Sunday, June 24, 2012

Samuel - "When You Can't Hear God's Voice..."

As we begin our ninth lap around the great stadium, surrounded by a great ‘cloud of witnesses’ who are cheering us on in the race of life, we see a boy of 12 or 13 come down from the stands to run with us.  We think about the many stories in which God called young men and women to follow him…Joseph, David, Esther, Mary, none of whom we have met yet. “I am Samuel,” the boy says, and I have some wonderful news: “God still speaks to those who will listen!” As we look at Samuel, the prophet, forerunner, and anointer of Saul and David we can’t help but be encouraged. If God could speak to Samuel - a boy who did not know the Lord, in a world in which few people were seeking God in the first place (see 1 Samuel 3:1-4:1) - perhaps God can speak to ordinary people like us in our own skeptical age.  As we run along the track with Samuel he shares with us how he learned to recognize, listen to, and obey God’s voice…

(i) Samuel learned to recognize God’s voice (3. 2-8)   “When God spoke to me in the darkness of the early morning, I did not immediately recognize that voice as God’s voice” he tell us.  I had to learn how God communicates.  Samuel goes on to remind us that he had to learn that when God speaks he always does so through a physical medium that we can recognize and interpret with our five senses.  Even an “audible voice” will have to register on our ear drums as a familiar sound if we are to make it out. When God spoke to Samuel, he thought at first that it was Eli who was calling him.  Why?  Because God was speaking to him in a way that he could understand; a way that was familiar and intelligible.  Over time, Samuel learned to recognize various ways that God speaks, and so must we.  Consider the following :

God speaks to us through the Bible (3.3).  Samuel was known for carefully handling the word of God as a prophet.  But long before receiving any prophetic word, Samuel had become familiar with God’s written word.  He reminds us that every night he lay “down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was” (3:3); the Ark contained the tablets of stone on which the commandments of God were written, the guiding principles of Samuel’s life.  Now the Ark was in the Most Holy Place, the Holy of Holies.  Just outside that area was the Holy Place where the Lamp of God was located.  We read in v. 3 that “the lamp of God had not yet gone out.”  It was Samuel’s job to make sure that this lamp burned from evening until morning, as it symbolized God’s eternal presence ( Exodus 27:21). Therefore, this is a time signature meaning that God’s word to Samuel came very early in the morning.  There is a lesson here…While I have benefited from God’s word at various times of day, I would have to agree that beginning the day with God’s word is a powerful discipline.  Like tuning an instrument before a concert, it prepares us to enter our daily tasks, whether school or work …with a sense of God’s presence and clear direction. 

God sometimes speaks to us through prophetic words, dreams, visions, and audible voices.  We would be avoiding something very obvious in this account, if we did not acknowledge that God speaks to Samuel in an audible voice, repeating his name, “Samuel! Samuel!” (3:4).  Does God speak to people this way today?  The  answer is that God can speak to us in any way that he chooses, because he is God…and what century it is makes no difference to Him. 

In my own experience God does speak through verbal impressions, dreams, even visions.  I’ll never forget a difficult time in my early twenty’s when I was feeling alone and discouraged.  In that instant God gave me a vision of Jesus standing before me. I knew that he completely understood me, accepted me, and loved me as no one else could.  Then God gave me the gift of healing tears.  Over the years I have known men and women to whom God has given prophetic words…words that have built up and encouraged others to be faithful followers of Jesus.  I have received and treasured such words myself…two which I have kept in my Bible for more than 35 years now!

But of course, anyone can claim to have had a vision or direct word from God. How can we know such words are valid?  Here are 3 tests. (1) Is it faithful to Scripture? “All scripture is inspired by God (literally, God-breathed)…” - 2 Tim. 3: 14-17. And Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them.” - Matt. 5:17. (2) Is it faithful to Jesus? “The one who hears my words and does them will be like a man who built his house on rock.” - Matt. 7:24, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God….Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” - 1 John 4:1-3?  (3) Is it loving? “If speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol” - 1 Cor. 13:1.

God speaks to us through other people (3.9).  Notice that when Samuel heard a word from God, he thought at first that Eli was speaking to him.  It was Eli who “perceived that the Lord was calling the boy” (8); and it was Eli who told Samuel what to do next so that he could receive God’s message to him (9).  In my mind, Eli represents “the people of God” here, the church.  In order for Samuel to understand that this was God’s voice, he needed the counsel, the direction, the experience of one who knew the Lord.  There is wisdom here!  

Lisa does not make snap decisions…and when I asked her to marry me, she needed time.  But when she prayed, she experienced confirmation through several people who spontaneously approached her and offered to pray about our relationship; even people who did not know her well; there was a prophetic word from her friend Ginger; and a Sunday sermon at Lake Ave. that spoke to her directly about our relationship.  God used the Body to encourage her and me!  When we are seeking guidance, it is wise to seek confirmation about that from at least two other people who walk with the Lord…and are not personally involved in our situation.  Prepare to be blessed, challenged, and encouraged.

