Good Grief

Genesis 23OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Good Grief.”  It was a favorite saying of the Charles Schultz character, Charlie Brown.  And it is a curious expression.  What kind of grief is “good”?

Let me ask you: What image comes to your mind when you think of the term “grief”?

  • Perhaps a bouquet of flowers being laid on a freshly dug grave.
  • Maybe a night of holding a loved one’s pillow, trying in vain to get some sleep.
  • Maybe it’s the tears that seem to flow endlessly, or a pain in the gut that is too deep to describe in words.

A good friend of mine from California, Louise Johnson once shared with me a poem her daughter had written about a grief experience in her own life.

Dead Man's Float

This is an apt picture of how grief can feel.   So, how can an emotion that feels that bad… ever be called “good”?

Genesis 23 records the death of Abraham’s wife, Sarah.

Sarah died.  Stop and think that over for a moment.  It is so easy to read a passage from the Bible, like this one, and not even attempt to feel what the Biblical personalities are emoting.  If you want your Bible reading and study to come alive… you need to do more than just parse verbs or examine sentence structure, you need to use your senses and emotions as you read.

Picture what Abraham is going through.  He is wailing in pain over the loss of the great love of his life.  Abraham was a man that proved his faith in God over and over again throughout his long life.  Will he remain faithful to God after he lays the one he loves to rest?  A good question for us would be this: What can we learn from how a godly person deals with grief?

1)  We can accept that grief is a healthy and normal part of life.  The Bible displays this over and over.

  • When the Patriarch Jacob died, they mourned for him 7 days.
  • The OT book of Lamentations, depicts the mourning of the prophet Jeremiah over the destruction of Jerusalem.
  • By the graveside of Lazarus it is recorded in the book of John that “Jesus wept.”
  • In the book of Revelation, though God will in the end wipe them all away, there will be, until that moment, tears in the eyes of his saints.

As the old Gordon Jenson song said: “Tears are a language, God understands.”

2)  The second lesson we learn from this text is that we are to remember to move from personal grief to public memorial.

The text here doesn’t say how long Abraham grieved for Sarah. It may have been weeks or months. It does, however, have this to say in Genesis 23:3: “Then Abraham rose from before his dead…”

There came a time to emerge from private grief.  He reached a moment when he summoned the courage to step up from mourning in solitude and say something to the world.  Ray Stedman writes that verse 3 “signified a squaring of the shoulder, a lifting up of the eye, a firming of the step, a facing of life again…” And as he emerged from that private grief… the first thing Abraham decided to do was to create a memorial for Sarah.

Genesis 23:3-6                                                                                                                                                                Then Abraham rose from before his dead, and spoke to the sons of Heth, saying, [4] “I am a stranger and a sojourner among you; give me a burial site among you that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” [5] The sons of Heth answered Abraham, saying to him, [6] “Hear us, my lord, you are a mighty prince among us; bury your dead in the choicest of our graves; none of us will refuse you his grave for burying your dead.”

You may ask yourself, reading this text, why all the detail about the burial place?  It is written to tell us to what great lengths Abraham was willing to go to make sure Sarah’s memory would be preserved.  He did a great job picking out the plot by the way.  Sarah’s grave is one of the few in Palestine that has been authenticated today.  This cave, which was the burial place of Abraham, Jacob and Leah as well as Sarah, can still be visited today.  There is a mosque over the location, but it is believed to be the site of the cave.  Abraham succeeded in reminding the world of who Sarah was.

3)  The next thing grief can do is to help us continue to walk the path the Lord has laid out for us.

Did you catch how Abraham went on with God’s purpose for his life in this passage?  It’s subtle.

Genesis 23:17-18                                                                                                                                                             So Ephron’s field, which was in Machpelah, which faced Mamre, the field and cave which was in it, and all the trees which were in the field, that were within all the confines of its border, were deeded over [18] to Abraham for a possession in the presence of the sons of Heth, before all who went in at the gate of his city.

Did you catch it?

God had made two promises to Abraham.  One was that he would give him and Sarah a son.  That son would father a multitude of people.  That promise had been fulfilled 37 years ago.

The second promise God made to Abraham was land. He was going to give him the land of Canaan as a possession for his descendants.  Abraham is now 137 years old. Up to chapter 22, how much of the land of Canaan did Abraham own?   Zero.   By purchasing this land, Abraham is advancing the purposes of God.

When we lose someone it is so easy to not want to go on. It is hard without their support and love. But if God still has us here on planet earth, it is because He still has a purpose for us down here and we had best get at it.

And grief can actually help sharpen our focus in life. We understand now how fragile life is. We know that we have a limited time to fulfill our purpose for being here. Grief can spur us to serve those around us.

“Good” grief?  Absolutely.  It is an emotion created by God with much benefit to our souls.  Don’t struggle.  Don’t run and hide.  Trust God to see you through it.

Blessings!

Passing Faith’s Greatest Test

A+ paperGenesis 22

This is a difficult story for me.

God does something here that is hard for me to even imagine.  He demands that Abraham take the son he loved and offer him up on an altar as a burnt offering.  We learn later that God didn’t REALLY want Isaac to die and that His purpose was to see if Abraham would give up the thing that was dearest to him.

How could God even ask Abraham to commit such an act?  He’s asking Abraham:

  1. First of all: To aid in nullifying the promise He Himself had made to Abraham.
  2. And, secondly to engage in child sacrifice… a horrific act indicative of the pagan worship in the cities all around Abraham.

