When Evil Prospers – Part 3

In Part 1 of this series, I shared a little of my personal story and discussed the importance of processing, at a deep emotional level, the reality that we are not alone.  Others who have gone before us have experienced similar struggles, pain, sorrow, horror, grief, and unanswered questions.

In Part 2, we discussed what it means to be God’s image bearers in a fallen world filled with darkness.

In this post, we will discuss how Jesus understands and shares our suffering.

The Suffering of Christ:

The truths shared in the two prior posts are truly wonderful!  Yet, they can still, at times, come across as a bit sterile and cliché.

Yes, it is great knowing God is good… that He loves me… that He never leaves me.  From a philosophical perspective, we can discuss and debate how His goodness combined with His omnipotence still fail to restrain evil and suffering.  We can understand God’s sacred respect for human free will and the consequences of living in a fallen world.  We can understand that somehow God uses all of the experiential garbage of living in this fallen world to bring about His will and purpose in our lives.  We can understand how brokenness is a necessary part of effectively ministering to people in broken circumstances.

Yet, when burdens weigh the heaviest… when our desperate prayers for mercy, justice and relief seem to go unheeded… when evil seems to prosper unchecked… when our anguished souls cry out to God in grief… it can still feel insufficient.  A God who allows His children to suffer deep loss and horrible travesties while promising to work it all out for good in some manner only He understands at some future date only He knows, with no promise of relief in the here and now, can seem cold and distant… maybe even cruel.

Sure, God sees the big picture and sees His plan unfolding across the millennia, but that seems poor comfort for us mere mortals suffering in the here and now of this fallen world.

How can God sit back and watch His children suffer while doling out platitudes and proverbs?  If God is such a good and faithful friend, why does He allow us to suffer so?

No matter how we rationalize the reasons… no matter how we explain the biblical context… in that moment of deepest sorrow and darkest evil it still feels inadequate.  Although we intellectually concede our assent, our raw emotions still cry out this question.

If God is such a good and faithful friend, why does He allow us to hurt so deeply for so long?

I have no answer sufficient for this question.  Yes, I have all the previously discussed answers for the intellect.  Yet, I have no answer sufficient for the raw emotional suffering.

But we do have Jesus!

We have the account of Jesus praying in the garden where he sweated great drops of blood.  He have the anguished cry of Christ pleading, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me!

How did the Father respond to the cry of His beloved only begotten son?

He sent angels to minister to Jesus… then sent Jesus to be stripped, whipped, and nailed to a cross to die.

Simple Sketch of Crucifix

Jesus understands our suffering.  Jesus knows what it means to cry out to God for relief and still be left to suffer the deprivations of evil.

Our God has not stood off at a distance objectively watching our suffering while offering empty platitudes of how it is for our own good.  Our God has chosen to join us in our suffering.  He has chosen to suffer with us.  He has chosen to experience the full range of human life in a fallen world.

The author of Hebrews tells us Jesus was made perfect through suffering.

Think about that for a moment.  Our good and perfect God, creator of heaven and earth, was made perfect through suffering.  How can that be?  How can God, who was already perfect, be perfected?

Jesus was already the perfect God.  Through suffering, Jesus became our perfect Savior and our perfect Advocate.

For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16)

Jesus knows.  Jesus understands.  Jesus has suffered as we suffer.

I may not understand God’s plan, but God does understand my suffering.

Jesus understands my suffering… has experienced it Himself… grieves with me in my loss and bewilderment.  Knowing this, I can trust God’s plan.

This is not the plan of an emotionally distant God with little concern for the pain experienced by mortals.  No, this is the plan of a God who is so deeply personal that He became a mortal Himself, suffered with us and for us, and has sent His Holy Spirit to lead, guide, and comfort us.

Jesus knows God’s plan and Jesus knows our suffering.

Jesus knows!

 

This is the third part in a series on the topic “When Evil Prospers.”  Please join the next post in which I will discuss Lessons from Job.

Duke University and Young Life

In recent news, Duke University’s student government voted against giving official recognition to the school’s Young Life chapter due to the organization having a ban on openly LGBT leadership.

This past week, my Facebook feed has been filled with posts by my conservative Christian friends denouncing the university’s position, declaring the school is promoting a socialist, progressive, anti-Christian agenda.  There are also numerous posts about this being a violation of constitutional rights and free speech.  Here is a link to the article that has been making the social media rounds:  https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/september/duke-university-young-life-voted-off-campus.html?fbclid=IwAR0NyA_35XMCLRuOpc3S7_J8xrGwhvoNFIZETyH8miF3w9aTr-tVX3GbcN4

So…for starters…let me clarify that I consider myself a conservative Christian.  I am a devout follower of Jesus Christ.  I believe Jesus is the Son of God.  I believe Jesus is both fully deity and fully man.  I believe Jesus is heir to Adam’s covenant with God by which He is rightful ruler over all the earth.  I believe Jesus died, was buried, and was resurrected.  I believe through His death, burial and resurrection, Jesus redeemed mankind from Adam’s covenant with the kingdom of darkness, while simultaneously cutting a new covenant by which we may become joint-heirs with him through renewed relationship with the Father through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.  I believe the Bible is the inspired word of God through which God has revealed His nature to us and has instructed us in how we are to live our lives.  I believe Jesus Christ is the ultimate expression of God… The Logos… The Word… through whom God has revealed His heart toward us and His will for us.

I understand the position by the Young Life organization.  I understand they are not intending to exclude anyone, but are attempting to stay true to their understanding of God’s word and protect their organization from infiltration by leaders who do not follow the Bible or do not understand the Bible as they understand it.  I support their right to make these decisions for their organization.