God speaks to us through circumstances and common sense (1, 10-14)Samuel lived in a time in which there was a great need for spiritual leadership:“The word of the Lord was rare and there were no frequent visions” (3:1).  The circumstance was itself part of God’s leading, and prepared Samuel to receive his call.  When God gives us an assignment, it is usually the case that our God-given gifts and interests fit the particular need and situation of our time. 

What are the circumstances of your life right now?  What are the needs in in your family, in your workplace and community.  Where do you see God at work?  Where do you see a need for your particular gifts and abilities in the Body of Christ?  As you look back on your life, how has God been at work? These circumstances are one of the ways that God calls us to join him.  If I might reflect on this week's Senior High  mission trip with YWAM San Francisco…I don’t know if anyone had a prophetic word about starting a YWAM base in San Francisco, but I’m pretty sure that the need itself was the call.  It was compassionate common sense, tested against Scripture and the wisdom of the Body, that Jesus used to direct godly men and women to begin that mission.  We don’t have to wait for a bolt of lightening and a voice from heaven to act!  The need and the circumstances may be the call! Just as when Jesus looked at the multitudes, he was moved by compassion, by their tremendous needs, because they were like sheep without a shepherd! 

(ii) Samuel learned to listen to God’s voice (3. 9-10)  1 Samuel 3 reminds us that the word of God was rare in those days.  It was rare not because God did not want to speak, but because no one was listening!  God will not compete for our attention.  Samuel is instructed by Eli to say: “Speak Lord for your servant is listening”(3.9).   All the preliminary events of that early morning were meant to prepare Samuel to tune in, and listen to God’s voice alone.  How do we prepare to listen attentively to God’s voice?

You begin by finding a quiet place tomorrow morning, where you can sit in silence for a few moments, with a good study Bible, opened and placed on your lap.  And then, before reading, you say these words: “Speak Lord for your servant is listening.”   Ask yourself three basic questions: (1) What does the Scripture say/mean?  (2) What is this Scripture calling me to do? (3) What is my prayer response to God?  This attitude of receptivity/attention is what the Lord is looking for in his children.  Secondly, when God speaks to you, write it down.  Keep a journal.  Why is this important?  We read in 1 Samuel 7:12 that when God answered Samuel’s cry for help against the Philistines… “Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah,and named it Ebenezer (or Stone of Help) for he said, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us.’”  He did it to remind himself of what God had done.  Writing down God’s word to you functions the same way.  It helps you to remember, record, and retrieve God’s personal word to you!  It works, believe me!

(iii) Samuel learned to obey God’s voice (3. 15 - 4.1)  The key to hearing God’s word as Samuel did, is our willingness to obey it, regardless of what anyone else thinks.  We read that after Samuel hears the word of the Lord, that “…Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli” (3:15).  Why? Because it was a word of judgment against his sons, the priests who had defiled the offerings and slept with the young women who served at the entrance to the temple (1 Sam. 2: 11-26). We can see how a boy might be frightened to speak this word.  But his act of obedience was the first step in an unending life of useful service to God.

One of the most respected Presbyterian ministers of the 20th century, and Chaplain of the US Senate, Peter Marshall, told of a foggy pitch-black Northum-berland night, as he was cutting across the moors of Scotland in an area where there was a deep, deserted limestone quarry.  As he plodded blindly along, an urgent voice called out, “Peter!”  He stopped, surprised, and answered, “Yes, who is it?”  What do you want?”  No response.  Thinking he was mistaken, he took a few more steps.  Then again, more urgently, “Peter!”  He stopped again, and trying to see into the darkness, stumbled forward and fell to his knees.  Putting down his hand to brace himself he found nothing there.  As he felt around in a semicircle he realized he was at the brink of the quarry:  one more step would have killed him. This is not only an unusual story of God speaking to one of his servants, it is a powerful reminder that when God speaks…we need to listen and obey him.  Has God ever challenged you to step back from the dark pit of anger, unforgiveness, infidelity, judgmentalism; or called you to lead someone else away from such a cliff? He does so only because he loves you and wants to spare you needless pain.

Going where God sends us is a blessing! I had the honor yesterday of working at a Christian Legal Aid - Los Angeles Clinic.  Some, like Clark Brown came to offer legal counsel, others came as interpreters, still others as spiritual counselors.  It occurred to me that what each person was seeking really as they came to us, was guidance.  One man lost his home: “The Lord is my rock and my salvation”, another was trying to clear his name and get into recovery: “If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation”, and a third needed healing from his anxiety more than legal counsel: “the peace that passes all understanding”.  In every case, we were able to share what God had given us to share… compassion, timely legal advice, a word of scripture or a prayer.  This week our students will be doing the very same they serve the homeless in San Francisco…the Body of Christ, once again offering up their hands, feet, and voices in obedience to his call, and out of their love for him.