Why Isaac? The Son Abraham loved so much.  And why test Abraham at all?  If the intent was to see if Abraham had faith, would an all-knowing God be able to see the outcome without having Abraham run out the simulation?

Why Isaac?  Well, it was Isaac because the son of the promise was the only thing that could tempt Abraham’s heart away from God.  If God was going to construct a true test of Abraham’s heart… it was Isaac or nothing. Why test him at all? Well, God knew Abraham’s heart. He knew what Abraham would do.   But, hear this: ABRAHAM didn’t know what Abraham would do.

Charles Swindoll once said:  “The wonderful thing about God’s schoolroom … is that we get to grade our own papers.  You see, He doesn’t test us so He can learn how well we’re doing. He tests us so we can discover how well we’re doing.”  (God’s Provision in Time of Need)

There is no substitute for experience in the Christian life. We can learn all we can about the subject of God and score an “A” on every seminary level course, but that is not the same thing as living what you believe on the work table called life.  Will you pass this test?  If you were called to let go of that which you love the most… would you obey?  Or would you say:  “I don’t believe anymore.”

Theologian John Calvin was so bold as to say: “All true knowledge of God is born out of obedience. ”
The late Bob Benson in his book He Speaks Softly told the story of a banker friend of his in Nashville. Mr. Lewis Farrell took care of the Benson family’s business affairs and had the reputation of being a “tough old bird.”

One day he learned that his old friend had been in the hospital for surgery.  By the time he found out he was already back at home recuperating.  He writes: One afternoon I stopped by his house to see how he was getting along. He was sitting out in the back yard enjoying the sunshine as I joined him.         After awhile he said to me, “Bob, I don’t want to bore you or keep you too long, but I do want to tell you something that happened to me during this illness.”  I could sense that he was getting ready to tell me something that had touched him deeply.

“Down across the years,” he began, “I have taught a men’s Bible class at the church. My favorite book to teach has always been the Gospel of John.  One of the things that I always seemed to see so clearly was John’s teaching about eternal life.  [Eternal Life] was not a life that comes to us when this one is over.  It is in us and we are in it now.

When I learned I was going to have surgery I was not really afraid.  I had to wait a week for our family surgeon to return from vacation and I went through the whole process—waiting, preparation, surgery, recovery room, recuperation—and all without ever being even the least bit apprehensive.  I was gripped by a deep sense of serenity and peace.  I found that I really believed what I had been teaching all these years.  I was already living eternal life, and where I lived it was not really all that important.”

Benson continued: “There was peace in his eyes and satisfaction in his voice.  He knew that what he had said he believed was true, really was true.  And his faith belonged to him.”

Is your faith academic?  Or has it passed the Faith’s greatest test?

Blessings!

When Your Ship Comes In

Ship Coming InGenesis 21

Promises, Promises.

You open your email and read:  “You’ve won a trip to Hawaii.”  Don’t get too excited… if you will look at the fine print (and if they are honest) you will read:  “Airfare not included. Food not included. Hotel is free but there will be a pool charge, bed charge and air conditioning is coin operated.  You will also be bombarded with junk email until your eyes pop out of their sockets.  And you have also just launched a deadly virus that will crash your hard drive. Have a nice day.”

Don’t you hate advertisers that don’t deliver on their promises?   Promises made with strings attached are not fun.

A co-worker in Maryland once went on a vacation in the Bahamas.  Sounds like fun, huh.  Well his hotel’s air conditioning unit went out.  The food was terrible.  And there were also some buildings in his brochure that he couldn’t locate on the hotel’s grounds.  He went to ask about them and was told that they had burned to the ground two years earlier.   Promises made and not kept are even worse.

God does not operate like that.  With Him it is:  Promise Made, Promise Kept.

We have been following Abraham in his pursuit of the promise of God that he would have a son.  We come to Promise Fulfilled!  Genesis 21:1-2  reads:  “Then the Lord took note of Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had promised.  So Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the appointed time of which God had spoken to him.”

Note two things: It was accomplished as God said it would be, and when God said it would occur.

Which are you struggling with?  The how or the when?  How God is going to help you or When God is going to show up?   If you are caught in that place, do what Abraham did, with faith and patience, Anchor yourself in the promises of God.

Now, what do you do once the promise is fulfilled… when your ship finally arrives in the harbor?  Sometimes when boats finally reach their destination there is a great crowd to meet them at the dock.  Sometimes there is a band playing to celebrate the arrival.  (I’ve never been on a cruse or a boat, but I did watch a lot of episodes of The Love Boat when I was a kid so I know this to be true.)  We looked for weeks at how Abraham weathered storms before he could enjoy the promise of God, now let’s look at that moment of “promise arrival.”

What does one do when God comes through?

#1 – After fulfillment one needs to continue to obey God.

What is the first thing Abraham does after his son is born?  Genesis 21:3, 4 – “Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac. Then Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him.”   This is exactly what God had instructed Abraham to do in Genesis 17.  After you get what you want is not the time to go A.W.O.L. from God.  Continue in obedience.

#2 – After fulfillment one needs to be joyful.

Sarah praises God.  She says:  “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” (21:6)  Isaac, Hebrew for laughter, was an appropriate name for this moment.  Everyone breaks into celebration.  Have you remembered to thank God after your breakthrough?

#3 – After fulfillment one needs to remember and be more trusting in the future.

Don’t let this victory swell you with pride… let it be the catalyst for a lifetime of trust in the Lord.  Remain obedient.  Throw a party.  But then trust God for the next part of the plan.

