Saturday, May 31, 2014

Boats, Bikes, and Beginning Again

I practically grew up in a canoe.  From a very young age, my father took my brother and me canoeing.  We often rivers like the South Anna, the North Anna, and the mighty James.  I learned how to canoe at 4-H camp, and perfected each type of stroke through hours of practice.  Then, I grew up.  As an adult, I neither had a canoe nor borrowed a friend’s.  For a very, very long time.  Then, a friend of mine took me canoeing a few years ago, and it was like beginning again.  I had to re-learn the strokes, and how to keep my balance.  With my friend, I regained the ability that I thought I had lost.  The good news is that it could be done.  This week, I bought my own canoe.  I was so excited to use it for the first time!
The redneck way I carried my canoe home from the store
Before my initial excursion, I had a phone conversation with my brother, a former canoeing instructor.  He asked me if I remembered the J-stroke, the Crosshand Draw, and a few others.  I couldn’t remember any of them by name, but I didn’t want to admit it to him.  “Of course I know those strokes,” I told him.  And I wasn’t lying.  The first time I took my new canoe out with my son, I navigated the boat perfectly.  Even though I couldn’t remember the strokes by name, I knew every one of them.  With my friend, I had practiced them to the point that they had become muscle-memory, and I could execute them without really thinking about them very much.  Even though I had forgotten how to paddle, my friend had encouraged me and helped me re-learn what I’d forgotten.
Recently, my wife Beth has been visiting the bicycle section at various department stores where we shop.  She’s begun to look with nostalgia at the bikes on the rack, and wonder whether she might be able to ride again after so many years.  Everybody has heard the expression, “It’s like riding a bike,” which means, “This is something that you never really forget how to do, or at least it’s something you can re-learn quickly.”  If she decides to buy herself a bike, I suppose she’ll find out that riding a bike really is like riding a bike. 
For a lot of people, going to church is like my canoe or Beth’s bike.  For one reason or another, they grew up and got out of the habit.  They told themselves that it was for kids, or that they’d outgrown the need for church.  It may have been second nature when they were growing up, but now they’ve been away for so long that they worry what might happen if they darken the door again.  Will they be able to keep their balance?  Will they figure out how to navigate the unfamiliar waters of church once more? 
Let me tell you, getting back to church is like riding a bike.  If you’ve been away for awhile, you may think you’ve forgotten what to do when you’re there.  But once you return it’ll be like you never left.  Job 22.23 (NIV) says, “If you return to the Almighty, you will be restored.”  Like paddling a canoe, you’ll find that when you return to the Lord it doesn’t take long to regain what you’ve forgotten.  I hope you’ll return and re-learn.  It’s going to be a great ride!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Glowey Moey

