Is it time yet?

When I was young, I looked forward every year to attending church summer camp. It was a week of swimming, making new friends, meeting up with old friends, eating camp “food”, and nightly chapel services.  One year I helped put on a silly skit entitled “Is it Time Yet?” About 20 of us sat in brown folding chairs on the stage, stretched out single-file from one side to the other, with our right legs crossed over our left.

The first person nudged their neighbor and asked in an exaggerated Southern drawl, “Is it time yet?” The neighbor would shrug, nudge the person on their other side and repeat the question. This continued all the way down the line until the question was asked of the last person. That person would stretch, scratch, look at their watch then reply in the same ridiculous accent, “Nope, it ain’t time yet.” And that answer would be passed down to each person in turn.

This same routine would be repeated twice more until finally, at the third asking, the last person gave the long-awaited response, “It’s time!” The answer had to travel all the way to the beginning of the line, and then, for the grand finale, we all simultaneously and dramatically uncrossed our legs, and then re-crossed them, this time with our left legs over our right. What a big finish, right?! Of course, in the environment of youth church camp, that skit was comedy gold, and we would gladly have performed it every year without complaint.

Recently I read a different kind of question about moving on and making changes. It was in the form of a blog post on a Christian magazine’s website asking “Is it time to move past the creation debate?” This article was posed in anticipation of the much-publicized debate between creationist and founder of the Creation Museum Ken Ham and president of the Planetary Society and beloved television personality Bill Nye. The author’s point seemed to be that it does not matter how we got here or what we each believe about creation. We are here now, so let’s just focus on what to do now.

That sentiment is understandable, and to some extent I sympathize with the pacifistic tone of the article; I, too, hate confrontation. But I have learned that while some things are not worth fighting about, they might very well be worth fighting for. There is a big difference.

Let’s take the question at hand: Should we Christians, especially the literal 6-day creationists among us, just get over it, stop arguing and debating, and simply live and let live? Is it really all that important how we got here? Isn’t Jesus the real message?  Can’t we all just get along? Can’t we move on?

My answer: move on to what, exactly? If we intend (as evangelicals ought to) to spread the Good News of Jesus to the world at large in obedience to the Great Commission, we can not effectively do so without regard to origins or the sticky question of how exactly we all got into the mess of sin that we’re in. If you want to talk about how Jesus saves, then you’ve got to take Him in context of what, exactly, He’s able to save us from and how He’s qualified to do it. And that starts at creation.

God, as Creator of the universe and all life in it, established certain rules to govern His creation. The most important of those (in light of the current topic) was that sin, disobedience to His instructions, was punishable by death–not only physical death, although that is certainly a harsh punishment in and of itself, but ultimately by spiritual death, separation from Him, for eternity. He also decreed that substitutions could be made for the guilty party, and He chose to do exactly that for Adam and Eve when they sinned against Him by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. He sacrificed, or killed, an innocent animal and covered their nakedness with its skin.

Fast-forward to Jesus. Because of God’s marvelous mercy, He gave Himself in the form of the God/man Jesus to die the ultimate substitutionary death for the sin of all mankind. He said that whoever believes in and accepts the gift of that mercy is saved from eternal separation from Him. This is great news!

If.

It’s only great news if God has the right to make the rules.

But, if He didn’t really handcraft man in His own image as Genesis states, if He didn’t really breathe His own breath into man, if He didn’t really give him instructions to obey and consequences if he failed to do so, then He has absolutely no right to either hold us accountable to committing “sin” or pretend to save us from the punishment of that sin by killing an innocent man.

Either the Bible is true or it isn’t. And if it’s true, then it’s ALL true, even the parts that are hard to believe or impossible to prove. For those who are uncomfortable with that fact, for those who just want to “move on” past the question of origins and just get to the Jesus part of the Gospel story, my answer is this: If you start anywhere but Genesis, then you just can’t get there from here.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?

