Thursday, July 11, 2019

Nature abhors a vacuum. Maybe it prefers a clean sweep.

Have you ever felt a vacuum in your life--not like a Hoover, but like a black hole?  Grief can make you feel that way, and so can depression.  It's not only death of a loved one that brings this kind of sadness, but the loss of a marriage, loss of a job, children moving away, your own move to a different home, or change of any kind.  Depression can be brought on by life situations, and it can also be caused by chemical imbalances.  These things can make you feel like you have a vacuum in your heart, consumed from within by a black hole.

In 1 Samuel 16, King Saul felt this way:

14 Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.
15 Saul’s attendants said to him, “See, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. 16 Let our lord command his servants here to search for someone who can play the lyre. He will play when the evil spirit from God comes on you, and you will feel better.”
17 So Saul said to his attendants, “Find someone who plays well and bring him to me.”
18 One of the servants answered, “I have seen a son of Jesse of Bethlehem who knows how to play the lyre. He is a brave man and a warrior. He speaks well and is a fine-looking man. And the Lord is with him.”
19 Then Saul sent messengers to Jesse and said, “Send me your son David, who is with the sheep.” 20 So Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine and a young goat and sent them with his son David to Saul.
21 David came to Saul and entered his service. Saul liked him very much, and David became one of his armor-bearers. 22 Then Saul sent word to Jesse, saying, “Allow David to remain in my service, for I am pleased with him.”
23 Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.

There are three theological points that I don't have time to get into in depth right now, but I want to briefly touch on.  The first is that God doesn't send evil spirits--that was the common misconception of Hebrew authors at the time.  The second is that under the Old Covenant, the Holy Spirit would come and go, but under the New Covenant, believers have the indwelling Holy Spirit forever.  The third is that some people interpret "evil spirit" to mean a demon and others interpret that phrase to simply mean a bad mood or psychological event.  Your opinion on that is immaterial to what I'm saying today.  So what's the point?

Vacuums want to be filled, and messy houses need a clean sweep.  

Saul felt the way that he felt because the Spirit of the Lord had left him.  Empty spaces in the heart want to be filled with something.  Some people who feel internal vacuums fill them with drugs, alcohol, sex, YouTube, political campaigning, food, hoarding, or anything else that can be addictive.  Others fill the void with self pity, complaining, and undermining of others.  These are negative ways of dealing with the empty space inside.  When Saul felt this way, he could be slanderous and murderous.

To deal with the problem, Saul needed to make a clean sweep inside his heart.  He needed to "get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice (Eph 4:31 NIV)."  But you can't simply sweep a house clean and leave it that way.  Jesus says in Luke 11 (NIV):

24 “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ 25 When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. 26 Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”

What Jesus means is that you can't simply empty out the bad habits, the negative thinking, and the problematic things from your life, get that clean sweep, set your house in order, and expect it to stay that way.  You've got to fill your life with positive things that cancel out the negative.  Members of Alcoholics Anonymous have learned to replace drinking with meetings, and with helping others.  In the times when Saul was successful at resisting the vacuum, he would fill his heart with songs of worship.  This is helpful because Psalm 22:3 says that God is enthroned on the praises of people.  This means when we put God on the throne in our hearts, He takes the seat that was vacated by negative things.  He gets rid of the vacuum, makes a clean sweep, and then keeps the house clean.

I wonder--if you're trying to get rid of something negative in your life, are you simply trying to cast it out?  Or are you replacing it with something good?  I hope you'll fill the vacuum with good things today.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Celebrity in our Midst

Once, I went on a ghost tour in Wilmington, North Carolina.  A small group of people joined the tour guide as he led us from one old mansion to another, through the town graveyard, past an old tavern, telling us stories of people who had been murdered along the way.  One person in the crowd appeared to be enjoying the tour, and enjoying the fact that nobody seemed to recognize him.  Actor Michael Cera was part of this tour group--not as part of of the production, but simply as a fellow tourist.  He's a pretty unassuming guy, and even though I did recognize him, I never acted like a fan, never ran up and asked him to confirm his identity, never asked for his autograph.  I let him have his anonymity.

It wasn't too long before that incident, that I was in Scottsville, Virginia, in an ice cream shop.  Through the window, I saw singer Dave Matthews  (who owns a farm outside of town) walking down the sidewalk.  Others (possibly tourists) inside the shop also saw him through the window, pausing as he considered whether to take his daughter inside.  The others began fawning over him and treating him like an idol, even through the panes of glass, waiting to see if he would join them in the ice cream parlor.  I happened to be on my way out.  I stopped to say hello to Dave, (who's a really nice person), and told him that he should be aware that if he goes inside, he should be prepared to encounter adoring fans.  He thanked me, and we said goodbye.  I don't know whether he chose to go in and be recognized, or not.

Sometimes, celebrities like to be recognized, and sometimes they don't.  It may be that they're trying to have personal time with their family.  They may be on a ghost tour and just want to be left alone.  Or, they may want you to know who they are.  After all, celebrities choose their lives of fame and certainly profit from it.  It's hard to know what to do when you recognize celebrity.

In 1 Samuel 16, the prophet Samuel goes to Bethlehem to find a king for Israel.  He thinks he will find that king among prominent Jesse's more stalwart sons.  One is the strongest, another is the tallest, another is the most handsome.  Samuel almost misses the celebrity right under his nose--little David, who was so ignominious that he was nearly forgotten.  Just a shepherd boy, tending the sheep.  But God chooses him as king of Israel.

