Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sir, I Messed Up

I learned one of the biggest spiritual lessons in life from an Army Lieutenant Colonel. I don't know if he was even a Christian, and I have no idea if he realizes the value of what he taught me. I didn't even realize it myself, until quite some time later. In fact, I still seem to forget that valuable lesson all too often, and every time I do, it ends up costing me.

You see, I messed up. Nothing that would be criminal, at least, not outside the military, but a screw-up, none the less. I was in a fairly prestigious position. I was a member of a team, and I had a job to do. It was my responsibility, my assignment, and I forgot to do it. Because I forgot, my team had to delay their mission preparations. I can't even remember what the thing was (probably sending out a message of some sort or another), but I do remember getting summoned to my team chief's office. My team chief verbally reprimanded me, and I left, feeling low for letting my boss and my team down. I finished the task I had forgotten and went on to my other duties.

Later in the day, I had to see my team chief again, probably to get some paperwork signed or or an order approved, and that is when the lesson occurred. Still feeling remorseful about letting my team chief down, I brought up the task I had forgotten. "Didn't we already talk about this?" my team chief asked. "Yes, sir." I replied. "Did you fix it?" "Yes, sir." "Then what do you want to go back there for? Let's move on, okay?" I came to attention sharply and walked out, feeling a weight lift off my shoulders.

You see, that Army officer taught me a valuable lesson that day; two, in fact: The first is summed up in Hebrews 12:5-6: And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: "My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son." As Christians, we are justified the moment we receive Christ as our Lord, but as humans, we all go through a process of becoming sanctified, that is: becoming more like Christ. That process starts the moment we are saved, and continues until the day we die. We screw up. It's inevitable. And as we screw up, the Lord calls us into His office and disciplines us. If He doesn't, something is wrong: If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. (Hebrews 12:8)

The second lesson is simply this: Once the Lord disciplines us, He moves on, and so should we:

For as high as the heavens are above the earth, So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us. Just as a father has compassion on his children, So the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him. (Psalm 103:11-13 (NASB))

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)

What the Colonel taught me is simply this: you mess up, you take your lumps, and you press on. If God has shown you your sin, and you've confessed it to Him and done your best to make it up to the people you've hurt, then it's time to turn your eyes forward and move on. You can't do anything for God if you insist on staying stuck in the past.

Guard Duty

In basic training, they keep you under constant pressure. Fear might not be exactly the word, though there is more than a little of that to go around. There are limits to what the drill instructors can do to you, but they do their best to convince you otherwise. They are pretty good at it, too! Anxiety might be a little closer to the mark. Will you make it through? How many times can you mess up without getting washed back to Week One? Is five and three quarters inches close enough to six to avoid a demerit?

Mostly what I remember about basic training is being tired all the time. You're constantly on the move. When you're not PT-ing, marching, in a classroom, or filling out endless forms and tests, you're trying desperately to get your underwear to stay in that perfect 6-inch square, ironing, polishing your boots, and checking and rechecking your pockets for lint, laundry tags; anything "unauthorized" than can get you a demerit on your next inspection. It's almost impossible to squeeze all the stuff they make you do into one day, so you cheat. You polish your boots after lights out, while a buddy watches for any sign of the drill instructor. When you do get to bed, it's often a fitful night, broken periodically by the fateful sound of taps clicking menacingly on the floor as the instructors make their midnight rounds.

To add insult to injury, they shorten your already short sleep rations even more by handing out... you guessed it, guard duty! Now there is no earthly reason for guard duty in basic training, except as an exercise (and maybe to keep the other recruits from going AWOL). You are surrounded on all sides by an operational base, with armed guards everywhere and offices full of drill instructors pulling their own midnight shifts. No, guard duty is purely a training exercise - one more way to mess with your already sleep-deprived head. Here is how it works: They give you a little briefing, explaining the rules for entry into the barracks. They are simple. Everyone shows an ID, and the face on the ID must match the face on the person. No exceptions. When you hear a voice on the intercom, you answer... immediately. If you don't, they assume you were asleep, and you get to visit the commander the next day.

Now the fun begins. They let you wait awhile and get settled in. Then the DI comes to the door and sticks his face up to the window. You know who he is; you see him every day, but you can't let him in. He screams and shouts and threatens to kick your... well, you get the idea. If you lose your nerve and let him in, you're toast. If you hold out, he'll finally flash an ID, maybe too quickly to see, so you endure another round of abuse, speculation about whether your intelligence qualifies you to be off of life support, whether your parents had any kids that lived, that kind of thing. Or maybe the white DI flashes the ID of a black man, or of a woman. You let him in, because you weren't really looking at the picture. God help you.

