Posted in Christian Living, Christianity, Faith

3 Lessons from Numbers for Christians

??????????????????????????????

My Bible readings have me in the beginning of this only Book that truly matters, and so I am asking God to help me see the lessons I should be learning from what can sometimes seem tedious study, since so much of the story of the Jews’ time in the desert is filled with specifics about measurements for building the tabernacle, the specific punishments for different crimes, etc.  Still, I believe God is showing me some pretty interesting things because I have asked for Him to, in faith.

Reading in the book of Numbers, I tried to see myself in the shoes of the Jews.  They might have had the privilege of witnessing God’s miracles and seeing His presence up close–like having manna and water delivered to them out of nothing and seeing God appear in a great cloud and column of fire to guide them, but I have the knowledge of God’s greatest miracle: that He gave His only Son to die for our sins.

Knowing this, can I see my own worries and misplaced concerns about everyday life as the same kind of backsliding that I scoff at when I read about the Jews and their golden calves or whining about being tired of the same kind of food every day?  Reading the early parts of Numbers in this way, I have come up with three conclusions I can try to apply to my walk with Christ.

  1. God keeps His promises
    • God said He would rescue the Jews from Egypt and take care of them.  But, every time you turn around, the Jews keep wanting to go back to Egypt, back to slavery and harsh taskmasters.  However, the Jews don’t remember these negative sides to life in Egypt when they are whining to Moses.  All they remember is having a variety of food there and not just manna.
    • Don’t we Christians do similar things?  Christ promises that He will be with us always.  Christ admonishes us to look toward treasures in heaven and not on earth.  He wants us to understand that our relationship with Him is what matters most, not the car repair we have to find a way to pay for.  And yet, how many times do we fret instead of trusting that Christ also keeps His promises?  He brings us through the storms in this life, often not in ways we expected, but usually we can look back and see the good Christ works in the things that happen to us, especially when we approach those things by putting our belief in Him first.
  2. God doesn’t want us to fail.
    • I think it is a mistake to place on an omnipotent God an understanding of emotions that is limited by our human perceptions.  In other words, when God gets angry, it is in no way the same as when we humans get angry.  There just isn’t a way for us to understand God’s “emotions” unless He chooses to reveal them to us.
    • I say all that to propose that the punishments that God metes out when the Jews fall short should not necessarily be seen so much as an anger response as a disappointment that borders on mourning.  And what, exactly, is God mourning except the loss of those who fail to have faith in Him despite everything He is doing to show the Jews that He alone is God?
    • If God mourned the failure of the people He had chosen to establish Himself as the one and only God of the universe, how much more must he mourn when people reject Christ, or when we Christians reject the lessons Christ worked so hard to teach us?
    • The bottom line of the cycle of lack of faith and punishment as the Jews wandered in the desert is the lesson that God does not want us to fail.  Think about how many times God allowed the Jews to begin again with their relationship with Him.  Then, think about how Christ allows us to awake each morning as a new creature.  As long as we acknowledge our sins to Him and repent of them, we get to walk with Christ in the presence of God once again!
    • No greater love….
  3. God wants our BEST.
    • Every sin or uncleanness in the book of Numbers requires sacrifices that begin with the offering of the best that the person has to offer.  Lambs with no defect, the best grain, the finest incense.  Only by giving the very best that a person owned could the person really feel the sacrifice required to make things right with God again.
    • The Jews’ relationship with God in the desert always involved barriers.  God spoke to Moses directly, who then conveyed God’s messages to the people.  Thick, wonderfully made curtains separated the unconsecrated masses from the inner sanctuary, where only the anointed, clean priests could enter to present the best of the best to God to redeem those who had sinned.
    • With Christ, the inner curtain has been rent in two!  With the Holy Spirit dwelling in us and with Christ as our High Priest, we can speak to God directly and know that He is listening and hears us.
    • If God wanted the best of what the Jews in the desert had to offer, what do you think He wants from those of us who have chosen to accept the Grace and gift of the Cross?  Do you give Christ your BEST every day?  Do you at least think about giving Him your BEST?
    • If you are wondering what the BEST is for a Christian, begin with a study of the Sermon on the Mount, where Christ expounds what it looks like to be a true citizen of the kingdom of heaven.  He doesn’t promise that it will be easy, but He does promise to be with us every step of the way.