I also understand the position by the Duke University student government.  They see the position by Young Life organization to ban LGBT leadership as being unnecessarily exclusive, particularly of a group of people who have historically been the objects of intolerant hate speech and even physical violence at the hands of some claiming to be Christians.

What I do not understand is the lack of understanding by my conservative Christian brothers and sisters.

Duke University’s position is not an attack on Christianity… rather it is a stance against intolerance and bigotry.  There is nothing about the Duke University position to suggest any ties to any particular economic model.  Loving and respecting others is not a progressive socialist agenda… rather it is a following of Christ’s commandment to love one another as He has loved us.

Opponents against the university position point out the inconsistency of the university promoting tolerance and acceptance while simultaneously being intolerant of the Young Life organization for their lack of tolerance of LGBT leadership roles.  Yet they fail to recognize their own hypocrisy in denouncing intolerance against their views when the very thing being excluded is their intolerance of other perspectives.

All this bluster about universities being anti-Christian and opposed to free speech… at least in this case… is exactly that… bluster!  This is an example of two private organizations having differing views and each choosing to take a stand for what they believe is right.  Duke University is a private school, so there is no freedom of speech violation here.

What’s wrong with two private organizations each holding and defending a different perspective?  Not a thing.  Agreement is not mandatory.  However, understanding is beneficial.

Also, this was a student government decision.  The students were the ones who made this decision.  Plus, nobody has forbidden Young Life from continuing to exist and minister as they see fit.  They just don’t have official university recognition as a campus organization.  Yes, this does limit their access to campus activities as an officially recognized organization.  However, it could hardly be called persecution or silencing.

In many ways, the position taken by Duke University’s student government could be seen as being more faithful to Christian precepts of loving others as Christ loves us than the position of Young Life.  Yes, I understand it is a bit more complicated than that.  However, as Christians we should at least be willing and able to respect a differing view by someone who is taking a stand based on a desire to honor and respect others.

Remember, this was a student government decision.  This decision was made by students… young men and women… probably including young Christian men and women.  Based on their moral perspectives, these young men and women decided to take a stand… not a stand against Christianity… rather a stand to support their fellow students… some of whom identify as LGBT.  We have every reason to believe these students made their decision based on a loving attitude toward their fellow students and a desire to show their respect for them.

How has the conservative Christian community responded?  Based on my social media feed, they have responded primarily by denouncing the decision as anti-Christian and assigning labels (socialist, progressive, anti-Christian, anti-free-speech, religious persecution) to those who made the decision.

Would you like to know how best to convince young adults to leave the church?  Sadly, this would be a good start.  Watch them make a difficult decision to take a stand based on love and respect, then condemn their decision, call them names, and declare their position as anti-Christian.

Why is it so hard for us to simply admit we don’t have all the answers?  Why must we insist on over-simplifying complex issues?  What is so hard about admitting that even within the body of Christ we have strongly differing perspectives on how best to demonstrate Christ’s love toward those who identify as LGBT?  Can’t we be honest enough to admit none of us has a full understanding of God’s heart?  Why must we condemn those who see things a little differently… especially when it is very clear that if they err they err on the side of grace and love toward others… which seems to be generally how Jesus was viewed in the Gospel accounts?

The Bible gives us four accounts of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, three eyewitness accounts plus a fourth by Luke the Physician, apparently based on interviews of eyewitnesses.  These four accounts of the life of Jesus Christ record numerous sermons, parables, stories and miracles by Jesus.  The four gospel accounts are filled to overflowing with red text in our red-letter Bibles.  Yet, in all those records, Jesus only gave us one directive that He labeled a commandment.  Jesus gave us that solitary commandment as He enacted the New Covenant at the last supper before his crucifixion.  The New Covenant… the New Testament… is sealed with a single commandment… a single covenant vow we are sworn to live out.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

I understand the need take a stand based on how one understands scripture.  I really do!  I wrestle with this myself, on a regular basis.

But when our defense of a particular doctrinal view leads us to condemn and ostracize those who are apparently acting out of a conviction of love toward others… the single commandment by which Christ sealed the New Covenant… the only covenant by which we are redeemed, delivered, sanctified, and promised eternal life… maybe it’s time to reassess our priorities.  At the very least, we should openly admit we don’t have all the answers and other perspectives may have some validity.

To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing. (1 Peter 3:8-9)

Your thoughts?

Note: any disrespectful comments or name-calling will be deleted.

Obed’s Inheritance

By Simeon Solomon – Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, Public Domain

Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “You are witnesses today that I have bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. Moreover, I have acquired Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of Mahlon, to be my wife in order to raise up the name of the deceased on his inheritance, so that the name of the deceased will not be cut off from his brothers or from the court of his birth place; you are witnesses today.” All the people who were in the court, and the elders, said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built the house of Israel; and may you achieve wealth in Ephrathah and become famous in Bethlehem. Moreover, may your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah, through the offspring which the Lord will give you by this young woman.”

So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife, and he went in to her. And the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed is the Lord who has not left you without a redeemer today, and may his name become famous in Israel. May he also be to you a restorer of life and a sustainer of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.”

Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her lap, and became his nurse. The neighbor women gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi!” So they named him Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David.  (Ruth 4:10-16)

The previous night, at the threshing floor, Ruth and Boaz conspired together to enact a daring plan to save and restore the family of Elimelech.  Ruth petitioned Boaz to marry her while simultaneously calling on him as kinsman-redeemer to her deceased father-in-law, Elimilech.  Ruth simultaneously appealed to, and expanded, two separate Israelite laws.

