Hope for the Directionally Challenged

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A few months ago, I hopped into the car on an early Saturday morning with my two oldest sons. They could not have been more excited for their team chess tournament taking place at large and prestigious private school for boys in Nashville, TN. Having driven by it dozens of times, I knew the school’s exact location, but I wanted to know approximately how long it would take us to arrive, so I asked Siri for directions and set off. Oddly, Siri had the correct data for the address, but had it pinned at different location on the map. The result is that we “arrived” at our location some five minutes away from it as I blindly followed her prompts.

Others have fared worse following Siri or other global positioning systems. I came across one story about three young women who escaped the sinking Mercedes-Benz SUV after the vehicle’s GPS directed them down a boat launch and into the Mercer Slough in Bellevue, Washington. The driver thought she was on a road while following her GPS unit just after midnight, but she was actually heading down the boat launch.

But I’m hesitant to mock or blame Siri because I am just like her.

Proverbs 3:5-6 is all but tattooed across my forehead, but it is far from engraved on my heart.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding; think about Him in all your ways, and He will guide you on the right paths.

There are two issues.

First, I am directionally challenged, and all because I’m far too reliant upon a faulty GPS; namely, myself. The great enemy of trust in God is faith in self. My self is just stable enough to lure me into putting all of my trust in it. Far too often, I am self-assured, self-centered, self-confident and self-determined (to name a few). This reliance on self breeds skepticism toward God. When I “trust in the Rob all my heart and rely on my own understanding, I think about me in all my ways,” and am shocked when I end up on wrong paths. Independence … pride … truly is the root of all sin.

Second, the remedy to my independence, “thinking about Him,” is so much more than “thinking God.” It is to be Christ-assured, Christ-centered, Christ-confidence, and so on. It is to have the gospel of Jesus Christ shape all of my decisions and affections. I have to disown myself in order to find my true self. Utter dependence upon God is the remedy to dependence on the self. Then, and only then, do I walk “right paths” … do I end up where I ought to be.

Because of His nature, God will never leads us down boat ramps and sink us. Because of our nature, we end up far from where we should be and blame others in the process. Oh, that we would trust in the Lord with all our heart, and not rely on our own understanding; that we would think about Him in all our ways, and have Him guide us on the right paths.

 

Hope Glimmers in the Darkness

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It’s difficult to think of a more horrific biblical story than that of the Levite and the concubine in Judges 19.

There was a concubine bound to a Levite, but for whatever reason, she left him, making for her father’s house in the town of Bethlehem. Before she arrived, the Levite convinced her to return, and together they journeyed toward Ephraim. Along the way they looked for lodging and chose Gibeah (where the future King Saul would come from) rather than the Jebusite city of Jerusalem (where the future King David would come from) because Gibeah was inhabited by Israelites. There they expected treatment as brothers.

Ironically, pagan Jerusalem would have proven a safer refuge. For at Gibeah, no one offered them hospitality, except an old man from Ephraim who had migrated to Gibeah. That evening the men of Gibeah came to the old man’s house to have sexual relations with the Levite.

The old man was so embarrassed by this breach of hospitality that he offered his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine. The men refused and pressed against the door, so the Levite pushed his concubine outside. The men ravaged her for their sport and left her for dead. Out of revenge the Levite carved up her body into twelve pieces and sent them to the tribes of Israel.

This great atrocity became a long-remembered symbol of Israel’s sin. Dark days, indeed. Days characterized by a false sense of morality for things like hospitality and yet complete indifference for things like rape.

It’s no surprise, then, to read the first few verses of Ruth and expect a similarly dark story.

In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

Famine, death, and the struggle to survive. It was, indeed, the time of the judges.

And yet in these dark days of the judges, there were glimmers of hope, and the story of Ruth was written to serve that very purpose. The story of Ruth shows God working behind the scenes in the lives of ordinary people, turning apparent tragedy into joy and peace. Though Naomi (“Pleasant”) would prefer to be called Mara (“Bitter”), she would soon change her mind as God provided a family redeemer for her and Ruth in one named Boaz. The marriage of Boaz and Ruth resulted in a son named Obed, who would have a son named Jesse, who would have a son named David.

King David.

Which means ultimately that the book shows God as concerned not only for the welfare of one family—Naomi and Ruth—but for the welfare of all God’s people who would be blessed by David and by David’s Son, Jesus Christ.

Our world is filled with darkness like that of the period of the judges. Indeed, our individual lives have moments of great darkness. And yet in such darkness, hope glimmers because of Jesus.

God’s Providence and My Sin

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My last post about my mom’s suffering and what the Bible says about it raised several important theological questions for some, one of which is this: How does God’s control of all things relate to man’s sinful actions?