I did a dangerous thing last night; I watched a documentary whose basic premise I didn’t agree with. It was James Carroll’s “Constantine’s Sword”, and it got me to thinking, hence the ‘dangerous’ part. The film rambled a bit, as Mr. Carroll was on a sort of personal quest to make sense of the various parts of his background, but the gist was whether or not Christians should be actively trying to win converts from people of other religions. Mr. Carroll’s short answer: no. The longer version took 90 minutes or so, and I bravely managed to endure (nay, almost enjoy) about 80 of those. But once my mind began digesting his conclusion and its implications, I had to turn him off so I could hear myself think.

Mr. Carroll was, at one time, a Roman Catholic priest, but he left the priesthood during the 1970s, leading me to assume he had left his religious beliefs as well. While the film doesn’t specifically say either way, one of the priests he interviews says mass for him, which implies that Mr. Carroll is still a practicing Catholic. And he tells a Jewish man that he still prays to Jesus, who He believes is divine. Had he left his religion, I wouldn’t have such a problem trying to understand his views.

But how can I reconcile that Mr. Carroll appears to claim a personal faith in Jesus while at the same time rejecting the idea that Jesus is worth telling the world about?  If Jesus is no better than any other religion, then why bother believing in Him at all? And if He is indeed better, how can you not care that others don’t yet believe in Him?

Most, if not all, of Mr. Carroll’s arguments for non-proselytizing seem to be wrapped up in the Roman Catholic church’s history of Antisemitism, including the Crusades and the Holocaust. I at first had a difficult time understanding his connection of the two, because I am one of the evangelical Christians he demonized in the film, and I have nothing but love and appreciation for Jewish people and culture. I personally would never demand that a Jew convert or be killed. I would never sit silently by while Jews were rounded up by the thousands and gassed. And I would never curse at a Jew, call him a Christ killer, or try to force him by threat of hellfire to convert to Christianity. I had to remember, though, that my perspective is even more limited than Mr.Carroll’s. He has lived longer and studied more that I have, and he raised some valid points in his documentary, chiefly that the Church through the centuries since Jesus has by and large proved to be a less than stellar example of Christ. Once I realized that, I was able to formulate my response to his assertion, chiefly that the Church and the church are not one and the same. In other words, not everyone who wears the name “Christian” really is one.

Jesus Himself said that people, be they Jewish, Muslim, or atheist, would know that we are His because of our love. There was no love for God or man involved in the Crusades or the Holocaust, no matter what label the participants wore. Nor is there love in much of what passes for “witnessing” these days. There may be good intentions or religious fervor, but not love.  Love gives. Love doesn’t demand or berate. It doesn’t intimidate or coerce. God is love, and He loved the world so much that He gave His Son. He saw that the world needed a Savior, needed to be told, “Jesus is the Way to me; no other way will do.”

Even now, over two millennia later, love still says that. And if we claim to represent Jesus on the earth, then we can’t be afraid to say it, too, in love, even if it offends.

The fear factor

Just this week I did something I swore I would never do. Actually, it was just the latest in a string of things I’ve done that I thought I would never do. What is it, you ask? Well, I attended a couponing class. Not only that, but I did it with the full intent of actually becoming a couponer.

So now you may be laughing or maybe feeling a little pity for me because there’s nothing scandalous or sinful about couponing, and if that’s the best worst thing I can come up with then my life seems a little sad. Admittedly, couponing is not gossip-worthy material, but I have a feeling there’s a lesson in here if we’re willing to see it.

When I really stop to think about it, there are many things I’ve avoided over the years without really understanding why I did.  For instance, about 15 years ago I was skeptical about the internet. Everywhere I looked I saw “www this” or “world-wide web that.” I got so tired of hearing about the blasted internet! A few years later MySpace, Facebook and other social networking sites came along, and it seemed like everyone was using them. Everyone except me, that is. I could only see the negative aspects and the abuses of them, not any potential for good. So I had a good time hating them for a few years, and then came blogging. Oh for Pete’s sake, I thought. “Blog” is a made-up word! There are people devoting their lives to something that’s not even real! Well, as evidenced by my presence on the web, on Facebook, and now on this blog, you can see that I’ve changed my mind. I did so because I finally realized that my hesitation about these new technologies wasn’t based on logic or even on spiritual discernment, but on fear.

