Evil Schemes and Generous Plans

This post was published a couple of weeks ago on the Compassion International Blog, but I thought I’d run it here as well for those who missed it.
 

“…the schemes of the schemer are evil; He devises wicked plans To destroy the poor with lying words, Even when the needy speaks justice.” (Isaiah 32:7 NKJV)

I can’t think of a more accurate description of poverty.

The evil one, the wicked schemer, devises wicked plans against the poor, and he has been highly successful. Over half the world’s population is a slave of his plan. This wicked scheme called poverty has stolen hope, killed dreams and destroyed lives.

He has spoken lying words to those caught in his scheme. He has told them they don’t matter. He has made them believe they are all alone in their suffering. He has deceived them into thinking their situation will never change. They no longer dream or aspire to anything better, because they have believed his lies.

Imagine, billions of souls caught in the greatest destructive plot in history! Who will help them? Who will save them?

Look at the next verse,

But a generous man devises generous things, And by generosity he shall stand. (Isaiah 32:8 NKJV)

The answer is us.

Me, and you, and all who call themselves by the name of the Lord. The answer is generous people, devising generous plans. Those generous plans are the antidote to the schemes of the enemy.

I’m thinking about generous people who plan and pray and devise ways to help the poor. The family that fasts a meal a week so they can sponsor a child. The student who bypasses a few lattes so she can feed the hungry. The church groups who pool their resources so they can make a difference.

Those are generous plans. They exist to speak the truth into the lives of those who are enslaved by the enemy and his lies.  They exist to bring light to their darkness, and hope to the hopelessness of his wicked scheme.

It’s not an easy fight, and it takes sacrifice and humility and persistence. But just think what might happen if enough generous people decided to use their intelligence, skills and resources to devise enough generous plans! Maybe we could defeat the wicked scheme called poverty once and for all.

So what is your generous plan?

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Building My Own Tower

A Little History

The historian Flavius Josephus, in his work “The Antiquities of the Jews” sheds some interesting light on what we call the Tower of Babel.  If this starts out a little “history heavy” it’s for a reason.  Stay with it and get the point.

The great flood was sent by God to destroy all the inhabitants of the earth, except of course for Noah and his sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth.  After the flood had subsided, God gave the command that man should go and inhabit all of the earth, be fruitful and multiply.  According to Josephus, God’s purpose for this command was that they might enjoy the fruit and prosperity of their own lands, scattered far enough from each other that they might not fall under tyranny.  But Noah’s descendants were hesitant to leave the mountains, fearing that God might send another flood.

As they finally did begin to descend into the plains of Shinar, instead of scattering and inhabiting the whole earth, they clumped together, disobeying the command of God.  It was Nimrod, the grandson of Ham, who incited the rebellion and established himself as earth’s first dictator.  This is mentioned in Genesis 10:8, where it is said of Nimrod, “he began to be a mighty one upon the earth.”  By disobeying, man got exactly what God wanted to prevent: tyranny.

At the leading of Nimrod, the people rebelled against God and began to build a tower.  This is the interesting part to me.  According to Josephus, the purpose of this tower was to build a structure tall enough that, should God ever decide to once again send a flood upon the earth, the people would be able to escape God’s wrath.  They built it of baked bricks and mortared it with tar, so it would be waterproof.

Did you get that?

The Tower of Babel was built as man’s attempt to insulate himself from God’s punishment.  “We’ll show you, God!  We’ll build a tower so tall you can’t kill us again with a flood.”  Instead of just being obedient to God, man chose instead to build a structure that would give him another option besides obedience to God.

This is the beginning, the spirit, the essence of Babylon.

To create another option besides God.  To hedge our bets.  To look for answers outside simple obedience to the Father who only wants what’s best for us anyway.

We’re still doing it today.  At least I know I am.  God makes promises and I’m not really sure they’ll come true.  God gives commands and I’m not really sure I want to obey.  So I begin to hedge my bets, to create a system of my own security, just in case God doesn’t come through.

I’m betting you’re thinking of areas in your life where you’ve done the same.  Maybe it’s that job you keep because you’re afraid God won’t provide.  Maybe it’s that relationship you know you should break off, but you’re afraid of being alone.  Maybe it’s forgiving or letting go of some past hurt that is holding you back.  Maybe God has given you a dream, vision or command and you’re just too afraid to follow through for fear that it will fail.