In Luke 24, after Jesus' resurrection, two disciples encounter a stranger on the road to Emmaus.  They spend all day with him, talking about current events and listening as he explains about the Messiah.  It's not until evening, when they break bread together, that they realize that the stranger IS THE MESSIAH they've been talking about.  Then, Jesus vanishes from their sight.

Sometimes, we recognize celebrities in our midst.  Other times, we miss them entirely.  But what if we stopped to recognize the celebrities who are ALWAYS among us?  The word "celebrity" means somebody to be celebrated--and isn't that your spouse, your child, your parent, your neighbor, your coworker, your friend?  Isn't that the person nearest to you, that you tend to overlook as common?  The truth is, celebrities are in our midst every day, if we only have the eyes to see them.  The divine is among us in every person we meet, if we only have the heart to embrace God With Us, Emmanuel.

I hope today you'll recognize celebrities in your midst.  I hope you'll see God in the most common person, and that you'll treat them like the precious one that they are.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

"Lessons I Learned from a Thief"

It's amazing the people you can learn from, isn't it?  I've learned from the pious and impious, from saints and sinners.  And from a thief I learned that you can't always tell those two categories of people apart.  In fact, the dying thief in Luke 23(MSG) has taught me several surprising things.  Jesus was crucified between two thieves, who were also strung up by the Romans for capital punishment.

39 One of the criminals hanging alongside cursed him: “Some Messiah you are! Save yourself! Save us!”
40-41 But the other one made him shut up: “Have you no fear of God? You’re getting the same as him. We deserve this, but not him—he did nothing to deserve this.”
42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you enter your kingdom.”
43 He said, “Don’t worry, I will. Today you will join me in paradise."

In just a handful of verses, here are a few things I've learned from the thief on the cross:

You don't need to say the "Sinner's Prayer" to be saved.  You know, it's only been for the past several generations that Christians have been "led to Christ" with a "sinner's prayer."  I've heard many preachers say that unless you can point to a specific time and date that you "got saved" (meaning that you said a prayer asking God to forgive your sins and asking Jesus into your heart) that you probably aren't saved.  The famous Chick tracts offer the following prayer of salvation: "Dear God, I am a sinner and need forgiveness. I believe that Jesus Christ shed His precious blood and died for my sin. I am willing to turn from sin. I now invite Christ to come into my heart and life as my personal Saviour."  But for most of the history of Christianity, there was no such magic prayer that saves you.  The thief on the cross certainly never prayed such a prayer, and yet Jesus promised him paradise.

You don't need to be baptized to be saved.  Many will quote Mark 16:16 (NIV) to say that baptism is necessary for salvation.  Here, Jesus says, "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned."  But here, the mention of baptism is descriptive rather than prescriptive.  This means that Jesus expects that saved people will be baptized, not that baptism determines whether or not you are saved.  While Christians should want to be baptized, the lack of baptism wwon't condemn them.  It's belief that's key here, not water baptism.  The thief on the cross was never baptized, yet Jesus promised him paradise.

You don't need to do good works to be saved.  Some believe that you're saved by doing good works.  I once knew a man who wasn't particularly loving, didn't care for church, never read the Bible, and never prayed.  Yet he thought he would earn "brownie points" with God for doing good things.  Yes, it's a popular belief that we are saved by grace + good works.  But Jesus' promise to the thief on the cross is clear that we are saved by grace through faith.  All it takes is a small amount of faith to receive that gift.  The thief on the cross never had time to repent of his sins, turn his life around, and live righteously--and yet Jesus promised him paradise.

You don't need to have a highly developed theology to  be saved.  If we're saved by grace through faith, the question follows: How much faith do you need?  Or, how much do you need to understand?  From the thief on the cross, I learned that saving faith doesn't need to be complicated.  It doesn't need to be well-informed.  It doesn't need to be highly developed theology.  Simply by asking Jesus to remember him, and recognizing Jesus' sovreignty--that was enough.  While Christians ought to desire spiritual growth, saving faith is like a seed that moves mountains of sin.  It doesn't take much--it simply takes a "yes" spoken to God.

Being saved doesn't save you from the consequences of your actions.  If he'd wanted to, Jesus could have told the dying thief, "Now that you've spoken in faith, I'll rescue you from that cross and give you a long life."  But he didn't do that.  Harsh and unjust though the Roman sentence of crucifixion was for someone who was a common thief and not a murderer, Jesus did not commute his sentence.  Often, Christians believe that because God has forgiven their sins, they should escape the earthly consequences.  But God generally leaves consequences to the courts--or to the circumstances of everyday life.  Sometimes this is so we can learn lessons.  Sometimes it's so justice can be done.  Sometimes it's simply because every action has an equal and opposite reaction--called a consequence.  God has set certain natural laws in place, and doesn't generally break them without enormous cause.  So if you're saved, congratulations!  Welcome to eternal life!  But don't expect God to rescue you from the consequences of your actions--maybe God is going to let you suffer those for a very good reason.

Saints and sinners look alike.  Hanging between two thieves, only Jesus can discern the hearts of those crucified near him.  From down here on the ground, the thief on Jesus' right and the thief on Jesus' left seem very much the same.  It's easy for us to judge people withough knowing what's inside them.  From the thieves on the cross, I learned to withhold judgment and let God be God.

If you pay attention, you can learn a lot from a thief.  For that matter, you can learn a lot from everybody that God puts in your path.  Let's be careful not to judge too quickly before we let them teach us.  The lessons we learn may just be surprising.