Fear and I have a long history. It started when I was a young child. There would be times when, out of the blue, I would suddenly experience paralyzing fear. I could almost feel it physically overtake me. My heart would race. I would feel hot all over, light-headed, and dizzy. Terrified, I would run to my mom for help. She would calmly pray with me, and the fear would usually leave, only to return later. Sometimes it came late at night, when everyone else was asleep, and I had to fend it off alone. I started to go to sleep with the radio on, or I’d take a small New Testament to bed with me and clutch it tightly, hoping it would keep the fear away. These tactics sometimes worked, but when I was mature enough to learn it, God taught me the key to truly conquer the fear. It’s found in 1 John 4:18.

The overwhelming, heart-stopping variety of fear that plagued me for decades is rare. I never talked to anyone else who had a similar ordeal. But that kind of raw terror does have one thing to recommend it: it didn’t pretend to be anything else but what it was. What I have learned over the years is that there’s another kind of fear that doesn’t show the same courtesy. This subtle brand of fear, the kind that quietly steals the very life from a person’s existence, is everywhere around us, but it mostly goes undetected.

This ordinary fear masquerades as different things in different people. For me, it usually dresses up like pride. Confronted with something new that I don’t fully understand, I tell myself that I’m better than whatever it is that intimidates me, that I’ve gotten along okay without it for this long, and that I don’t need it to be a happy, fulfilled person. This is all true, and even sounds sort of spiritual. But it’s a sham. I’m putting on a song and dance to hide the fear that has crept in unawares. And that’s just one of fear’s disguises.

I’m amazed at the myriad faces that fear can wear, and were it not for the grace of God I’d never be able to identify them all. But every now and then, when He’s sure I’m good and ready, God will unmask one for me, just because He loves me and wants to set me free. For example, I might put off making a decision, telling myself that I’m just being prudent while I weigh all the options. It sounds reasonable but God knows the truth, that I’m afraid of choosing badly. Once He points out the fear, I face a choice: do I rationalize my fear, explaining to God why it’s logical and normal, or do I prove that I trust Him to take care of me and let go of the fear that I’ve harbored for so long? I don’t always get it right, but God isn’t afraid to give me a second chance. And I’m betting that He’ll make you the same kind of offer if you’ll let Him.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?

Most of us are familiar with the basics of gardening.  We understand that whatever we want to harvest at season’s end is what we need to plant at the beginning.  Me personally, I like cantaloupes, so early this summer I planted lots of cantaloupe seeds.  Of course, in the real world of gardening, there are mitigating factors, but all those aside, I should be able to reap cantaloupes out of my garden here in a few weeks because I planted the seeds for them.  Now, what does this have to do with real life, especially for those people who don’t keep a vegetable garden?  Everything.  Let me explain.

As it happens, our lives are a lot like vegetable gardens.  Whatever we plant is what we get more of.  (Now, if you’re a Christian and grew up “in church” like I did, you are probably expecting me to now turn the discussion to money. Rest assured, I won’t do it.)  But there’s a catch: the seed and the harvest don’t always correlate as nicely in life as they do in gardening.  Sometimes the seed and the harvest don’t seem to be related at all. That’s why so many people have wrecked their own lives then looked around for someone else to blame.  They didn’t stop to evaluate just what kind of seeds they were sowing.  Here lately, God’s been teaching me about wisdom, connecting the dots for me about what its seed really is. You might be surprised to learn, like I was, that the seed for wisdom is obedience.  It seems unlikely, but it’s true, and once you realize this truth, you can see it everywhere.