Or maybe, like the descendants of Noah, we just don’t want to obey.  We want to do things our own way, and we’ve built up what we think is a pretty clever system to prevent God from having His way.

And maybe, like those early founders of Babylon, God has sent confusion and chaos into our lives.  Not because He wants us to suffer, but because He wants us to obey.   Not because He’s mad at you, but because He wants to bless you.  Like this passage in Isaiah 48,

    “ I am the LORD your God,
      Who teaches you to profit,
      Who leads you by the way you should go.
       Oh, that you had heeded My commandments!
      Then your peace would have been like a river,
      And your righteousness like the waves of the sea.
      Your descendants also would have been like the sand,
      And the offspring of your body like the grains of sand;
      His name would not have been cut off
      Nor destroyed from before Me.”

So what’s your Tower?  What’s your “other option”?  What system have you build in order to avoid what you know is right, what you know God wants you to do?

Where is the confusion and chaos that God wants to use to push you into doing what He has said?  That tower is taking a lot of emotional and physical effort to build and maintain, isn’t it?  Are you tired of the struggle?  I know I am.  It’s not too late.  His grace extends to our rebellion and disobedience today just like it did the day we accepted Christ.

I’m thinking obedience is a whole lot easier than building a tower.

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Which One Are You?

Taken as a whole, the teachings of Jesus are the most subversive, radical, counter-intuitive philosophy ever thrust upon the human condition.  The statement “Love your enemies” alone could inspire many volumes as we seek to apply its weight and gravity to all areas of life and civic interaction.

The same could be said for Jesus’ parable known as “The Good Samaritan”

I think it’s the most radical story ever told.  If you don’t know the story, read it here.

Most interesting to me is Jesus’ choice of characters.  There’s the Priest and Levite, men known for their strict adherence to religious rule and ritual.  Men who would have had more than sufficient means to take care of the injured man.  Men who, had they understood the teachings of which they so proudly considered themselves experts, would have been compelled to stop.  But they didn’t.

No explanation of why, no mention of prior engagements or work that was more important.  They simply didn’t stop  But Jesus took it one step further.  Not only did they not stop, but they passed by on the other side of the road.  They altered their path so as to avoid the suffering of the wounded man.  They went out of their way to ignore him.  It’s not simply that they didn’t stop, but that they knew they should stop and didn’t.

Then there’s the Samaritan.

That word “Samaritan” just doesn’t carry the emotional weight for us that it carried for those who heard it from Jesus’ lips.  I don’t think Jesus could have chosen a more controversial protagonist for His story than a Samaritan.  To say these people were hated would be a gross understatement.

There was a racial and religious hatred centuries old between the Jews and Samaritans, dating back to the Assyrian occupation of Israel during the 8th century BC. When the Assyrians conquered Israel, they settled conquered peoples from other lands in Samaria, Israel’s capitol.  These pagans over the years intermarried with the native Jews left in Samaria, creating a race of what the Jews considered to be “half-breeds.”  The hatred and antagonism was present when Nehemiah was rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem following the Babylonian captivity.  In fact, just thirty or so years prior to Jesus telling this story, Samaritans had entered the temple in Jerusalem during Passover and desecrated it by spreading human bones in the porches.

Jews hated Samaritans.  They were racially impure, their food was considered as unclean as swine flesh, their religion was illegitimate. In fact, when the Pharisees could think of no greater insult to hurl at Jesus, they called Him a Samaritan.  Even Jesus’ own followers couldn’t believe He was talking to the Samaritan “woman at the well.”

And so Jesus chose a Samaritan to stop and help the wounded man.  A Samaritan showed compassion on a Jew.  A Samaritan did what the “righteous” priest and Levite would not: he stopped and helped. He treated the man’s wounds, took him to a local inn and provided for his care and recovery.  He promised to return and make sure the man had recovered and the bill was paid.  He didn’t just stop and help, he committed himself to a man who hated him.

Jesus could have chosen anyone.  It was His story.  He could have made the man a fisherman, a commoner, even a leper.  But He chose a Samaritan.

His meaning couldn’t be any clearer. 

The Samaritan who stops is better than the Priest who doesn’t.  The half-breed, unclean, reject who has mercy is better than the morally righteous person who doesn’t.

