Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Raising our Banner

In reading the Old Testament, I notice that ancient people built altars a lot. Every time something significant occurred, they erected a new one to commemorate the occasion. In addition, when God designed His Tabernacle in the desert and the Temple in Jerusalem, He specified that each contain an altar also. On each of these altars, the same activities took place: slaughter and sacrifice.

Moses, as leader of the Israelites, set this pattern. Shortly after God delivered His people from the Egyptians and showed them He would provide miraculous food for them on their journey, and that, by defeating the Amelkites, He would defend them from enemies, Moses knew what to do.

Moses built an altar and called it, The Lord is my Banner.--Exodus 17:15

Moses first used his altar for sacrifice, for the slaughter of that which God desired. Then, afterward, he declared it his identifying banner. In doing this, Moses made public statement that everything from which he drew his strength originated with his sacrifice and obedience to God.

A banner not only identifies, it proclaims. It announces allegiance. When it is planted in a plot of ground, it declares victory. A banner identifies the source of strength.

Our strength comes from sacrifice, too. The altar is where we both acknowledge God and access His power. At the altar we acknowledge sin and the price necessary to expunge it. The altar, always fresh with Christ's blood, is where we meet God, always looking up from our knees.

Moses' ancient altar served a precursor to the cross, and as such, remains a declaration of both allegiance and victory. The altar and the cross irrevocably tie sacrifice to freedom and strength.

Moses' altar became his banner because it connected him to God. Our cross does the same, a banner meant to be carried before us with holy awe.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Where Are You, God?

In the course of living a life of faith, I often find myself looking for God. He's everywhere, He tells us, but life, in all of its bland ordinariness, doesn't seem a fit place for Him to occupy. Intellectually, I know He's around when I'm doing dishes or driving to work but, in the absence of a burning bush or pillar of fire, I am hard put to recognize His Glory.

In ancient times, God had men build him first a tabernacle, then a temple in which He specified a place for Himself, the Holy of Holies. They watched Him descend into it and take up residence there.

My dwelling place will be with them. I will be their God and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy when my sanctuary is among them forever.--Ezekiel 37:28

Now, the New Testament tells me that my body is God's temple,

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, who you have received from God?--1Corinthians 6:19

but I have a hard time reconciling the precious beauty and careful obedient provision of the first temple with my own vain and unreliable striving. I know without a doubt that I am not a fit temple for God.

But I am looking at this the wrong way. In both cases, it is not the place but the Person to which He draws attention. God is not talking about two things here, but one. The sanctuary of the temple and the temple of the body are the same thing.

And there is more...God once lived in buildings made of hides, then of bricks made by men and now He lives in men themselves but, just as the first building was not made of only one man's home, neither is His dwelling now made in only one man's individual body. As the first temple encompassed the worship of many men, so does it still. Today, God doesn't only dwell in me, He dwells in us. The body He occupies today is the church, not our local go-to-Sunday building, but the church He instituted when He made Peter His rock. The church that includes all men and all countries for all time who believe.

Once, His visible power descended into a communal sanctuary. It still does. The Holy of Holies doesn't exist today only in my heart. Through the church, God makes a public declaration of power. The nations must visibly recognize Him. Every temple God designates exists for only one purpose: to demonstrate His Glory.

We cannot hoard God. He will make Himself known and has designated the places from which He will do it. Both within our hearts and in communal worship, God declares Himself.

Of course life is ordinary. Compared to God, everything is.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


After all these years, I finally get it. It's not the turkey, or the cranberry sauce, or going over the river and through the woods to Grandma's house. It has little to do with the meal we make so much of a fuss about or reuniting with distant relatives. It is about much, much more...

He who sacrifices thank offerings honors Me and prepares the way so that I can show him the salvation of God--Psalm 50:23

We are to give thanks not only so that we learn to appreciate our blessings, but more so that we can open the way for God. God wants us to thank Him not only for what He gives, but for who He is.