Ultimately, the relationship between God’s providence and human freedom is a mystery. I believe the Bible teaches that God and man are concurrently working in the world, and that God brings His providential government to pass through real human agency. I know of no better illustrative narrative than Genesis 37-50 and the life of Joseph.

Joseph’s brothers hated him because they envied his status with their father. They attacked him, intended to kill him, and wound up selling him into slavery in Egypt. God brought Joseph into a position of power in Egypt, however, and a decade or so later the other sons of Jacob had to go to Egypt to buy grain because of a famine. There they encountered Joseph and were reunited.

After their father died, the brothers were afraid that Joseph might take revenge on them. Joseph assured them, however, that though they were sinning when they attacked him, God was working good through the situation. God was not guilty of causing them to sin, but God was mysteriously working out salvation through their sin.

Several years ago, I purchased a set of CD’s by Holly Dutton that put The Westminster Confession of Faith to music. It’s not my personal confession of faith, but I love how it expresses the mystery of God’s providence: “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures.…

I don’t begin to understand it, but I am comforted by it: God never sins, and never causes men to sin, and yet His purposes are not thwarted by our sins. In fact, God is able to bring good out of our sinful actions. There is nothing evil men can do that will prevent God from fulfilling His good intentions toward us. It’s a great truth to remember when confronted by evil—whether that is your own or someone else’s.

The Power of the Voice

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After more than five years of living with ALS, my mother peacefully passed away August 1, just four days before her 64th birthday.

Symptoms of ALS begin and progress in different ways for different people. Some lose coordination or find themselves tripping over their feet more often, and for inexplicable reasons. Others become weak on one side of their body such as their hip or left hand.

My mom experienced all of these things as the disease progressed. Her left side (arm, hand and leg) became weaker and slower than her right (though her right side soon caught up). She fell a few times as well, even breaking a couple of ribs (do you know how hard it is to cough when your ribs are broken and you are losing control of your diaphragm?). Amazingly, Gigi was able to walk with assistance some 4 years into her diagnosis, but the day eventually came that she would remain in the bed until her death.

But long before these physical limitations, my mom lost something far more powerful than her strength, balance and mobility: she lost her voice.

Just weeks before her official diagnosis, I had lovingly joked with my brother that I had apparently talked to mom on the phone when she’d had too much wine … she sounded drunk! Or at least dehydrated.

But she was neither.

Rather, her tongue had a tremor, and she could not control her speech. So her voice was really the first thing to go as the disease progressed.

Can you imagine how challenging it is to converse with someone who can’t contribute to the conversation in the same way everyone else does? I can remember trying not to talk slower, as I was initially tempted to believe that her inability to talk somehow inhibited her ability to listen. But pausing … waiting … leaning in as she attempted to contribute … ugh, so challenging to be respectful and not patronizing.

And can you imagine how maddening it was for her to have a fully active and sharp mind (and OH what a wit she had!) that fully engaged in the conversation mentally, but that could not physically produce speech to reflect her mind? It must have been maddening at times, if not all the time.

A lot of the stories and experiences we’ve shared about mom over the last several days have largely been things that she’s said. I never heard mom’s voice more loudly or clearly than the time we lost my brother, Michael. It was the just three of us in the house and we are all off doing on our own thing by ourselves, and mom had a moment where she realized she didn’t know where we were or what we were doing. She found me pretty quickly, but we couldn’t find Michael. Never did I hear mom scream as loudly and as frequently as she did Michael’s name. Indoors and outdoors … even down college street for one block in both directions … she yelled his name. We came back in panicking and began searching different crevices and such in the house. And I found him hiding from us in a guest bedroom closet. He was playing hide and seek. You know that feeling of relief and anger you feel as a parent toward a child?

More recently, soon after her diagnosis, I went on a European cruise with her, my wife, my brother, and mom’s sister. On the flight back, the gentleman (I use the term loosely) sitting behind her was SO tall that his knees rammed into the back of mom’s chair and forced her to sit at an uncomfortable angle. After multiple passive-aggressive attempts to shove her seat back and displace his knees, my mother finally mustered up the strength to speak her mind with her quivering tongue: “I AM ALL OUT OF NICE!” she said.

We use that phrase a lot in our house.

But the voice … we forget how much power and influence is in the voice.

  • When God created, He used his voice.
  • When God wanted water for his people to come out of the rock, he commanded Moses to use his voice.
  • One of the most important means by which God desires to be worshiped is with my voice.
  • When Zechariah did not believe the angel telling him about Jesus, he lost his voice.
  • When John describes the activity of believers in Heaven in the book of Revelation, there’s no mention of pets or endless leisure activities, but there are numerous references to God’s people singing and chanting … worshipping God with their voices.