Jesus is clear in His teaching, and the essence of that teaching boils down to one word: love.  And the outcast “sinner” who loves is, according to this parable, more a part of the Kingdom than those who appear to keep all the rules except one: to love.

There is no other rule in the Kingdom.  Jesus said all the law and the prophets could be boiled down to love. So any rule or moral obligation that does not result in love is not scriptural.  Any “religious” person who does not love is simply wearing a facade.  He’s a fake.  He who does not love is not a follower of Christ.

Everything is upside down in the Kingdom.  The last become first.  The poor become preferred.  The rejects get moved to the front of the line.  The sinner who deserves death gets life.  And the “Samaritan” who stops and helps is better than the “Priest” who doesn’t.

Which one are you?

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I’m Not Thankful

As we celebrate Thanksgiving in the U.S. the big question that will be asked around most dinner tables is “what are you thankful for?” We might go around in a circle and each person list one thing for which they are thankful.  We might elaborate on special blessings, joyous occasions, or unexpected miracles that have happened during the last year.

But I’m willing to bet there won’t be one table in America that asks the question, “What are you NOT thankful for?”

You see, we tend to view life and it’s happenings in one of two categories, good and bad.  There are good things that happen, like getting a job or recovering from an illness.  And there are bad things that happen like losing a job or getting sick.  We tend to be thankful for the things we consider to be in the “good” category.  But those in the “bad” column?  Not so much.

Truth be told, despite the lip service we give it on days like Thanksgiving, we’re not really thankful for everything.  Just the good stuff.

My son Colin told me about an illustration he saw on the internet the other day, and I think it’s useful in making a point.  Take a look at the glass on the left.  Is it half-empty or is it half-full?  Stay with me, this isn’t some lame optimist/pessimist exercise.  Is it half-empty or half-full?

Actually, it’s a trick question because the glass is full.  It’s always full.  In this case, it’s half-full of water and half-full of air.  Even a glass that we consider to be empty is still full of air.  (Science geeks can take their discussion of vacuums elsewhere.)

Here’s the point:  Ephesians 1 tells us that all things in heaven and earth are made one in Jesus Christ, and that He fills all in all.  Hear that?  All things, good and bad, up or down, are brought together in Christ and He fills them all.

The glass is always full in Christ.

So even the things on my “bad” list are good because they are in Christ.  Even the things that bring us pain, the suffering, the lost job, the sickness, are filled by Christ.  And we are never closer to Him, we are never more filled with Him than when we suffer.  It’s the path of the true pilgrim, the lot of the sincere seeker.

Like the paradox that is the essence of the Christ experience, our “bad” list actually is our “good” list.  He has brought them both together and made them one in Him.  That’s why He so confidently tells us to “give thanks in everything.”

So this year, around the Thanksgiving table in our house, I’m going to be thanking God for the health problems I’ve been experiencing, because they’ve made me more dependent on Christ which is something I wrote about last week.  I’ll be encouraging our family to think about things they wouldn’t necessarily associate with Thanksgiving.  I’m going to make us think about the things we’d normally ignore, the things we wish would change, the things on our “bad” list.

Maybe, just maybe, instead of offering up the same tired answer to the same tired question, God will get glory as we begin to open up about the things that make us question God, the things that make us suffer, the things that make us say “Why?”  And maybe He’ll get glory when we admit the things we haven’t really been so thankful for, and we let Him change us more into His image as we lay down our selfish notion that everything should always go well and we get thankful for the things that draw us closer and make us more dependent on Him.

This Thanksgiving I dare you, ask the question, “What are you NOT thankful for?”

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Jesus Loves Jerry Sandusky

It’s not just a shocking title to get you to read this post.

It’s probably not something very popular to say these days.  The horrendous deeds of a sick man have rocked not only the Penn State football program, not only the sports world, but our entire culture.  They have brought down a legend and challenged to the core the institutional idolatry of entertainment and sports so rampant in our culture.

But God loves Jerry Sandusky.  Not just “kinda loves”.  He deeply, passionately, completely, and eternally loves Jerry Sandusky.  Thousands of years ago, when the world was without form and void, God new Jerry would fall into his trap of lust and darkness, and He moved heaven and earth to send His Son to die for Jerry.  And when Jerry was in that shower stall (and who knows where else) God’s heart broke with love and compassion for Him, just as it does over his victims.

