Friday, September 30, 2011

The Fangs that Deliver Passion

Slow movement in still, dark leaves, a short bright hiss, and a sharp pain...venom leaks from fang to flesh and rank poison rushes in circulation with life's blood, killing as it tries to nourish. In another place, however, under a laboratory's light, doctors use the same snake venom to treat high blood pressure and cancerous tumors. What kills, then, can also heal, but how to bend the deadly and dreadful to a purpose constructive and good?

First, recognize the poison:
I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of our lives. I undertook great projects...I tried cheering myself with wine...I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom...everything was meaningless, a chasing after wind.--Ecclesiastes 2:3,4,12,11

Sometimes fangs deliver passion. My zest to accomplish, my desire to make, to build, to grow, to enjoy, all belongs to a life that eventually ends. I know that my calculated accomplishments will fall to dust, but I continue to reach out for them. Passion feels right. It hisses and uncoils so near to me that I let it bite time after time. Feelings this strong must surely belong to me, a proper part of who I am.

But the snake is never kind. It does not build, it destroys. No matter how attractive passion looks, it still belongs to the serpent and the serpent's nature kills. The snake forever remains the snake, and its mouth opens in rank greed for my soul. Only You can turn passion to constructive use.

I must remember the picture of Your passion--arms spread wide receiving simultaneous death and victory. My passion delivers only me to a summit of sand that collapses in a dark whisper. Your passion delivers You to Your rightful place in eternity. The hill I climb must be Yours, not mine. My determined face must set itself not inward, but toward Calvary.

Thought for today: What are you passionate about and who does it exalt?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Still in Eden...

Stop. Right where you are, and look around. Don't say a word; just look. Now close your eyes. and stay there for a while. What do you hear? What sensation activates your skin? Listen for your heartbeat. Can you hear it?...soft thumps that leap unbidden somewhere within. You can slow them if you want. Concentrate.

Now take this new place and populate it. Let it fill with Eden--not with more distraction from gardens or new animals, but with God who walks with you in the cool of the day. Fill up every clear place with His presence and let Him have you. Remember His first desire for you:

You shall have no other Gods before me.--Exodus 20:3
Worship the Lord and serve Him only--Matthew 4:10

God put men first in a garden next to the Tree of Life. Only two humans lived there and God was every day with them. They knew Him in every motion and He filled every aware moment.

He still waits for us there, but He will not clear your mind and motion to make room for Himself. You and I have crowded Him out. Only we can sweep away with broad strokes what impedes His path to our hearts and minds. Shreds of Eden remain and our God still walks there in footsteps that beckon, "Follow Me."

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Waiting for the Second Cry

Bright pain, muscles involuntarily heaving, a rush of blood and water, and another human being is born. The baby draws first breath and begins his life, most often with a cry. He takes possession of the first of his days , seeing and feeling, moving and exclaiming. He knows his life and will not give it up easily. I have sometimes measured the pace of my own breaths or, in particularly focused times, heard the rush of blood pacing the beats of my own heart. Life is physical, palpable, and so very real.

It also slides inevitably to final conclusion, usually lasting eighty years, more or less--long years of failure and triumph, all belonging to me, all trailing behind like dust I track in on my boots. Somewhere during my years, I found You. This is where I am supposed to say everything changed, but it didn't. Only some things did. I moved over, shared my life with You, and found You beautiful, generous, forgiving, and just. I learned to measure my life, not against other humans, but against Yours.

Yes, You became a man so that I could know what kind of man to be. But You have more:

Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God--children born not of natural descent, or of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God--John 1:12-13
I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.--John 3:3

I am too concerned with the moments of my life--how I spend them, how even I sacrifice them. You wait for the time when I care less about my life in You and more about Your life in me. You say I am born again, but this birth is not another human birth with a new twist. It does not give me another life. It ordains instead Your life in me.