God had first promised in chapter 12 when Abraham was 75 and Sarah was 65.  He then delayed the fulfillment of the promise till Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90.  The wait only produced greater joy for them in the end.

Remember that in your next waiting period.

So where are you?

Freshly Blessed?  Rejoice.  Your ship has come in.  Let the band play.

Found God to be Faithful?   Show your appreciation through continued obedience.  Let God show you new heights to climb.

Still waiting?  Wait with patience.  He will see you through.  A promise is a promise.

Blessings!

Stick with the Plan

Genesis 20

game planThe very quotable Yogi Berra once remarked: “It was like deja vu all over again!”  That quote comes to mind as we tackle this week’s passage.  Didn’t the events of chapter 20 just happen in chapter 12?  The fact that Abraham was traveling is similar (though this does take place within the land, chapter 12 did not); the fact that Abraham lied about Sarah being his wife is familiar; and the ultimate result of the encounter (Abraham being blessed anyway) is equally remarkable.

But chapter 20 is a shocker to me.  I can’t understand why Abraham continues his pattern of lying about Sarah…  particularly with such disastrous results experienced before.  Isn’t the patriarch further along in his journey with the Lord by now?  Since chapter 12 Abraham has repeatedly heard God speak to him.  (Gen. 15 & 17)  He has experienced the thrill of victory with the Lord in battle. (Gen. 14 see verse 20)).  He has wrestled with God in prayer (Gen. 18) and witnessed the power of God come down in judgment (Gen. 19).  So with such powerful moments in his life… why don’t they keep Abraham from repeating this past mistake?  Does it stop you?

And there is a major difference in this story compared to the former one:  there is so much more at stake now!  In chapter 12, Sarah wasn’t fertile.  But now the angels have declared to Abraham that Sarah in a year’s time she will deliver the child of the promise.  So, think about it a minute, if she spends even one night wrapped in the embrace of Abimelech… the paternity of Isaac would be forever be in question.

God ultimately delivers Abraham through a dream to Abimelech… but there are some important lessons for all of us here.

#1 – A long walk with God in obedience doesn’t mean we are safe from revisiting past sins committed in disobedience.  We must be on guard for this!

#2 – We might get a green light from God after so many years of waiting… and then mess things up right on the thresh hold of receiving the blessing.  At a graduation ceremonies for my son, Justin, he and the rest of the soldiers were allowed to go to lunch with their families before the final ceremony later that day.  Some of those that were on the thresh hold of completing boot camp, got drunk during the brief time with their family and ended up “washing out” before the evening.  They would have to repeat boat camp all over again.  When success is on the way… one needs to be even more diligent about staying on the path of obedience.

#3 – Stick to the plan.  God knows what he is doing.  If at all possible, unless you hear a clear calling from God (as Abraham did at the beginning of Genesis 12) stay put and let God unfold his plan for your life.  It may have been a famine that caused Abraham’s migration in chapter 12… it is Abraham’s restlessness that gets him in chapter 20.

It takes a special grace to stay the course before the blessings commence.  May you receive His grace in abundance as you persevere in Christ today!

Blessings!

 

When Judgment Falls

sodom and gomorrahGenesis 19

Today’s passage is a particularly difficult one for me, on several levels.  One reason is my personality.  I am kind of tenderhearted and if I err, it is usually on the side of mercy.  Secondly, I don’t want to be known as a “hell fire and brimstone” kind of pastor.  Genesis 19 actually uses the word, “brimstone.”  Yikes!  Thirdly, I’m not one to be controversial in my blogs or sermons.  And today’s text mentions one of the most controversial of subjects of our modern times.  But I’m committed to preaching and teaching ALL of God’s Word and not just the parts that make me comfortable. So, here goes…

Many today haven’t come to the Lord because of some preacher in their past that tried to scare the living thunder out of them in order for them to convert.  Scars like that don’t heal easy.  So let me say this as gently as I can.   “Judgment Day is Coming.”   It may not be tomorrow or next week or next decade. But according to the Scriptures… its coming is sure. In that day every word and deed we have ever done will be laid before the eyes of our Judge.

We have modeled for us in Scripture what the final day of the Lord will be like.  The judgment day for the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah are legendary.  They stand as monuments to the limits of the patience of a loving God.  This Biblical illustration of God’s judgment is used 22 times in the Bible.

Now I’m not a fan of disaster films.  I’ve never seen Titanic, Pearl Harbor or The Perfect Storm. Somehow knowing the disastrous outcome kind of spoils the films for me.  But many love such films.  I think because it helps them answer some questions regarding those disasters: Why did it occur?  What were its devastating effects?  And did anyone manage to escape the destruction?  Let’s apply these questions to the Sodom/Gomorrah event.

Why did this disaster occur?

The book of Genesis has thrown a few hints before we ever arrive at chapter 19.

Genesis 13:10-13 records:  Lot lifted up his eyes and saw all the valley of the Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere—this was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt as you go to Zoar.  So Lot chose for himself all the valley of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they separated from each other.  Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the valley, and moved his tents as far as Sodom.  Now the men of Sodom were wicked exceedingly and sinners against the Lord.

One of the most controversial subjects of our time has been the morality of homosexuality.   It is not my intention to hurt anyone that is wrestling with this issue in their own lives or in the lives of their children or grandchildren, but I must be honest about what I see in Scripture.  In this Scripture and passages in Romans, Leviticus, Jude, as well as others… the Bible teaches that acts of Homosexuality are sinful.