It was the role of a kinsman-redeemer to make sure land that had been sold was redeemed so it would remain in the family.  However, the family of Elimilech had ended.  Elimilech had died and his two sons, Mahlon and Chilion also died, leaving three childless widows.  No heirs remained for the family of Elimilech.  There was no family for whom the land should be redeemed.  It was an incredibly sad situation, but nothing could be done about it.

The levirate law was a separate law intended to ensure the continuance of a man’s family.  If a married man died leaving no heirs, the deceased’s brother was to marry the widow for the purpose of conceiving an heir to carry on the name of the deceased and inherit his property.  However, the levirate law only applied to brothers, not to more distant relatives.  So the levirate law did not apply to Boaz in this situation.

Moreover, Ruth was barren.  She had previously been married to Mahlon, son of Elimilech and Naomi.  However, Mahlon died, leaving Ruth childless.  There was no reason to believe Ruth could conceive and bear a child, since she had remained barren during the ten years of marriage to Mahlon.

Yet, that night at the threshing floor, Ruth proposed a daring plan to Boaz.  Appealing to Boaz as kinsman-redeemer, she proposed that he marry her for the purpose of bearing and raising an heir to the family of Elimilech.  The next morning, Boaz followed through with Ruth’s plan.  He redeemed the property of Elimilech to be inherited by a son they hoped would be born to Ruth by her marriage to Boaz.  Before the witnesses at the Bethlehem city gates, Boaz declared:

“You are witnesses today that I have bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. Moreover, I have acquired Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of Mahlon, to be my wife in order to raise up the name of the deceased on his inheritance, so that the name of the deceased will not be cut off from his brothers or from the court of his birth place; you are witnesses today.”

Ruth and Boaz took a leap of faith by investing themselves in a risky plan with little hope of success.  They set out to save and restore the family of Elimilech… through a not-yet-conceived son to be born of a barren widow.  Everything hinged on the birth of a son to inherit Elimilech’s property and carry on his family name…a hoped for future heir who could redeem the family from the brink of annihilation.

Then God directly intervened.

And the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son.

God honored their faith.  God honored their sacrificial loving-kindness to Elimilech’s family and to his widow, Naomi.  God enabled Ruth to conceive and bear a son.

Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed is the Lord who has not left you without a redeemer today, and may his name become famous in Israel. May he also be to you a restorer of life and a sustainer of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.”

Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her lap, and became his nurse. The neighbor women gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi!” So they named him Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David.

Obed, the child born to Naomi by her barren widowed daughter-in-law, Ruth, conceived by Elimilech’s kinsman, Boaz, saved the family from annihilation!  He was “redeemer” and “restorer of life” to Naomi and to the family of her deceased husband.

And this family line…the lineage of this miracle child, Obed, became the lineage of King David!

Does the story of Obed have a ring of familiarity?  It should.

For it was through this same family lineage…the family of Obed… the family of King David… that Jesus, the long awaited Messiah, was born into this world.

Much like his ancestor Obed, Jesus was the hoped-for future heir… future redeemer… future restorer of life.

In the Garden of Eden, God promised a “seed of woman” who would redeem mankind.  Later, God promised Abraham all nations would be blessed through his seed; through his seed God would provide a sacrifice of redemption; and through his seed a new covenant with God would be enacted.

Jesus… Messiah… promised heir… promised redeemer… promised restorer of life… was born of a Virgin.  Much like his ancestor Obed, his conception was through God’s direct intervention in impossible circumstances.

Like Obed, the inheritance of Jesus was not through his biological father, but through his adopted father, Joseph.  Through Joseph, Jesus is heir to the throne of David, heir to Abraham’s inheritance, and heir to Adam’s covenant with God as ruler over all the earth.

The book of Ruth begins with death… the death of Elimilech and his sons… the death of the family of Elimilech.  The book continues as a story of whole-hearted covenant faithfulness… of going above and beyond covenant obligations to bless a covenant partner… of believing God can and will do the miraculous to redeem and restore life.  The book ends with the birth of a miracle baby with an assured inheritance to restore life to a dead family.

The book of Ruth is the gospel message in a nutshell.

The Bible begins with life and creation, but quickly moves to loss and death… death of the family of Adam… cut off from their godly inheritance through a treacherous covenant with sin and death.  The Old Testament continues as a story of God’s whole-hearted covenant faithfulness… of going above and beyond covenant obligations to bless His covenant partners… of promises of a coming Messiah who will redeem, deliver, and restore life to Adam’s heirs.  The New Testament opens with a recitation of the lineage of Jesus Christ… with the birth of a miracle baby with an assured inheritance over all the earth to restore life to all who believe in Him.

This is the Good News of Jesus Christ!

[For a more in-depth study of the book of Ruth, I recommend reading The Gospel of Ruth, by Carolyn Custis James]

Empathy

I just finished reading another of Mark Rashid’s books, titled “Considering the Horse.”  Like most of Mark’s books, it is a series of autobiographical short stories intended to each illustrate some aspect of horsemanship.

This particular book has an overarching theme Mark continually returns to, using the final chapters to bring it all together and drive home his primary point.  That main theme is the importance of really trying to understand the horse’s perspective.

Here is a quote from the final chapter:

The way I see it, just about the only time we ever do any communication to the horse at all is when we’re trying to show him how to respond properly to us.  On the other hand, when the horse communicates to us, he’s usually trying to show us what he’s thinking or feeling.  In a sense, he’s trying to teach us about himself and how to communicate on his level.  We just never take the time to put ourselves in the role of the student and learn from what he’s trying to teach.

Mark didn’t use the word empathy, but that’s what he is talking about.

