Monday, July 30, 2012

Of fantasy, truth, and peace...

I love stories, particularly when they illustrate a deep truth in a non-pretentious way. I think I (and many others) got this from God. After all, Jesus used stories to illustrate truths!

One of my very, very favorite stories is a fantasy trilogy. This story has magic and mages, swords and prophecies, as well as one of the most beautiful romances I've ever read. I love the story because the magic and wisdom so often symbolize truths that seem to come straight out of Scripture--without preaching at all.

One section describes the peace that God gives in such a poignant way.

You see, the world loves to talk about peace. Jesus talked about peace. But the two are not the same.

When the world talks about peace, they mean no fighting. No one saying what you want to do is wrong. No trials and tribulations. No death and destruction. Even the Jews thought that this was what the Messiah was coming to bring.

Jesus said differently. He said, "In this world you will have trouble. But fear not, for I have overcome the world."

But so often the concept of peace in the midst of trouble is just too abstract for people to imagine. That's why I'm kidnapping a paragraph for use as a parable.

In this story:
  • The kingdom is being threatened by a terrible kind of evil and destructive magic. The main characters have been working to discover what it is, who is behind it, and how to stop it.  
  • Morgan, the heroine, is learning to deal with things that frequently overwhelm her with their darkness. 
  • The elves stand for the perfection of beauty, harmony, music, etc. You might say that they almost represent what the world would have been if sin had not messed things up so terribly.
  • Lothar is the archenemy. He is the evil mage whose lifeblood feeds off of the destruction of everything that is good.
  • Miach is the hero mage. Once upon a time when he was young and foolish, he spent a year in Lothar's very, very dark and evil dungeon. His parents both died rescuing him, so he's got a past that he's had to learn to deal with, too.  Much like all of us.
  • Furthermore, Miach knows that facing Lothar and stopping all of the evil and darkness is his job. What he has to do gets more and more unpleasant as the books progress, much like the paths our lives take sometimes.

This is in the final book of the trilogy, and they are in a room with Morgan's brother. Outside of that room, however, they are surrounded by the enemy. They are on their way to a place that is simply saturated with evil. They have to stop what no one else has been able to, and they still have not figured out how to do it. On the table are spells of evil that they suspect are what is working against them.

In other words, nothing's looking particularly good at the moment.

But it is here, in this place of darkness, that Morgan begins to realize something very special.
Morgan sat back and listened to them. ... She realized at some point during that discussion that the peace she'd felt before was still surrounding her, as if it had been a quiet spell of elven glamour cast by someone who loved her. The contrast between that and the spells of evil that sat on the table was startling, but she found that she could tolerate it more easily now. She looked at Miach as he laughed at something her brother said and wondered if he had that same sort of tranquility somewhere deep inside him, a peace that not even the horrors of Lothar's dungeon could touch.

She suspected so.

That is what the peace that Jesus gives is like. It is something deep within us that is not dependent upon outward circumstances. It is not upset by guilt over things in our past, and it is not affected by the path that lies ahead of us.  It is more powerful than all those things, for it can "reign in our heart" if we let it. It is a fortress inside of us... a place of refuge that we can remain in, even as we face the darkness around us.
"Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful."   - Jesus

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Romans - Trying, Failing, & Fighting...

[Bible study on Romans - post 5]


"I shouldn't be doing this.”
“I should be doing ______.”
“Why did I do that?”
“I'd better start ______.”
“When am I going to stop ______?”

There's no getting away from thoughts like these, is there?

The fact is, every single one of us lives with a set of rules. We don't necessarily follow them (at least not all the time), but they're still there.

We also don't agree with each other on what those rules should be. And so we all-too-often argue and start wars and split churches and sever marriages...

...even though Paul dedicates an entire chapter of Romans to proving that God does not label us as “good” or “bad” according to whether or not we keep the right set of rules.

Put that way, it sounds almost blasphemous, doesn't it? Aren't we all supposed to do what's right? (yes) And don't we have to know what's right in order to do it? (If that isn't a loaded question I don't know what is.)  And yet...

Let's look at Romans 4. In it, Paul begins to explain exactly how this grace thing works.


.~*^*~.,.~*^*~.,.~*^*~.

For the Jews, the foundations of all their beliefs and identity are in Abraham. So that's where Paul begins, by saying (v. 1-3, my paraphrase), "So what about Abraham? Was he justified because he kept all the rules? Nope!"

