Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Let there Be Light

Today we are in the midst of Shavuot, the Jewish festival of weeks, coming 50 days after the Passover. Shavuot is an agricultural festival but it is also a celebration of Moses receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Here is just a brief bit from Exodus 19 about that event:
16 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently.
I can't help but compare this to the circumstances in Acts, chapter 2, the day of Pentecost. That of course, fell on shavuot. Pentecost refers to the 50 days after Passover, and for Christians, it is the 50th day after Easter.
 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.
Is it a coincidence that the Lord descended on Sinai in fire, and the Spirit descended in fire upon the disciples? Personally I think not. 

Sinai represents God's first description and full explanation of what it meant to be his chosen ones. It was through the law that he set a particular group of people apart for himself. Pentecost represents a change in how people were to relate to Heaven. First, it opened things up very broadly. Now all the nations were to come to God. Actually, it was the job of the people of Israel to bring the nations to God, but they weren't exactly spectacular successes at that.

At Pentecost, things change. Before, the law was the means by which people approached the Almighty. Now the Almighty finally and completely approached the people. Before, the people were separated away from God. They were on the plain, God was on the mountain. Now God lifts us all to the mountain. The flames are for everyone. The Spirit is to live in us all. This Spirit is true life. It is our connection to the Author of Life.

May this Pentecost reignite any flame that may have grown weak, wavering and dim. I know that God does not judge us when our flames waver:
"A bruised reed He will not break And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice (Isaiah 42:3 NASB)
Have you ever felt like a dim wick? The NIV renders this a smoldering wick. It's all the same thing, we just aren't burning brightly. Yet this verse from Isaiah tells us about God's character, that Heaven will not just blow us out like a useless candle. God will strengthen us, comfort us, even goad us when necessary to brighten up that flame. This is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Chris Rice has a most wonderful song, Go Light Your World. I commend it to you:

There is a candle in every soul
Some brightly burning, some dark and cold
There is a Spirit who brings a fire
Ignites a candle and makes His home

Carry your candle, run to the darkness
Seek out the helpless, confused and torn
Hold out your candle for all to see it
Take your candle, and go light your world
Take your candle, and go light your world

Frustrated brother, see how he's tried to
Light his own candle some other way
See now your sister, she's been robbed and lied to
Still holds a candle without a flame

So carry your candle, run to the darkness
Seek out the lonely, the tired and worn
Hold out your candle for all to see it
Take your candle, and go light your world
Take your candle, and go light your world

Cause we are a family whose hearts are blazing
So let's raise our candles and light up the sky
Praying to our Father, in the name of Jesus
Make us a beacon in darkest times.

Carry your candle, run to the darkness
Seek out the hopeless, deceived and poor
Hold out your candle for all to see it
Take your candle, and go light your world
Take your candle, and go light your world.

Carry your candle, run to the darkness
Seek out the hopeless, confused and torn
Hold out your candle for all to see it
Take your candle, and go light your world
Take your candle, and go light your world
Take your candle, and go light your world.

Sometimes I have been the frustrated brother trying to go my own way. Other times I have been the sister, robbed and lied to. My wick is dim, smoky and smoldering. But the fact is, the light isn't truly my own. It is the light of Jesus, shining through me. Even a dim lamp sheds some light.

So carry your candle. Let the light of Jesus shine on others, even when you are struggling to see it for yourself. Carry your candle. Run to the darkness. That is where the light works best. Light's purpose is to overcome darkness.

If your light is shining brightly, GREAT! Carry your candle. Go. Run. Run to the darkness.

May you experience a powerful Pentecost, and

Go Light Your World!

Friday, April 29, 2005

Accepting the Hope

The woman in the IGA parking lot, turned away, with disappointment. It happened to Jesus, too. Someone wanted something very important, but the price seemed too high. He wanted a magic answer. This is told in the gospel story of the rich young man who encountered Jesus.

Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?"

"Why do you ask me about what is good?" Jesus replied. "There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments."

"Which ones?" the man inquired.

Jesus replied, " `Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,' and `love your neighbor as yourself.' "

"All these I have kept," the young man said. "What do I still lack?"

Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.1

He turned away, sorrowing. He wanted an easy answer. He wanted an easy restoration in his relationship with God. He wanted magic. It wasn’t going to be easy. His money, rather than being the indication of a right relationship with God was an impediment.

I just couldn’t help but think of this story as the woman walked away from me. She needed help, power and hope. But she wanted it on her terms, and that just wasn’t going to work.

The power and hope is in God’s power and willingness to change us.

We may want an easy answer. It will never be easy. We can go away, sorrowing, or we can trust in the power of God and his willingness to change us. This is the key to getting off the spiral.

There actually are things we can do to get off the comfort spiral. It usually isn’t all that easy. We have had lifetime patterns of behavior that we go back to, because we have always gone back to them. We may do well for a time. Then we fall back into old patterns. And I can tell you, it is harder to get off the spiral the second time, than it is the first time.

The rich young man had a lifetime pattern of relying on his wealth as the blessing from God that indicated God’s favor toward him. The idea that he had to give up the one thing that brought him his comfort was just too much. He wanted it easy, and Jesus seemed to make it hard. Most of us cannot relate to him in this regard. We don’t see ourselves as wealthy. We (hopefully) see salvation as something so incredibly worth everything that we would be willing to give away everything we have for eternal life.

Would I give up my calories? If Jesus told me that I could inherit eternal life if I successfully lost one hundred pounds and kept it off, would I be like the lady in the IGA parking lot? Would I turn away, disappointed? Would the alcoholic easily give up the bottle? The smoker her cigarettes? It sounds so easy. But if we don’t truly believe that God can provide more comfort than we have ever known, what will we do?

There is hope. There is power. It is in God’s power and willingness to change us. God can lift us out of the spiral. It’s not a magic pill, but it is powerful.

1 Matthew 19:16-22

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Good as New! (Or Heading That Way, Anyway)

Factory refurbished or restored. I’ll admit, I’m pretty slow to buy an electronic doo-dad that is sold at a bargain price when it is listed as factory restored. Already it didn’t work for one person. What makes me believe that it will work the second time around? But that is based more on my lack of confidence in the restorer, who in all likelihood is responsible for the original problems.

God is in the restoration business. The good news is that he is not responsible for the original flawed product! We have messed up, and God is restoring. Once again, we are back at 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

I’ve talked about the problem of discomfort, and traps we fall into, in trying to seek comfort. Now I want to start looking at how we can cooperate with God’s grace and move toward wholeness, accepting God’s comfort. For comfort to truly overcome the brokenness that is the source of our discomfort, it must move us toward restoration.

Restoration is taking whatever is broken, and repairing the breach. In the Divine-human relationship, God has already taken the initiative. Jesus was born among us. He taught us. He died for us, and rose again. Now we must respond. If the breach is between two people, someone must follow God’s example and take the initiative. If the breach is with the environment, then perhaps applied wisdom in living is needed.

Sometimes, acceptance is needed. God accepts us as we are, even as he longs to restore us. How often do we expect someone else to pull it together, before we will deal with them? The problem is that they may be powerless to pull it together. Perhaps I need to pull it together enough to accept the other with all his problems.

Restoration is not easy. There is no magic pill. Dieters want a weight-loss pill that allows them to eat and not exercise. The patent-medicine snake-oil salesmen on radio and television are busy battling it out, claiming that their unique pill will help you lose weight, and the other is a sham. Heroin addicts shift their addiction from heroin to methadone rather than going cold turkey and quitting.

One day I was walking through the parking lot at the IGA (our local grocery store). A woman I didn’t know, came up to me and asked, “Can I ask you a question?”


“How did you lose all that weight?”

I gave her the Reader’s Digest condensed version “I count calories, and I started walking every day.” (In fact, I was on my daily walk when I met her.)

She turned away without a comment, but also with a clear expression of disappointment. She wanted an easy answer. She wanted a magic pill.

There is no magic. But there is power and there is hope.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Power for Good

Guilt can lead to paralysis. But it can also be a powerful force of motivation for repentance and renewal. Earlier I said that guilt was a gift from God that draws our attention to something that we should stop doing. In this sense, guilt properly applied is a comfort mechanism that is God’s gift to us. If we are walking outside of God’s ways, we will feel guilty. The stress that this brings to our lives can be eliminated very simply by returning to God’s ways!