There are lessons in the Bible for all of us, not just in the New Testament.  Even though the Old Testament books include some cultural references and ways of life that are thousands of years removed from modern life, people still retain the same basics of human nature that can bring us closer to God or push us farther apart from Him.

The choice, as always in a fallen world where free will exists, is ours to make.  As you study the Bible, remember to ask God to show you ways you can apply what you read in your every day life, no matter how far removed the events you are reading about seem to be from your usual experiences.  God keeps His promises.  And one of those promises is that those who ask, believing, will receive.

Posted in Christian Living, Christianity

Living, happily, in doubt

Benefit of the doubt

As I have mentioned on a few occasions, I’ve been reading Randy Harris’ Living Jesus, a guide to the Sermon on the Mount, which is practical, insightful and challenging.  Of course, I have just described the Sermon on the Mount itself, but Harris’ commentary places Jesus’ timeless words into modern terms that graciously calls each of us to the hard truths of Christ’s most famous lesson.

One of the principles that Harris puts into modern focus is discussing the Golden Rule in terms he dubs the “benefit of the doubt principle.”  In almost any given situation, you can see what is happening or what has been said by assuming the best about someone or the worst.

Most of the time, we go around assuming the worst possible scenario.  It’s the beam in our eye that Jesus was warning us about.  The clerk at the store who is curt to us is a rude person who needs to learn customer service skills. We don’t consider instead the possibility that the clerk may have distractions like a sick child at home or bills he is having trouble paying that are making it hard for him to concentrate on the task at hand.

If we respond to the clerk without the benefit of the doubt, we are probably just as curt back, not smiling, and may even complain to the manager. But, if we give the clerk the benefit of the doubt, we might smile ourselves, give the clerk a compliment, or admit that it seems like the clerk is having a rough day as we empathize with the feeling.

Try this the next time you encounter a “difficult” person, and note the amazing turnaround that is possible.

But, the change in attitude that comes with treating people with the benefit of the doubt isn’t just for the people to which you offer it. This principle affects you perhaps most of all. You might, in fact, call this the happy principle, because when you start giving people the benefit of the doubt, it is almost impossible to stay in a negative state of mind.

Thoughts such as he hates me or she thinks I’m stupid or no one appreciates what I do, etc. all fall under a different lens when the benefit of the doubt is applied.  Instead of jumping to the worst possible conclusion, if we consider the problems others might be facing as well, if we realize that the world doesn’t revolve around us, then we are more likely to be happier people.

Sometimes, a different perspective can come as easily as deciding to assume that another person’s “bad” attitude has nothing to do with you, isn’t actually directed at you, and shouldn’t be taken personally.  What if you respond to a “bad” attitude with concern for the other person or just with a friendly response that refuses to be “baited?”

Living according to the moral system Christ calls us to live in the Sermon on the Mount really requires us to stay in touch with the workings of the Holy Spirit in us.  That Holy Spirit guidance gives us the ability to offer the benefit of the doubt to others, to see past the beam in our own eye before we even notice the speck in somebody else’s.  And when we put our ego aside enough to actually do that, we’ll find that we’re happier, calmer people.

When we walk according to the benefit of the doubt, we’ll find that we feel the love of Christ in us and toward others more often.  Just as Jesus was able to point out how no one had the right to judge the condemned woman but was still able to call her to “go and sin no more,” when we lead with love, staying on the narrow path is an easier pill for everyone to swallow (see John 8).

But this benefit of the doubt principle is easier said than done, for the ego is a strong thing, constantly pulling us from the guidance of God.  Part of us wants to feel hurt, put upon, wounded.  And that part wants somebody else to blame.  If we have to embrace the concept that it is our choice how we react to the information that bombards us daily, we have to master putting God’s way first and our ego second.  Mastering the ego is mastering the concept of the benefit of the doubt.

