of your majesty you threw down those who opposed you.
You unleashed your burning anger; it consumed them like stubble.
By the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up.
The surging waters stood firm like a wall; the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea.
The enemy boasted, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake them. I will divide the spoils;
I will gorge myself on them. I will draw my sword and my hand will destroy them.’
But you blew with your breath, and the sea covered them. They sank like lead in the mighty waters.
Who among the gods is like you, O LORD?
Who is like you—majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?
You stretched out your right hand and the earth swallowed them.
In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed.
In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling.
The nations will hear and tremble; anguish will grip the people of Philistia.
The chiefs of Edom will be terrified; the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling,
the people of Canaan will melt away; terror and dread will fall upon them.
By the power of your arm they will be as still as a stone—until your people pass by, O LORD,
until the people you bought pass by.
You will bring them in and plant them
on the mountain of your inheritance—the place, O LORD, you made for your dwelling,
the sanctuary, O LORD, your hands established.
 The LORD will reign forever and ever.”
(Exodus 15:1-18)

Out of the older generation of Israelites who sang this song of praise and promise, only Caleb and Joshua were allowed to enter the Promised Land because they fully believed that what God had promised, He would do. As the younger generation prepared to enter this land of promise, Moses exhorted them to remember well who God was and all that He had done.

God, help us of this generation to remember well so that we don’t repeat past sins of disbelief,
so that we are not gripped with a fear of the unknown and so refuse to claim what you have promised,
so that we are awed by your glory and by your holiness,
so that we believe that you are with us and are fighting for us,
and so that we trust you with all that we have and all that we are.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

See What God Has Done!

These three passages really resonated with my heart this morning. What a GREAT God we have!

The first passage is from the second oracle of Balaam, who was summoned by Balak, King of Moab, to curse the Israelites while they were in the desert because he was afraid of what the Israelites might do to them. Instead of cursing though, Balaam could only speak blessings over these people of God.

God is not man, that he should lie, nor a son of man that he should change his mind.
Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?
I have received a command to bless; he has blessed, and I cannot change it.
No misfortune is seen in Jacob, no misery observed in Israel.
The LORD their God is with them, the shout of the king is among them.
God brought them out of Egypt; they have the strength of a wild ox.
There is no sorcery against Jacob, no divination against Israel.
It will now be said of Jacob and of Israel, “See what God has done!
(Numbers 23:19-23)

The next two passages are from Moses’ exhortation to the Israelites to remember all that God had done for them as they prepared to enter the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering in the desert, as a result of their disbelief that God could conquer the mighty people in the land He had promised to them.

Has anything so great as this ever happened or has anything like it ever been heard of?
Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived?
Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation,
by testings,
by miraculous signs and wonders,
by war,
by a mighty hand and outstretched arm,
or by great and awesome deeds,
like all the things the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?
You were shown these things so that you might know that the LORD is God;
besides him there is no other.
(Deuteronomy 32b-35)

For you are a people holy to the LORD your God.
The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth
to be his people,
his treasured possession.
The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you
because you were more numerous than other peoples,
for you were the fewest of all peoples.
But it was because the LORD loved you
and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers
that he brought you out with a mighty hand
and redeemed you from the land of slavery,
from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
Know therefore that the LORD your God is God,
he is the faithful God,
keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations
of those who love him and keep his commands.
(Deuteronomy 7:6-9)

May it also be said of us today, who have been redeemed by His mighty hand,
See what God has done!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Worship God

CJ gave me permission to share his worldview paper from our Starting Points class. I really appreciate the way he is wrestling with these foundational issues and the way he expresses his thoughts!

Worship God - My Personal Worldview: 
What is my personal worldview? My “mental model of the world or subjective representation of external reality”?[1]  To answer that question, I must explore the core and foundation of my personal beliefs, those presuppositions that determine my understanding of and outlook on life. At the center of my being, I find one all-encompassing truth: God. This comes as no surprise since I believe that my very nature, as that of all humanity, is created in the image of God. (Gen 1:27)[2] My belief in Him forms the ultimate cornerstone upon which all else hinges: the nature of the universe, the nature of man, the basis of morality, the cause of evil and suffering, life after death and the meaning of history.  In fact, at the center of each and every one of our worldviews lurks some sort of god: money, fame, the universe, an impersonal “Force,” a supernatural being or even ourselves. We may not call them gods, but they fulfill that purpose as the supreme, determining factor for our meaning in life.

