Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Testing, Testing....

Back to school! A fresh start, new notebooks and pens, some new clothes, shoes, and a change in the weather make this a favorite time of the year for me. Since my kids start back waaaay before Labor Day, we're well into it now, and they've all even had tests. Tests are and never were my favorite. As much as I loved school, it took me a long time--really until college--to learn how to be a good student, and how to study for tests.

After a message at church a few weeks ago about Joseph (the one with the pretty coat) the idea of tests and testing has been on my mind. After he as appointed a big wig in Egypt and he saved Egypt from a famine, his brothers came to see him, not knowing he was him. Following so far? It says in Genesis (a great story, starting at chapter 37) that Joseph tested his brothers. And at church, our pastor suggested that Joseph's character can be seen as a God role, and the brothers would be us in the story. I thought, "hmmm. God tests us? Does it say He does that?" I've heard about Job, where God allowed Satan to test him, but I never considered God being the tester.

I did a search of the word "test" in the whole Bible. (Careful there, the search brought up any word with test in it, so there's some rules about testicles in Leviticus. Learning something everyday! blech.) God is indeed a tester. He tested Abraham, He tested the Israelites in the desert, He tested the men who wanted to go into battle with Gideon, He tested Hezekiah, to see what was really in his heart. That's all in the Old Testament, you say? True, but God is unchanging.

In the New Testament, we can read that there will be a sorting or separating of wheat from chaff. That sounds like some testing will be involved. (Luke 3:17) How about this little passage from Paul: "Anyone who builds on that foundation may use a variety of materials—gold, silver, jewels, wood, hay, or straw. But on the judgment day, fire will reveal what kind of work each builder has done. The fire will show if a person’s work has any value. If the work survives, that builder will receive a reward. But if the work is burned up, the builder will suffer great loss. The builder will be saved, but like someone barely escaping through a wall of flames." (I Corinthians 3:12-15 NLT) And James tells us, "Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing." (James 1:2-4 NLT)

When Jesus came to earth and lived as a human, He had a fully human experience, and was also tested. He spent 40 days in the desert and was tempted by Satan. (Luke 4: 1-13) Being late in the game at figuring out how to test well in school, I want to get these tests of my heart right. I believe Jesus showed us by example how to take and pass the tests. Every time Satan spoke to Jesus, His reply began, "The Scriptures say..."

I must know the Word, I must remember the Word, I must say the Word, and repeat the promises that I know are true, because they're in the Word.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The End of the World As We KNow It?

I heard some discussion on the radio about folks predicting Jesus will be returning on some near specific date. Didn't hear the exact date, sorry to let you down, I wish there was a rewind button on my radio. Maybe in 2012, just like the movie that came out last year? This disturbs me. I remember in 1988, there were lots of Christians believing it would happen that fall. It disturbed me then, too. So much so that I quit going to my college classes, and spent all my time hanging out with friends, doing what I wanted to do, and not doing anything that I needed to do. There were some costly consequences for my poor decisions that fall, and still more than 20 years later, I examine how I let myself believe my own lies....

I wonder how this kind of talk is impacting young people today. Is it changing their perspective? I just finished a book that took place during the Blitz in WW2, and people living in London during that time must have thought the end was in front of them (and indeed for millions of people, their world literally WAS shattered). In a time of war, survival is all that drives people. Taking classes, making a living, looking good, taking care of mere possessions, none of this matters. Some of the things that we think are important become so small. What does a young person today think is important while there is chatter in the background of life about 2012? (and I'm not talking about the Presidential election, yawn yawn.)

Regardless of how we think it's all going to come to an end, how are followers of Christ are called to respond to the end approaching? I've studied Revelation, though not super recently, and I think the main point of the book is that there is an urgency to share the Good News. There is hope. We have a Savior. God is offering the hugest gift, that matters in times of war, and in times of blessing. Have we told everyone we know about the gift? Is that important to us?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

All Things Equal?

Our family has gotten to know a few kids over the last couple of years who come from very different homes than ours. They're growing up in such difficult circumstances. Missing Dads, stepdads in jail, Moms working the graveyard shift in factories, food stamps, months that start with lots of money and a kitchen full of food--ending with empty cupboards and no money. None for the $5 field trip, or for a pack of gum. I was watching kids make their way down to the bus stop this morning, and wondering how this happens, that in that big group, there can be such disparity.

I recalled a heated conversation I had years ago in a college Sociology class about equal opportunity, and how that's one of the things that makes America great. The frustration comes when there may be equal opportunity, but there is not equal experience. Opportunities are there for these kids; they are getting educated, for example, but is it equal to what my kid standing at the same bus stop is getting? When my kid was a baby, I was reading to him, and singing the alphabet with him. I was doing all the things they recommended, feeding him well, sleeping him well, engaging with him. What about his friend? He grew up with drugs, and fighting, and I don't know what all.... So yes, he's getting a public education, but his starting point is so different.