But I’ll tell you what’s most shocking to me about this whole tragedy is the reaction I’ve seen from most of my Christian friends.  “Fry in hell” or some similar sentiment are words I’ve heard more than once, and those who didn’t say the words showed them on their faces.  I’m not being self-righteous here, I’ve thought it too.  We act as though we’d be happy to see Jerry Sandusky face eternal damnation for what He’s done.  And while we’re at it, throw in all the other perverts, drunkards, and sinners!

Why?

What do we have to gain by Jerry frying in hell?  Do you think that man hasn’t been living in hell every day of his life?  Will the world suddenly be free from pedophiles if we hang Jerry in the public square?  Or will it just make me feel better to see a sinner punished for his sin?

Guess what…I have skeletons in my closet too.  And so do you.  They might not rise to the level of Jerry’s, but I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t want them exposed publicly.

And guess what…God loves you just as passionately, deeply, unconditionally and eternally as he does Jerry Sandusky.  He’s looked beyond your lust, my greed, our self-righteous pride and accepted us.  Yet somehow we take pleasure in the fact that we’re not like the Jerry Sandusky’s of the world.  We’re part of the secret club that gets a free pass.  But not him…not after what he’s done.

I think we’re all a lot more like the brother in the Prodigal Son story than we’d like to believe.  We’re the good kids, and it’s not fair that the rebels, sinners and losers are embraced by the Father just like we are.  We’re angry that they get a ring and a feast when they finally come to their senses and come home.  They get a free pass, and it’s not right, is it?

You can keep your accusations that I’m being soft on sin, or that I don’t care about the victims of his crimes.  You and I both know that’s not true.  It’s a horrible thing that’s happened, and lives have been ruined.  But if you want to think that about me, then so be it.  If you think I should burn in hell with Jerry, so be it.  If you want to obfuscate the issue with doctrinal arguments or politics, so be it.

But I’ve made my choice.

And just like Jesus I’m casting my lot with the sinners, losers and those who deserve His love the least.  I don’t know Jerry Sandusky, but I’m throwing open the door to him to experience the unconditional love and grace that can be found by falling on the mercy of a Jesus who died for people exactly like Jerry.

And while I’m at it, all the other prostitutes, pedophiles, porn addicts, adulterers and anyone else trapped in a darkness they feel like they can’t escape are welcome as well.  Fall at the feet of Jesus and experience what apparently most of His people aren’t willing to offer…love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

There was once a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery, a sin punishable by death in Jesus’ day.  The religious leaders seemed to have the same reaction most Christians have today:  stone in hand, ready for action.  And I seem to remember Jesus staring down her self-righteous accusers until, one by one, they walked away.  Then Jesus said the same words He’s said to so many sinners since then…words that ring down through the ages to sinners like you and me and, yes, even Jerry Sandusky:  “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”

So Jerry Sandusky, I don’t care what they say, you can be forgiven.  You can start over with a clean slate before God.  Sure, you’ll have to bear the consequences of your actions, whatever they may have been.  But you can be free of the guilt and shame and self-inflicted torture I’m sure you’re going through.

Even if nobody else does, Jesus loves you.

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Back to the Garden

I haven’t written a post on this blog for almost a month.

I don’t want to go into too much detail, but some health problems have made it difficult for me to focus and write.  It’s been a trial.  Frankly, it’s been depressing at times.  I have so many cool things I want to share.  But I’m realizing something valuable through this process.

In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul experienced a “thorn in the flesh.”  We don’t know exactly what it was, but it’s clear that God allowed him to suffer this thorn because he had received great truth and wisdom from God.  The Father, in His mercy, used this thorn to keep Paul humble.

Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.  And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Paul didn’t like suffering, just like I don’t like suffering.  And while I don’t claim to have a level of revelation from God anywhere near the level Paul did, I still struggle with thinking somehow God’s work through me has something to do with me.  This weakness I feel, this health problem I face, has reduced me to a level where I’m totally dependent on God’s grace.

And like Paul, I’m realizing that suffering isn’t a curse, it’s a blessing.  If it get’s me out of the way, then suffering is the best thing that could possibly happen to me.  But it goes far beyond just being thankful for suffering.

In the Garden of Eden, God’s intention for man was to walk in communion with Him, totally dependent upon Him.  My friend Jeremiah Beck shared something with me the other night that I think is profound.  He reminded me that part of the punishment for man’s sin was independence.  God said  “From now on, you’re on your own.  You work for what you get.  It’s by the sweat of your brow that you’ll survive.”