My new birth does not create a new, holy version of me. My new birth isn't mine at all--it's Yours, taking on my flesh, You becoming part of me completely, the only way Your perfection allows. If I am made holy, it is not because I live in You, but because You live in me. If I cry this time, I cry with wonder.

Thought for today: If you are born again, what exactly has been born in you?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Whose Life is it, Anyway?

Sixty years ago today, amid bright pulsing pain and a rush of blood and water, my mother gave me birth. I drew my first breath in this world, saw first light, knew cold. I cried then and, for the first time, consciously lived. I did nothing to initiate this, but grasped it with both hands. Life. My life. Mine.

For sixty years, I have marked time by the beat of my own heart, commanded long muscle to move, watched my own coalescing breath. I have married and borne children of my own, bought and sold, learned, then spoken and written. I have desired and acted on those desires. By the sheer power of my own will, I have changed the world. I have LIVED.

I know You gave me this life. Men and women can will union, but not its product. The creation of life's spark belongs to You alone. And so with mine. You made this life specifically for me, then gave it to me as a gift. Or did You?

For a long time, it seemed so. But slowly, I lost possession. You began to take it back. I know when this started. It began the first time I called you Lord. You showed me how desire became sin, then made me push it away in disgust. You showed me how will becomes stubborn disobedience and wrenched me from it. You turned my steps down only Your path. Every day, by your command, I shrink. Soon, I may disappear, become a star that simply fades against a velvet background and eventually winks out. What is happening to my life?

For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that His life may be revealed in our mortal body.--2Corinthians 4:11
He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.--1John 5:12

You gave me this life; now You take it back, not to leave me with nothing, but to replace it with something greater. You gave me this life so that I understand not how great it is, but how great You are. Once I know You, really know you, You will take my life completely back and give me Yours in its place. I want this, but tremble and hold on. I do not know any more where I end and You begin, but my grip loosens daily. Some day, some sweet day, my fingers will fall open.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

My Father's Orchard

Early evening sun sinks into red western skies. A farmer walks through lush orchards--the harvest nears. Row after long row stretch out before him. He planted them with his own expectant, prayerful hands years ago, when time stretched as far before him as his dreams. Now, he can count the number of harvests that remain to him on his own fingers. He approaches the end.

The orchard will live after him, but he has no son, no child to work what he so carefully built. There were sons, but they moved on to other places. They had their own dreams.

"No thanks, Dad."
"It's too much work."
"I can't make enough money."
"Are you kidding? I've been stuck here long enough."

Without attention, his orchard will sink into unproductive wilderness but, more than that, when his sons reject the orchards, they reject him. Everything he'd tried to teach them originated with these trees.

You do the same.

Yet to all who received Him, to all who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.--John 1:12

To the ancient patriarchs, You reigned as God, great and terrible. They served You, You dealt with their sins, and they knew the terrible weight of disobedience. They lived at arm's length from You, never in Your embrace.

But to me, you offer kinship. I can flourish in Your love and inherit Your favor. But I have to receive what You offer, what You built for me, as my own because it came from You. You gave me life and grew the great trees that You mean to hold it up. You did the planting, nourishing, and pruning, and You hand it to me as a gift. I have only to reach out my hand.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Laying Down the Knife

Blood stained the temple court, ran down the arms of the priests as they performed their grisly work. They smelled of briny entrails and dank bile. Shiny intestines uncoiled beneath their hands and fell in heavy, liquid slaps against dark tiles. Broad slabs of fresh-killed meat dripped red as Your servants sang daily repentance and praise. Hair and fat and cast-off organs piled in fly-blown mounds outside the city gates, the sad products of commanded sacrifice. They, God's elect, smelled unceasingly of the kill.

Bloody sacrifice, though, brought hope. Through it, ancient Jews hoped to approach You. The gate through which they might find forgiveness for their sins ran unfailingly red and unforgiving heat baked it into high stench, but the trail of sacrifice, they knew, led the only way they knew to You. You told them they had to kill to be saved, so they killed and killed and killed.