For the Christian, living in the world, can be like guard duty, only the enemy isn't an angry DI, it is Satan... and our own nature. James explains how sin enters a person's life like this:

When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (James 1:13-15)

You see, we can be our own worst enemy. Sin starts out as temptation from inside; a thought - a greedy thought, a vengeful thought, a lustful thought, a small seed. Temptation grows into sin as we nourish the thought, watering it and caring for it, instead of pulling it like the weed it is. Before we know it, we have let the DI in and we're in for a trip to see the commander. So how do we avoid the discomfort of explaining to he commander why we let the unauthorized person in? It's simple, really, but we make it so hard in practice:

The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:4-5)

You see, we must stay on guard. When we have a thought that just doesn't look right, we need to stop it at the door and ask it for ID. If it screams at the window, we draw the shade and turn away (just don't try that in basic training). We need to pick up our basic training manual and study - everything we need to fight off that thought is in there. And if we fail? If we earn a trip to the commander? More on that next time...

Friday, February 19, 2010

Lions and Tigers and... Lambs? Oh My!

In case you have been under a rock these past few weeks, Tiger Woods, the icon of the golfing world for the past two decades, has fallen. And fallen big. A short newsbreak about a mysterious car accident spiralled in a matter of days into a full-blown scandal as tale after shocking tale of marital infidelity came to light.

As I made my way to work several weeks after the scandal broke, I tuned my radio to a popular sports station and was greeted by a discussion on Tiger's upcoming press conference. Now, it is telling that Tiger's agent chose to schedule the conference during the height of the Winter Olympics - undoubtedly to divert as much attention away from the scandal as possible. Even more telling, perhaps was the fact that, in spite of the fact that the conference occurred in the midst of the Games, it was the number one sports story of the day. The discussion the morning of the conference centered around the types of fans that would tune in to hear the statement, and what they would want to hear Tiger say.

The first group of fans, contended show's host, would be the die-hard Tiger fans. To their mind, Tiger didn't owe a thing to anyone - except his wife - and any apology Tiger might give should stay between them.

The second group would be the those on the far right; nothing Tiger could say will appease them. He will remain a pariah to them, shunned for the remainder of his public life.

Still a third group of fans would be the fence-sitters. They want to forgive Tiger, but they need to hear him say the right things. What things? Simply that he messed up and is sorry, and that he'll try to do better from here on out.

The fourth and saddest group of people are those who really don't care one way or another about Tiger; they just want to hear the dirt; the juicy details of where, when, and with whom. They are the voyeurs, vicariously living the lives they perhaps wish they could live - through their favorite (or simply most controversial) celebrities.

So which of those groups should we as Christians fall into? Hopefully, none of the above. You see, Tiger's life could be seen as a microcosm of an essay, a poem by the wisest of all earthly kings - the Book of Ecclesiastes. Like Solomon, Tiger had it all (though on a much smaller scale): success, wealth, beautiful homes and boats, even women wherever he went. What have all of those things brought him? By all appearances, not enough to satisfy him. As Christians, what should we hope to hear Tiger say? My hope would be for something like this:

" I had it all.
I had more money than I could spend in a lifetime, and it left me empty.
I reached the pinnacle of success in my field and raised it, and I wanted more.
I had any woman I wanted, but each encounter just made me hungrier.
I had mysticism and meditation, but the peace they brought me was fleeting.
I had it all.
And I had nothing.
I would gladly trade it all for a sip of the water the Lion of Judah, the Lamb of God, offered the woman at the well."

Jesus answered, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." (John 4:13-14)

Tiger, the water is cleaner than any spring water; fresh, cool, and yours for the asking. Won't you come take a drink?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Me First!

The other day, my wife and I followed some of the teens from our church youth group to a "Jam" concert featuring several popular Christian bands - some with names I even recognized! Have I mentioned how hanging out with the youth can really energize those of us who are starting to "sit, soak and sour" in our pews? Anyhow, the event was awesome, though I know my age is really starting to show when I have to stuff cotton in my ears to cut the sound to a decibel level my tired eardrums can manage (well, except for Third Day - I really had to hear them completely uncorked). All in all, it was a great time. Our youth even "adopted" an orphan from Thailand halfway through the show, agreeing to sponsor her financially until she finds a permanent home.