Moses and His Mistranslated "Horns of Light"
          I get a kick out of the way people sometimes treat me differently because I am a pastor.  It’s kind of funny what happens when people find out what I do.  Some people will watch their language more when I’m around, afraid of offending me by some slip of the tongue.  Others will make sure they tell some off-color joke when I’m around, just to see what I’ll say or do in response to their level of humor.  Some will push me to the front of the line.  In some churches, I would be referred to as “Pastor Greg,” “Pastor Smith,” “Reverend Smith,” or simply as “Pastor.”  Some of these distinctions can be good.  Some are bad, when the minister is literally set on a pedestal above the rest.  Some are indifferent.  I do always find it interesting, though, the way people treat ministers differently.
Some pastors wear clerical church all the time, separating themselves from the laity, and others never do.  I only ever owned one clerical shirt, and only wore it for certain occasions.  It was good for making late-night hospital visits, or visiting someone whom I’d never met before, or mental institutions.  It was good for that because people could immediately look at me and know that I’m a minister, so no matter what state of mind they’re in, the symbol communicates why I’m there.
I remember one time when I was at another church, I went to visit a church member who was in the mental ward of a local hospital.  On the way to the parking deck, I was in the elevator.  The elevator stopped at the next floor down, and a middle-aged couple got on.  Their eyes looked tired and red from crying.  As soon as the door shut, the woman looked at me, saw my collar and the Bible I was carrying, and immediately gushed out all of her emotions.  They were there visiting a relative who was not expected to live.  She asked if I would pray for them, and I assured them I would.  It was a short visit…just a minute or so on the elevator.  But when she looked at me, she KNEW that I represented God, and poured out her concerns to me.
It was an event that really affected me.  Probably more than it did her.  It really sobered me to realize how much I am a visible representation of God on earth.  People who didn’t even know me could look at me and see that I was a symbol of Jesus, just because I was wearing that collar.  Then I got to thinking, what would it be like if ALL CHRISTIANS were immediately recognizable as representatives of God here on earth?  What if we all wore huge cross necklaces and everybody knew that we were Christians?  How would our behavior change?  You’ve heard of the Mark of the Beast, in the book of Revelation?  Followers of the Anti-Christ will have a mark of some kind on their hand or forehead.  What if all Christians bore a visible mark—the Mark of the Lamb?  What would be the effect of being immediately recognizable as a Christian? 
In Exodus 34.29-35, we read about a man whose relationship with God could be seen on his face.  When Moses went up to the mountain to hear from God, he came back down, and his face literally glowed with the radiance of God’s glory.  They could all tell that he had been with God, because “Glowey Moey” was actually shiny!  It was more than the red glow of a face that has sunburn—Moses emanated the brightness of God’s presence!  What a remarkable thing, to be so close to God that you actually glow!  Now, I’ve never seen anybody who physically glowed from being with God, no one who shone like a light bulb.  But I have seen people who glow from the inside out, because of the relationship they have with God.  I want to be one of those people.
          Do you remember the little children’s song, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine”?  In Matthew 5:14-16, Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
 Now, Moses was a good leader, a wise man, and a holy prophet.  But he didn’t always do what he was supposed to do.  The Bible says that he covered his face so that the people would not see his glow.  God had allowed Moses’ face to shine, as a symbol of the close relationship Moses had with God.  It would bolster the people’s confidence in Moses as their God-appointed leader.  But Moses did not want to frighten the people, and he put a veil over his face.  In 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul writes, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit .”  He also says, “When one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed (3:16).”  Moses was not supposed to hide the brightness of his face from the people; he was supposed to let his light shine.
One of the most remarkable things anybody has ever said to my mother happened when we were eating at Shoney’s.  A woman was watching my mother as she interacted with us at supper.  As she was getting up to leave, the woman put her hand on my mother’s arm and looked into her eyes.  “I know this sounds strange,” she said, “but when I look at you, I see Jesus.”  What an amazing testimony about the way a person can witness without saying a word! 
Our faces are not to be veiled.  Our candles are not to be hid.  Jesus said we are to let our light shine forth!  Can other people see Jesus in you?  Can total strangers see a glow on your face?  A sparkle in your eyes because of the relationship you have with the Living God?  Let it be our prayer that Jesus would make us glow for all the world to see, that he would set our souls afire! 

Friday, May 16, 2014

A Fitting Memorial

            Memorial Day is almost here—a time for picnics and family get-togethers, a time to remember all those who died in the service of our country.  Sometimes I wonder whether our Memorial Day practices are truly a fitting memorial for those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom.  Do we truly honor them with our tailgate parties?  Is that the freedom for which they died?  Pardon my cynicism, but I take issue with the Zac Brown Band “Chicken Fried,” which says:

I thank God for my life
And for the stars and stripes
May freedom forever fly
Let it ring
Salute the ones who died
The ones that give their lives
So we dont have to sacrifice
All the things we love
Like our chicken fried
And cold beer on a Friday night
A pair of jeans that fit just right
And the radio up

            If our men and women in uniform died so that we don’t have to sacrifice our fried chicken, cold beer, comfortable jeans, and loud radio, then they died for no reason at all.  Our selfless soldiers who sacrificed their lives on our behalf gave themselves to a greater cause than that.  They died to free us from political tyranny, religious oppression, and economic slavery.  This, and not our “chicken fried,” is something to die for.  For that, we owe them far more than a cheesy country song.
            In the same way, sometimes I wonder whether we offer a fitting memorial to Jesus, who paid a far greater price to save far more people than our soldiers ever will, and in far more eternal ways.  In John 15.13 (ESV), Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”  Jesus shed His blood and died to prove His ultimate love for us.  Yet the Lord gave far more than His blood—He gave His holiness as well.  The Sinless One traded His righteousness for our sin, that we might have eternal life.  If He did this much for us, how do we memorialize Him?
            If you walk around any church’s building and grounds, you’ll find all sorts of memorials to faithful people and to the Lord.  Plaques on walls, windows, stones, furniture, and other markers honor the memory of saints who contributed of their spirit and substance in order to build the church.  Crosses, paintings, statues, and icons direct our gaze heavenward, inspiring us to remember our Lord.  But are these the most fitting memorials we can give?
            A son may send his dad a card on Father’s Day, but the best way to honor a good man is to live like him.  Similarly, the most fitting memorial we can give the saints of God who formed our faith is to model ourselves after their holy lives.  Even more so, believers who cast themselves in the mold of their Maker bear a far better image than any statue ever could.  What’s the most fitting memorial?  To live as someone worth dying for. 
            This Memorial Day, I hope you’ll honor the ones who gave their lives so that you might be free.  I hope you’ll remember Jesus, who gave far more than they ever could, so that you could be eternally free.  Then, I hope you’ll offer a fitting memorial.  Far better than a plaque on carved rock, 1 Peter 2.5 (ESV) says that “You are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What's more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God.”  This is our memorial.  This is our thank-you gift.