That isn’t my opinion or bias, it is what I believe the Word of God to be saying.   Now, having said that, what about Sodom (from which the term “Sodomy” has come) and Gomorrah?  Was the sin that hastened their destruction, Homosexuality?  I don’t think that it was that sin alone that brought judgment upon them.  In the passage before us alone we see attempted rape.

We also see in the NT that Homosexuality is just one sin among many that find displeasure with God.  It is in a list with such sins as: greed, envy, deceit, and, even, gossip!

I believe it was an accumulation of wickedness that brought about the destruction of Sodom.

What is the extent of the damage?

Brimstone and Fire fell out of heaven.

     “Exudations of bitumen, petroleum and probably natural gas (since the last named generally is an accompaniment of these substances)… catching fire from lightning or human action, would adequately account for recorded phenomena…” F.G. Clapp – ‘Geology and Bitumens of the Dead Sea Area, Palestine and Transjordan.” Biblical Archaeologist Reader)

The huge underground explosion would cause flaming pieces of the city to rain down upon the populace.   The destruction was total.  Many if not most of the people died and the ground was rendered infertile from that time on.

Third Question:  Did anyone make it out?

We know from reading the story that Lot and his family did.  (At least he and his daughters… his wife turned back and was transformed into a pillar of salt.)

So, with those questions answered… what do we learn from the tragic story of these twin cities of the plain?

First of all, God is Patient in Judgment.

Genesis 15:16 told us:  “After four generations your descendants will return here to this land, when the sin of the Amorites has run its course.” and  “…for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.”

God doesn’t fly off the handle in rage like we do when we are angry.  He doesn’t zap people when they disbelieve or say hurtful things about Him.   He does, however, have limits.  You see God is merciful (that is what produces His patience), but He is also just.  He will cause those that have chosen to do evil to pay the justice due their error.  Two NT passages display this tug between justice and mercy:

Romans 2:4 – Don’t you realize how kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you?  Or don’t you care?  Can’t you see how kind he has been in giving you time to turn from your sin?

and…  2 Peter 3:9 – The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise to return, as some people think.  No, he is being patient for your sake.  He does not want anyone to perish, so he is giving more time for everyone to repent.

The second thing to take from this story:  God Warns Us in Light of Coming Judgment to Flee!

Picture Lot running through the streets trying to get just a few to believe him.    Not a moment can be spared if anyone is to escape the doom of the city; but Lot and his family lack the will to escape.  They have to be taken by the hand and forced out of the city.

In the process Lot lost:  His Influence

Genesis 19:9 – But they said, “Stand aside.” Furthermore, they said, “This one came in as an alien, and already he is acting like a judge; now we will treat you worse than them.” So they pressed hard against Lot and came near to break the door.

His Morality

Genesis 19:8 – “Now behold, I have two daughters who have not had relations with man; please let me bring them out to you, and do to them whatever you like; only do nothing to these men, inasmuch as they have come under the shelter of my roof.”

His Witness – even within his own family.

Genesis 19:14 – Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, and said, “Up, get out of this place, for the Lord will destroy the city.” But he appeared to his sons-in-law to be jesting.

His Discernment

Genesis 19:20 –  now behold, this town is near enough to flee to, and it is small. Please, let me escape there (is it not small?) that my life may be saved.”

His Spouse

Genesis 19:26 – But his wife, from behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.

The longer you stay in Sodom, the longer Sodom stays in you.  Mrs. Lot’s heart couldn’t leave.  It was caught in the destruction of the city.

There will come a day when God’s judgment will fall on a much larger scale (see Revelation).  The Scriptures warn us to seek escape and to warn and aid others to escape.  Is your heart too full of Sodom that your heart won’t go?  Has your witness been so dulled that others would listen anyway?  Remember the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 17.  In a passage regarding end times, Jesus says:  Remember Lot’s wife!  Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it. (17:32-33)

Be a strong witness till He calls us home.

Blessings!

The Power of an Honest Prayer

altar-prayerGenesis 18

As this begins Abraham is sitting in his tent in the heat of the day.  Like a hot 100+ day in Tennessee where I grew up, this was a scorcher.  Perhaps Abraham desired nothing more than a cold, fresh brewed glass of sweet iced tea. (I did in Tennessee.)

He’s staring into the blazing sun for just a moment,when suddenly he notices three men standing near him.  He springs to his feet and does what any one would have naturally done in that day… assume the role of gracious host.

Look at the Hospitality of Abraham:

He runs to them.  Bows to the ground.  He encourages them to enter into his tent and offers them something to drink and eat.  Maybe Abraham suspects there is more to these men than meets the eye… or perhaps not.  The text doesn’t tell us.  It does reveal an age old mistake that husbands are prone to making.  Inviting guests in and then telling his wife about it.  “Come in,” Abraham tells the three strangers, we’ll get you a bite to eat. … ‘Sarah, hurry, three men are staying for dinner.’”

The men begin to eat and suddenly one says, “Where is Sarah your wife?” He not only knows the name of his wife, but the covenant name… Sarah.

Right then and there the stranger reveals what Abraham already knew.  This time next year, Sarah will have a son.

Behold the Unbelief of Sarah.

Now Sarah nearly chokes trying to hold back her laughter.  Ha!  She says secretly to herself.  Me?  Have a child?  “You did laugh” the men say when she denies her mirth.

It appears that one of the missions of the three mystery men was to strengthen the faith of Sarah.  They weren’t there for Abraham.  They were there for her.  It is important for a couple to be on the same page spiritually.