Then You came. You made sure they were paying attention when You taught them about love and about obedience and about humility and mercy. You made sure they heard when you condemned pride and hypocrisy. Then you made them watch and listen when You ended their incessant bloody sacrifice with Your own. They heard You say what they had memorized, "My God, My God..." and then You declared in triumphant shout so that no one could misunderstand, "It is finished..." You rocked their world with earthquake and rent the veil of their separation from You.

What relief must they have known when You told them that Your sacrifice would be the last! Your death delivered them all. And then You rose to show them its beautiful result. Now, whoever accepts Your death as their own deliverance also rises in glory with You. Blood no longer runs in our temples. Instead, the cross rises before our eyes...

In Him you have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with God's grace.--Ephesians 1:7

Friday, September 16, 2011

Into the Crusher

We are picking grapes at the winery this month. From the top of the first hill, rows roll out with regimented precision in every direction, vines fully leafed and hanging heavy with fruit. Soon after dawn on every harvesting day, hands reach beneath the leaves to grab clusters greedily up and drop them into first small bins that hold only thirty pounds, then into larger ones that hold a thousand and more. They line up, bin after bin, until ton upon ton of grapes crowd the crushing shed, the literal fruit of long labor, the promise of next summer's wine.

I like to stand in the crushing shed on those days and, ignoring thieving bees, long to plunge bare arms into expectant fruit, feeling their slick juice, inhaling their tart fragrance. I could stand there forever sometimes, just marveling at the sheer quantity of them, trying to record a moment of this to bring out later when snow and grey skies cover the hills. Surely this is something only You could have done. No combination of my efforts, or indeed of any man, could have caused this plenty, this extravagance. You conceived this harvest from the beginning and as such, it reflects Your grandeur.

But the harvest is not a stagnant thing. If the grapes sit there long enough, they rot. If they are to serve any good purpose, we have to crush them. And so You do with your own harvest....Your harvest of men. Your promise for men does not end with the fruit, either. You want to make us into clear, sparkling wine.

I will put my Spirit in you, and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. I will save you from all your uncleanness. You will remember your evil ways and wicked deeds and you will loathe yourselves for your sins and detestable practices. I want you to know that I am not doing this for your sake. The nations around you that remain will know that I, the Lord, have rebuilt what was destroyed and replanted what was desolate--Ezekiel 36:27,29,31

You crush the fruit of Your own hands. You make men face their shame, their faults, and we are destroyed before You. Then you take our juice, the clear result of Your refining, and make of it something new and beautiful, rich and full of perfect flavor. We come through your winepress changed, clear and holy, and You offer us the brimming cup of what You have made of us, a drink we can share.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Toward Bethany

I woke up this morning, like you did, opened my eyes, and took a first conscious breath. I still lived. I rejoice in that and no wonder. Life is a great gift. At the same time, however, I know what still waits. The days of my life are numbered and today, one fewer of them remains.

Life, in fact, frames itself in deaths. Not only does physical ability decline, but the cross also casts its relentless shadow. My flesh eventually fails on its own, but Your example of sacrifice says that I must voluntarily kill my independent will. I must join You there, on the cross.

I don't want to do this, of course, but that's because I have not looked far enough ahead. You not only tell me to die with You, You tell me to rise with You.

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which He has called you, the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints and His incomparably great power for all who believe. That power is like the working of His mighty strength which He exerted in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly realms.--Acts 1:11

You created me in Your image and want me to follow You. Your path lead to Calvary and so does my own. I daily work out my salvation, my own death to sin and self-indulgence. But Your path came through the empty tomb and straight to Bethany, where you ascended in the power You always possessed, but did not exercise.

Bethany waits for me, too. My physical life's days tick off one by one, but Your power lifts me from their progress toward death. As I lay down the days of my life before You, You raise me to Your side. My own ascension will not come through practical or physical victory, it comes only in greater proximity to You.