Who is the God that I worship? He calls himself Yahweh, I Am Who I Am. (Ex 3:14) He created the world; “through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made.” (Jn 1:3) Since He authored everything, nothing can limit Him. He exists forever, unbound by time or space. The Bible displays Him as infinitely glorious, “'To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?' says the Holy One.” (Is 40:25) Truly, we wonder with David, “What is man that you are mindful of him?” (Ps 8:4) Our minds become completely blown away when we realize that the Creator of the universe has revealed himself to us personally. As a completely holy and just God, He cannot tolerate the slightest evil. Yet He also shows us an unfathomable mercy, displaying a “love that surpasses knowledge.” (Eph 3:19) We clearly see this dual-nature of His character in Isaiah 57:15, “For this is what the high and lofty One says – He who lives forever, whose name is holy: 'I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit.'” God is both infinite, more than anything we could imagine in our wildest dreams, and personal, giving us the privilege to be called His children.

We see both God's infinite power and His personal love expressed in creation. “For he spoke, and it came to be.” (Ps 33:9) By His word, the heavens and earth came into existence. He made the universe for one supreme purpose, to reveal His glory. “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” (Rev 4:11) We see His fingerprints all over creation. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Ps 19:1) God did not create a chaotic or meaningless world nor did He make it permanent. His commands, which we interpret as natural laws, hold the universe in place. Because of our belief in a finely-tuned and orderly universe, we pursue the study of science to discover the intricate beauty of His creation. However, we do not fall prey to the common deception that only that which can be seen constitutes reality. Just as we know that the universe was created out of nothing for God's glory, so we also believe that one day the universe as we know it will be returned to nothing also for His glory. “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Cor 4:18)

God made only one of His works in his very own likeness, man. He epitomized in man the contrast between the seen and unseen worlds, for He both formed him from the dust of the ground (composing man's physical body) and also breathed into his nostrils the breath of life (the basis of what we call man's soul and spirit).  Because of Adam's fall however, man not only experienced physical death but more significantly suffered spiritual death. He no longer enjoyed the intimate fellowship with God that existed in the Garden of Eden. “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins... like the rest we were by nature objects of wrath.” (Eph 2:1,3) The Bible expresses the universal nature of sin and its subsequent punishment in the well-known verses, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23) and “the wages of sin is death.” (Rom 6:23a) Yet the story did not end there, for the same verse goes on to say, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Paul further explained the relationship between spiritual death and redemption, “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.” (Rom 5:18) Thus God did not leave man to his fate of spiritual death in sin but rather by His grace, through the sacrifice of His son, gave man a second chance to “participate in the divine nature.” (2 Pe 1:4)

What does it mean to “participate in the divine nature”? The apostle John gave us significant insight when he said that “whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did”. (I Jn 2:6) Our ability to live in accordance to God's commands, and in essence model our lives after His own, constitutes one of the most important aspects of salvation. God's commands, which are a reflection of His own character, provide the universal distinction between right and wrong. In our present world, where people more than ever  revel in their own self-proclaimed right to define morality, we must hold strong to this inexorable conviction: Absolute truth exists! Those who proudly reject absolute morality will lose their now confident assurance when they bow before the judgment seat of God. In fact, we know that relative morality can not claim complete accuracy, since if all people could define morality on an individual basis, that would in and of itself comprise an absolute moral. If we accept the existence of a higher law for human ethics, then it becomes critical for us to discover and live according to its decrees. Can there be a more perfect law than that ordained by our holy Creator recorded for us in His Word? His very nature is our definition of good, and because of our fallen sinful nature, it is only through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in us that we have the desire and ability to live up to His law code, the basis for absolute morality.