As Samuel finishes up his lap with us, he encourages us one more time: “God still speaks to those who listen!” (1) God speaks to us through his word, (2) God speaks to us in dreams, visions, or prophetic words that are consistent with the word of Christ.  (3) God speaks to us through the church, and his people.  (4) God speaks to us through the circumstances of our daily lives. He really does!  So, can I pray for you today as you seek to listen to God’s voice and obey it?”   “Dear God, we need to hear your voice now more than ever!  Help my friends to be silent before you--that they may hear you; to rest in you--that you might work in them; to be open to you--that you might enter them; to be empty before you--that you might fill them.  May they find that quiet place each day where they can be still and say, ‘Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.’  Amen. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Hannah - "When You're Living in Pain..."

It is now our eighth lap around the great stadium track on which we are surrounded by tens of thousands of onlookers, a great ‘cloud of witnesses’ who have been cheering us on in the race of life. One by one, great heroes of the faith have come down from the stands to run with us, and to encourage us as we continue our journey. Approaching us now is a young woman who asks us to slow down and walk with her. “My name is Hannah,” she says, “and I’ve come to assure you that while pain is part of the journey, it’s not your destination.”

She reminds us of her story in 1 Samuel, chapter 1, that she carried the stigma of being barren in a culture where a woman’s value was measured by her ability to bear children.  That being childless was felt to be a curse by God and an embarrassment.  She recalls how hurt she was when her husband married a 2nd wife who could bear him children, even though it was the custom of the day.  “The rivalry that developed between Peninnah and I was bitter and painful,” Hannah tells us.  As I think about this rivalry I can’t help reflecting on the wisdom of the original biblical model, that “for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.”  It's little wonder that Hannah responded to her pain like many of us would: she compared and despaired (7-8).  Why can’t my life be like Peninnah’s?  If only I had a child, then I would be truly happy.  If only I had his girl friend, her job, his money, their house, different friends...then I’d be happy. “Perhaps you too have experienced regret, pain, and bitterness,” says Hannah.  Let me share some things that I have learned…

First, this road, marked ‘pain and suffering,’ is a major highway.  We read in v. 7, “So it went on year by year; as often as [Hannah] went up to the house of the LORD, [Peninnah] used to provoke her. Therefore, she wept & would not eat.”  Year after year, Hannah reminds us, she would travel with her husband and his second wife to worship at Shiloh – the religious center of Israel 300 years before Jerusalem became its capital city.  As Hannah traveled there year after year she did so weeping, because God had not answered her prayer. 

Hannah did not travel this road alone.  She was not on a rabbit trail…she was on the 405 Northbound on Friday at 5:00pm!  She had plenty of company!  In fact, there is no man or woman of God through the ages who has not traveled this road…Moses in the desert, waiting 40 years for God to deliver his people.  Elijah hiding in a lonely cave, fearing for his life from Jezebel. Jeremiah lowered down into a dungeon well by his enemies. Mary keeping her lonely vigil at Golgotha. And yes, Jesus knew human scorn in his life, but especially on the cross.  Be assured, if you are traveling this road now, there are countless others who travel it with you, who have traveled it before you, and who will travel it after you!  You are in royal company.  Sometimes, just remembering that can give us courage to take another step, to walk with Hannah on the road to Shiloh.  Hannah continues,

“Secondly, we can’t predict when we will travel this road or for how long.”  Sometimes when we are in pain, the people around us can’t completely understand why; and may wish they could end it for us, or move us through it faster.  After all, being around people in pain can be painful.  So Elkanah asks his wife, “Hannah, why…why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad?  Am I not more to you than ten sons” (1:8)? 

The truth is, there is no pre-set timetable when we travel on this road.  We can’t predict when or for how long we will be on it, nor are we exempt from traveling this road simply because we have known the Master longer.  Indeed, it is the nature of human beings to go through what Lewis called “the trough periods”. Knowing this may also encourage us to be gracious to one another. Elkanah, gave Hannah “a double portion” at the table because he loved her and because the LORD had closed her womb (5).  The person who is suffering (like Hannah) needs extra grace, patience, love …and those who are doing the caring (like Elkanah) need extra grace as well, because their reserves become quickly depleted.  Fathers, like Elkanah, there are times when you wonder why you’re wife can’t see things like you do, but you have the power to give her and your children a double portion anyway, to go beyond what is expected…to give twice as much grace and patience and sacrificial love; and that blessing will come back to you.

“Thirdly, try to remember that this road is not a punishment.”  Just because we are experiencing hurt, heartache or disappointment does not mean God is displeased with us.  Hannah seems to have had a very close relationship with God before she entered this desert of frustration and pain.  She was a woman of prayer who cried out to God even in her darkest moments.  We read in v. 9 that “after they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh [having endured again the mocking of her rival], Hannah rose and presented herself before the LORD” (1:9).  She may have felt like God was punishing her, but it is clear from the story that this was not the case. Of course, there are times when we bring pain upon ourselves…or experience suffering because of the actions of someone else.  It’s not very difficult to figure out if we are hurting because of something we have said or done, or because of something that has been said or done to us. 

