The Cattle On 1000 Hills

For the last decade or so my wife and I have spent Thanksgiving in South Carolina with our youngest daughter.  This year was no different.  We had a good time but our travel back and forth was a mixed bag–things went well going south, but not so well going north.  Thanksgiving traffic can be brutal.

Still, we make the best we can of our situation and trying down there God gave me a little reminder of just who is in charge of the world.  We were driving through the western part of Virginia with mountains and hills all around us.  I happened to glance over to my right and saw a good size herd of black Angus cattle on a hillside field.  And the Lord reminded me then of the words of the psalmist in Psalm 50 who, writing in the words of God, said, “The beast of the field are mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.”

One of the great problems we have in this world is the sinful idea that somehow we are in charge of things.  I’m sure the farmer who owns that herd has thought of them as “his” cattle.  But, in point of fact, they aren’t.  In reality those are God’s cattle.  Just as my home is God’s place and my car is God’s car and my retirement money is God’s money.  None of it belongs to me, but it all belongs to Him and I am simply the steward of those things.  Not only does God own everything–He also owns everyone.  We are His people, not independent beings.

Some years ago I spoke about this in a sermon and a parishioner said to me afterwards, “how can a man live if he doesn’t own anything?”  That’s a powerful question and one that deserves an answer.

God’s ownership of everything and everyone is actually Gospel–Good News for us.  You see if I indeed own things like my home, my car, my kids, my own life–well, I’m going to be all the more upset when they’re gone.  Corrie ten Boom once said that she had learned to hold lightly the things of this world so that it wouldn’t hurt so much when God took them away from her.  Ownership of things is not freedom, it is indenture.  If I am tied to my things, then I am imprisoned by them.  If I hold hard to my life and how I live it, I am always afraid of what will happen if it all falls apart.  If I grasp  at stuff–stuff owns me.

But when I acknowledge God’s ownership of all things, including myself, then I am freed to live the life that God has planned for me.  I am ready to step out and experience the great adventure that is the Christian life, unencumbered by anything except faith in Him and His promise that all things will work together for good for those who are called according to His (not my) purpose.

Those cattle on that hill in Virginia reminded me of all that.  And I thank God for bringing it into my mind.

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A Grandfather’s Delight

I have a granddaughter.  Her name is Katelyn and she is my only grandchild, so I dote on her quite a bit.  It’s my responsibility, don’t you know.  Parents discipline and instruct, grandparent’s dote.  It’s the way of things.

Now I’m going to brag just a bit about Katelyn–she got straight A’s at school during the first marking period of her freshman year in high school.  So I’m really proud of her.  On the other hand, if she had received a bunch of D’s I would have still been proud of her–not because of what she had done, but because of who she is.  You see I don’t love my granddaughter because she is the best high school freshman–I love her because she is my granddaughter.

It’s similar to the way God loves His chosen people.  He doesn’t love us because we’re good or smart or because we achieve great things.  He loves us because we are, because we exist, and He has chosen to love us, even though we’re not very lovable when you weigh us on the scales of righteousness or obedience.

St. John says that God is love.  And that is true, even if we often misunderstand what John meant when he wrote those words.  God created us so that He might love us.  We exist to be the object of His divine affection.  We are created so He can love us the way the Trinity has experienced love within Himself.  The Father has always loved the Son who has always loved the Father who has always loved the Spirit who has always loved the Son who has always loved the Spirit who has always loved the Father.  [I came by this understanding by reading Tim Keller, a Presbyterian pastor].  So God has chosen to share this love outside the Trinity and we receive it as a gift–an undeserved gift.

The next time you look at someone you love, just because you love them, I hope you’re reminded that the God of the universe loves you too–just because you are you.

Waiting

I’m sitting here in my office right now waiting–waiting for a concert we’re going to have at church tonight.  I’ve been looking forward to it for a couple of months.  It’s by a group called the Haining Family out of Branson, MO.  We first heard them at our AFLC national conference this year.  At the moment I’m praying for good attendance and spiritual benefits for the people who come tonight.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not real good with waiting.  Once I’ve decided on something or once I’ve been told that something will happen, well, I want to get on with it.  Patience is a virtue, but it is occasionally illusive for me.  From a lifetime of watching people, I know that I’m not the only impatient person in the world–it’s a widely shared trait.

Lots of people are that way about waiting for the Jesus’ return too.  If you’re one of those folks who would be really happy if He came tomorrow morning–well I’m with you.  In the first years after the Lord’s Ascension there were evidently many people who believed His coming would happen any day.  They looked for it every morning when they woke up.  Some were so eager that they actually stopped working and just, as we say today, hung around, causing the Apostle Paul to say that if they didn’t want to work–well, they didn’t get to eat.