Did you hear that?

Independence and self-reliance is punishment.  I know that sounds like heresy in a culture that idolizes the self-made man and lauds those who pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

When Christ uttered the words “It is finished” on the cross, he made it possible for me to return to the garden.  The separation from God was finished.  My estrangement from the Father was finished.  My need to strive and work and sweat to survive was finished.  Yet, in spite of this work of total redemption, of Christ returning me to the communion of the Garden, I am often tempted to think it still all depends on me.  It’s a habit that I find exceptionally hard to break.

The Apostle Paul struggled with it, you struggle with it, and I certainly struggle with it.  That lure of myself, of thinking I’m still on my own.  The temptation to think I have something to do with God’s work in me.

And if it takes sickness or hardship or loss to pull me kicking and screaming back to that place of total dependence upon God, then I should be grateful for it.

Every pain, every moment of frustration is getting me a step closer to the Garden.

And in the end, that’s where I really want to be.

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Two Trees

Ask most non-Christians whether they will go to heaven when they die, and they usually will reply with something like, “I think so, I’m a pretty good guy.”  Those of us who follow Jesus know that the only way to heaven is by trusting Him for our salvation, and that being a “good guy” won’t cut it.

Or do we?

If we really understand that truth, then why do so many in the church seem so caught up in works?  We feel guilty because we don’t do what we should.  We feel guilty because we keep doing what we shouldn’t.  Sound familiar?  It sounds to me like the conflict Paul found himself fighting in Romans 7.  While we accept the grace of God in theory, it seems in practice it’s another story.  We judge ourselves and others by such strict standards.

It all started in the garden.

If you recall, there were two trees in the Garden of Eden.  There was the Tree of Life, and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Mankind was meant to eat only of the tree of life, living in perfect communion with God forever.  But we made a choice to instead eat of the other tree, and when we did, our eyes were opened.  And notice it was not just evil, but GOOD and EVIL.  They are two sides of the same coin.  It was a knowledge we were never supposed to have.  A knowledge of good, a knowledge of evil, and a knowledge of our own nakedness before God.

Mankind has lived in the bondage of that decision ever since.  For most, life is a constant battle between their own capacity for both good and evil.  And when the good outweighs the evil, we feel pretty good about ourselves, like somehow our nakedness before God is covered up.  But that is a battle we are not capable of winning.

The truth is, if we are still living lives of pursuing good and avoiding bad actions, we are still living a life of bondage to that decision so long ago to eat of the wrong tree.  Paul calls it “the law of sin and death” in Romans 8.  And as long as we are obsessed with what we are doing and not doing, we are living under the law of sin and death, and sin still rules over us.

Jesus came to give us life, not just forgiveness.  He came to restore us to the garden, where we may freely eat of the tree of life and live in communion once again with our Father.  He came to restore us back to the place we lived before the knowledge of good and evil corrupted our hearts.  No longer must we live as slaves to our actions.  No longer must we constantly worry about what we have done or what we have left undone.  No longer must we hide our nakedness from God, afraid of what He’ll do to us if He sees us as we really are.

It’s a free gift.

No action required on our part other than to repent and accept the gift.  But when we repent before God, we are not really repenting of our sins.  We are repenting of our thought that we could ever do anything but sin.  We are repenting of thinking we could cover our nakedness by our own goodness.  We are repenting of choosing to live under the law of sin and death, trying desperately to win a battle He has already won.

So we have a choice:  We can continue to live in bondage to the law of sin and death, constantly afraid of what we have done, hiding in our shame before God. We can continue thinking life is about doing good and avoiding evil, burdened by guilt over our failures.

Or we can accept the sacrifice of Jesus, living in the “law of liberty in Christ”, freely eating of the tree of life.  That’s it, it’s over.  Sin can no longer rule over us because we are free from it’s power.  The power of sin is wrapped up in it’s consequences.  Take away the punishment and you take away it’s power.  And that’s what Jesus did.  We no longer have to fear, strive, work, or hide.

Breathe deep and feel the release.  Your salvation no longer depends on you living up to a standard.  Let it go and live in the freedom you were meant to have all along.

Maybe that’s why it’s called the “good news.”

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