If you’re cheating on your spouse, you should feel guilty. You are guilty, and you should feel it, and you should stop. If you are a shoplifter, you should feel guilty. If you are contentious, always bringing strife into the lives around you, you should feel guilty. If you are a gossip, you should feel guilty. If, in all these things, you do not feel guilty, you have deeper problems than just the behavior.

On the comfort spiral, when we are at the point of feeling guilty for our behavior, that isn’t a false accusation. If I am overeating, feeling guilty can be a strong signal to stop! When a sense of guilt and the behavior that engendered it are brought to God’s throne of grace, then the very power of God has been released into your life. And now we are moving into the power of hope.

Each of us is affected by brokenness. Sin is a breakdown in relationship. Whether the relationship is with God or another human being, discontinuity is created when we seek our own needs, wants or desires, without regard to God or others. Sin is a failure to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, or to love our neighbor as ourselves. All brokenness comes from sin, whether it is our own sin, or the sin of others. God did not create a broken world. He looked upon his creation, and saw that it was good.1 Brokenness came about with the fall, as Adam and Eve decided to ignore what God told them, and went their own way.

Immediately there was a breach in the relationship with each other, and with God. The relationship between man and woman changed as they suddenly felt shame, looking upon one another. They covered themselves up, to hide their shame. But there was more shame, and they also covered themselves up to be invisible to God. “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden.”2

The best reaction to such shame, though, is not to run and hide. God is seeking to build relationships, not destroy them. God’s work is one of restoration, not ruin. When guilt drives us into God’s loving embrace, then we are cooperating with grace, and open ourselves to God’s restoration work. Restoration is what God is about. Guilt has the power to move us toward restoration, if we respond appropriately.

1 Genesis 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31
2 Genesis 3:8

Wednesday, March 23, 2005


To be paralyzed is to be rendered completely powerless, ineffective or inert. As I said in the previous post, some allow their sense of guilt to paralyze them. They are so burdened by the sense of guilt that they do not take advantage of the full power that God gives us to move forward in our lives.

Paul expresses the lead-up to possible paralysis in Romans 7. “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing.”1

Paul is writing about the struggle to do good, even while sinful nature fights against us. That sinful nature can seem so powerful, that sometimes we are moved to despair. We stop believing that there is any hope. It almost seems as if that’s where Paul is heading here, especially when we get to this phrase, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”2

In our spiritual lives we might be tempted to stop here. “I just can’t beat it! I give up! There’s just no power over this!” Paralysis sets in. Guilt can lead us here. If we have allowed thought patterns to develop that say, “you are weak, you are incapable, you are the loser you have always believed yourself to be,” we lose all power to fight on. All our efforts seem completely ineffective, and our spiritual lives are inert. There is no growth, there is no joy, there is no peace, there is no excitement. There’s just no power to move further up and further into the glorious kingdom, into the joy of the Father that has been prepared for us.

Guilt leads us to paralysis because we fail to see ourselves as truly forgiven, truly set free, truly beloved, truly clothed with the righteousness of Jesus. Guilt can keep us from exercising the power that is available, because we are so focused on what used to be, instead of what God is doing now. We’re still seeing the old, dead self, instead of the new creation in Christ. We fall into despair, and cry out, “Who will rescue me?!”

Who indeed? Paul did not forget who. He did not stop with a cry of despair. He always remembered who rescued him. “Thanks be to God--through Jesus Christ our Lord!”3 The rescue is done. Don’t let the memory of sin keep you from moving forward. You may not be sprinting, but you can take one step deeper into the joy of the Master.

This is true of our spiritual life. I believe this is true of other aspects of our lives as well. In many, many ways the ways we deal with discomfort and stress parallel the struggles with sin and righteousness that we experience. As I said earlier, if God is the God of all comfort, then comfort and discomfort in all aspects of our lives has some spiritual component. That’s probably something to explore a little later on.