I can’t say I’ve seen that today, but we do get a lot of folks who seemed entranced with “signs” that portend the Lord’s immanent return.  The latest one seems to be something about a “black moon” coming in about 20 years. (I had never heard of it either).  But Jesus told us that it was not ours to know when the day of the time would be.  We just have to live our lives as His faithful people and trust that when it is just the right time God will act.  Lots of people awaited a Messiah for generations, looking here and there.  But Jesus didn’t come until just the right time.

So the question becomes–do we trust God enough to just wait?  Or will we waste our time with schedules and signs and calculations that confuse the faithful and embarrass the Church before the world?

I’m not real good with waiting–but I’m going to trust that God will do what He wants when the time is complete.  In the meantime, we all have lives to live and work to do–after all the Gospel is always going to be Good News.

The Reading Of Many Books

St. John’s Gospel ends with these words, “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did.  Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

I love books.  I own lots of them.  Quite a few are in my office at church and there are more at home.  I believe that reading from the printed page is more than just getting information, it’s a holistic experience.  Books have weight and aromas.  The pages often tell the story of those who have read this book before us.  Their pauses are marked by “dog ears” and their excitement shown by underlining.  Books are meant to be used until they are used up.  I far more prefer to read a book than to read the same words on a Kindle which turns a full life experience into a cold and impersonal one (IMHO).

There is one book that can be read over and over again without ever exhausting it’s contents.  Of course, that’s the Bible.  Sixty six books that all have one purpose, to show us what God has done and is doing to bring us back into right relationship with Him through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the Cross and the tomb which was empty 3 days later.  No matter how often I turn the pages in my Bible, I find something I didn’t know or understand something better than I ever did before.  God speaks to me over and again in that Book of books.

And John tells us there is even more to know!  Can you imagine?  Oh what glory we will experience when we come into the presence of God and hear and learn of all the things we can’t find out now.  And yet, no one has even mastered what we now have.

I’ve mentioned before Luther’s statement that a person becomes educated, not by reading many books, but by reading a good book many times.  And of course there is no “gooder book” than the Good Book.

My prayer, as I sit here in my office today, is that anyone who reads this will go now and find their Bible and start to read it.  Maybe it’s covered in dust.  That’s okay, you can wipe it off.  Maybe it’s well used already.  That’s okay too, I know you’ve missed something.  Maybe you’re afraid God will get hold of you if you spend time in the Word.  Well, He will, I guarantee it.  But you’ll like the experience once you get used to it.

Go and read, my friends, go and read.  As our friend John also writes of the Word of God, “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His Name.”

 

How Do We Do The Lord’s Work?

Eugene Peterson wrote a sentence in one of his books which the Church would do well to ponder. “You can’t do the Lord’s work using the devil’s ways.”  That seems like it should be pretty clear to us, but you would be surprised at how easy it is to get fooled into thinking that the ways of the world could ever properly serve the Kingdom of Heaven.

To see how easy it is for us to fail to see the difference let’s look at a parable Jesus told.  It’s the one about the farmer who had a bumper crop and found his barns too small to hold it all.  So he says he will build more barns, mete out the crop as he needs to and retire in comfort.  But then his plans are disrupted because his life would be demanded of him that night and the crop would do him no good.

Most of us would initially find it hard to fault the farmer for making provision for his old age.   Most of us would find it hard to understand what is wrong about using a blessing (the bumper crop) as we think it ought to be used.  But what is really going on here?  If this farmer had a bumper crop it is likely that others did too.  When there is a surplus of a product the price will generally go down.  So the farmer has decided he will hold his off the market until he could get a better price–maybe next year will be a bad crop and he alone will be able to reap the rewards.  But at whose expense?  The poor, who would suffer because they could not afford the higher priced grain.  As an early Church father wrote, the farmer had places to store his grain, in the mouths of the poor.

But what does this have to do with the Church, you might ask?  Quite a lot actually.  You see people, especially in this country, tend to calculate value in the same way that farmer did.  So in the Church we find congregations and church bodies holding on to huge endowments and investments.  They say it’s for a rainy day, or they say well, we use the income to help the Kingdom.  But that is not trusting in God to care for His Church and His people, it is trusting ourselves and our ways over His.  The Church should not hoard or harbor wealth for any purpose–it is all to be used for God’s work.  “Go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and then follow Me.”

If you see a Church official, pastor, bishop, whatever, driving around in a luxury car, flying about in a private plane or helicopter (yes I know of one), or wearing $2000 suits, you should probably flee for the sake of your soul.  If you see a congregation that seems to care as much about how much they get in as what they do with it, you should flee for the sake of your soul.  If you see a church body of any sort getting cozy with elected officials for the sake of political power, you should flee for the sake of your soul.

The Church of Jesus Christ has one task–to go into all nations baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Our road map for doing that work is in the Bible, not in management books or economic programs or politics.  The Gospel is our business and the Scriptures give us our methods.