Because there is so much power and influence and identity wrapped up in our voices, to lose one’s voice is a true affliction.

  • I had vocal cord nodules as a pre-teen and the doctor gave me a pill and a prescription to not talk for two weeks. It doesn’t take long for people to ignore you or forget about you when you can’t talk with them. I wonder if Mom ever felt ignored, or how many friends forgot about her?
  • I had fatigue in my vocal box a few years ago due to not taking care of my voice in preaching, and again was prescribed silence for two weeks. What is a PREACHER supposed to do without a voice? I wonder if mom struggled with her identity or purpose when she lost her voice?

Do you understand better just how powerful our voices are and just how close they are to our identity? When we lose them, it’s a true affliction. iPads and emails help … but there is no true substitute for our voice. To lose your voice is to lose a big part of who you are.

I don’t pretend to know why mom lost her voice and suffered a myriad of other thing she did in this disease, but one passage that I’ve turned to time and again in thinking about affliction is John 9.

Consider John 9.

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Their presumption may seem odd, but there are biblical examples of God sending affliction due to the specific person or their parents (the death of David and Bathsheba’s son, for example). But the man was not born blind because of his sin or the sin of his parents.

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus answered. “This came about so that God’s works might be displayed in him.”

The reason this man was born blind had everything to do with sin in general, nothing to do with sin in particular, and everything to do with God’s sovereign plan for him. This man was born blind so that he and those who would see and read of this story would know the glory of God!

Can you imagine how the blind man must have felt in this moment … learning that his blindness was not related to any particular sin, but was granted to him by God in order that people might see His glory? I’m wondering … could I be OK with affliction if I knew it was for God’s glory?

The answer must be “Yes” … and in so being, there are three things we can do with our affliction.

First, we must believe that our affliction is in God’s design in some way. As I once heard John Piper say, it will not do to say that God only uses our pain but does not design it. Jesus makes that very clear here. God doesn’t plan the end and not the means. This man’s blindness is designed. Satan is real and causes many pleasures and pains. But he is not ultimate. So today, this passage calls upon us to look at affliction and trust God’s wisdom in design.

Second, we must use our affliction to witness to the Gospel. Because any affliction is an opportunity to trust God and His infinite wisdom with our life, it’s an opportunity to trust Him with our reputation as His follower. Christians are never anywhere by divine accident. There are reasons for why we wind up where we do.

Finally, also echoing Piper, we can grieve like we have hope. Even if affliction leads to death, there is temporary loss for the believer who dies—loss of body, and loss of loved ones here, and loss of earthly ministry. But the grief is different—it is permeated with hope.

Mom did all of these things with ALS. She believed God was in it. She used it to serve others, and she didn’t live with this disease like she didn’t have any hope. I’ll share just one example.

The Gleason Foundation gave mom an eye-gazing computer system that allowed her to stare at words and phrases on a screen. The computer would then speak her constructed phrases and sentences. Ironically, she worked with a speech therapist to learn the system, and her therapist came to the funeral in FL. She explained to me that one of the phrases she was trained to use in working with patients was, “Since my diagnosis, I feel …” … and the patient is to choose words. Explained the therapist, “The first word your mother chose was ‘blessed.'”

It’s one of many illustrations highlighting mom’s faith in a sovereign, loving God to know what’s best for her in His plan for this world. The amazing thing is that when mom lost her voice, she spoke more loudly and clearly than she ever had before. She taught us how to trust God in our pain, use it to help others, and live in expectation of a much greater life to come.

Does the Morality of our Leaders Dictate the Morality of our Culture?

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In the early days of my first senior pastorate, the current deacon chairman and his wife hosted us while our home was under construction. They graciously offered their basement to us for about 6-8 weeks, and we gladly accepted.

The first night in town, they also took us to dinner, and at that dinner, I messed up royally as a Dad. My then youngest son … 2 at the time … had a dirty diaper. I went to the restaurant restroom to change him, only to discover we had no diapers. I cleaned him and pulled up his pants. “Think you can go commando, son?” I asked. He ignored me and ran back to the table.

A few minutes later, just as we were standing up to leave, he looked at me and began to whimper. I picked him up and headed for the van, only to discover a stream of you-know-what running down his pant leg.

The 10-minute van ride was memorable. One that I want to forget, but will never forget. My nostrils STILL burn when I think about it.