Yet there is another category of hurt that is simply the result of our fallen world. A couple desires a child and cannot conceive, a person suffers from a long term illness, another has difficulties with a subject at school despite her best efforts; we experience unexpected set backs and failure, or a dear family member has died. These are not punishments, they are part of life.  But, we may ask, doesn’t verse 5 say that “God closed Hannah’s womb”?  Doesn’t this mean God was punishing her?  Not at all, but it does mean God was close to her!  In general, you have to be close to close something.  God was not punishing Hannah, but he was close to Hannah… intimately involved for the good in her situation in ways we cannot totally comprehend.  God was very close, as he is when you are hurting too!

Hannah looks at us now in the eyes, “This road is a road of purification.”  She reminds us that she “…was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly (1:10); that all her life she had wanted a child; that year after year she had prayed for her situation to change, thinking that if only she could have a son, her embarrassment and shame would be turned to victory.  But this year was different. This year Hannah rose, this year she got up from the table and went to the temple to pray…but this prayer was different from those she had prayed in the past!  This year, Hannah turned over her bitterness and jealousy to God.  This was no barter with God, it was a total surrender:  She didn’t say, “I’ll give myself to you if you give me a child” but “I’ll give you everything, even the child I so desperately want!”  Friends, these kinds of prayers rock the world! This was the prayer of Moses who said, “Lord, please send someone else,” and then went anyway; the prayer of Isaiah: “Here am I, send me!”; the prayer of Joshua:  “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”;  the prayer of Jesus: “Not my will, but Thine be done!”

Which is why we can call this the road of purification…because it purifies us from the things we think we need but really don’t!  Consider that on this road…God purifies us from the need to control Him.  I realize now that when I say, “Jump!”  God does not ask, “How high?”   I finally see that I cannot conquer God but that, in reality, God has conquered me.  Because God and I are in a real relationship… I come to see that God too has the freedom of action and inaction.  Next, God purifies us from our self-absorption. Hannah, in her prayer in 1 Samuel 2: 7-8, rejoices in God’s care for others: “He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” I would argue that Hannah through her own affliction experienced more awareness of the needy around her, and more compassion, which ain’t bad!  Finally, God purifies us from a dependence on what he can do for us.  We begin to realize that we love God more than the gifts God brings.  Like Hannah, we are ready to surrender it all to Him and like Job to declare, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him (Job 13.15 NIV).”

Christian psychologist Larry Crabb tells a story of a time when as a 3 year old he locked himself in the bathroom and began to scream, “Get me out of here!  I want to play!”  Minutes later, his father went around the house opened the bathroom window…and then, after climbing in, turned the lock and opened the door. “Thanks Dad!” Larry said, as he ran out the door to play. “That’s how I thought the Christian life was supposed to work,” writes Crabb.  “When I get stuck in a tight place, when my life feels lonely or scary, I scream, ‘God, get me out of here!’ and God comes in and rescues me so that I can go out and play.  But what Crabb found is that when we cry for help, the Father does come in to that little room, but then (instead of opening the door and letting us out) he often sits down on the floor with us and says, “Come sit with me!”  God seems to think that what we need most is not always to be rescued but to sit down with him in the midst of our troubles… and get to know him better. 

As we come to the end of our walk with Hannah, her eyes light up as she shares one more thing with us: “This road has joy as its end point” she says. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning (Ps. 30.5).” Hannah reminds us that after she prayed to God, and received the blessing of Eli the priest, “[she] went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer (1:18). Why was Hannah no longer sad? Why did she end her hunger strike, sit down at the table and enjoy the feast that had been set before her?  Was it because Eli prayed for her?  Was it because she knew that she would have a son?  She had prayed many times before with no results…why should this time be any different? I imagine Hannah saying this, “My joy returned, not because I was assured that I would have a son, but because I had offered up my heart’s desire to God, and decided to rest in the rightness of his plan for my life, no matter the outcome.” 

The testimony of Hannah’s prayer & God’s answer after years of barrenness is so awe-inspiring, that her husband personally participates in what must have been a difficult act -- that being, to dedicate this child to the Lord for his entire life (1.21). According to the Law, Elkanah could have invalidated any vow made by his wife (You’re nuts if you think I’m leaving this child at Shiloh) -- but instead he affirmed her vow to the Lord.  My Dad says, “It’s not what happens to you, it’s how you let it turn you.”  Elkanah chose to respond to this challenge not with cynicism but faith and solidarity with his wife, and because of that this husband and father not only blessed his family, but blessed a nation. Like Hannah and her husband, we too can have renewed faith in God’s plan even in our pain; believing that God works all things together for good not only because Hannah rose to pray, but because his Son rose on the third day.”

As Hannah  prepares to leave us, we know that this walk has done us good…that our Lord is not only the God of the strong and the quick, but the weak and lowly…the God of those who must walk or who cannot walk at all.  May I pray for you, she asks?  We are eager to have her do so, because each of us, in our own way…need his healing touch as much as Hannah did.  “El Shaddai, God Almighty, bless my friends today.  May they know that pain is part of the journey but not the destination; that weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.  Bless them with strength and hope that they too shall rise up…in this life and in the life to come, just as you rose again for us.  Amen.”

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Ruth - "When you're afraid to commit..."