You told me that You will take me to be where You are. So I look to You, and walk toward Bethany.

Thought for today: Toward what destination are you walking?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

But Even if He Does Not

Ten years ago tomorrow, I began the day as I did every week day--leading the seventh grade in devotions. I remember that the students were a bit more agitated than usual because it was Jenny's birthday and as she was one of the first to turn thirteen, they all celebrated with her their own maturation into eventual adulthood. Yes, we would celebrate, but God had something to say to us first.

I opened my Bible. The reading for that day detailed the predicament of three young men in ancient Babylon, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, sentenced to be thrown by order of the king into a raging fire because they would not worship a golden idol. We read this:

O, Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and He will rescue us from your hand, O King. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O King, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.--Daniel 3:16-18

As we read it, the school secretary opened our classroom door and told us to come into the common room--something had happened. And, along with everyone else, we watched replays of the first collapse and then the second. The images of that day's smoke and fire echoed the furnace room in Babylon. Young eyes bright with terrible confusion asked "Why?" But You had already told us.

This then, was where the rubber met the road of our faith. You rescued Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the furnace in ancient Babylon. You did not rescue the men and women who died in New York on September 11, 2001. But, either way, You are still God, and this is how we discover whether we truly believe it. The point of this story lies not in the rescue, it lies in the bold declaration, "Even if He does not..."

Thought for today: Where is God testing the state of your faith today?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Door Number One

In our small town of five thousand people, we have thirty churches. Not surprisingly, some of them do not agree regarding what constitutes the truth about God. For the most part, we tend to get along fine, but everyone who attends church here has, to some degree, made a decision regarding what is true and migrated to worship at a place amenable to it. At least, I hope that is what they have done.

This world, after all, is full of choices. Understanding God is the most important of them and like the other choices, I can make it the easy way or the hard way. The easy way is to look around for godly-seeming people first to see what they've chosen. What does their life look like, are their marriages healthy, or did their children seem to turn out all right?--the Bible word for this is 'fruit'--then hop on their bandwagon with confidence that I'm on the right track. That can work for awhile, but at some point I will go off course because I have chosen to follow a fellow man who I may love, but who is only a man.

God has another way:
No one has ever seen God, but God, the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made Him known.--John 1:18
We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God so that we may understand what God has freely given us.--1Corinthians 2:13

God doesn't say "Follow him," He says "Follow Me." Through His Spirit and Word, He makes Himself known and through His Spirit and Word, we can find Him. This takes work, of course, a lot more work than examining and comparing ourselves to one another. God is the measure. He is the guide. He made the world and the rules, then gave us a way to discover them.

This is what we speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.--1Corinthinans 2:14

God gave us Truth and wants us to know the glory of discovering it so that we are not looking around, but looking always at Him. His Truth calls to us from behind only one of life's many doors. We cannot successfully follow any other person through the right door for any length of time. God extends His mighty hand to each one individually and He always waits behind Door #1.

Thought for today: How do you choose?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Life in the Pigpen

This week, a friend of mine is going to wrestle a pig. In some circles, this might be considered perfectly normal, but those usually have something to do with a farm and an eventual meal. Not so in this case. My friend plans to do this for fun. Frankly, I don't understand it, especially because she intends to do this in a mud puddle, a BIG mud puddle.

The pig is bad enough--I've had to catch one before. They are strong and agile and kick like the dickens. They struggle and squeal and run away much faster than you could ever guess their short little legs could carry them. Even so, the mud part baffles me the most. Under controlled circumstances, mud squishing between one's toes can be quite pleasant, but, in order to catch this pig, my friend will accumulate mud in places that mud just should never enter. Nose, eyes, ears, scalp, underarms, and more. She will find new mud in hidden places for days afterward. Yuck.