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference. (Wikipedia)

Throughout the book, Mark does a great job of illustrating why this is so important.  Training a horse is all about communication, and if we want to communicate we need to understand how the horse feels about what we’re doing.  Moreover, a horse learns best when he’s relaxed and paying attention.  Much like us, when a horse is in fight-or-flight mode he’s not real open to learning new concepts.

In this book Mark calls the reader to a deeper level of empathy.  He illustrates how horses sometimes work hard at trying to communicate something that’s really important to them…and we tend to overlook it because it doesn’t seem important to us.  If it is important enough to the horse to work hard at communicating…and if the horse is important to us…maybe we should work harder at trying to understand.

I was reminded of an incident a few weeks ago.  I was working with our 3 year old colt, Archie.  I had groomed and saddled Archie, then left him tied while I walked back in the house to grab my riding helmet.  When I came back out, I walked straight to the front girth and cinched it snug.  Archie looked straight at me, then turned his head to point his nose at the girth.  Then he repeated the gesture, each time looking me straight in the eye.

“What is it, Archie?  Is something wrong with your girth?” I asked.

I loosened the cinch, felt around for any obstructions, smoothed everything out, and snugged it up again.

Archie repeated the same signals, letting me know he wanted the girth loosened.  So, I loosened it again, talked to him for a couple of minutes, and tightened it one notch…talked to him some more…then tightened it another notch.  Then I loosened it again and repeated.

We took about ten minutes to just discuss the girth, how Archie felt about the girth, and what we could do to help Archie feel confident with the girth snugged for riding.  I never did find anything wrong with the girth, but we took the time to make sure Archie was okay with the pressure.

Now, I could easily have ignored Archie’s communication and simply mounted up.  The odds are good that everything would have been fine.  Archie is usually a pretty calm fellow and he trusts me, so he likely would have been fine.  However, since the girth was enough of an issue for him to work hard at communicating his concern, it seemed prudent to at least check things out and let him know his feelings are a priority to me.

Thinking about these things, I’m reminded how seldom we really listen to our fellow humans.  Too often, my communication is all about trying to get my point across or trying to explain why my point is so important.  It’s easy to neglect taking the time to try to understand the other person’s perspective.

Yet, it is in acknowledging the validity of the other person’s perspective that we show respect for them as an individual.  It is also how we learn how they feel and what is important to them.  In a sense, by sharing their perspective with us, they are teaching us how to effectively communicate with them.

Furthermore, much like horses, when we are in defense mode it is very difficult for us to learn new concepts.  By taking the time to try to understand and acknowledge the other person’s perspective, I allow them to move out of defense mode…which makes it easier for them to listen to my perspective.

Those are some of the practical reasons for learning to listen empathetically.  But there are a plethora of other reasons having to do with respect for the dignity of the individual…recognizing we are all created in the image of God…building relationships based on mutual respect…treating others as we like to be treated…celebrating our humanity…

For the Christian, there is yet another reason.  It is how we express our love for Christ.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:12-13)

Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me. (Matthew 25:40)

Loving others as Jesus loves us is the vow…the new commandment…of our new covenant with Christ.  As Christians, we are called to wholeheartedly live out that covenant vow.

A friend recently asked how we love our neighbor.  That’s not an easy question to answer…and the answer may be as unique as each individual.  However, I think empathy…listening with the intent of trying to understand the other person’s perspective…is a key component.

Moreover, this is an aspect of love we can employ even in social media.  Want to make a difference for the Kingdom of God on social media?  Try setting aside your political agenda or your doctrinal defense long enough to really explore, understand, and acknowledge the other person’s perspective.

Isn’t that what Jesus did?  Isn’t that what He calls us to do?

Relationship versus Rules

Saturday morning, Knockout and I started out on a relaxing pasture ride.

We rode through the arena, out into the back pasture, where we checked the cattle. We crossed the creek and headed toward the back corner, where we entered the woods.  We meandered thru several loops of woods trails, crossing creeks as we went.

It was one of those wonderfully light rides where everything feels effortless. My cues were light and Knockout was soft and responsive.

Yes, I was directing Knockout, but not in an overbearing way. It was more of a conversation, where I politely asked and Knockout willingly responded.  Sometimes, Knockout anticipated before I asked and I just went with him.  Other times, Knockout suggested a turn and I said no…but even the no was light and Knockout’s response was soft.

It was wonderful!

Then we turned up toward the gate to the front pasture.

At first, Knockout willingly complied…but then he started drifting right toward the arena. I brought him back toward the pasture gate…and he promptly drifted right, again.  We did that several times, then Knockout tried going left.  I brought him back to center and he over-responded going too far right.

Knockout’s intent was clear. He didn’t want to ride in the front pasture.  He was ready to go back to the arena and unsaddle.  Knockout was ready for the ride to be over.

I’ve dealt with this sort of dodgy behavior before, so it was not a big deal. I gathered the reins in both hands, holding them wide, low, and forward with just a small amount of slack.  This left Knockout with restricted freedom between left-and-right rein pressures.  So long as he stayed in the middle there was no pressure, but if he turned his head to either side he ran into pressure.

At the same time, I reinforced the rein pressure with leg pressure, holding my body firmly forward so that any turns to left or right were countered with simultaneous rein and leg pressure.

That is how we rode thru the pasture gate…with Knockout trying to dodge left or right while I held him firmly to a forward path.

Once thru the gate, Knockout settled a bit and we continued our ride without further incident.

Do you see what happened, there?

The whole first half of our ride was smooth and light…enjoying each other’s presence…attentively listening to each other…respecting each other’s input. The whole first half of our ride, Knockout was actively seeking and following my will.  I was polite and soft with my direction and Knockout was willingly responsive.  I barely touched the reins, because there was simply no need.  My seat, legs and reins were used for communication, rather than for forcing my will on Knockout.