The only blemish on an otherwise exceptional night occurred on the way into the concert. As we made our way from the main road into the venue parking lot, we came to a turn where two lanes of cars narrowed into one. As we approached, it seemed like most of the drivers were taking turns merging: first one car from the right lane, then one from the left, kinda like the teeth of a zipper. When we came to the front of the line, we paused for the next car from the opposite lane, then started to take our turn. To our surprise, the woman in the car next to us refused to let us in, hanging onto her steering wheel like grim death; her grill seemingly glued to the bumper of the truck in front of her. My wife motioned that we were trying to follow a van now several cars ahead of us, but to no avail; our neighbor kept her eyes fixed firmly ahead with all the determined concentration of a Bulldog eying a hamburger.

At first, I was angry. I really wanted to follow the woman to her parking spot and suggest that if she wished to drive like she was the only person that mattered, perhaps she should remove the fish symbol from her car. Fortunately, we were able to spot our youth up ahead and catch up to them, and in the excitement of seeing several of my favorite Christian bands for the first time ever, I mostly forgot about the incident. As we left the concert, I happened to spot the same woman, and my irritation flared up again... And as I pondered the idea of blogging about how ugly selfishness looks in a Christian, I began to experience a sense of conviction about my own motives and behavior. The following verses seemed to leap out of the dark at me like a neon sign:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3)

You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye. (Matthew 7:5)

And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. (Matthew 5:40-41)

Now, what these verses says to me is that I should automatically be willing to put others (or let others go) first, even if I think I have a right to go first. They tell me that before I go passing judgment on anyone else, I really need to take a critical look at how my own motives and behavior measure up. They tell me that I should give grace, rather than insisting on justice, since I received grace myself at great cost to our Lord.

As I think back on all the times I have really lost my temper behind the wheel (okay, there are too many to really remember all of them), those two verses kinda make me want to slide down in my seat a bit. So I had to wait behind one more car before catching up to our group. Big deal. How do I know the woman in the car wasn't following someone herself? I don't. What had I really lost? Nothing... especially compared with the guilt I would be feeling right now had I really given the woman a piece of my mind and only then remembered the wisdom above.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Faith Like a Child (Relayed by Mom and Dad)

We were in a serious drought. The kind of drought that only people who live west of the Mississippi River can relate to: no rain for months at a time, the ground a dry Martian landscape of cracks that puffed up in fine powder with every footfall. As my sister listened to a news report on the drought, water restrictions, and the danger to crops, she asked a simple question: "Mommy, why don't they just pray for rain?" My Mom told her what a wonderful idea that was and suggested she try it. "Okay, Mommy." My sister skipped off to bed. The next morning, as we headed for the door, my Mom noticed my sister carrying an umbrella. "Why are you taking the umbrella, Sweetheart? It's sunny outside!"

"It's going to rain, Mommy" replied my sister, "I prayed for rain last night." And with that, she hopped out the door, umbrella in hand.

"Lord, please don't let my daughter be disappointed," my Mom prayed throughout the day, "she's so young to have her faith tested."

By the time school was over, our city was awash in a downpour.

Would it have rained, anyway? Possibly, but rain was not in the forecast. Would God send rain, just to strengthen the faith of a first-grader? I have no doubt, that He would, if it suited His purpose. I believe there are a few simple principles here, as illustrated in scripture:

...You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:2b-3)

The centurion replied, "Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and that one, 'Come,' and he comes. I say to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it." When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, "I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." Then Jesus said to the centurion, "Go! It will be done just as you believed it would." And his servant was healed at that very hour. (Matthew 8:8-13)

Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. "Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?" they asked. "Isn't this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother's name Mary, and aren't his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren't all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?" And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, "Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor." And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.
(Matthew 13:54-58)

When we ask God for something, we should examine our motivations, as James advises us to do. Are we asking for something so we can feed our own worldly desires? If so, we shouldn't be surprised if we don't receive it: God is under no obligation to answer sinful or selfish requests, no matter how much faith we have (and no matter what some popular televangelists may say to the contrary).

Does what we are asking suit God's purposes, or our own? As we become more and more molded to Christ's image we will find that those two often overlap. At a glance, the Centurion's request to heal his servant may have seemed selfish, but it suited Jesus' purpose in illustrating that He had come to seek and save the lost of all nations, not just of Israel. Judging by the Centurion's humility, he had also been listening to the teachings of Christ and His followers, and we can guess that his motivation was prompted by care for those under his authority, rather than simple monetary loss.