On The Way

As we go through the Gospels we find the Lord using all sorts of metaphors to describe Himself, the Kingdom of God, the way we should live in relation to the  two great commandments, and so on.  One of the most important occurs when the Thomas gets confused about what is going to happen next and he says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way?”  And Jesus responds, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

As we think about that statement, “I am the Way”, we ought to try wringing from it all the meaning we can, for it is indeed a mighty assertion.  Too often we reduce it to just one aspect–Jesus is how we get to heaven.  It makes Him into a sort of highway that we can travel to get to the place we want to go.  And that is in fact true.  But I think Jesus means much more than that for us.

If Jesus is the Way we follow, is He simply like a line on a map, or is He more an example to imitate?  Can we say, well, I believe in Jesus so now I can get into heaven and simply leave it like that?  I don’t think so.  If we’re going to walk this Way in our life, we must also act in the ways He acted when He shared this life with us.  I think Eugene Peterson said it best, “To follow Jesus means that we can’t separate what Jesus is saying from what Jesus is doing and the way He is doing it.”

If you’re going to go hiking for the first time you should take time to speak to people who do it frequently.  There is all sorts of information that can keep your hiking experience from from becoming painful.  If you’re going to drive a car for the first time, you should learn and follow the driving habits of those who are experienced at it.  If you’re going to walk the Way of Christ, you should spend the time necessary to see what that way is really like.  The Way of Christ means we are to love those whom the world doesn’t much care about.  The Way of Christ means we are spend time in prayer and meditation.  The Way of Christ means we are to seek to heal rather than to triumph, we are to seek to do good rather than to succeed.

God came to us in Jesus.  We go to God in Jesus.  He is the Way for both.  And the end we seek, eternity with God, can not be divorced from the means we use along the Way.

Think about that.

Why We’re Crumbling

I’ve noted before that the culture we inhabit is collapsing around us, like a line of dominoes that, when the first one is pushed, all the rest fall in their turn.  Now as a Christian I am not worried at all about the future.  God’s plans can neither be altered or ruined by anything people do.  Before time began God had everything worked out and His promises to His chosen people will be kept with 100% certainty.  But it’s still worth our time to consider what is going on around us and get a feel for how we are to survive until Jesus comes again.

I recently re-read an article written by Dr. David Wells 20 years ago.  Dr. Wells is a distinguished academic who teaches at Gordon-Conwell Seminary and has written quite extensively about religion and culture.  In the article at hand he quoted a number of rather scary statistics about American attitudes–statistics which today would probably be even more concerning than they were then.  I won’t spend time on them, but I do want to begin with a quote from this article that is both true and horrifying–“we [the West] have lost our ability to discern between, or even talk meaningfully about, Good and Evil.”  If you don’t believe in moral absolutes (and two thirds of Americans say they do not) then nothing is either intrinsically right or wrong.  In other words, whoever has the most guns gets to decide what is moral, and no one has the right to say otherwise unless they can amass more weapons.  One way to think about the results of this amoral view of the world would be to ponder what it would mean about who was right or wrong in World War II.  If two thirds of Americans were consistent in their thought they would have to say that the Nazis weren’t wrong, they were just different we can’t judge their moral standing.

Now of course very few people would say that out loud.  It would not be politic to do so.  But if what we have believed about marriage for thousands of years can be overwhelmed in just a decade, how long do we have to wait for the overcoming of our repugnance at the existence of death camps?  A culture based wholly on the idea that people should be allowed to do whatever comes to mind is a culture that won’t last very long.

Dr. Wells argues that our inherited culture could be divided into 3 realms–law on one side; freedom on the other; and, occupying the middle what we could call truth and character.  The Constitution of the United States deals with law and freedom, what we are not to do and what we are protected from.  But critical to our culture has been the middle ground where such things as personal honesty, moral obligation, civic duty, social responsibility, and such other personal and civic traits.  It is the place where what has been called “obedience to the unenforceable” takes place.  Without a functioning middle law must, of necessity, take on a greater role in the culture.  If people won’t act right on their own, they must be made to act right.  But the problem is that we no longer have any sense of what is right or what is wrong.

This situation is fraught with difficulties for Christians.  We have always been called to stand against the culture, to speak words of peace where there is war, love where there is hate, acceptance where there is bigotry.  But as the middle ground grows smaller and the law and freedom larger, Christians will be more outside the cultural mainstream than ever before.

Now maybe this is a good thing.  Maybe the Church needs the strength that comes from being constantly opposed.  I don’t know.  But I do know this, whether America follows Rome down the rabbit hole of history or not, whether this culture survives this century or not, our only hope is Jesus Christ.  As things are trending today, our influence on the culture is declining.  But a culture without an “obedience to the unenforceable” won’t last too long.  The Kingdom of God, however, now that’s forever.