But when I pointed Knockout toward the pasture gate, that all changed.

Knockout was not disobedient or disrespectful. He still followed my cues.  Knockout still went where I told him to.  But he stopped seeking my will.  He stopped seeking to please me.

Rather than willingly responding to a light cue, he started ignoring the light cues…as though he hadn’t heard my ask.

When I reinforced the light cue with a firmer cue, rather than appropriately responding, Knockout over-responded. I asked for a step right, and he took three steps right.

Knockout was still following my rules…but he was no longer seeking my will. Knockout stopped using my soft cues as a communication tool to understand and do my will.  Instead, he began over-responding to my firmer cues in an attempt to use my cues to accomplish his will.

At that point, Knockout reverted to legalism.

For that stretch between the end of one woods trail to the front pasture gate, Knockout was rigidly following firm rules with no regard for my will. For that short stretch, our relationship ceased to be about understanding…and reverted to rigid rules-following.  Knockout responded to my cues, not by seeking my will, but by swinging too far one way, then too far the other.

This is what we do when we attempt to use the Bible to replace the work of the Holy Spirit. We start seeing scripture, not as a revelation to draw us into relationship with Christ, but rather as a mystical rule book filled with rigid rules of behavior complete with exception clauses and loop holes to be broadly enforced in all life circumstances.  The more we focus on ‘the rules’ the less attention we pay to pursuing God’s heart…because we assume we’re abiding in His will by following ‘the rules.’

Much like Knockout obeyed my cues while ignoring my will, we attempt to follow God’s rules while completely missing God’s heart.

Scripture is not intended to tell us what to do in all of life’s circumstances. Scripture is intended to lead us into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.  The written word is intended to be just one of multiple means of communication between us and God.

Yes, scripture is important…very important…much as my reins are important while riding. When the relationship is working well, the reins are a communication tool to help telegraph my body language, rather than an enforcement tool to impose my will.

Trying to live a life pleasing to God by simply following scripture, without listening to the Holy Spirit, would be like Knockout following my prompts without trying to discern my will. Yes, we eventually got thru the pasture gate…but it was a lot harder than necessary and not very enjoyable for either of us.

Rigid rules and inflexible edicts are a form of communication…but they tend to lead toward resistance rather than understanding.

Jesus came to show us the Father’s heart…and He sent the Holy Spirit to lead us in understanding.

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life. (John 5:39-40)

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. (John 3:16-17)

Jesus said to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9)

These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. (John 14:25-26)

So, how can we know when we’ve gravitated toward legalism rather than relationship?

Scripture provides a good measuring stick:

He has told you,
O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

When defending doctrinal position leads us to focus on arrogantly telling people how they should behave, rather than on justice and kindness, it’s a sure sign we have let legalistic rules blind us to God’s heart.

Jesus said it even more succinctly:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. (John 13:34)

Love others as Christ loves us. This is our commission.  This is our calling.  This is what it means to be a follower of Christ.

My Mama

Last November, Mama fell and broke her hip. At 90 years old, any injury is a serious concern.  But Mama had recovered well from broken bones before and we expected a full recovery this time.

She started well, with good progress in physical therapy. She had a few setbacks, but seemed to overcome them and start back on track with high hopes.  But the setbacks became more frequent and more severe.  This past six weeks she has been back and forth between rehab and the hospital, with each step forward being followed by two steps back.

She was moved to hospice today. Her 90 year old body is worn out and her systems are starting to shut down.  My sister, Dorcas, explained the situation to her.  Mama responded, “That sounds good.”

Dorcas said, “Mama, you know that means you’re going to go to be with Jesus soon?” And she replied, “Yes. That sounds REALLY good.”

Dorcas told her she would miss her and Mama replied, “Oh, honey but you know where you’ll see me again!”

That’s my Mama!

Today, I’m reflecting on some of my many memories of this amazing woman, and how much impact she has had on my life. I’m thinking of the many things she taught me over the years.

I remember when I was four or five years old Mama taught me how to safely pin a diaper on my baby sister while making sure my fingers stayed between the tip of the diaper pin and my sister’s skin. Thinking back on it now, that seems like a lot to ask of a preschooler.  But what a gift!  While being taught to care for others, I was also entrusted with a huge responsibility.

Papa and Mama both taught me to love reading. But it was Mama who taught me to read.  I remember sitting on her lap with the big phonics book open, going thru the alphabet reciting letters and sounds, “A for apple ah; B for ball buh; C for cat cuh; D for dog duh;…”

Papa and Mama both taught me to love God’s word, but it was Mama who taught me to memorize scripture and learn the books of the Bible.

Mama taught me the joy of singing…to meet adversity by praising God. When the stress of motherhood threatened to get her down, Mama responded by breaking into songs of praise.

And Mama taught me to sing.

In a family of sixteen children I was the only one who couldn’t carry a tune. As a child I never knew the difference, but as a teenager I started to become aware how badly I was off tune.  When Mama realized how much it bothered me she sat down at the piano and walked me through favorite songs, one note at a time.  She would play each note over and over while I searched to find it with my voice.  When I finally hit the right note she would nod her head with a smile, “Good!” then proceed to the next note.  I don’t know how many hours she spent patiently teaching me to listen for the note and listen to my own voice.

Today, I couldn’t win any prizes for singing, but I can generally hit the right notes with a reasonable degree of confidence. And I have Mama to thank for that.

Mama taught me to stand firm in my convictions. From things as minor as making sure pagan-based customs were excluded from our Christian holiday celebrations to major issues such as school integration and standing against racism, we were taught at an early age to stand for what we believed no matter how unpopular our stance might be.