In order to catch the pig, she will have to get dirty, very dirty. In preparing to do this, however, she made me think about something. In order to catch the pig, she has to go into the pigpen. Once there and covered in mud, she will look a lot like the pig. You did the same thing.

The word became flesh and dwelt among us.--John 1:14
...but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.--Philippians 2:7

You had a job to do. Man needed saving, so you became man.

For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so He condemned sin in sinful man.--Romans 8:3

If there is work to do in the pigpen, that's where the workman must go to do it. If men need saving, then the Savior must become a man and get it done. If a pig needs catching, then a woman who wants to catch it must get in there with the pigs.

Thought for today: To what pigpen is God pointing you in order to get your work done?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Pitching a Fit, Part Three

Imagine this: we're having a nice dinner with friends, just sitting around nibbling what's left in serving dishes, not really hungry any more, but enjoying each other's company. Then, out of nowhere, some woman comes in and pours perfume over our buddy's feet. In an instant, the whole house smells like Chanel...Good grief! What in the world does she think she's doing?

"Don't sweat it", our friend says. "She is showing her love for me."
We pitch a fit. "That's ridiculous. She's wasting the perfume. It's a useless gesture. Get her out of here...she's a freak."

And we'd be right. No constructive result comes from the spilled perfume. It is simply a gesture of love, accomplishing nothing more. In a results-oriented world, she has wasted both her time and her resources. I can operate with that same attitude in Your world too. In a result-oriented spiritual world, I can follow Your commands with military precision, then lean back, satisfied that I have pleased You.

You, however, see it differently. You tell me to pour out love lavishly, without measurement, without reserve.

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.--John 13:34
Greater love has no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.--John 15:13
Cast your bread upon the waters....Ecclesiastes 11:1

Until now, I have pitched a fit at the concept of my own sin, at Your rules, and at Your command to exceed even those rules. It's hard to see sometimes that in essence, I have pitched a fit because, more than anything else, You want me to be like You. When the woman poured expensive perfume on Your feet, You promised that her gesture of love would be remembered forever and it has. We have remembered it because it showed, in human terms, a picture of Your own heart of love.

To love, I have to waste my life, remembering that You impose rules, then tell me to exceed them. I am never going to want to do this. Loving with abandon, without regard for the attitude of the person loved, hurts. I do not get to pour into a cup, measuring in safety. I must pour where You indicate for Your sake alone and without regard for results. I will have to pitch a fit at the apparent waste, but then do it anyway.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways.--Isaiah 55:8

No kidding.

Thought for today: What is God challenging you to do that seems pointless?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Pitching a Fit, Part Two

So, if you've been with me for part one, we know that my children, myself, and you, that is all of you, came out of the womb pitching a fit. That first red, wrinkled cry was just the beginning. It didn't only signal discomfort at our first feeling of cold; that first cry announced to the world that we were important. It warned everyone within earshot that they'd better pay attention. And some did, right up to that first "NO!" Starting at that moment, we began to learn about rules.

Rules, after all, train us to behave properly. They tell us in simple language which behaviors garner praise and which bring down punishment. I do not like rules. Especially for myself. I liked them for my children all right, because they helped me manage the little darlings, but I do not much like being managed myself. I know what law is for, after all. Laws identify lawbreakers.

We also know that law is made not for the righteous, but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and the sinful, the unholy and irreligious...--1Timothy 1:9

So, laws identify sinners. And, OK, I admit that I was a sinner; I was born that way like everybody else. But You showed me Your law and now I follow it. Therefore, if I follow Your law, I am no longer a sinner. In other words, if I follow Your law, I don't really need it anymore. Those other bad boys and girls do, but not me.

How hard can it be? There are only ten laws, after all. I know not to lie or cheat. I certainly know not to murder anyone. Piece of cake. Let the bad boys and girls pitch their fit. I'm home free.

Or at least I was, until Jesus showed up:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.--John 13:34


Now, I'm really pitching a fit. But there's a part three.