And it looks like this:

I looked and there was a great multitude that no one could count from every nation, tribe, and tongue, people, and language standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They wore white robes and held palm branches in their hands. And they cried in a loud voice,

"Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb"...

They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying,

"Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God forever and ever! Amen!"--Revelation 7:9-12

Now that sounds like thanks.
Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 21, 2011

What My Dog Doesn't Have

Thanksgiving is hard upon us and, more than at other times, we tend to share all for which we have cause to give thanks. The lists are long: health, wealth, security, safety, peace, family, faith. We all have at least some of these, but God's gifts go far beyond this.

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. And He made known to us the mystery of His will according to His good pleasure...Ephesians 1:7-9

When we list our gratitudes, we tend to include so many things that God gives all his creatures. He gave my dog some of the same things He gave me. Fido has health, security, safety, and a family too--he even experiences a kind of love. But Fido does not have, nor can he ever have, an understanding of God. Understanding is a higher gift, one God reserved for us alone. And He wants us to broadcast it.

But let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the LORD. Jeremiah 9:24

Happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

How to Find a Real Friend, Part 2

I had a tearful conversation this week with someone who'd been lied to by a friend. She just couldn't comprehend how someone she'd trusted for years would betray her so readily.

I felt sad for her, but remained a bit amazed that she was so surprised. She did not understand that no one is trustworthy. No one on this earth. The hurts and betrayals sometimes come intentionally and sometimes unintentionally, but they will come. Our friends will hurt us. Guaranteed.

Understanding man's basic failure to be faithful does not grow from pessimism; it simply allows God to take His proper place. It does not mean that our friends and family do not care--in fact, they provide islands of love, but even these come with storms. If you want a friend that never fails, you have only one choice.

God is not a man that He should lie, nor son of man, that He should change His mind--Numbers 23:19

God never lies, never exaggerates, never forgets, never deceives. He is mighty not only to save, but to remain steadfast for all time and in all circumstances.

The world is a dark place sometimes. Friends fail, but when the darkness closes in, reach for the light.

The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.--John 1:5

When we stand in the light, we can finally understand.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

How to Find a Real Friend, Part 1

The world is confusing. We are always trying to figure out how we fit, how to relate to the people around us. We feel sometimes like Diogenes, wandering around with a lamp trying to find an honest man, someone we can trust. "Who am I?", we wonder. "Who are you?"

Diogenes, as far as anyone knows, never found his honest man and, consequently, found himself very much alone. We, too, want trustworthy companions but, like Diogenes, find our fellow humans wanting.

Diogenes failed to consider God. When we reach for God, we find everything men lack. Savior, Brother, Friend, Almighty. He is all these and more. But then, we encounter another puzzle.

God made us. He laid down our world and the laws that govern both it and us. We exist only at His pleasure. How can I possibly achieve friendship with the One who rules?

You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything I have learned from my Father I have made known to you.--John 15:14-15

Only God offers faithful friendship and, in order to enjoy it, He says that I must first obey Him. This does not sound like friendship to me. Friends share, not obey, but I can only share so much with a holy God. On a small scale, it's like trying to maintain a friendship with Alexander the Great. The gulf between us is just too wide.

Obedience to God, however, puts the relationship between us into proper perspective. While nothing can level the playing field, obedience opens the door to Him. When I obey eagerly out of love, He can treat me like a daughter and He can share not only knowledge, but His created heavens and earth as an inheritance. When I serve and consider myself bound to Him, I am tied to Him not by ownership, but by affection. Thus is His friendship not the precursor, but the byproduct of His commanded obedience. I cannot earn His friendship, but I can obey my way to it.

First, I believe. Then I obey. Later, I trust. I obey when it is hard because God has shared His truth. I trust when everything else fails because God has showed His vision. I serve when rewards fail because service to God's truth sanctifies. I persevere when men fail because friendship forged with God lasts forever.