I have so much to thank Mama for!

But she may have saved the very best lesson for last. To live my life in such a way that when the end is near there is nothing left but love and thankfulness…what an amazing lesson!  What a gift!

I am so blessed to have her as my Mama!

Rules that Matter

counsel of horsesThe young horses tend to gather at the northeast corner of the pasture each afternoon. There, they tease each other, chase each other, and just generally enjoy each other’s fellowship.

One afternoon, the conversation drifted to discussing The Master’s expectations. Archie, the 2-year-old stud colt, pricked his ears at this topic.  Although Archie had spent time with The Master, his real training was just beginning.

Cinch, the young roan, believed himself an expert on all things related to The Master. After all, he had been trailered to rodeos and trail rides more than any of the other young horses.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” said Cinch, “when Master leads you through the pasture gate, he expects you to promptly spin your hindquarters to the left.”

“That’s for sure!” enjoined Sonny, the handsome paint horse. “That took me a while to figure out.  I used to sometimes get hung up halfway through the gate and just stand there wondering what to do.  It took me a while to figure out I was supposed to walk past Master, through the gate, swinging my hindquarters to the left.  I finally got it figured out, though.”

“Same here!” laughed Cinch. “Boy did I feel stupid standing there looking at The Master, wondering what to do.  You don’t want to make that mistake, Archie!  Take my word for it.  Every time Master leads you through the pasture gate, always promptly spin your hindquarters left.  Then, as Master closes the gate take one step back.  As Master leaves the gate, take another step back followed by a right shoulder turn as you fall in step behind him.  The smoother you learn to do all that, the better Master likes it.”

“Wow! That’s a lot to remember,” sighed Archie, as he contemplated the shame of getting hung up not knowing what to do.

“What if Master leads out the other pasture gate?” queried Buck, the little buckskin the Master’s grandchildren loved to ride.

“What are you talking about?” Cinch’s eyes narrowed and his ears swiveled back as though he’d just been challenged.

“I’m talking about that gate at the shed,” answered Buck, ignoring Cinch’s agitation. “That gate swings the other direction, and Master expects a right hindquarter swing as you come through.”

“That’s true!” agreed Knockout, the young sorrel who’d spent so much time riding the gravel roads with Master, in recent months. “On right-hinged gates, Master generally asks for a left hindquarter turn and on left-hinged gates he generally asks for a right hindquarter turn.  It all depends on the situation.”

“Oh my!” muttered Archie in wide-eyed wonder as he recited the growing list of rules, “Right-hinged left spin. Left-hinged right spin.  Then two steps back and follow through with an opposite-direction shoulder turn.”

“Exactly!” Buck confirmed.

“Guys! Guys!  You’re going to confuse the poor kid,” admonished Cinch.  “Can’t you see he’s feeling overwhelmed?  He can’t learn all the rules in one afternoon.  Master doesn’t use the shed gate often, anyway.  Let the poor kid focus on learning the rules for the main gate he’ll be using most of the time, anyway.”

“But,” responded Buck, “If he only learns half a rule, he’ll be even more confused when he encounters an exception. He needs to learn all the rules and all the exception clauses, or he’ll be lost.”

“Look,” countered Cinch, “I’m just saying it’s best to focus first on the normal expectations then let him figure out the exceptions later. We haven’t even got him out the pasture gate yet, and you’re already confusing him.  There’s a ton of other things he needs to learn.  Like, when Master takes you off property always turn right at the end of the driveway.”

“That’s for sure!” Sonny affirmed. “You may as well get that down right now, and save yourself a lot of trouble later.  End of the driveway always means a right turn.”

“One time, Master and I spent two hours circling the end of the driveway while I figured that one out,” chuckled Knockout.

“Except, one time Master took me left at the end of the driveway,” countered Buck.

Cinch swiveled to face Buck, ears pinned and nostrils dilated, “No way! That rule never changes.  It’s always right at the end of the driveway.  No exceptions!”

“I’m telling you,” Buck responded, “one time Master took me left, all the way to the blacktop highway, before he turned around and brought me back.”

Cinch glared indignantly at Buck, “No way! Master would never do that!  It sounds to me like you’ve been listening to the wrong master, Buck.”

“I know The Master, and I know where he led me. He went with me every step of the way,” Buck persisted.

“It’s true Cinch,” Knockout came to Buck’s defense. “Every once in a while, Master will take me left at the driveway, too.  I think he does it on purpose just to make sure I’m paying attention and listening to him.  He seems to like changing things up from time to time.  In fact, I’m not even sure we’re going about this discussion from the right perspective.  It seems to me Master is more concerned with my knowing how to respond to his cues.”

Facing Archie, Knockout continued, “Kid, the important rules to remember are Master’s cues. When Master squeezes your sides, move forward.  When Master presses your left side move right.  When Master presses your right side move left.  When Master pulls on the bit, stop and back up.  Those are the important rules.”

Wide-eyed, Archie recited the rules back, “Left side, right. Right side, left.  Both sides, forward.  Pull, stop.  Wow!  How will I ever remember all these rules and exceptions?”

A deep chuckle interrupted the discussion as the young horses turned to see LaDoux had approached unnoticed. LaDoux, the sorrel gelding with white spots either side of his withers, was the oldest and wisest horse in the pasture.  “You youngsters have a lot to learn!  Cinch, Knockout is much nearer the truth than you.  It’s not about learning a bunch of rules and exceptions.  It’s about listening to The Master and responding to his cues.”

As Knockout lifted his head and preened his ears forward in pride, LaDoux continued, “But that’s not the most important thing either, because cues sometimes change. Master likes to teach softer cues as we become ready to learn them, and sometimes new cues are required as we mature into new jobs.”