He reminds them when and why God said that Abraham was righteous.  It was back in Genesis 15:6 when God gave Abraham the promise that his descendants through an as-yet-unborn son would be as numerous as the stars. God called Abraham a righteous man for one reason... because he believed that God could and would fulfill that outlandish promise He'd just made.

I find it so easy to just skim over those verses without really thinking about how remarkable this statement really is.

What if it had been you... not receiving a promise, but making a promise?

_______________


Suppose you had won the lottery and not told anyone at all. For all they'd seen in the past, you were just an average Joe with a factory job, living paycheck to paycheck.  As you looked around at your family and friends, you made plans for what you were going to do for each. During a private conversation with one couple, you asked how much they owed on their medical bills because you were going to pay them all off for them. They looked at you like you'd found a new and somewhat odd way of joking around and never did give you the total.  Then another's car blew the engine, so you told him to go pick out a new car.  But he didn't see how you were capable of buying anything, so he never went and picked one. But let's say you have stressed-out widowed mother who had recently lost her job. Let's further say that, unlike the other two, it was her fault that she'd lost her job. Her bills were a mess because she was extremely forgetful and never paid bills on time, so the late fees and overdraft fees compounded. But you went and told her not to worry about looking for a new job. You were going to pay off the rest of her mortgage and take care of her bills from then on.  She looked at you, saw the seriousness in your face, took a deep breath... and relaxed. Then she went and gathered up her bills and her checkbook and handed them to you.

She took you at your word. And even though she didn't see how, she trusted that you wouldn't have said it if you didn't have the means to do it.

_______________

That's what God said Abraham did.  And that is why Abraham was righteous in God's eyes.

But that seems strange, too!  To us, "Righteous" means doing what's right. Whereas, according to these verses, God thinks of righteousness as something totally different... something that is somehow simpler yet almost more difficult. All we've got to do is believe what God says. And everything we have to do must come from the foundation of everything God has said. Simple, complete, and not easy.

Abraham's debt of sin wasn't made right because he paid his bills on time and never let his account go into overdraft. It wouldn't have been made right if he had quit lying to kings about who his wife was. (Gen. 12:11-20 and Gen. 20)  It was made right because he believed what God said.

Paul expands on it a little more in verses 18-22 if we jump ahead a bit:
18 In hope against hope Abraham believed, so that he might become (A)a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, “(B)So shall your [a]descendants be.” 19 Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now (C)as good as dead since (D)he was about a hundred years old, and(E)the deadness of Sarah’s womb; 20 yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, (F)giving glory to God, 21 and (G)being fully assured that (H)what God had promised, He was able also to perform. 22 Therefore (I)it was also credited to him as righteousness.
_______________

In verses 4-5, Paul again points out that this righteousness isn't something we can earn.
4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. 
In other words, if anyone did manage to know and remember exactly what every single last one of God's laws were, and if that person also managed to perfectly keep every one of them, then his wage--being labeled "righteousness"--would certainly be owed to him.
5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, 
But all the rest of us who cannot perfectly and successfully fulfill the works necessary for earning righteousness that way (ie: all of us since no one is able to take advantage of option #1, see Romans 3:23 and this post.)... we've got another way of becoming righteous. We can believe that when and how God says we've been made righteous, we are. That faith--that belief--is what makes us righteous.  (Later in Romans, we'll get into what kind of belief this really is, for it must be deeper and more complete than just a mental agreement that Jesus died for us. This is very important for anyone reading just this post and tempted to take it out of the context of all of Romans.)

In verses 6-8, Paul then points out some more Old Testament proof:
6 just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
(F)“ Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven,
And whose sins have been covered.
(G)“ Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.”
Ephesians 2:8 says:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.
_______________

Finally, in verses 9-10, Paul points out that God called Abraham righteous before Abraham was circumcised. In other words, this pivotal change in status from unrighteous to righteous happened before God entered into the covenant with Abraham. This also happens to be long, long before God gave Moses the law.

This is very, very important for all of us who aren't Jews. The rest of the chapter explains why, but I'll save that for the next post.

Please leave a comment if you have anything to share!


Jump to the next post

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The city vs. earth's cities...

When my husband and I went to see family for my brother's wedding last month, it involved lots of travel in and around a city.

In case you didn't know... we do not care much for cities. Or crowds. Or so much noise that you can't think straight. Or the air quality that had our stomachs started churning as soon as we hit the city. These country lungs and stomachs are not used to city smog!