But the men discuss among themselves if there might be a second purpose for their visit: to inform Abraham of God’s coming judgment on Sodom.

Genesis 18:16-21

   Then the men rose up from there, and looked down toward Sodom; and Abraham was walking with them to send them off. [17] The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, [18] since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? [19] “For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.” [20] And the Lord said, “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. [21] “I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know.”

This is an invitation for Abraham to pray.  Do you recognize those moments in your own life?  It may come disguised as hopeless news segment on the nightly news… a challenging prayer request in your email inbox… a few words spoken to you by your grandchild which sadly reminds you of the world he or she will have to live in.  These are invitations to pray.

One man stays behind.  It is actually the Angel of the Lord.  No one has seen God at anytime, the Bible says.  But often in the OT, men and women saw the Angel of the Lord, and they respond by saying, “I have seen the Lord.”

Abraham stays and intercedes for Sodom with God’s ambassador.  Intercession is a difficult but powerful endeavor.  One might think otherwise.  Brigid E. Herman (1875-1923) once said:  “Wheras in former times intercession was looked upon as hard toil for strong men, it has come to be regarded by the majority of people as a nice, quiet occupation especially suitable for delicate persons and invalids.  Comparatively few look upon it as a part of a Christian’s vocation.  [Intercession] means making Christ’s interests our own. It means to learn to think with God, to have the mind of Christ, to see the world through His eyes, to share His passion to save and redeem. And that heart is formed in us by prayer. (Pray Magazine)

Abraham speaks with humility.   “I venture to speak with the Lord.” (v. 27, 31)  “I am but dust and ashes.” (v. 27)  He knows the Lord favors him.  He is aware of the Lord’s love, but he is also aware of his place before Him.

Dean Merrill in his article Whatever Happened to Kneeling? writes:  “Who can deny that over the past 25 years we have been kneeling less and less?  When I get down on my knees to pray, the quality of my interaction with God is somehow changed. And I don’t think it’s just the nostalgic memory of boyhood days when, as a preacher’s kid in the Midwest, I knelt on a plank floor with the rest of the congregation at our Wednesday night prayer meetings. I benefit from the practice now.

        The biggest benefit is that kneeling reminds us who’s in the dialogue. Prayer is not a couple of fellows chatting about the Dallas Cowboys. It is a human being coming face to face with his or her Supreme Authority, the ineffable God who is approachable but still the One in charge.

        Thus kneeling is a way of saying, “I fully understand who’s Boss here. Far be it from me to try to manipulate you or play games with you. I’m well aware of my status in this relationship, and I deeply appreciate your taking time to interact with me.

But although Abraham was humble, he still exhibits a boldness.  Where does one got to take their problems they have with the Cosmos?  To the management, of course.  God actually welcomes us and invites us to take it up with Him.

Genesis 18:23-25

   Abraham came near and said, “Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? [24] “Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will You indeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? [25] “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

Very humble, very bold.  But there is one problem with Abraham’s prayer:  He never says what is actually on his mind and in his heart.  There is one name Abraham is thinking about,… but not saying… his nephew LOT!  Lot and his family, who had moved there not too long ago, is surely behind his passionate bargaining with God.  Why doesn’t he just say that?  It might have saved him a lot of maneuvering.

Got someone on YOUR heart?  Go bold!  Be Honest with God!  He already knows what is on your heart anyway…so approach him with boldness and ask for your request (Hebrews 4:6).  In Ephesians, Paul ends one of his prayers with:  “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us.”  Remember your prayers are powerful not because of the words you utter, but because of a powerful God that hears them… and acts on your behalf.

Blessings!

Pushing Past the Limitations of Your Faith

dive2Genesis 17

It was Vietnam, 1968 and for the past two weeks, the Ghostrider division had been shuttling troops and supplies for a big push in the central highlands at Plie Merong.  On September 21, 1968, Dr. Kenneth Swan was surgeon of the day at the Army’s 71st Evacuation Hospital.  This 33 year old doctor had only been in Vietnam for a month.  One of the soldier with the Ghostriders came in that morning, Private Ken McGarity.

X-rays revealed what the surgeon already knew: The soldier’s legs would have to come of.  As Swan worked on the amputations—both legs above the knee—he coordinated the activities of the team of doctors he had called in.  The orthopedist treated the shrapnel wounds in McGarity’s arms.  The ophthalmologist removed the man’s left eye and cleaned the wounds to his right eye, hoping to save it.

When the orthopedist had done all he could on McGarity’s arms, Swan amputated the ragged stump of the soldier’s right pinkie finger.  Then, in a final delicate and involved surgery, the neurologist performed a craniotomy, cutting though the top of the soldier’s forehead and lifting away the skull so that he could extract the shrapnel from the brain’s frontal lobes—damage that might have a lobotomizing effect.  Or worse.

For eight hours, the surgeons stood in their muddy boots on the concrete floor and did the best the could to repair Ken McGarity.  The next morning, Dr. Swan was not prepared for the grilling he would receive from his commanding officer.  “Why did you decide to treat the recent casualty so aggressively?”

His commanding officer continued:  “The next time you make a call, ask yourself what kind of life you’re condemning someone to.”

20 years later in 1989, Peter McPherson, a young freelance journalist, called Dr. Kenneth Swan, then a professor of surgery at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.  During his interview with Swan, he asked: “What was the toughest case of your career?”