Friday, May 2, 2014

My Help Comes From the Lord

          Much confusion exists concerning the meaning of distress signals.  The traditional SOS has been misunderstood to mean “Send Out Succour,” “Save Our Ship,” and “Save Our Souls.”  Actually, was officially ratified as the universal distress signal in 1908, and was chosen simply because it was easy to send the morse signal that consisted of only three dots, three dashes, and three dots, and it could not be misunderstood.[i]  The distress call “mayday” is actually an English version of the French m'aidez (help me) or m'aider (to render help to me).[ii]  Each of these distress signals anticipates help that may come from nearby ships or other rescuers. 
            We know that ultimately our help comes not from reliance on people, but dependence on God.  In Psalm 121 (ESV) we read:

I will lift up my eyes to the mountains;
From where shall my help come?
 My help comes from the Lord,
Who made heaven and earth.
 He will not allow your foot to slip;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
 Behold, He who keeps Israel
Will neither slumber nor sleep.
 The Lord is your keeper;
The Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun will not smite you by day,
Nor the moon by night.
 The Lord will protect you from all evil;
He will keep your soul.
The Lord will guard your going out and your coming in
From this time forth and forever.

            Because our Lord is the Maker of all things, we know that all things are under His control.  As the psalmist looked to the hills, he may have been asking himself if his help might come from ally armies just over the horizon.  But he realized that his help comes not from beyond those hills, but from the Maker of the hills.  As the mountains provide a firm foundation, so God gives you a firm place to stand, and so you will not be moved.
            While they rested in their homes, city dwellers depended on the watchfulness of their night guards.  Yet even these could fall asleep.  Rather than relying exclusively on these sleepy sentinels, the psalmist tells us to depend on God, who never closes His eyes.
            As the sun’s harmful rays can be very damaging to the traveler, “the sun will not harm you by day” refers to God’s physical protection.  God is the “shade on your right hand,” says the psalmist.  Whereas our maps orient with the north to the top, ancient Jews used maps that oriented toward the East—so the right hand would be toward the South.  From the south, or right hand, came the sun’s scorching heat.  The psalmist says God protects you from that, but He also shelters you from the moon.  Since the moon’s forces were reputed to affect the tides of human emotion and levels of sanity, “nor the moon by night” speaks of God’s psychological and spiritual protection.  In other words, God is there to help you, inside and out.
            “He will guard your going out and your coming in,” says the psalmist.  Not only will God protect you inside and out—He will also protect you before and behind.  In fact, God will defend you from all sides. 
            Then, not only will God preserve you inside and out, and from all sides—God will keep you through all time.  “From this time forth and forever” means that our times are in God’s hands.  Inside and out, all around, and through all time—in all ways, God shields those who trust in Him.
            Now, we must temper our reading with understanding.  Some falsely interpret “The Lord will keep you from all evil” as a wholesale promise that nothing bad will ever happen to the believer.  This is neither realistic nor scriptural.  Rather than indicating God’s protection from misfortune, this verse promises that God will shield us from moral evil.  Indeed, God keeps our souls, to be pure and clean, when we trust in Him.  Still, those who look to God for their salvation can know that even when bad things do happen, the Lord preserves our souls so that no damage that is done can ever touch the eternal.
            I invite you to pray today, placing your body, soul, and spirit in God’s care.  Remember that your help does not come from high places and lofty people.  Rest in the knowledge that God cares for you in every place and through all time.  Know that your help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.

[i] “What is the Meaning of SOS?”  Krzenski, Jim. 19, 2011