And traffic!  It was terrible. By the time we'd been there two days, we'd realized that, in in the city, you have to multiply your travel time by 3-4 in order to make sure you're there on time. And that was the only way we managed to be on time for anything. Between backups, accidents, tunnels, and construction, there was just traffic, traffic, everywhere. I mean, out here in Ohio, if Google says it'll take 20 minutes to get somewhere, then you allow 20-25 minutes in case you get stuck behind a tractor or combine for a half mile or so. But you drive there, you park outside the building, and you're enter on time. Simple.

In the city, Google says 20 minutes, so you allow an hour or more. Then you wait in heavy traffic before a bridge or tunnel once or twice, you arrive at the location, then you drive around the block looking for a parking garage, then to go in the parking garage and drive in upwards circles for another several minutes, then you get out and consult a compass to find out which side of the parking garage you need to exit on to get to your restaurant because you're completely turned around, then you carefully take note of where you're leaving your car and you walk 5-10 minutes to your location...hopefully arriving there on time.

So we didn't like this city any more than we've ever liked any city, and we can't imagine living there. (Lord, thank you for not calling us to a city!)

And somewhere or other in that week when we were waiting in yet another backup, my husband said, “You know, it concerns me a bit that Heaven is a city.”
Everyone in the car laughed, but it seems rather interesting that I opened up Psalms the other day and found myself reading about Zion, the city of God.
Psalm 48
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised,
In the city of our God, His holy mountain.
Beautiful in elevation, the joy of the whole earth.
Is Mount Zion in the far north,
The city of the great king.
So of course I thought about the strangeness of thinking a city so beautiful, because here on earth, it is nature that is so beautiful.

And that's when it dawned on me.

I find nature beautiful and cities not beautiful (for the most part) because nature is God's creation. The ugly parts of cities are always the result of man. Not that man can't make anything beautiful (because we can, and cities do have their beautiful parts).  But when you drive through cities and see ugliness, that ugliness is always a byproduct of when, where, and how we humans have messed things up and/or things have run down. Trash. Pollution. Broken sidewalks (which don't have natural scavengers like broken trees do).

But... in heaven, nothing will have been messed up by God or sin or the imperfection of man.

The heavenly city—Zion—will, in fact, be something we have never ever seen before, with no trash and no broken sidewalks. There will be no homeless and no slums.... no angry drivers or car accidents.

It will be a city designed, built, and managed by God, and it will be unmarred by faulty hands. Zion is where the God who created the Alps and Himalayas... the Creator who formed coral reefs and the rainbow of fish who inhabit them... the Painter of sunsets and the Orchestrator of the Northern Lights...the Architect who gave man whatever paltry ability we may have to build a beautiful building...

Zion will be where this Designer and Artist turned His hand toward building a city.
I'm thinking that such a city might take my breath away as no city on earth ever has for anyone.
Let Mount Zion be glad,
Let the daughters of Zion rejoice
Because of your judgments.
Walk about Zion and go around her;
Count her towers;
Consider her ramparts;
Go through her palaces,
That you may tell it to the next generation.
For such is God,
Our God forever and ever;
He will guide us until death.                                                               

Monday, July 02, 2012

Romans - Law, grace, & toddlers...

[Bible study on Romans - post 4]

I left off last time with this:
There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God. - Romans 2:9-11
This is the beginning of another sub-section of this first part of Romans. Paul is still talking about sin, but now he's going to explain three things:
1) Why the Old Testament law was given.
2) How Jesus came to fulfill it.
3) Why the benefits of Jesus' sacrifice are available to absolutely everyone--even those who were not Jewish and never knew about the Law or tried to keep it to begin with.

The Law, of course, refers to everything God commanded back when the Israelites were in the wilderness. He gave the 10 commandments which pretty much sum everything up, but He also gave lots of other laws that were, more or less, the nitty gritty details of the original ten. God gave laws about worship, and laws about relationships. He gave laws that had to do with health concerns and laws to govern everyday life.