When we got to the basement, the contamination continued. The homeowners came downstairs for a moment, but couldn’t handle it. The stench was just too much. Eventually, with windows open (in December) and a bottle of Febreeze (before our essential oil days), we were to able to disinfect the basement, but it was work. As Jean-Ralphio would say, it was:

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The world is a lot like that basement. I’ll spare you the modern examples, because you know what they are. But it stinks. It’s foul. It needs something more than an airing out and a special set of essential oils.

And as I read through my social media feed this election cycle, I’m noticing that many are turning to government either bring about the moral change they seek, or turning to government to prevent the kind of change someone else in the government wants to bring about. Either way, Christians seem to have come to the conclusion that as the government goes, so goes the country.

I repeat: Christians seem to have come to the conclusion that as the government goes, so goes the country.

And nothing could be further from the truth.

Consider Matthew 5:13. “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.”

I’ll spare you the full exegesis on the functions of salt throughout history and come to the point: salt PRESERVES, and Jesus said that His disciples are salt.

WE PRESERVE.

As Christians go, so goes the country.

Not government.

CHRISTIANS.

As Martin Lloyd-Jones once said, God intends that the most powerful of all restraints within sinful society to be his own redeemed, regenerate and righteous people.

Christians are not to look anywhere else … institution or person … to bring about the influence we think needs to happen. Not the State … not even the family … not even the most powerful person in the known world. All have their place, but they are not THE key influencer … CHRISTIANS ARE.

My assertion is that we would do far better as a country if Christians did far better as disciples of Jesus.

My assertion is that the morality of our leaders does not dictate the morality of our country. Rather, the obedience of Christians dictates the morality of our country.

We Christians are the antiseptic … the disinfectant … in this deteriorating, disintegrating, rotting carcass of humanity (and NO … I’m not channeling the so-called dark and foreboding Trump RNC speech). We are the primary means of restraint in the world. We penetrate and influence the world by being distinct from it.

Maybe it’s time we stopped wishing for a better set of presidential candidates and started praying about being better disciples.

 

The Problem Isn’t New, Nor is the Solution

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“I swear to God I love this city but I wonder if this city loves me. In uniform I get nasty hateful looks and out of uniform some consider me a threat…These are trying times. Please don’t let hate infect your heart. This city MUST and WILL get better.”

Those are the words of Officer Montrell Jackson in a Facebook post a little more than a week before he was shot and killed by Gavin Long. The scenario in Baton Rouge, combined with the events in Dallas, St. Paul, and beyond, truly have people wondering about the state of the human soul.

Is it worse than ever?

Regardless, why is it the way that it is?

It’s in that context that I read Judges 19-21 yesterday, and have come to the conclusion that humanity’s problem isn’t new, and nor is the solution.

The chapters (summarized well by the Holman Concise Bible Commentary) tell the story of a Levite whose concubine left him for her father’s house at Bethlehem. The Levite convinced her to return, and together they journeyed toward Ephraim. Along the way they looked for lodging and chose Gibeah rather than the Jebusite city of Jerusalem because Gibeah was inhabited by Israelites. There they expected treatment as brothers. At Gibeah, however, no one offered them hospitality, except an old man from Ephraim who had migrated to Gibeah. That evening the men of Gibeah came to the old man’s house to have sexual relations with the Levite.

The old man was so embarrassed by this breach of hospitality that he offered his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine. The men refused and pressed against the door, so the Levite pushed his concubine outside. The men ravaged her for their sport and left her for dead. Out of revenge the Levite carved up her body into twelve pieces and sent them to the tribes of Israel. This led to a bloody internal tribal war that led to thousands upon thousands of casualties on all sides, as God used the event to punish all Israel for their great sin.

Imagine being an Israelite during such a time. How steep is the moral decline of a nation when:

  • Women are given half-hearted relational promises
  • Women are shamefully given up for dead to hide the shame of men
  • Bodies are carved into pieces and used as propaganda to incite further violence

You see my point: things are no worse now than they were then. Just as we wonder where God is when our culture seems to lack a moral compass, so did the author of Judges many thousands of years ago.

The problem isn’t new.

Neither is the solution.

Judges ends with this thesis statement: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did whatever he wanted.”

No kidding.

But just because everyone did whatever he wanted doesn’t mean that God wasn’t accomplishing what He wanted. For in Ruth 1, we read that “during the time of the judges” … that is, when everyone did whatever he wanted … God was at work through a famine, death and sorrow … bringing about love and redemption and the grandfather of a soon-to-come king named David, the man after God’s own heart.

No, the problem isn’t new. And neither is the solution.

The solution is faith in a redemptive, sovereign God working in all things to make all things new. This truth does not diminish the pain and frustration and despair we feel in moments of national crisis, nor does it allow us to wallow in it. God gets our suffering and is at work in it to redeem us.