After telling McPherson about McGarity, he said, “He made it back to the States, that’s all I know.”  He still felt the words of his commanding officer and felt guilt for what he had probably put this young man through.

After the article by the reporter appeared, readers wanted to know what happened to the soldier.  So McPherson and Swan set out to find out.  Two years later, in July of 1991, Dr. Swan finally learned about his former patient, Kenneth McGarity. He now lived in Columbus, Georgia.  He had a wife and two daughters, had completed his high school education, attended Auburn University and had learned to scuba dive.

I’m left with a question:  How did Kenneth McGarity manage to put a life together against such great odds?  How was he able to push past obvious barriers in order to do so?  These people inspire us when we feel limited by our own set of circumstances.

I think of a friend in Ohio who has a vibrant faith but also has an alcoholic son that is killing himself.  During one of our visits to her home we saw his her son’s car parked outside their home and could see where he had driven it through a mailbox coming home drunk the night before. She still maintained her joy in Christ.

I think of an older gentleman in a former church who never let age or anything keep him from the Food Pantry when it was our month to serve.  He mowed his elderly neighbor’s yards each week and kept most of the our church steeped in tomatoes and green beans during the summer.

I think of a young lady Janine and I met when we were on vacation at a friend’s church.  She had Lou Gering’s disease.  For the father’s day service that Sunday, she stood and sang “You Raised Me Up!”  There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

How did these individuals push past their barriers and on toward faith?  In Genesis 17, Abraham faces 3 common barriers to faith and overcomes with God’s help.

Barrier #1 – Age

The text begins:  When Abraham was ninety-nine.  Abram’s Golden Years were changed to his Prime of Life  at the call of an all powerful God.   When God says, ”I will establish My covenant with you.”  Our excuses sound thin.  It isn’t about your age. It is about El Shaddai – “I am God Almighty.”  This is the first appearance in the Bible of this name for God.

Barrier #2 – Full Commitment

“Walk before me and be blameless…” God instructs Abram.   Many of us struggle with how much of our hearts to give the Lord. Does it mean going to church every Sunday?  Does it mean giving every thing I own to feed the poor?  We fear surrender because we don’t know what it will cost us.  But God’s command here is more than just more religious duty tacked on to your already busy life.

True commitment to God permeates one’s existence.   “Do I have to go every Sunday?”  That question doesn’t enter the mind of one wholly committed to God.  It’s like putting the garbage out the night before trash day.  You don’t have to, but things are bound to start smelling.   “Do I have to give everything I have to feed the poor?”  That question causes us to give nothing.  True committment asks:  “How much can I give?”   That’s a question that comes from a heart permeated with God’s love and message.

Barrier #3 – The Impossible

The impossible is a stumbling block for most of us.  Charles F. Kettering was said: “When I was research head of General Motors and wanted a problem solved, I’d place a table outside the meeting room with a sign: Leave slide rules here. If I didn’t do that, I’d find someone reaching for his slide rule. Then he’d be on his feet saying, “Boss, you can’t do it.”

But some of us dare to tell God what he can and cannot do.  We give up on an unbelieving relative.  We set limits on our abilities.  We accept unjust laws because, “you can’t fight city hall” or “that’s just the way things are.”

Abraham does the same:

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, “Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”  And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before You!”  But God said, “No, but Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. (Genesis 17:17-21)

To push past this barrier we need to say:  However God says it will be, I will believe!  It was at this point that Abraham balked.   He said:  Though it is my heart’s desire to have a son by Sarah… I make it easy for you, God, to fulfill this.  Just use my son, Ishmael.  God tells him, NO!  You stand back and see what I can do.  And Abraham’s cynical chuckling was turned to joyful laughter when the promises of a faithful God were fulfilled just one year later.

There is a new song by Casting Crowns that has been running through my head lately.  Perhaps you could use its encouragement. The song is called Dream For You and the bridge and chorus say:

I’m stronger than you think I am
I’ll take you farther than you think you can
You sing and call me Great I Am
So take your stand
My child, if you only knew
All the plans that I have for you
Just trust me, I will follow through
You can follow Me.

So come on, let Me dream, let Me dream for you
I am strong when you’re weak and I’ll carry you
So let go of your plan, be caught by My hand
I’ll show you what I can do
When I dream for you
I have a dream for you.

See what God has dreamed for you.  Push past the limits of YOUR faith.

Blessings!

A Recipe for Sour Circumstances

lemon recipeGenesis 16

Back in 2004 Southern Living Magazine included a very deadly recipe for country biscuits.  They had to pull the issue off the shelf after reports of people following this recipe and having their mixture explode.  The first step of the recipe said to get a pot of water boiling and then to add a cup of shortening.  The shortening then melted and floated to the top of the water This doesn’t allow any of the steam to escape.  The water becomes even hotter than boiling temperature.  The pressure builds up and then the shortening finally lets out the steam as it explodes!  Now the shortening is flammable and 5 people reported injury when their biscuit recipe became a fireball in their kitchen.

Well what are the ingredients that cause the recipe for the good life to explode?   In our story from Genesis 16 we find that every one had something to contribute.

First of all – ►Sarai Stirred in Impatience.

As much as Abram longed for an heir, we can imagine that his wife desired it all the more.  To be barren in ancient times was a disgrace.  Good news came in the form of a promise to her husband, Abram.  God told him that he would have a child.  But we learn from the text that ten years had past and still the nursery was empty.  The waiting must have been excruciating.