When we get to the point in the spiral where our comfort seeking behavior leads us into guilt, we can allow ourselves to become paralyzed. We feel guilty about smoking another cigarette, overeating again, getting drunk again, getting into the wrong bed again. We begin believing that there just isn’t any hope for change. Here’s even another layer. On top of the guilt lies hopelessness. That’s where the paralysis really sets in. If we are without hope, we just stop trying.

Maybe now we start the jokes. You’ve heard them, maybe you’re making them. “Sure, I can quit smoking! I’ve already done it a hundred times!” “Just don’t tempt me, I can resist anything but temptation.” “I’m not overweight, I’m undertall.” We use laughter to mask our hopelessness and our paralysis. We’re using it to divert attention away from our own culpability and responsibility. We have to divert away from our responsibility, because it is just that sense of responsibility that has moved us into the sense of guilt.

But just as there is hope for us in our struggle with sin, there is hope for us in our struggle against stress and discomfort. We may be at the guilt/hopelessness point of the spiral, but hopelessness is always a lie. There is always hope, and interestingly enough, I have found that the hope begins at the same place that Paul found it. Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!

All hope is found in Jesus. If we are feeling hopeless and powerless over our eating, smoking, drinking, or whatever spiral we are on, there is hope, and it begins with Jesus. Go back again, and learn again what God has done for you. Remember the story of his birth, his death and especially his resurrection. Allow yourself to be told again that all this love poured out was for you. Listen to the truth, and make it personal to you. There is power in that hope. We do not need to be paralyzed. We can move further up and further in, and we can get off the comfort spiral.

1 Romans 7:18-19
2 Romans 7:24
3 Romans 8:25a

Monday, March 21, 2005

The Power of Guilt

Stress or discomfort leads to comfort seeking behavior. Comfort seeking behavior can lead to frustration and increased stress and discomfort. Increased comfort seeking behavior can lead to destructive levels. This destructive behavior induces guilt which increases the discomfort to even greater intensity. Now you see how the spiral is built.

Have no doubt, guilt is very powerful. Guilt is also a gift from God. We are meant to feel guilty for doing something we shouldn’t, in order to draw attention to the fact that we should stop doing something! When guilt is operating correctly in our lives, the discomfort from our guilt will drive us to stop doing the behavior that induces the guilt. That would be an example of appropriate comfort seeking behavior. I am uncomfortable because of the guilt I feel, so I stop doing the things that make me feel guilty. Now I am more comfortable and I am no longer doing that which I should not.

Guilt is powerful. It can operate in our lives positively or negatively. First the negative power of guilt.

Guilt is a problem when we are no longer responsible (and possibly never were responsible) for the actions that have induced the guilt. What do I mean? Now I am going to be a little more directly theological than I have been to date.

As Christians, we live under the grace of God’s forgiveness for our sins. We have done wicked things in the past, we have turned from God’s ways and pursued our own. That is the clear and consistent testimony of Scripture. It begins with the story of the fall in Genesis. Adam and Eve turn from God’s instructions, and choose their own way. They eat the forbidden fruit.

Isaiah universalizes the fall to everyone: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”1 Any honest person can look at himself and see how much he has chosen to go his own way, rather than God’s ways. Isaiah compares us to sheep, an animal that easily goes astray.

The Apostle Paul really boils it down: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”2 These statements both individualize and universalize the reality of sin. I have sinned. I have gone astray and gone my own way. That’s the individual aspect. Since this is true of everyone, it is a universal problem.

Christians are those who acknowledge their guilt, and accept their dependence on the gift of God’s forgiveness, given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The hope of the Christian faith is that God offers us a new life through his forgiveness. That new life is expressed as a new creation. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”3 Understanding this is so important. Too many are paralyzed by negative guilt. They do not actively accept that God has set their guilt aside, and that they are now sharing in the righteousness of Jesus. They still beat themselves up for their past deeds and willfulness and allow that sense of guilt to paralyze themselves from enjoying the fullness of a rich relationship of passionate love with God. They keep themselves from moving further up and further into God’s kingdom.