Diogenes looked in the wrong place.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Please Pass the Valuables

Imagine this:

Tonight you have laid out your best china and spent hours cooking a feast for your dearest friends. These are the people you love the most, brothers and sisters only hearts can join. You have shared many evenings like this, but tonight is different. You've had some tough times recently.

A week ago, Joe promised you that he would fix the bad fuel pump on your car, but never had time and the car quit half way to work. Yesterday, you weren't feeling well and Laura said she would take you to the doctor but slept through the appointment. John lost the first edition you lent him. Rachel lied about you, telling her family that you'd been expelled for cheating in college. Randy finally decided that he'd waited long enough for your job, deliberately undermined your best account, and your boss fired you. Your friends, every one, have hurt or betrayed you.

But no one can tell tonight. You laugh, reminisce about the good times, and raise glasses in tribute to one another. Then, instead of dessert, you bring out a box you have saved just for this moment.
"I have something to give each of you," you tell them.

From the box, you remove your car keys and give them to Joe.
"What's this?" he asks.
"It's yours. I'm giving it to you."
He narrows his eyes. "I don't get it."
"There's nothing to get. I'm giving you the car."
He drops the keys on the table and waits.

You take everything else out of the box....the deed to your house, transfer of your 401K, the contents of your safety deposit box, your mother's wedding ring--everything of value that you own--and give them to your friends.

They grumble and murmur. One by one, they get up from the table, sharing low glances at each other but never looking back at you. They take their coats and head for the door, but before going out, remember to take your gifts. They remember that.

Would you give away everything you value to faithless friends? Well, neither would I, but we are not the givers. We are one of the friends. This is exactly what Jesus did in the upper room the night before He died. That dinner, in the company with men He loved, was framed, both before and after, in betrayal. The same men with whom Christ feasted demonstrated little but faithlessness and still, in the midst of it, He washed their feet and gave them Himself. The Last Supper rose as an island of blessing in a sad, black place.

And what Jesus did for the disciples, He still does for us today, giving everything without reservation when we don't see, don't follow, don't understand. Even when we deliberately forsake Him, He extends His hand holding the most precious of gifts.

This is my body, which is given for you.--Luke 22:19

Friday, November 11, 2011

Prayer 3: Words of my Mouth

My friend Vera has a killer prayer list. She keeps it in two three-ring binders and tends it every day, spending literally hours in intercession for people and situations. We have prayed together a number of times, always about something specific that had sprung into her heart or weighed on her mind, but when it comes to her list, I marvel at her zeal and faithfulness in it.

In contrast, my own prayers are clumsy, wandering, searching for direction and relevance. I have a list, too, but am not faithful to it, mostly because, well, my prayers just sound dumb. I just never seem to know what to say.

I should remember this:

We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.--Romans 8:26

I'm starting to think that I just need to shut up and present myself to God. My thoughts, my words, will never be good enough.

But He lives in me. What I can't say, He can. Where my words stumble, His do not. When my heart faints, His is strong. I can depend on Him to direct my heart and inspire my stumbling mouth. You can, too.

When my prayers do not come because I am depending on my faltering heart to provide them, all I have to do is to lean toward Him and listen before I speak. Then the words of my mouth will always be acceptable.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Oh, that smell...

A few years ago, a summer camp near here constructed a full size replica of the tabernacle that the Israelites built according to God's instruction and carried around the desert during their years of wandering. I went often to see it, sitting and praying and just looking, trying to get some feel for a place God literally inhabited. The images I stored up during those sunrises and sunsets, during those sweet hours of contemplation, still serve me well, not only as still spots in a stream, but as pictures of God's physical presence preserved in wood and linen by His specific command.

It turns out that each construct within the tabernacle exists to explain something about God's character and desires.