We’ve entered a great stadium, mid-race, as thousands cheer us on.  One by one, great heroes of the faith have come down to encourage us on our journey.  A lone woman approaches us now…in her eyes we see a deep and unshakeable love, a courageous love that can overcome any obstacle.  As she begins to jog alongside us we know that we are in the presence of one of the greatest women of biblical history.  “Hello, my name is Ruth, and I have something to share with you: “Committed love is risky…but it’s worth it.”  

Ruth reminds us that her story took place “in the days when the judges ruled (Ruth 1:1).”  They were days of spiritual chaos, when God sent Israel examples of faithfulness and integrity, like Deborah, and Gideon, and in a far more surprising way a woman named Ruth.  The Book of Ruth begins by introducing us to an Israelite family from Bethlehem: a husband Elimilech, and his wife Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion who flee to Moab, east of the Dead Sea, to look for bread. While in Moab, Elimilech and Naomi’s sons marry Moabite wives, Orpah and Ruth (4), but within ten years, Naomi’s husband and her two sons die, leaving the three women with nothing (5).  That’s when Naomi decides to return to Israel, but urges her Moabite daughters to remain so they might remarry and start over.  Naomi believed God was against her and that it would be disastrous for Ruth and Orpah to follow her back to Israel which is why she urged them to remain in Moab. Orpah was obedient: she did the sensible thing. Ruth however did something extraordinary.  Despite the many good reasons she had not to do so, she pledges her lasting commitment to Naomi: 
But Ruth said, "Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you" (Ruth 1: 16-17)!
As we jog along with Ruth she helps us to see why the risk of committed love is worth it…

First, committed love creates a future of caring. For Ruth says, “Where you go I will go…”  I have heard young adults today express a great hunger for lasting, committed relationships and close-knit community – and a great cynicism about the possibility of such commitment in our disposable society.  Into such a world, Ruth speaks with authority and hope.  “Where you go I will go.”  Ruth cannot change the past.  She cannot bring Naomi’s husband back.  She cannot bring her own husband back.  She cannot stop Naomi’s sadness, but she can say this, “Where you go I will go.”  With one word, she can create a future of caring.  A promise is powerful!  Listen to these words by Lewis Smedes:
“When a person makes a promise, she reaches out into an unpredictable future and makes one thing predictable: she will be there even when being there costs her more than she wants to pay. When a person makes a promise, he stretches himself out into circumstances that no one can control and controls at least one thing: he will be there no matter what the circumstances turn out to be. With one simple word of promise, a person creates an island of certainty in a sea of uncertainty....When you make a promise, you take a hand in creating your own future…" [excerpts from Lewis B. Smedes, "The Power of Promises," A Chorus of Witnesses, edited by Long and Plantinga, Eerdmans, 1994].
Second, committed love makes room for others: “Where you lodge, I will lodge…”  For Ruth to remain with Naomi, she had to risk living life at close range with her, under the same roof; reminding us that committed love is always face to face, up close, vulnerable and honest. Remember that Naomi was not the “ideal” roommate. She was not only discouraged, depressed and heartbroken, she was angry.  She says later, “Call me no longer Naomi (Pleasant) but Mara (Bitter)” (20).  Yet Ruth accepted her; indeed she could empathize with many of Naomi’s feelings.  She knew it was part of the price of commitment, and that it was worth it.  

On Friday, my family got into the car about 1:00pm and began driving up to Visalia for a wedding rehearsal that I was leading.  Due to a brush fire, we had to take a detour through Tehachapi, and arrived, sure enough, 2 ½ hrs late!  Yes, I called ahead to let them know of our dilemma, but I was still impressed by the fact that when we pulled in there was not a single sour face.  In fact, the bridal party and groomsmen were having a great time, throwing footballs, decorating, enjoying the time together. Not surprisingly these were roommates or classmates or team mates, friends who had roomed together, traveled together, shared life together.  Those are the kinds of people you have at your wedding…It reminded me of my own room mates in the past, friends I have traveled across the country with, studied with, trained with, had late night conversations with, and especially my wife! 

I want to suggest that if you have never had to share a toy, a bedroom, a dorm room, a meal, a bus or a plane seat, a work space, or slog through the messy details of a wedding or a decision with some co-workers, to say nothing of a session or deacon meeting… you haven't lived.  And if you've had to make room for someone, but only done so grudgingly, than you haven't learned.  Having to make space for others is one of the greatest of life lessons. Have you ever considered the fact that God made space for us, that he made room for us by creating this universe?  God didn’t have to do this…he could have had it all to himself.  But God delights in our unpleasant as we can be at times.  So, thank God for every opportunity he gives you to make room for others in your life.  It’s one of the ways we can grow with Ruth in the art of committed love.

Third, committed love blesses the community: “Your people will be my people.”  For Ruth to remain with Naomi she would have to live in a strange land, among a people that considered Moabites to be pagan adversaries. Ruth risked embracing a whole new people as her own; of joining a new family.  She had no idea how she would be received.  Certainly she could expect it would be hard. When we join ourselves to Christ and his people, we become part of a new family (not just symbolically, but literally).  Because of Christ, we can say to the person on our right or left (regardless of their nationality, gender, or social background). “I’m a member of your family!”