Finally, do we believe God can and will do what we ask? In Matthew 13, Christ makes it clear that, if we want God to do the impossible, faith is an absolute prerequisite. When we pray for rain, do we get out the umbrella?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Last Will and Testament

Most of my first few years in the military are a blur. Nearly 25 years after I first raised my right hand, memories of basic training, technical school, and my first assignment are beginning fade like old weathered photographs. From time to time though, some of those distant memories suddenly seem to jump into sharp focus. As I read through Paul's last few letters to the churches he helped to found, one of images that shoots to the forefront of my mind is of preparations for Desert Storm.

In those weeks and months leading up to the assault on Saddam Hussein's war machine, the common soldier, sailor, airman, or marine had little idea of what to expect. Those were the days before CNN footage of brilliant fireworks erupting over Baghdad as frustrated anti-aircraft batteries tried vainly to shoot down invisible stealth aircraft. We knew that we would win... eventually. But we also new our enemy had a huge army and Soviet-made weapons we had never been tested against. We were hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. Among the memories of processing lines, mass vaccinations, and weapons qualification, one that stands out is of a quiet room, in which two dozen or so young men and women prepared hand-written wills under the guidance of a sober-faced legal clerk. My will was short and to the point: "...all of my assets, I leave to my wife and unborn child." Maybe three or four sentences in all.

As I read Paul and Timothy's letter to the Colossians, it strikes me that his writing was a lot like that. He wrote like a man who knew he had not a lot of time left, and wanted to make every word, every sentence count. After a brief salutation, the letter gets right to the point: If you forget everything else, remember what you first believed about Jesus:

- That He is God in the flesh and the creator of all things
- That He holds the entire universe together
- That He is the head of the church
- That He rose from the dead to overcome death itself
- That He has paid the price for our sins that separated us from God
- That if we believe in Him, God sees us as perfect, without sin

Paul later goes on to address false doctrines that were seeping into the church and other things like standards of behavior, but it is evident that the first thing he wanted to make sure he did was remind us of all we should know about Christ. I wonder, as Paul sat in Rome, did he guess that he might be executed before the letter was finished? If he did, it makes sense that he would write the most important part of his message first. I think Paul was trying to tell us all something: we can fully understand nothing of the Bible, or of God's universe, without first understanding His Son and the work He did for us.

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. (Colossians 2:6-8)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Does God Ever Get Tired?

My daughter has always loved to sing. When she was two, she would sing and hum to herself in the car. She still does, until she realizes we're listening to her. She especially liked singing in church. The church we attended at the time had an upbeat contemporary worship style with a nice mix of classic hymns. One day, we were singing "Our King is Exalted" and I realized I could hear my daughter's sweet voice ringing out amid the music and the crowd. As I bent closer to listen, I has to suppress a belly laugh. She was right on key and right on time. The only difference in what she was singing was a subtle change in the lyrics; to her young ears, "Our King is Exalted" had become "Our King is Exhausted."

My wife and I had a good laugh about it on the way home, but as I look back, I am inclined to wonder: Does God ever get tired? Does He ever need a vacation? If the question is simply whether God ever gets physically tired, the answer is easy:

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom. (Isaiah 40:28)

If the question instead is "Is there a limit to God's mercy? Can I exhaust God's patience?" the unfortunate answer for some of us, is "yes." Now let me explain: The Bible clearly teaches that no amount of right living can earn us God's favor, apart from Christ. Were right living required, or even able to save us, there would be no such thing as grace, nor any need for it:

So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace (Romans 11:5-6)

The Bible also teaches that there is no sin that cannot be forgiven the believer in Christ:

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 7-9)

This is great news for the believer in Christ! Since grace is delivered to us on the basis of what Christ did, rather than what we do (or don't do), it is as limitless as Christ is perfect.

The Bible does; however, teach that there is one sin that, if left unrepented, cannot and will not be forgiven. John refers to this in 1 John 5:16 as a sin "leading to death." Christ Himself referred to this sin in Mark 3:28-29: "I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin." Christ uttered these words in response to those who denied He was the Christ, preferring to accuse Him of working miracles by the power of the devil.

Friends, the simple fact is this: We can speculate all we want about those in far-flung places who have never heard the Gospel, but one thing is certain: if we do hear the good news that Christ has overcome death and has Himself died for our sins, and yet go to the grave choosing to reject the prompting of the Holy Spirit to receive Him as Lord, we are certain to experience God's judgment, rather than His grace. For our intents and purposes, we will have exhausted the inexhaustible.