Of course, there are times when the benefit of the doubt might not be possible.  If someone is heading toward you with a drawn knife, you’d best take evasive action.  But, most of the time, choosing to see others in the best possible light is exactly what we have the opportunity and obligation to do if we are really trying to walk with Christ:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  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 7:3-5)

We are so quick to give ourselves a break.  No one can be more creative than we are when we start making excuses for our own failings.  We don’t want to be too hard on ourselves, after all.  So, next time you are tempted to be harder on somebody else than you would be on yourself, get creative.  Give the other person a blessing to you both–the benefit of the doubt that leads to peaceful, and happy, living.

Posted in Christian Living

This Narrow Path: Finding the Way of Christ in a Wide World

20131102-092414.jpg

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The Road Not TakenRobert Frost

Each day is filled with choices we make. Some are simple–oatmeal or cornflakes for breakfast, the most or least use of freeways on a driving route, dust or vacuum. Others are choices that have been looming over us for some time or have the potential to change our lives–taking a new job, deciding to get married, declaring a major.

Christ makes it clear that when we make the most important choice of all, to accept Him as our Savior, we embark on a lifelong journey of choices to walk along the “narrow way” with Him:

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matthew 7:13-14

The narrow road means doing things like walking away from water cooler gossip, apologizing when we mess up, even to people we have a hard time “liking,” and even not watching the latest “cool” series on television that may be amusing, but also mocks the very God you have entered a covenant to follow. “Don’t commit adultery,” Jesus says in His Sermon on the Mount, but also, don’t even lust after another. Don’t murder, but don’t even harbor anger.

“This is impossible,” you say. I agree. On your own, it is totally impossible. But you are not alone:

“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” (John 14:15-21)

A life lived in full acknowledgement of our responsibility to make Christ-like choices is a life that should be filled daily with conversations with the Father, with quiet moments in practice listening for the Holy Spirit, with study in the Word to truly know what Christ defines as the narrow road. Most importantly, a life filled with choices is also a life that we can begin anew each morning. With true repentance, Christ is always available to help us turn from our sin, and He always loves us, no matter what.

May your way be narrow this week. You’ll be surprised at the freedom you will feel with Christ beside you on that road, holding your hand.

Posted in Christian Living, Christianity

The Challenge in Stones: Practical Steps to Shine His Light

pile-of-rocksT

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”   “I tell you,” He replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”  Luke 19:39-40

Stones are fascinating things. They are so hard, they form mountains only TNT can blast through. Yet, they can be smoothed and carved over time through the flow of a river or even just a dripping of water. We carry small stones, smooth and oval, in our pockets to rub soothingly. The casting of stones symbolizes judgment.

The first time the concept of the stones crying out was driven home to me was actually through the imagery evoked in one of Nicole Nordeman’s hits, “My Offering.”  She sings:

Give the rocks and stones voices of their own, if we forget to sing praises to our King.

The idea that something so hard and silent can be made to speak just underscores the awesome power of our God. But the idea of stones crying out also reminds us that God wants our praise. Let that sink in a minute. The God who created Heaven and Earth, who tells the sun where to rise and the oceans how to flow, who needs nothing because He made everything desires your praises. I don’t know about you, but that realization always makes me want to shout!

There is another side to stones, however, that is equally important to the concept of praising God with our voices, and that is the practical side of living the Christian life not just by a profession of our faith with our lips but through our actions.  Jesus explains it this way:

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like.  They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built.  But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.” (Luke 6:46-49)