That commitment to one another not only blesses us and our church, it blesses the larger community.  I have met more than one family who said to me before they became actively involved in our church community that a long term commitment to this neighborhood seemed impossible.   Now, they can envision a long term commitment to this Body, and to their neighborhoods!  Committed love not only blesses a community, it makes a community.  A city and a neighborhood cannot thrive without it.  The stronger our network of personal commitments are, the stronger our community. 

A student once asked anthropologist Margaret Mead for the earliest sign of civilization in a given culture. He expected the answer to be a clay pot or perhaps a fish hook or grinding stone. Her answer was “a healed femur.”  Mead explained that no healed femurs are found where the law of the jungle, survival of the fittest, reigns. A healed femur shows that someone cared. Someone had to do that injured person's hunting and gathering until the leg healed.  In other words, forget community, you can’t have a civilization without the commitment to love, to care, and to show compassion!

Fourth, committed love draws us into the circle of God’s love.  For Ruth says, “Your God will be my God…”  Ruth knew that to commit herself to Naomi she had to risk trusting Naomi’s God. The stories that she was told by the Israelites of God’s loving-kindness toward Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Joshua, Deborah, Gideon, inspired her own and gave her hope, and the goodness she witnessed gave her confidence – despite all the tragedy she had experienced.  She renounced the gods of her own nation and family and became then and there, for all time, a worshiper of the God of Israel. 

I submit to you that this pledge,“You’re God will be my God,” is a formula for spiritual blessing.  When marriages and families share a common faith…it makes for an extremely powerful bond.  I’m concerned at how casually many young Christians today take this principle. Paul urges us "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers" (1 Cor. 6: 14).   I need to be careful here, because I realize that there have been exceptions to this rule where a believing Christian has impacted an unbelieving partner in a significant way.  Yet this fact must not keep us from telling the whole story. Because what I observe is that when couples do not share a common faith conviction, either the partner with the strongest belief or worldview prevails, or - more often than not - the faith or worldview of neither partner prevails because such conviction is seen as a divider rather than a uniter.  Thus the couple misses the spiritual blessing of having a strong and vital faith in Christ at the center of their marriage when challenges come.  This basic posture of unbelief or simply nominal faith is then internalized by their children as the new normal...a kind of chain reaction of unbelief.  On the other hand, a couple can place the Lord at the center of their marriage, and, by his  grace, bless their children with this conviction...and the generations that follow them.   Listen instead to the words of Joshua who challenged his people to turn from their false gods and follow the Living God, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24: 15)!  May it be true with us...

Now I ask you, how long do you think Ruth’s extraordinary commitment to the God of Israel and her people would last?  Would it be in effect until Naomi died?  Would she then return to her own people in Moab?  No, her commitment had no expiration date, for Ruth says “Where you die, I will die –and there will I be buried.  May the Lord do thus and so to me and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”  What Ruth was trying to say was that…

Committed love is more powerful than death.  How could she be so sure?  Perhaps it was because she entrusted her promise to the Lord himself.  After all, it was the name of the LORD whom she called upon to certify her sacred promise.  She used his special name that day, the name he gave to Moses, ’Eh·yeh, the name that means, “I Am” or “I will be there for you as I am.” 

“I staked my all upon the forever faithfulness of that God,” we can hear Ruth saying, “and it was not in vain.  For into this powerful circle of steadfast love, God brought me and Naomi and Boaz together…Boaz, that wonderful kinsman who saw me gleaning in his field, who marveled at my loyalty to my mother-in-law and then chose to rescue our impoverished family by committing himself to me as my husband, and providing our family an heir. I did not know then that our son, Obed, would be the grandfather of King David, the man after God’s own heart, and the forerunner of Y’shua the Messiah  - all this from the seed of steadfast love and devotion which God inspired in me! Truly, committed love is risky, but it’s worth it!”

Ruth has nearly finished her lap with us...and as we ponder her words, words of loving commitment, words that even outdid Abraham’s (for Ruth was given no promise of future blessing from God before she took her leap of faith); words that also define a true disciple of Jesus who does not look back…but trusts in him fully... as we ponder such words we are in awe.  For only the steadfast love of the LORD himself could inspire such death-defying devotion.  Centuries later, the Apostle Paul would attempt to measure the love of God in this way: “Nothing in all creation, and certainly not death, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (see Romans 8: 31-39).  Not even death will be able to separate us from the steadfast love that God has demonstrated toward us in Ruth’s greater Son who gave his life for his people and for the whole world, and who rose again from the dead on the third day!  And that’s why I want to say that when you make a promise, an unshakeable commitment to Him, it is not in vain!

As I was speaking to this young couple whose wedding I officiated at yesterday…I was reminded of the fact that about five years ago her parents divorced because of an affair the bride's father had with another woman.  She had expressed to me how much she desired her marriage to be different; and as I looked at both of them in the eyes I wanted to bless that desire; to speak to them, and to those who have experienced failed promises, of God’s healing, of forgiveness, of the hope we have when we come to him in faith.