The rampant suffering we see in our world today directly results from man's disobedience of God. Though neither sin nor suffering originated with God, since the very definition of sin consists of a violation of God's nature, He not only allows it to take place but also inflicts punishment on the world as a result. Many people cite sin as a reason to doubt God's all-good and all-powerful nature; why didn't He stop sin from entering the world in the first place? As a believer, I trust God's Word fully and do not doubt His character, yet I also do not possess a completely satisfying answer to this question. I must accept that certain aspects of life will be mysteries for us for which we must wait until heaven to completely understand. I do know that His will is best, that He created man with a natural inclination towards good and that temptation came in the form of an outside force, namely Satan. However, man's own volitional disobedience must accept the blame for the propagation of evil and the consequent death it brought. Some people act as if God could stop sin in our world today with a simple snap of His fingers, ignoring centuries of atrocity. Such a view fails to recognize the absolute holiness of God, for He can only deal with sin in light of His justice. We do know that one day God will judge the world, just as He destroyed the world of Noah's time through the Flood. However, “the Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pe 3:9)

The question of a future life after death has intrigued the minds of men ever since creation. Man's answer to this extremely consequential question shapes his purpose in life more than that of any other. His understanding of the hereafter creates obvious ramifications for the meaning of his present life. The Biblical depiction of the afterlife revolves around the concept of judgment and consequent eternal destinations. Jesus referred to that great splitting of the nations as the division of the sheep and goats. (Mt 25:31-46) All men will stand before the throne of God and be “judged according to what they had done”. (Rev 20:12) All who find their names recorded in the Book of Life will dwell with God forever in heaven. “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21:3-4) However, the picture is less promising for those who do not find their names in the Book of Life. Unbelievers will be thrown into hell or the lake of fire, eternally separated from the presence of God. There they will suffer forever in the blackest darkness, where there will be much “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. (Mt 8:12) Either way, eternal consequences lie in wait for all humanity.

The future, past and present all point to God, as we see that all of history proclaims His story. The entirety of history, both the visible and invisible portions, can be described as a meaningful sequence of events held firmly in God's hands. We can view history most significantly through the eyes of a transcendent spiritual warfare between God and Satan affecting mankind collectively and individually.  As Christians we know that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 6:12) This unseen battle between the forces of good and evil provides the sublime canvas upon which the history of our world is drawn. One day, the two sides will compete in an ultimate showdown for “either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives”[3] Unfortunately for Satan the outcome has already been determined, “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1 Cor 15:54) Though the Bible calls Satan the “god of this age” (2 Cor 4:4), we know that one day Jesus will come in glorious power and completely defeat all the armies of evil. How will He achieve this? First we know that “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come”. (Mt 24:14) In the end times described in Revelation, antichrists, beasts and false prophets will arise on the earth to blaspheme God. During this culmination of evil, God will pour out His wrath and punishment through natural disasters, famine, plagues, war and many other horrible kinds of suffering. At the end of this time of tribulation the dead will be judged, some descending to the lake of fire and others dwelling forever with God in “a new heaven and a new earth”. (Rev 21:1)

In conclusion, one truth permeates my entire worldview, providing the answer to every question, under-girding all of the philosophical assumptions: God. Yet, not the pure, abstract existence of God, rather, my personal interaction with Him and His supreme influence on my life forms the focal point or starting point of my worldview. One word sums up this relationship with God: Worship. Worship is the only appropriate response that we can give to the “King of Kings and Lord of Lords”. (Rev 19:16) Scripture from beginning to end points to our worship and praise of God. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, worship will abide forever. Worship is the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is ultimate, because God is ultimate.[4] He is the Alpha and Omega of my worldview, giving meaning to the past, purpose to the present and hope for the future.