The foundation of practical living from a Christian perspective is laid out for us in the Sermon on the Mount.  The teachings contained in Matthew 5-7 are the core of what authors on the subject dub “Kingdom Citizens,” who are you and I, believers in Christ working our way through this life in a quest to become more Christ-like. Kingdom living is not easy.  It requires the best of us. At the same time, we are never alone when we are attempting to walk in the footsteps of Christ, for He promises to be with us always (Matthew 28:20).
There are, I am sure, many wonderful works on the Sermon on the Mount, but there are two in particular I would like to recommend. One is Invitation to a Spiritual Revolution by Paul Earnhardt.  The other is Living Jesus by Randy Harris, who writes,
These students understand that the Sermon on the Mount is calling Christians to a way of life, not a demographic choice like checking a box.
Earnhardt adds,
A distorted view of “justification by faith” has been a popular subterfuge. Boiled down, this approach holds that Christ has no concern with how you live, only how you feel . . . . But this is not faith in God but “faith in faith” — a self-serving ‘believism.’  We are certainly justified by faith, but a faith that manifests itself by obedience to God’s commands (Luke 6.46; John 14.15, 21, 23; 15.10, 14; Gal. 5.6; Jas 2.14-26). That is clearly the message of the Sermon on the Mount.
Another famous story involving stones in the Bible underscores the narrow way. Remember when Moses struck the stone to bring water forth for the Israelites instead of speaking to it as God commanded him?  The consequence was that God showed Moses the Promised Land but did not allow him to enter it! For a man who had spent 40 years talking directly to God, doing what God asked, leading a mass of people against his own wishes, failing in one of God’s commands leading to such dire consequences just emphasizes how important it is to God that we do as He says!
But, another message of the Sermon on the Mount is the blessings of Christianity as a way of life, which the Bible (as well as Earnhardt and Harris’ books) also make clear:
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8)
My best friend likes to say that God often hits us with pebbles, and if we ignore Him long enough, He’ll get our attention with a stone to the head. As I work to approach Christianity as a practical way of life, I will be sensitive to the pebbles this week and pray about acting on the opportunities to shine His light.
Posted in Christian Living

Up the Steep Hill: Practical Steps to Shine His Light

Hiker

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says.  James 1:22

We have reached the point in discussing the practical approach to the Christian life that is not easy to write about because plain, truthful speaking is never easy to do well. How do we call ourselves and others to a higher standard of living without risking offending? In days of old, preachers like Jonathan Edwards embraced the fire and brimstone approach with sermons like, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Today, some pulpits are so afraid to drive off potential parishioners that their watered-down sermons don’t seem to resemble God’s word at all.

But as the book of James plainly tells us, we are not meant to just hear God’s word. I believe we are also not meant to just believe God’s word. We are meant to hear it, believe it, and act on it.

I heard minister Matt Soper put it this way:

Do you live by your conviction or by your convenience?

If we live our religion according to our convenience, we are very far from shining the Light of Christ.  Convenient religion–(I say religion because it would be blasphemous to connect the words convenient and Christianity, wouldn’t it?)–goes to Church some Sundays, usually holidays, follows the rules when it will feel good to pat oneself on the back after, usually self-reflects only when there is something positive to reflect upon, easily sees the flaws in others and tends to lean toward the desires and needs of the immediate moment instead of the eternal. James warns of this kind of religion: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder” (James 2:17).

Christian conviction, on the other hand, realizes that one must, as Paul admonished the Philippians,:

. . . continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose (2:12-13).

James puts it another way:

. . . faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (2:17).

In action, Christians become the salt and light to a world in the dark. In action, we prove our convictions about what we believe. Our actions, in fact, are our most practical approach to Christianity of all.

As Professor/Author Randy Harris explains, “I find it very interesting that both salt and light require two things. First, the elements salt and light need to be different from the things that they are a part of. . . . Second, salt and light need to penetrate their environment or other ingredients in order to make a difference in them” (from Living Jesus: Doing What Jesus Says in the Sermon on the Mount).

When you study the Sermon on the Mount as a way of life, you begin to see what Christ means to be different from the world but penetrate that world at the same time in order to make a difference, in order to shine His love for a world lost in darkness.  Living according to the model given us by Christ is not convenient. You must be kind, non-judgmental, slow to anger, a devoted helper, generous, hospitable. You must love others as you love yourself and act accordingly.

Christianity takes conviction. It is the narrow way up a steep hill that many seek and few find. It is thinking before acting. It is praying daily, or even moment-by-moment, for the will of God to be done in one’s life. It is choices made due to the same insight. It takes God behind you serving as the counterweight up the hill.

James offers several, practical tips to Christianity by conviction:

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless (James 1:26).

and

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice (James 3:13-16).

and 

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness (James 3: 17-18).

and finally

If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them (James 4:17).

Convenient things are quick and easy. They go by so quickly, we often do not take time to enjoy them, just get through them. But loving Christ and acting on that love is something worth taking all the time in the world for. The things of this world last only a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things, but the eternal reality of Christ literally is the grand scheme.  Conviction means slowing down enough to feel yourself breathing, to give yourself time to think before you act, time to pray before you act.