It is not God that is the originator of this guilt. It comes from somewhere else. The Bible says that God is not condemning us.
“What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died--more than that, who was raised to life--is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”4
Who has the ultimate right to criticize us, find fault with us, accuse us and condemn us? Jesus is our creator, Jesus is the one who has lived life on this earth completely without ever failing God. He has authority as our creator. He has moral authority as the sinless one. As the preceding passage points out, he is doing the exact opposite of condemning us. He pleads our cause before God. He’s on our side.

So if the guilt some still feel isn’t from God, then where? There are other possibilities. The chapter in Romans goes on to describe those who may be out there accusing us. Verse 38 speaks of angels and demons, past and future, powers, heights and depths. The enemies of God are also our enemies. They seek to keep us separated from experiencing God and his love and grace. Leading us to discount the complete forgiveness God has for us will accomplish that goal. So one source for inappropriate or negative guilt is the full array of the enemies of God.

There can be other sources as well. Our own patterns of thought can be deep ruts that keep us from breaking free into newer more healthful ways of thinking. Some have had the misfortune of having a parent berate them continually through their lives. From early on they accepted that they were useless, that they would always be failures, that they were irredeemably bad. These early beliefs and negative self-images make it easy to feel guilty over past, forgiven deeds and attitudes, in spite of the clear proclamation of forgiveness.

Next, the usual result of the negative side of guilt.

1 Isaiah 53:6
2 Romans 3:23
3 2 Corinthians 5:17
4 Romans 8:31-34

Friday, March 18, 2005

Trouble upon Trouble

So, we’ve got problems and struggles in life. That’s a fact of life here in a fallen world. We manage our struggles in a variety of ways, some appropriate, some not. We can know that our management techniques have moved into inappropriate methods when they become destructive. They may be destructive to ourselves, others, or frequently both.

Getting back to the spiral we started with a little bit of stress, and a little bit of stress relief. But if the stress relief didn’t really address the causes of the stress, it’s a temporary patch at best. Sometimes that’s all we need, a temporary patch. Then a good night’s sleep, and we’re ready to face the next day’s stresses. But what if that patch isn’t enough?

If using comfort mechanisms that do not directly address the real problem are relied upon, then it is likely that those mechanisms will become problems in and of themselves. If the original problem is not resolved in some other manner, then you have taken one level of problem, and added another layer atop it, to compound the troubles of your life. Finally, at some point (getting back to the spiral illustration) you have moved along your spiral from non-destructive behavior into destructive behavior.

Here it is important to see that the actual behavior hasn’t changed in substance, but in intensity or volume. My comfort behavior is eating. For a while, those midnight trips to the hamburger place during the college years didn’t really do any damage. They couldn’t. I couldn’t afford enough Twin Burgers at Bunks to cause weight gain. Then too, at that point I was operating at a more youthful metabolism where the calories were more easily burned. What those trips did do was establish a pattern of how I would end up dealing with stress and discomfort.

As time went on, the relatively harmless behavior of “relaxing” through food intensified. I hadn’t really developed appropriate methods of dealing with my stresses. The stresses piled up, and the eating increased. It was the same behavior, just more of it.

Something new is added on when the behavior moves from non-destructive levels to destructive levels. Before we had stress type discomfort. Then we added frustration onto the stress discomfort. Now we add on yet another layer of discomfort: guilt.

At some point, we realize that the behavior is destructive. It may be a very mild realization, but it is there. The trousers are a little tight. We have to loosen the belt a notch. We wake up with a hang-over. We realize the wife is right after nagging that the kids never see their dad, he’s always at work. Whatever our comfort behavior is, by using it too much, we have moved into a destructive phase, and we become aware, at some level of that destruction. That awareness is transformed into an appropriate experience of guilt. If we are doing something we shouldn’t, we should feel guilty about it.

So, for now I will leave it with this new layer. We have the original stress or discomfort. We have frustration that we haven’t gotten rid of that discomfort. And now we have guilt that our reaction to that discomfort has led us into destructive behavior.

Also note, we may not be aware that our guilt over our destructive behavior is in any way tied to the original discomfort. We feel guilty over the behavior. But it is quite possible to still be completely unaware that our comfort behaviors are just that–comfort behaviors. We may not be making the connection of original discomfort to our comfort behavior.