[1]    Alvin Toffler, Future Shock (New York: Bantam, 1971), p.155
[2]    All Scripture references and quotations are taken from the New International Version (NIV), (International Bible Society, 1984)
[3]    J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, p.841
[4]    Last 3 sentences paraphrased from John Piper's, Let the Nations Be Glad, (Baker Books, 1996), p.11

Monday, October 31, 2011

Eyes That Can See

“We see things not as they are but as we are.” (Anais Nin)

When surrounded by King Aram’s mighty army, Elisha prayed that God would open the eyes of his fearful servant. And “the LORD opened his servant’s eyes, and when he looked up, he saw that the hillside around Elisha was filled with horses and chariots of fire.” (2 Kings 6:17) God’s army was there all along, but the servant’s eyes were opened so he could see what had been invisible to him and take courage. He then believed what Elisha had said, that “there are more on our side than on theirs.” (v. 16)

When Hagar was forced to take Ishmael into the wilderness, they wandered aimlessly until their water supply was depleted. Hagar was convinced that they would die, but the angel of God spoke to her by name, and promised her that her son’s descendents would become a great nation. “Then God opened Hagar’s eyes, and she saw a well. She immediately filled her container and gave the boy a drink.” (Genesis 21:19)

Our God is a personal God, who is our protector and provider. Everything works according to His perfect plan, and we have the promise of ultimate victory!

Part of our home school curriculum this year is called Starting Points, and we have been blessed over the last nine weeks to learn about and develop a Biblical worldview. One of the foundations of this worldview is that we live in a world that has both visible and invisible components. There is so much more to life than what we see with our physical eyes!

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “So we don’t look at the troubles we can see right now; rather we look forward to what we have not yet seen. For the troubles we see will soon be over, but the joys to come will last forever.” (2 Corinthians 4:18)

The author of the book of Hebrews wrote:“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1)

One of our heroes in this inspiring faith chapter is Moses, who “chose to share the oppression of God’s people instead of enjoying the fleeting pleasures of sin. He thought it was better to suffer for the sake of the Messiah than to own the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to the great reward that God would give him. It was by faith that Moses left the land of Egypt. He was not afraid of the king. Moses kept right on going because he kept his eyes on the one who is invisible.” (Hebrews 11:25-27)

All of the heroes of the faith encourage us to focus our lives and endure hardships, by keeping our eyes on Jesus. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down especially the sin that so easily hinders our progress. And let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from start to finish. He was willing to die a shameful death on the cross because of the joy he knew would be his afterward. Now he is seated in the place of highest honor beside God’s throne in heaven.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

And when Jesus returns, He will take us to the home He has prepared for us in heaven, where we will join with all the saints in giving Him praise, honor, and glory, and we will share in His joy forever!

Lord, open our eyes to see all that You want us to see right now, as we look forward to that day when we will see Your face (Revelation 22:4), and be made like You when we see You as You really are (1 John 3:2).

“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Empty Hands

Last night our family ate dinner at the night market, a popular spot in Lanzhou for all kinds of local street food. We ate bowls of spinach noodles (Charly’s and my favorite) at one stall, and drank hot milk/egg drinks with nuts (Jordan’s favorite) along with spicy mutton sticks (CJ’s and Joshua’s favorite) at another stall.

At the first stall, a man sitting at our table stood up and left with a bowl of half-eaten noodles at his place. Immediately, a beggar appeared and our eyes met. I’ve never seen eyes so hungry and desperate for food. He took the man’s place and quickly consumed those noodles before moving on silently into the night.

At the second stall, we observed the man sitting across from us, wearing a slick leather jacket and talking into his IPad. He was enveloped in an air of self-sufficiency. A different beggar appeared at his side and would not leave. The man felt annoyed and called out to the owner of the stall, as he waved his chopsticks in the air, “Do something about this beggar here!” He clearly did not want to be bothered with the lowest of the low. So, the beggar slipped away to find another table, with hopefully someone more compassionate to his needs.

The man at our table had his hands full. The beggar who ate another’s leftovers had hands that were empty. One seemed to have no needs; the other was keenly aware of them. And Jesus loves them both.