“Archie,” LaDoux continued gently, “There are only two rules that really matter. The first rule is to trust Master.  Really, really trust him, knowing you can do whatever he asks without worrying about anything.  The second rule is to watch out for other horses and treat each other with respect.  That’s all you really need to remember.  Master will teach you everything else you need to know.  In fact, when you forget these two main rules, Master will remind you of those as well.  Trust Master to teach you all you need to know and quit worrying about memorizing rules and exception clauses.”

On hearing this sage advice, Archie breathed a sigh of relief, felt his tense muscles relax, and sensed his worried emotions calm in renewed trust that Master will always care for him.

One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:35-40)

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

Your thoughts?

 

Dark Scary Places

Sonny and KnockoutI absolutely love spending time with our horses learning horsemanship!

I’m still not much of a horseman, but am constantly learning. I’m at a stage now where I get a big kick out of small changes.  Sometimes it’s a small improvement in an area we’ve worked on…other times it’s a problem that crops up and is handled using newly learned tools.

Last night, I trailered three of our horses to the farrier for hoof trims and shoeing. All three horses are accustomed to trailers and load very easily…until last night.

For some reason, when loading to leave the farrier, each horse hesitated at the trailer door refusing to go in. I’m not sure why…maybe the unusually bright moonlight made the trailer interior look darker and therefore scarier.  Whatever the reason, each horse balked at the trailer door, and no amount of coaxing could persuade them to step inside.

If this had happened two years ago, I would not have known what to do. Facing the same event two years ago, I would probably have tugged and pulled trying to force the horse into the trailer while asking someone else to apply pressure from the back end.  And who knows…I might fall into that same pattern next week…this horsemanship gig is a tortuous journey full of surprising twists and turns for both me and the horses.  It’s a lot like parenting.

Last night, though, was different. Last night, when the first horse refused to load I realized this was neither about lack of understanding nor lack of willingness.  It wasn’t even about loading or not loading.  In fact, it wasn’t really even about the trailer.

The issue to be addressed was lack of confidence.

For whatever reason, that particular horse on that particular evening was not confident about loading in that dark scary-looking trailer. His confidence had been replaced with fear…and it was up to me to regain his confidence.

Now, here is where it gets interesting.

His fear was rooted in the trailer and his lack of confidence was rooted in self. It had nothing to do with me, really.  He was not afraid of me, nor was he challenging me.  He lacked confidence in himself out of fear of the scary-looking trailer.

The solution, however, had nothing to do with the trailer and everything to do with me. I needed to get his focus off the trailer and onto me.  I needed to boost his confidence in me.  His lack of self-confidence needed to be replaced with confidence in me.

We took a few steps away from the trailer and spent about two minutes doing a few basic exercises: step back, step forward, right shoulder turn, right hind-quarter turn, left shoulder turn, left hind-quarter turn, back two steps, forward two steps, back one step, forward one step.

Then I led him into the trailer. No fuss, no bother, no fear…just confidently following me into the trailer to stand quietly while I closed the stall separator.

Then I did the exact same thing with the other two horses, with the same results.

It was wonderful!  🙂

I love when things work out so well.  More importantly, I love when I am able to read a situation well enough to know the solution.  And I love knowing my horses have enough confidence in me to follow my lead.

This morning I realized there are a few life lessons in last night’s events.

Lesson 1: When I am scared, the issue is whatever I fear combined with lack of confidence.  The solution is to move my focus off what I fear and onto Jesus.  With my focus on Jesus, lack of self-confidence is replaced by confidence in Him.

Lesson 2: Placing my focus and confidence in Jesus is best accomplished by simply obeying Him in small things…by following His lead in little things that have nothing to do with the big scary thing.

How does that play out in real life? Lots of ways, but let’s take one current event.

I think most of us are a little (or a lot) concerned about what’s going on politically in the United States, right now. Whomever any of us may have voted for and whatever outcome we hoped for, right now we have a lot of uncertainty as to how exactly things will pan out post-election.  There are a lot of unknowns, and it is natural to fear the unknown (just as it is natural for a horse to fear a dark trailer interior).

The solution is to move my focus off the uncertainties and onto Jesus. I do that by spending time alone with Him and by following His command to “Love one another.”  I do that in daily little things…by treating others with love, respect, and understanding.

As I follow Christ’s lead in these little daily things, my confidence in Him builds and my fear of uncertainty is replaced by confidence in Him.

Your thoughts?

 

[Linked to Messy Marriage, Wild Flowers, Redeemed Life, Tell His Story ]

 

Guardians

As US Highway 82 runs through Greenville, Mississippi, the speed limit drops from 65 mph to 35 mph with a series of traffic lights. The traffic that flowed smoothly through the countryside bunches up and crawls in fits through the city of Greenville.

I was halfway through town, heading west toward the nearby Mississippi River, when I stopped for a traffic light. There was nothing extraordinary about the stop.  As I approached the intersection, the light changed from green to yellow, followed by red.  I began braking the moment it changed to yellow, and the light was red well before I reached the intersection to stop behind the white line painted across the asphalt highway.

The logging truck behind me was less responsive. A glance in the rearview mirror showed him bearing down on me while vigorously plying both brake and horn.  I punched the gas to jump across the spacious cross-walk and stop halfway into the cross-lane, leaving just enough room for cross-traffic to squeeze by.  The trucker took full advantage of the extra stopping footage, grinding to a halt a couple of feet behind my bumper.  Too close for comfort, but no harm done!  I relaxed into my seat, thankful a collision had been avoided.