Make an altar of acacia wood for burning incense. Put the altar in front of the curtain that is before the Ark of Testimony--before the atonement cover that is over the Testimony where I will meet with you. Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he tends the lamps. He must burn incense again when he lights the lamps at twilight so incense will burn regularly before the Lord for generations to come.--Exodus 30:1, 6-8

In the Bible, incense always indicates prayer, and promises to usher in His Very Presence.

May my prayer be set before you like incense, may the lifting of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.--Psalm 141:2

So God commanded constant prayer, refreshed intentionally every morning and evening, but burning steadily at all times. This prayer was not optional. God commanded it--like the daily sacrifices, like the tithing. Every day, a priest offered up new incense, went out into the courtyard to kill and dismember the day's sacrifices, then washed his hands and came back to the incense again. As the incense framed the priest's dirty business, as it burned and drifted up along with the burning of offerings, so does my prayer need to do the same.

Prayer has nothing to do with results, with my mood, with my location, companions, or circumstances. Prayer is not just for church or even for the side of my bed, but for days filled with work and other concerns. Although life may be bloody, prayer, like incense, brings sweetness.

The New Covenant of Christ has made me a priest and I must pray. It is the constant offering of the hours of life, of constant praise, of constant lifting of my spirit toward my God. My suns must rise and set with it. I can never let my incense go out.

Pray continually.--1Thessalonians 5:17

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Who Are You Lookin' At?

I went shopping the other day to buy an anniversary card for my husband, and nearly went home empty-handed. I expected to find a card that would tell him what a wonderful husband he's been, but these were the messages I found:

"When I met you, I never knew how much my life would change."
"I want to wish you all the happiness you've given me."
"All I want is to love you for the rest of my life."

Good grief--the cards were supposed to honor him, but most of the sentiments they expressed started and ended with "I". They showed much more concern for his effect on me than gratitude for all his years of love and the security and fun he'd brought to our life together. In other words, these messages tell him that he is important only to the extent that he makes me feel good. That does not sound like honor.

And neither does the same kind of language when we use it in worship or praise directed toward God. When a prayer uses "I" or "we" more than "You", who is most on our minds? When we sing more about how God makes us feel than who He is, who are we honoring?

The best way to praise God is not to describe how we are happy or singing or lifting our hands or bowing down, but simply to praise Him--to say He is holy and mighty. To acknowledge that He is all beauty and power. Israel's King David understood this when he prayed:

Yours, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the majesty, and the splendor, for everything in heaven and on earth is yours. Yours, O Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. Wealth and honor come from you. You are the ruler of all things. In your hands are strength and power to exalt and give strength to all.--1 Chronicles 29:11-12

Not an "I" in it. Real praise destroys self-awareness and replaces it with God-awareness. When it does, we praise not our own position and character, but His.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Enjoying the Dance

I'm not usually fond of country music, but some years ago, country stations were playing a song that went something like, "Life's a dance you learn as you go..." I liked that. When I heard its carefree melody, I couldn't help thinking about how we really do learn how to live.

Then I realized that it is good an proper for a man to eat and drink and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the days of life God has given him--for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work--this is a gift from God. He seldom reflects on his life because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.--Ecclesiastes 5:18-20

God shows us in simple terms how to live. He puts our proper circumstances squarely before our eyes and tells us to enjoy them. He tells us not to plot and plan for a future we may never have. He cringes when we spurn His gift of days and say, "I wish" or "I want."

I keep thinking that I have to change my circumstances, to fix everything, but do I really? Has not God determined the days of my life for my benefit? I have to work, of course, but do I have to spend so much time figuring stuff out? Hasn't God done that already?

God gives some things and takes others away, but will not leave us lacking. In the end, I think that my real job is to receive smiling the circumstances that God brings not because they are all happy, but because He brought them. If I can do that, if I can find God in all my circumstances, then I will be happy because we will be together.

Life really is a dance we learn as we go and God wants to dance every dance with us, every moment of our whole lives, to every beat of our hearts, keeping the tempo of His unending song.