Although I have performed many weddings, I marveled again at the many friends, family, and church members who came to cheer them on as they made this death-defying commitment to each other…as they pledged to go through life together…to make room for each other…to embrace one another’s communities, and to put Christ at the center of their relationship.  It wasn’t a cold, lifeless commitment for commitments sake, but for Christ’s sake, and for each other…and for their grandparents, and children and the generations to follow them. 

Ruth is one of the greatest examples of devoted love in scripture…and despite our fears, we can be just as devoted and just as committed, because our Lord has committed himself to us.  So as this beautiful example of loving faithfulness returns to her stadium seat we’re thrilled that she asks if she can pray for us. “God of steadfast love and mercy, without you no promise or commitment we make is sure.  Inspire my friends to risk the adventure of committed love, and to know that in doing so, they are creating a future of caring rather than callousness, they are learning to overcome selfishness and make room for others, they are bringing blessings that extend far beyond themselves to their community, and they are imitating your own death-conquering love for us.”  Amen!

Click this link to read the entire story of Ruth right now!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Gideon - "When you feel inadequate..."

Imagine that we've entered a great stadium, mid-race, as thousands cheer us on.  One by one, great heroes of the faith have come down to encourage us as we jog around the track together. A young man comes down to the field and begins running alongside us. “I am Gideon.  Do you ever feel small and insignificant, unsure that you are up for the challenge that is before you?  What I learned was this: when you feel inadequate, take your eyes off yourself and trust the One who made you.

Gideon reminds us that he, like Deborah, lived in the period of the Judges …a time when the people were to look to God for leadership; but often failed to do so, plunging them into a cycle of oppression and suffering at the hands of their enemies.  Gideon was the fifth in a series of anointed, but fallible, leaders whom God raised up during a time when Midian was ravaging their land like locusts. The book of Judges tells us that Israel was reduced to hiding in mountains and caves to avoid the enemy threat, and when the angel of the LORD came to Gideon, he too was hiding out in a wine press where he was beating out wheat. Gideon recalls how shocked and skeptical he was at the angel’s greeting, “The LORD is with you, you mighty warrior (6:12)!”  Gideon confides in us: I was cowering in a winepress, the youngest in my family from the smallest clan in my tribe (6:15): I was neither mighty, nor a warrior…which is why I say,

"When you feel inadequate, let God redefine you."  'I’m too short or too tall, or I’m too shy or too talkative, I’m not pretty enough or handsome enough or smart enough' we say.  Sadly, some of us already wear a false label. Here is my suggestion: Let God tell you the truth about yourself. “You may feel small but you are a mighty warrior in his eyes!”  Just as our children are named as a sign of our love for them long before they can understand that love…so we have been named by God that we might grow in the glory and grace of that name.    

I was at a high school volleyball tryout the other day with my eldest daughter. I was impressed by the way the coach organized the event. He had team members pair up with the freshmen girls who called them by name and then immediately started working with them on fundamentals.  What I thought was unique was that students were encouraged to join the team, regardless of their experience level.  They’re welcomed right where they are.  They’ve made the team before they’ve had a single workout.  That to me is a picture of God’s redeeming work in us…he welcomes us on the team right where we are.  Our job is to come ready to learn, but we do so already having been accepted.  Gideon learned the power of being renamed by God, and so can we.

As we round the first bend in the track, Gideon has another word for us: "When you feel inadequate, let the truth about God guide you."  When we feel negatively about ourselves, it is not only the truth about ourselves that we need to understand, but the truth about God.  What was the truth about God that was revealed to Gideon?  Briefly, four things…

     First, God is purposeful: When the angel said, “The Lord is with you, Mighty Warrior,” Gideon asked, “But sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us?”  Gideon had begun to think that God was abusive and cruel; one who enjoyed making life miserable for his people and so he asked God, why? Judges 6:1 explains that it is because “the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD” that he gave them into the hand of Midian. There is a sense in which our feelings of inadequacy are absolutely justified…because we all fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).  But the pain we feel when we disobey God’s commands does have a redemptive purpose…to awaken our conscience, and lead us back to him…as it did Gideon and the Israelites!  

Marvin Norwood who was accused of critically beating Bryan Stow at Dodger stadium was overhead saying to his mother on a cell phone, “Pretty sure I’m going down for it. Sorry.”  I wonder who he was apologizing to?  His mother? Bryan Stow?  God?  God’s purpose is to redeem this broken world, and that often begins when we say “Sorry” (not because God needs it, but because we do).

     Second, God is present in power.  When Gideon asks “If the Lord is with us, why all this suffering?” God does not give a lengthy theological explanation of suffering.  What he says is, “I will be with you” (16).  The Hebrew word is ’eh·yeh and it is often translated “I am, have been, or become.”  It’s the same word that God speaks to Moses when he asks “Who shall I say has sent me?”  ’Eh·yeh ’A·šer ’Eh·yeh (I am who I am) but perhaps better rendered in the functional/relational language of Hebrew thought: “I am with you ALL the time, in ALL situations [as I Am].”  