This is heartbreaking. Should I feel guilty about what we have? Maybe not, but I do, a little. Do others have less because of bad choices? Yes, probably, but whose choices? When did it start? Was there never an equal footing? So then I begin to wonder if this idea of "equal opportunity" is just another very Western concept, like "privacy," something we kind of think we have a right to, because of the culture we're in. I don't know. It got me asking what God thinks about equality? What does the Bible say about it?

I did a very quick search of the word "equal" on Biblegateway.com (this is a great site, by the way) just to get an idea of how often and in what context the word shows up in the Bible. Here's what I found:
There's lots of instructions, "divide these things equally..."; there's God asking Job and Isaiah, "Is there any equal to Me?...."; there's the Pharisees upset that Jesus would claim to be equal to God. Finally, there's a parable that caught my attention, about workers all getting paid an equal amount for unequal workloads. And Jesus ties that parable up with a bow in Matthew 20:16, saying, "So the last will be first and the first will be last." Hmmm. It's not completely satisfying to me, watching the kid at the bus stop with a not-warm-enough jacket. I mean big, eternal picture, yes, it is satisfying. It's a relief to know that God has this kid, He sees, He knows. But today, in the cold wind, not as much. The cold is temporary, I know, but it's also very real. The pain is real.

The last "equal" on the list is in 2 Corinthians 8, where Paul is writing to the folks in Corinth about taking up a collection for the Lord's people. He is encouraging them to see their commitment through, to give willingly to those who need. Paul says it this way:
Here is my advice: It would be good for you to finish what you started a year ago. Last year you were the first who wanted to give, and you were the first to begin doing it. Now you should finish what you started. Let the eagerness you showed in the beginning be matched now by your giving. Give in proportion to what you have. Whatever you give is acceptable if you give it eagerly. And give according to what you have, not what you don’t have. Of course, I don’t mean your giving should make life easy for others and hard for yourselves. I only mean that there should be some equality. Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal. As the Scriptures say,
“Those who gathered a lot had nothing left over,
and those who gathered only a little had enough.” (2 Corinthians 8:10-15, NLT)

The Scriptures that Paul is quoting are from Exodus, when God provided manna to the Israelites in the wilderness. Remember that story? No one was able to collect more than they needed, and no one was lacking. There, in the desert, there was real equality, because God provided it. But in the New Testament, and today, there are some with lots, and some with little. And God does provide today, through us. So I will feed these kids when they're here at my house, and I will try to help them know they are valued and loved. And this is where faith comes in, I have to trust that while I do the bit that I can, God is working in the mighty, big-picture, eternal way that I cannot.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

In Hot Pursuit

While out for breakfast with friends the other morning, we got to talking about the idea that people everywhere are searching for God. That's why we have so many different religions and beliefs out there; we were made to search for something bigger and greater than us, and while all paths do not necessarily lead to the One God, all paths are trying to find a god. I'm not an expert of world religions, as a matter of fact, I understand very little about other faiths.

I get a little twitchy when it comes to discussions of other religions, partly because of my lack of knowledge. But also because while I want to be loving, I really can't embrace the whole you-do-it-your-way-and-I'll-do-it-my-way thing, since Jesus says He is the ONLY way. Either I believe that's true, or I don't. And if I believe that's true, by gum, I have an obligation to tell you so that you don't miss out. But in telling others, I can step indelicately, hurt feelings, and come off decidedly un-Jesuslike.

The one thing I do know that makes Christianity different, is that while we're all searching and thinking that we're finding a god, only the LORD--the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob--desires to be in relationship with us. He actually pursues us. I said as much that day at breakfast, and have been mulling that thought over ever since. Then this morning in my homework for a study I'm doing on the book of Jonah, I was reminded of three parables Jesus told to illustrate that while we're seeking, or even when we aren't seeking Him, He loves us and wants us to be in relationship with Him. It's amazing!

In one chapter of Luke, Jesus tells these three stories to a gathering of all kinds of people. Tax collectors, sinner-types, and religious leaders and scholars, so we know these stories are meant for all of us to hear. Check it out:
Luke 15
Parable of the Lost Sheep
Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them!
So Jesus told them this story: “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he will joyfully carry it home on his shoulders. When he arrives, he will call together his friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!

Parable of the Lost Coin
“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and sweep the entire house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she will call in her friends and neighbors and say, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents.”

Parable of the Lost Son
To illustrate the point further, Jesus told them this story: “A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons. “A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.

“When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’

“So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’

“But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, and he asked one of the servants what was going on. ‘Your brother is back,’ he was told, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf. We are celebrating because of his safe return.’

“The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’

“His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’”

I'm grateful for the lesson this morning in my study, because it's a reminder that in following Christ, I do find God, THE God who has been searching for me, and throws a party every time one of the lost ones makes their way to Him.