As early as Eden we see people who were given instructions without a lot of explanation, Adam and Eve, namely.  As long as they obeyed God’s instruction, they continued growing in wisdom, but as soon as they broke the law they opened they door for all kinds of trouble. Then consider Noah, a man commanded to build an enormous boat on dry land. Had he waited until he fully understood, until he could see the need for such a vessel, none of us would be here today. He would have been wiped out in the flood along with all the other scoffers.  But thankfully he fully obeyed the puzzling instructions he received, and in time he understood completely the reason God gave them in the first place. And then there’s Abraham, a man God ordered to pack up his life and start walking. God didn’t even show the courtesy to give Abraham a destination, not even a general direction. He just said, “Keep going until I tell you to stop.”  But Abraham  had enough good sense not to question the God o f the universe, and his obedience made possible the birth of God’s Chosen People, the Hebrews. Jesus said that, because of his complete obedience to God, Abraham saw Jesus’ day and rejoiced. Think of it: God rewarded Abraham’s trust by letting him glimpse the coming of the Messiah, whose birth wouldn’t come until nearly 2000 years later. You can’t buy that kind of wisdom, but you can get it. All it takes is obedience.

Now the examples I can draw from my own life aren’t as dramatic or newsworthy, but they’re absolutely relevant. For instance, I was raised in an old-fashioned home and taught that the gift of sex was to be reserved for marriage. Having never experienced sex or marriage, I couldn’t comprehend how precious they really are; no one could have explained it to me in a way that would have done it justice. And so there was no possibility that I could base my obedience on understanding. The obvious temptation for me was the same one that all of us face, to do what I wanted instead of what I was told was best. Thankfully, and only by God’s grace, I chose to obey. Now, at the times when I was making the difficult choice to wait, the reward seemed small and distant in comparison to what I could have at those moments if I followed my desires. But there came a day when I finally fully understood why the instruction to save sex for marriage had been given.  The day after my wedding I woke up and the first thought in my mind was, “Thank you, God, for helping me to wait. It was absolutely worth it.”  The understanding, the wisdom, came after the obedience.

I hear a lot of people say that if only they understood why a certain order was given, anything from tithing to paying taxes to staying in a “bad” marriage, then they would obey it.  Hogwash. They remind me of children who always question instructions that their parents give them. The parent hardly finishes speaking when the kid whines, “But, why?”  The reason they do so isn’t because they don’t understand the instruction but rather it’s to question the authority or competence of the instruction giver. It’s a way of saying, “I don’t think you’re qualified or smart enough to tell me what to do, so I won’t obey.”  The truth of the matter is that you and I will never understand all the instructions we’re given at the time we receive them. God’s plan is to help us grow up in faith, obedience, and wisdom, and the only way He can accomplish that is to stretch us, to ask more of us than we think we can give, to demand more of us than we think is right or fair. But you can count on this: On the other side of our obedience is a blessing. So, just do it.

Another blog?

I’ve been contemplating starting a blog for a few weeks but hesitated because I was unsure that the world needed yet another blogger. After all, what do I have to say that hasn’t already been said? What can I really contribute to the world of blogging? As if to confirm these self-doubts, wordpress.com rejected my first choice for a blog name. And my second. And my third. I probably tried close to a dozen brilliant, unique, and clever blog names before I finally struck upon one that someone else hadn’t thought of first. So why did I persevere?

Because God doesn’t make mistakes. Or duplicates. And by putting me here on Earth He’s saying, in essence, that I have something the world needs. He’s put something in me that He didn’t put into anyone else. I am God’s gift to the world, just as each of us are, and to belittle myself and my contribution is to question the abilities and purposes of the Creator Himself. Put this way, humility shows its true colors, those of pride.

So, while I may be tempted to think that I don’t have a lot to offer to the world or to God, I choose to at least be available. And so I say, like the young boy Samuel did, “Here I am, Lord. Send me.” And because I know me, I add, “And You be sure to some along, too, Lord. I’m going to need Your help.”

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