Conviction is Christ, God Himself as man, allowing Himself to be nailed to a cross for the sins of you and me, we who too often lean toward convenience.

The practical approach up any steep hill is slow and steady, taking the time to know where one foot needs to go next and where the other foot has been. It takes patience and strength and the will to succeed.  When you accept Christ as your Savior, you take the last step up the steep hill by yourself. The Holy Spirit will guide you from there, as long as you get out of the way.

Posted in Christian Living, Christianity, Faith, Self-Help

Legacy: Let’s Get Practical

20121111-160455.jpg
If you are going to sow seeds for the kingdom, you have to embrace not just the ideals of a life in Christ but also the practical, day-to-day actions you should and should not take if you are truly walking the narrow path to the kingdom of Heaven.

The best place to go to find practical ways to apply God’s truth in your life is the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus explains the Kingdom’s precepts and practices.

The practical matters of legacy are not exactly easy, which is why it is so important that we have the support of the Spirit in us to help us live in the light. For, Christ not only upholds the basic truths of the Old Testament law, He ups the ante on each of those truths.

Do not murder, He tells us, but also to hate is to do as much damage to one’s soul as to murder. Do not commit adultery, but to even lust after another is to commit adultery. Do not quarrel, but even seek forgiveness up to the point of turning your left cheek when your right cheek has been struck.

As I heard a preacher put it once, God sent His son to sacrifice Himself for us. Do we actually think He would expect less of us after that kind of giving?

Make no mistake. We don’t earn our salvation through our actions. Only by grace can we accept the belief in Christ’s resurrection that saves us. But once we accept that grace, our faith should compel us to want to grow in Christ.

Anyone who plays a musical instrument or a sport knows that there is no way to improve without consistent, disciplined practice over time. Even the most proficient musician still warms up with scales, the basic building blocks of music. And that proficient musician practices his/her art each and every day for several hours at a time.

Christianity has its basic building blocks as well, disciplines that those of us who limit our Christianity to church on Sunday quite frankly miss out on. Even people who approach their religion as a way of life need the daily, routine practice of the Christian “scales” in order to continue to grow in Christ.

What does this routine practice include? Again, look to the Sermon on the Mount. Do you pray every day, and not just the same prayer mumbled quickly before you go to sleep, but with your whole self, throwing your whole body into it? Have you ever fasted? Do you regularly reach out to those who do not believe? Do you have spiritual elders to whom you regularly report about your growth in Christ?

I am an academic. If I had chosen to stay in the college setting as an instructor, I could have easily fallen into the “ivory tower” trap of staying inside my head all the time, living in the world of ideas instead of the world of practical application. That’s a fancy way of saying that it is very easy for me to get caught up in my head instead of listening to what my body is telling me. Some days, it’s as if the two entities have never met.

In the past several years, I have been doing an exercise program that involves yoga, but not the kind of yoga that you are possibly thinking about. It isn’t a classroom filled with hot babes in skimpy clothes. It isn’t a torture chamber of hot temperatures. It certainly isn’t a metaphysical den of crystals and gongs.

Luckily for me, my yoga center is focused on the principles that help us understand how our minds and bodies work together to feel the energy that is all around us, the energy that makes up the planet, the energy we Christians know as the Holy Spirit.

Before yoga, I had prayed with my mind and my heart, but I had never prayed all the way to my fingertips. What I have also learned from yoga is that real change of any kind in our lives requires a commitment of our whole selves. With the guidance of a spiritual leader, such as the pastor at your church, you can learn the daily practices, actual things you need to do every day, that will help you meet your spiritual goals.

How many of us even have real, spiritual goals that we have committed to paper, much less to our hearts, when it comes to our service to God and our growth in the Spirit? Practical faith means practice.

As we have discovered over the past several weeks, legacy is not just a dreamy concept about what is left of us when we are no longer part of this planet. Legacy is about our partnership with God and making good on our faith in ways in which only He understands the potential impact.

Start putting the practice into practical this week. Maybe make part of your daily Bible study a re-read of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). And set down a list of daily actions you plan to begin for the next 21 days to reach a goal you have in Christ. Pray about it, share with fellow believers, and have faith that the Spirit will guide you where Christ would have you go. But go somewhere. No one leaves a legacy by merely standing still.