Some of us may have felt the absence of our parents or a loving family member at one point in time.  Gideon obviously felt like the runt in the family, perhaps the neglected younger son.   When we feel neglected we may assume that God will neglect us too.  Yet the reorienting truth of Scripture is that He will never forget us or forsake us: "Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for a child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would never forget you!” says the Lord (Isaiah 49:15).  And again, "If my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me up" (Psalm 27: 10).

     A third truth about God that Gideon learned was, God is patient.  Gideon is not quite convinced that he is talking to the LORD, so he says, “If I have now found favor with you, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me” (17). So Gideon prepares a sit down dinner for the angel of God who rather than eating it, touches it with his staff as fire consumes it like a holy offering.  As if this wasn’t enough, Gideon later asks God to prove that he will deliver Midian into his hand by laying out a fleece of wool on the threshing floor, and asking God to let the fleece be wet and the threshing floor dry in the morning; which God does…only to be asked again by Gideon to reverse the miracle on the following day....

This story reminds me that God is incredibly patient with me, and is willing to persevere with me despite my anemic faith. That's not to say that it is wrong to ever look for a sign or confirmation of God’s presence.  I think it’s very human!  The other day I was at a choral concert at my daughters' middle school. and sitting a few rows in front of us was a family that we have come to know...a family that has suffered a terrible loss. That night, I was transported by several sacred anthems (in a public school, no less)…and one in particular, Ave Maria, moved me to tears as I thought of this beautiful catholic family.  I sensed from God that this was a word of comfort to them…a sign of his love. God is present…and he patiently assures of that fact…if only we have eyes to see.

     God is purposeful, God is present, God is patient, and finally God is peerless, having no equal. We recall that God wanted to teach his people to obey him and put him first, and so it is fitting that Gideon’s first task is to “pull down the altar of Baal that [belonged] to [his] father” (25)!   When the people discover Gideon did this, they want to kill him.  But his father sees the light: he courageously challenges them to step back and let Baal defend himself – which, of course, he does not!! I thought it was ironic that the Baal altar belonged to his own father!  It was his father who had taught him to worship these false gods.  What gods are we teaching our children to worship?   It’s an incredibly important question.

Families are tempted to worship all kinds of false gods today… but what these gods often have in common is that they ask us to (1) give up our worship together on Sunday, (2) forsake the family meal and prayer, and (3) neglect the giving of our time, talent, and treasure to God’s work. If we as parents hope to build self-esteem into our children, we must begin where Gideon’s father does…with the modeling of God-esteem!  

At this point Gideon’s eyes look down as we near the end of our lap.  He seems pained at something that he just remembered to tell us.  “I need to share one more thing with you…something important for which I am not proud.”  "When you feel inadequate, let the Spirit, and not your pain, rule in you," Gideon says. “You see, it was after “…the spirit of the Lord took possession of me; [that] I sounded the trumpet (33-34); that I went out to defeat Midian, that I became a mighty warriorBut sadly, my story does not end there.”  Gideon goes on to remind us of what happened after he defeated the Midianites…How, in Judges 8, we read that he returned to scourge the Israelite tribes in Succoth and kill the men of Penuel who refused to help him in the battle against Midian; and then how he treated the captured Midianite kings, Zebah and Zalmunna.  

Gideon asks them an unexpected question: “What about the men you killed at Tabor?” he asks.  It turns out that these kings had been responsible for the death of Gideon’s brothers.  "As the Lord lives” says Gideon,  “…if you had saved them alive, I would not kill you.”  Then Gideon proceeds to kills Zebah and Zalmunna. It appears that Gideon was no longer motivated by obedience to God’s commands, but by personal revenge. He had some of the Spirit’s gifts, but not the Spirit’s fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness….and self-control.” 

As Gideon prepares to leave us, I imagine him saying these words“Please learn from my mistake, dear friends.  For as a boy I had great feelings of inadequacy and personal shame which God sought to heal…but rather than allowing his Spirit to rule in me to the very end; I allowed my pain, my anger and my resentment to rule in me instead.  Don’t do what I did… God was patient with me…but I did not show that same patience to others! But thank God for his mercy…for when they asked me to be King, I had learned enough to say this: “I will not rule over you…the LORD will rule over you” (Judges 8:23)!  Let us not allow fear and pain and shame to rule over us, but let us allow God to rule in us! Let the Mighty One remind you of who you are as you hear the words of David's greater Son who said, “You are the salt of the earth; and the light of the world!” (Matt. 5: 13-14). “You are forgiven!” (Matt. 9:2); “You are valuable” (Matt. 10:31); “You were lost, but now you are found!” (Luke 15: 31-32); “You are my friends!” (John 15: 14-15); Paul goes on to say, “You are more than a conqueror through him who loved us!” (Rom. 8:37); “You are God’s temple!” (1 Cor. 3:16); “You are uniquely gifted” (1 Cor. 12); “You are a holy, chosen people” (1 Peter 2:9)!  And now may the Spirit of the King, the pioneer and perfector of our faith who for the sake of the joy set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, rule in you…as I pray he now rules in me.”