A 4-year-old boy was traveling with his mother & constantly asking the same question over & over again? “When are we going to get there? When are we going to get there?” Finally, the mother got so irritated that she said, “We still have 90 more miles to go. So don’t ask me again when we’re going to get there.” Well, the boy was silent for a long time. Then he timidly asked, “Mom, will I still be four when we get there?”

Well Sarai is like that little boy, feeling herself age as God tarried with His promise.  Then she gets a brilliant idea… Why not use a surrogate mother?  It was a perfectly acceptable practice from her within her culture at the time.  (Not everything acceptable in culture is acceptable to God.)

Next:  ►Abram mixed in Appeasement

Abram’s motto was: “Do whatever it takes to keeps the peace.”  The Prime Minister to England before the Second World War was a man by the name of Chamberlain.  His strategy for dealing with the aggressive tactics of Dictator Adolf Hitler was appeasement.  He declared that the peace agreement he made with this mad man was: “Peace in Our Time.”  But it was far from peace.  Indifference to decision making, can be as deadly as making rash decisions.  Abram thought just doing what Sarai wanted would get her off his back. But doing wrong to appease another often just agitates the problem.

Finally:  ►Hagar Sprinkles in an Opportunistic Spice.

Hagar is one of those opportunistic people.  Their motto is:  It doesn’t matter what you do… just make sure you get ahead!  Do whatever it takes!  She might even have thought:  “Here’s my chance to upgrade my status.  If I have the Master’s child, maybe I can shake off these chains.”  But striking while the iron’s hot, can still leave burn marks.

Initially the dish these three are preparing seems to be coming together.  Quite often ill-conceived plans work, initially.  Abram is going to be a first time father.  Everyone is all smiles.  Plans are being made.  I picture each of them with one of those large tubes of icing putting the finishing touches on the cake they have baked together.

And then, BOOM! The whole concoction blows up in their faces.

Have you ever been there…. Maybe you’re like Sarai… you like to jump the gun or maybe you are like Abram… you like to go with the flow, or perhaps you have a Hagar streak in you… you like to place your bets on the spinning roulette wheel.  Then BOOM! Your circumstances blow up in your face.

Know this:  Your failures aren’t fatal.  Even when your circumstances sour… there is a way out of the mess.  Learn the lesson of Hagar.  Verse 6-15 tell how she takes the brunt of the fiasco and flees from a raging Sarai while carrying Abram’s child.  God meets her at a spring by the side of the road.  And there that God speaks to her.  She answers the Lord calling him “the God who sees.”  And then she adds:  “I have now seen the One who sees me!”  That knowledge is enough for Hagar to return to Abram and Sarai and have her child.  God tells her to return and she obeys Him.

When one finds oneself broken down on the side of the road… or driven into exile due to bad circumstances… one might imagine themselves hidden from the God who cares.  But God sees us.  He sees us in our messes… even the ones we have created… and offers to clean us up… to redeem us.   He alone can save us from our own baking!  Praise to His name!

Blessings!

 

Faith at Low Tide

low tideGenesis 15

Low tide, caused by the pull of the moon’s gravity upon the earth, is as predictable as the sunrise.  It isn’t as pretty a sight as high tide is.  A lot of blight that had been hidden beneath ocean waves is now exposed.  The poles holding the dock can now be seen.  They aren’t as varnished and clean below as they are above.  Sea weed is every where.  Old bottles (no messages) and drift wood are stranded on the beach.

Predators have been waiting for low tide.  Hungry birds are scarfing up the sea life that didn’t quite make it out with the tide.  Crabs that burrow in the sand now find their ocean roof removed… they are vulnerable to curious children and tourist looking for an interesting pet.

Another thing that happens is that the waters that were once so easy to pass become treacherous.  A former co-worker in Maryland once went out on a boat off the coast of Ocean City, Maryland.  As the tide became low they hit a sand bar and became stuck.  After frantically trying to loosen themselves, they eventually had to spend the night in the boat and wait for the ocean tide to come back and release them.  It can be embarrassing at low tide.

Well there are low tides in life as well as on the coast.  Moments where you kind of loose your footing… as hopes, dreams and resources seems to rush away from you as the waves from the beach.  A lot of blight becomes exposed in your life.  Predators wait to tempt you at this hour of vulnerability.  Areas of your life that were once clear sailing, you now find impossible to pass. You are at ebb tide.  You’re left like Otis Redding: “…sittin’ on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away.” And with it goes your vitality, your joy, and your peace of mind.  Faith could sure comes in handy at Low Tide.

God comes to Abram at the beginning of Genesis 15 and addresses him with: “Do Not Fear, Abram.”   What could Abram be fearing?  Reprisals from the enemy he has just defeated?  Maybe some of the other tribes in the area might be taking notice of him?  Perhaps he’s feeling a little weak now…  A little more vulnerable?

Sometimes after a victory we are the most vulnerable.  Evil in this world will not sit still after you have won a victory.  Sometimes events can happen shortly after that make you question your small victory all together.

Genesis 27 continues with Abram complaining to God: “You said that I would become a great nation.  But Eliezer of Damascus is going to get everything I have when I die.  Was that the plan?  I come out here in the middle of nowhere only to die childless, and my wealth goes to someone that doesn’t even know you?

Now remember Abram has, not once, not twice… but three times received a solid promise from the Lord.  But those precious promises that once brought him joy seem to mean precious little at low tide.  His heart is tired of waiting for the promise.   Joy has rushed from him like the waves from the shoreline.

“What are you up to God?”