The wealthy man reminded me of the rich young ruler who asked Jesus what he had to do to get eternal life (Mark 10:17). Jesus told him to sell what he had, give the money to the poor, and then follow Him. “At this, the man’s face fell, and he went away sadly because he had many possessions.” (v. 22) As I reflected on this passage and the man across from us who seemed to have everything, God impressed this verse upon my heart: “Jesus felt genuine love for this man as he looked at him.” (v. 21)

I think when Jesus said, “How hard it is for rich people to get into the Kingdom of God!” (v. 23) and compared that difficulty with a camel trying to fit through the eye of a needle, he meant that the rich naturally have hands that are full. And, our hands must be empty (like that of a beggar’s) before we can receive the gift of eternal life.

We need to be able to hold all of our possessions and treasures on this earth with open hands before God, and to be willing for Him to take them and use them as He sees best. Job responded to incredible loss in his life by worshipping God and declaring, “I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be stripped of everything when I die. The Lord gave me everything I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord!” (Job )

We have to recognize our desperate, sinful state (we are actually the lowest of the low), our thirstiness, and our need for Jesus before He can give us a new life, quench our thirst, and fill us with Himself. He delights to do this because He loves us! He came to save us from the wrath of God, that we deserve as the consequence of our sin, because we are unable to save ourselves.

The rebuke for the church at Laodecia applies to many of us today: “You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” (Revelation 3:17)

But God’s promise remains: “To all who are thirsty I will give the springs of the water of life without charge! All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children.” (Revelation 21:6b-7)

Lord, may You receive our open, empty hands and satisfy us with what You know that we need, and with “infinitely more than we would dare to ask or hope” (Ephesians 2:20b). Help us not to be full of things on this earth, but may our treasure be in heaven. You are all that we need.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

It's About God

“Even in this free fall of pain, I’ve landed on a solid foundation and my faith has held…on most days. I have learned that God is good…always. Hope is real. I have found—even in the awful pain of tears and grief so intense you think it will kill you—that my family and I can do hard. We’ll never get over our loss, but we’re getting through it. And so I have prayed that our journey through the shadows of loss might be of some help to those who have experienced similar pain…that our stewardship of this story would comfort many.

But I need to be clear. This book isn’t just about the spring day when Steven and I lost our precious Maria Sue in a terrible accident. It’s about a story…a story God is writing. All along the way, He has changed my story in ways I didn’t like. I’ve had whole chapters added and deleted and strange plot twists that I never saw coming.

The truth is I was born with a plan. I wanted life to be safe and predictable. My plan was to marry someone with a nice nine-to-five schedule and have a tidy, organized life—everything under control.

Absolutely none of that came true!

And if it had—if I had lived the life I thought that I had wanted—I know I wouldn’t have experienced the grace or the miracles of God in the ways that I have. What I’ve found is that it’s in the most unlikely times and places of hurt and chaos that God gives us a profound sense of His presence and the real light of His hope in the dark places.

So this book isn’t so much about me and Steven, as broken and crazy as we are. It’s about God…and how He can comfort, carry, and change us on our journey, no matter how hard it is.” (p.24-25)

“I’ve walked through the valley of death’s shadow
So deep and dark that I could barely breathe
I’ve had to let go of more than I could bear
And questioned everything that I believe
But still even here in this great darkness
A comfort and hope come breaking through
As I can say in life or death, God we belong to you.”
("Yours" verse added after Maria’s death. Words and music by Steven Curtis Chapman and Jonas Myrin)

“Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory.” (William Barclay)

“Shattered dreams are never random. They are always a piece in a larger puzzle, a chapter in a larger story. The Holy Spirit uses the pain of shattered dreams to help us discover our desire for God, to help us begin dreaming the highest dream. They are ordained opportunities for the Spirit to awaken, then to satisfy our highest dream.” (Larry Crabb)

“Love of God is pure when joy and suffering inspire an equal degree of gratitude.” (Simone Weil)

“A person who lives in faith must proceed on incomplete evidence, trusting in advance what will only make sense in reverse.” (Philip Yancey)

“Even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of wisdom and strength for the journey that still lies ahead.” (Fredrick Buechner)

“Hope waits but does not sit. It strains with eager anticipation to see what may be coming on the horizon. Hope does not pacify; it does not make us docile and mediocre. Instead it draws us to greater risk and perseverance.” (Dan Allender)


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