But here's the thing... some of these laws weren't anything new. When God said, “You shall not commit adultery,” He was merely stating something that everybody already knew was wrong, for the ancient peoples knew just as well as today's never-been-in-a-church teens do that you aren't supposed cheat on your girlfriend! (Or boyfriend, or wife, etc.) Romans 1:19 mentioned this, and Paul says it again here:
14 Gentiles don’t have the Law. But when they instinctively do what the Law requires they are a Law in themselves, though they don’t have the Law. 15 They show the proof of the Law written on their hearts, and their consciences affirm it. Their conflicting thoughts will accuse them, or even make a defense for them, 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the hidden truth about human beings through Christ Jesus. - Romans 2:14-16 (CEB) (NASB)

Of course, there are plenty of people today who don't like those laws and come up with reasons why it can be okay to cheat on your boyfriend or husband, and humanity has been pretty much the same since the beginning...which is why God spelled it all out. (Romans 3:20)

Before he explains that, though, Paul spends some time really hammering in on the fact that the Jews were...well... let's say that they weren't much different than the church-at-large today... so self-righteous that we aren't even aware of the mockery we're making of God. For example, did you know that many of those who work in the service industry (restaurants, hotels, etc.) agree that Christians are the rudest, most critical, and lowest-tipping group of patrons there are? OUCH!  (Hearing that from friends of mine permanently changed my tipping habits. I like these rules, personally.)  Or how about the fact that I know people who will personally avoid a business that claims to be Christian because their experience has been that they get dishonest service in such businesses?

I could go on and on, for this is something that God has really opened my eyes to in the last five years... how my own self-righteousness and selfishness is much more deep and hidden (to me) yet obvious (to the world) than I'd ever imagined.

This is the kind of stuff Paul is talking about, and he's basically saying that those who know the Law but don't keep it are actually worse off than a Gentile who doesn't know the Law but still does that which his conscience tells him he must do. No wonder, then, that chapter 3 starts out with, “Then what advantage is it to be a Jew?”

Paul then goes on to strike down some faulty arguments that people try to set forth (both then and now):

Verses 3-4 points out that just because Christians can be hypocritical, that does not mean that God is. He is righteous, and that is that.

Verses 5-8 flatly point out that God is righteous, regardless of what He allows humans to do, and His grace does not make our unrighteousness okay.

Verses 9-18 repeat, over and over again using quotes from the Old Testament, that absolutely everyone in the whole world is under sin.

And that brings us to verse 20:
20 because (A)by the works [a]of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for [b](B)through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.
This is a very important point, here, for we are not born already knowing all of God's laws. Think of a toddler, just learning how to walk. That toddler knows no law. He does not know about looking both ways before you cross a street. He does not know that he cannot just walk out onto the top of the swimming pool's water. In the beginning, he doesn't even know the law that states that if he tries to walk under something that is higher than his eyes but not higher than the top of his head, pain will ensue in the form of a knot on his forehead!

He must learn all of these laws one by one from someone who will continually say, "No! Don't go there!"

And so it is with us and the unseen universe. Laws of right and wrong are woven into the fabric of existence along with the consequences of each. God endeavors to teach us these laws through our conscience, but humans being what we are, He chose to give us the benefit of a written copy as well.

Unlike the laws for walking, however, we are not capable of ever following these laws perfectly...and God wanted to make sure we knew that as well.

Why?

Seriously! This is the crux of the matter...why did God want us to know how impossible this whole keeping-the-law thing really was?

This is where the glory and promise and hope of the gospel differs so drastically from what many people think Christianity is. It's right here, and it takes humility to receive.

He wanted us to see that we can not do it... so that we would choose to accept the free gift that He offers us instead of the law. 

Because Jesus did do the impossible. And God wants Him to get all the glory.  He's the hero of the story, for He did it all, and He offers it freely to us.

And as verses 21-31 say, even the Law itself was pointing to something higher. Something that can only be received through faith. Something called Grace.

I think sometimes our American culture makes this grace thing very difficult to comprehend. For in most things in our culture, a person stands on their own merits. The family they come from means nothing... anyone can rise from whatever circumstances they were born into if they just work hard enough. It's the American Dream!  It's also how we earn respect, for who looks up to someone who gets ahead on the merits of someone else?

That's exactly what God tells us to do, though.  We are saved on the merits of what Someone else did, rather than our own merits. We are to approach God and say, "I'm here because of what Jesus did."

It's humbling... and that's why God decided that salvation could only be obtained this way. Verse 27 says (my paraphrase), "What then is there for me to boast about? Absolutely nothing. For I am not righteous because of the law or by anything that I could ever do myself. I am righteous only because I believe that Jesus did it all for me."

That is salvation, right there.

But evidently the Jews and Gentiles in Rome had just as hard a time grasping it as we do today, for Paul spends the rest of Romans explaining this marvelous, glorious miracle of grace.

I'll continue with chapter 4 next time.
Go to the index of posts on Romans.
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