Do you ever get discouraged?

You’re trying to train up your child and they seem to be choosing the path of the prodigal.

You’re trying to remain honest in your business, but the cut throat competition is eating you alive.

You’re trying to faithfully give to the church, but the car has broken down, the kids needs braces and there is this scary rumor of layoffs at work.

“What are you up to God?”

See what God does for Abram:

1.  God speaks to Abram’s fear. 

God says: Do Not Be Afraid… I will be your protection and provision.  This is the first instance of “Do Not Be Afraid” in the Bible.

2.  God speaks to Abram’s discouragement.

God says:  You WILL have a son.  You WILL have numerous descendants.  God then takes Abram to do a little star gazing.  Here the Sovereign Lord, who created each celestial body, tells Abram that if He can do that, one child is a piece of cake for Him!

Jeremiah 32:17 reminds us:  “Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.”

I love the word of the Rich Mullins song “Sometimes by Step”:  “Sometimes I think of Abraham, how one star he saw had been lit for me. He was a stranger in this land. And I no less than he. And on this road to righteousness, Sometimes the climb can be so steep, I may falter when I step, but never beyond your reach.”

How did Abram respond to the pep talk from the Lord?  Verse 6 says it all:  “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”

Nothing changed around him… same barren countryside… same barren Sarai.  But Abram’s heart changed right there at ebb tide… and God looked at his faith and called it righteousness.

So… in the midst of your low tide.  Do not give up.  Do not give in to fear.  Instead… go look at the stars.  (God lit one of them up in the night sky for Abram that had YOUR name on it.)  Display a little righteousness by… against all odds… simply believing!

Blessings!

Securing Life’s Victories

Securing VictoryGenesis 14:17-24

The banner was meant to celebrate a victory.  It became the symbol of an unpopular war.  “Mission Accomplished” it read above the head of George W. Bush as he delivered a prepared speech to rally and thank the troops.  Sectarian animosity and the difficulty of rebuilding a splintered nation were underestimated that day.  History can be hard on the overconfident.

This is not a blog about the war.  Whether you think it was justified or not is not my concern here.  I want to talk about securing your victories in life.  Whether your war was on poverty, depression, unemployment or illness… if you conquer on those battle fields you do want to celebrate.  If that celebration is filled with thanksgiving to God… that is fitting and proper.

But you do want to stay vigilant as well.  There may be more battles to come.  Peter warns:  “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert.  Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”  The Mission is never accomplished in this lifetime… and overconfidence can bring defeat greater than our once perceived victory.  So how do you secure the victory?

Take a lesson from Abraham.  In Genesis 14 he finds himself in a conflict to save the life of his nephew Lot.  Verse 14 says:  “When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he led out his trained men, born in his house, three thousand and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.”  Verse 15 declares a victory:  “He brought back all the goods, and also brought back his relative Lot with his possessions, and also the women, and the people.”

What I want to look at is how Abram secured his victory.  He accomplished this in two ways:

1)  He Gave Back Some of His Gain.

Verses 17-20 tell the strange tale of Melchizedek.  He is the king of Salem and a priest of the Most High God.  This man is mentioned by the New Testament author of Hebrews:  This Melchizedek was king of the city of Salem and also a priest of God Most High. When Abraham was returning home after winning a great battle against the kings, Melchizedek met him and blessed him. Then Abraham took a tenth of all he had captured in battle and gave it to Melchizedek. The name Melchizedek means “king of justice,” and king of Salem means “king of peace.” There is no record of his father or mother or any of his ancestors—no beginning or end to his life. He remains a priest forever, resembling the Son of God.” (Hebrews 7:1-3)

According to these New Testament verses… Abraham was giving a tenth of his spoils back to God by giving them to this “priest forever.”

Have you been delivered from unemployment and poverty by obtaining a new job?  Praise God!  And then give back to him by giving to the work of God… and to others suffering from the same enemies.  Recovering from illness?  Seek to relieve the suffering of others.  Secure your victory by helping others in their battle.

I have a challenge for you today. Work out a plan, based on a percentage of your income to advance God’s Kingdom. Give some to church, to charities, to Random Acts of Kindness. Have some kind of plan. And then pray that God will help you implement it.   Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote:  “No man is so poor as to have nothing worth giving: as well might the mountain streamlets say that they have nothing to give the sea because they are not rivers. Give what you have. To someone it may be better than you dare to think.”

2)  He Rejected the Rewards of the World.

Another king greets him, the king of Sodom. He wants to strike a deal with Abram.  “Give the people to me and take the goods for yourself.” (v.21)  Abram refuses to receive anything from him.  He didn’t want to be indebted to this wicked king in any way.  “…I will not take a thread or a sandal thong or anything that is yours, for fear that you would say, ‘I have made Abram rich.” (v.23)

In the same way, we need to steer clear of dishonest gain.   Abram had a choice here.   Are you more like him or do you have the mentality of the King of Sodom?:  “Everything comes at a price.” “Strike a deal.” “Get in good with others for future reward.”  Abram trusted in the Lord, not in his connections to aid him in future battles.

I have watched many overcome difficulties and then disappear from church… enticed by the opportunities their new found freedom offered them.  If you were faithful in battle, remain true after the victory.

I meant no disrespect to former president Bush… I believe him to be a good man.  But we all succumb to a little overconfidence once in awhile.  Often times afterward a civil war erupts within us.  Don’t underestimate that roaring lion.  Secure your victories through generosity toward others and greater faith in the Lord.

Blessings!