Seconds later, the truck driver stomped up and slapped my window as though trying to break the glass, then proceeded to cuss me out. “What the h*** do you think you’re doing?  Do you think an eight hundred thousand pound load is easy to get stopped?”

Hoping to defuse the tension, I responded calmly, “The light was red, bud.”

“F*** the light!” he screamed, stalking back to his truck.

As the light changed to green, I pulled ahead of the heavy truck. A few blocks further, I stopped at another red light.  Glancing in my mirror, I saw the road-rage driver two blocks back in the left lane, abreast another logging truck in the right lane.  Both trucks barreled straight through a red light to stop where I was…one to my left and one behind me.  Both loudly revved their engines awaiting the light change.

That seemed like a pretty aggressive move, intended to intimidate. I wasn’t really scared, but I was concerned.  Accelerating through the green light, I reached beneath the car seat and retrieved my hand gun.  Placing it on the seat beside me, I breathed a prayer for protection and wisdom.  I wasn’t really expecting an altercation, but wanted to be prepared just in case.

As we neared the edge of town, the car in front of me turned right, and I saw a police officer signaling me to do the same. Something struck me as odd.  Traffic was rolling on down the highway, ahead.  There were no detour signs or flashing lights.  No police cars were in view.  Yet this police officer was looking straight at me, clearly signaling me to turn right, off the four-lane highway, onto a narrow residential street.

As I slowed for the turn I called, “Turn right?” “Yes, turn right,” he responded, then said something else about broken glass.  I’m not certain, but it sounded like he said, “Yes, turn right.  We want you to avoid broken glass.”

I made the right turn, thinking there must be a crew ahead cleaning broken glass off the highway. I glanced in my mirror expecting to see a line of traffic following, with the two logging trucks on my bumper.  Instead, I saw the police officer standing in the middle of the road, facing away from me as he watched the highway traffic roll by.  Nobody else was diverted.

It must be a mistake, I thought. I must have misunderstood something.  I needed to get turned around and back on the highway.  Then I saw another police officer two blocks ahead, waving me on.  “Go straight?” I queried as I eased past her.  “Yes,” she responded, “keep going straight.”

So I kept going straight. Three blocks further on, the road teed into another street at a stop sign.  I had to turn either left or right.  I looked around.  No more police officers to direct me.  Still no detour signs.  The car in front of me had turned right, but he appeared to be headed toward a specific destination within the residential neighborhood.  Right would take me back east…opposite my direction of travel.  I turned left.

Within a couple of blocks, I intersected a four-lane street at an oblique angle. This could be US-82 if it had curved right.  Or it could be another street altogether.  The street sign read Grand Avenue…not much help as I was watching highway numbers not street names.  Left would take me back almost to the point I was diverted, so I turned right.  Within five minutes a sign informed me I was traveling north on State Highway 1.  Knowing the next Mississippi River bridge was miles out of my way, I turned around to head back south toward US-82.

As I approached US-82, I glanced left. There was the street I’d been diverted onto, just a couple of blocks back.  There was no police officer in sight.  No signs, no flashing lights, no accident, no broken glass…just normal traffic flow.  I turned right and headed for the river as I pondered the strange occurrence.

By the time I was crossing the river, I was starting to feel a little peeved. Why did those officers divert me?  They wasted a good fifteen minutes of my time, for no good reason!

About the time I entered Arkansas on the other side of the bridge it occurred to me that those two logging trucks were now fifteen minutes ahead of me…with no idea I was still traveling the same direction.

Hallelujah! Thank you, Jesus!

Now, I’m pretty quick to see miracles in everyday events such as a pretty sunset or a baby’s laugh. I’m also fairly quick to give God credit for miraculous timing of events…things that come together with too much precision to be reasonably counted as random coincidence.  I am not, however, overly quick to call things supernatural if they can be reasonably explained as natural events.  I give God full credit for both natural events and supernatural events.  However, I don’t generally feel the need to label something as supernatural when it could be divine timing of natural events.

This one has me puzzled, though.

It really would not be reasonable to assume two police officers just decided to coordinate together to play a prank on a random stranger. It would be even less reasonable to assume they decided to single out one random vehicle out of a highway full of vehicles as the subject of a joke.  And it becomes even less credible to assume they would decide to play the joke without using any flashing lights or police cars.

Logic drives me to the conclusion that I was intentionally singled out to be diverted for a specific purpose. The most obvious purpose would be to separate me from the pair of road-rage truck drivers.  However, to accept this means I must also accept this was a divinely inspired plan for my protection…and that those were no ordinary police officers.

In the Bible, angels served two primary roles, as guardians and as messengers. Whether natural or supernatural, those two police officers acted as guardians and messengers on my behalf.  They were my angels.

Which means, I am greatly loved and under divine care.

Glory!  🙂

 

Your thoughts?

 

[Linked to Messy Marriage, Wild Flowers, Redeemed Life, Tell His Story ]

 

Life!

I don’t usually make a big deal about New Year’s resolutions, and I’ve never participated in the Word of the Year blogging trend.  New Year’s Day seems like a good time to start a goal with a twelve month cycle, such as reading through the Bible in a year.  However, most resolutions seem to me to be more applicable as daily life-style choices.

This New Year’s Day, however, I find myself very much contemplating lifestyle choices and what changes may be on the horizon.  It’s a matter of timing, really.  During the last two weeks of 2015 I received a cancer diagnosis and underwent two surgeries.  So, I am naturally starting 2016 with a certain level of new resolve.

In 2016…and every year thereafter, I choose life!

It’s not a new resolution…actually it’s been a daily choice for most of my life.  But current circumstances make it a fresher, newer, stronger resolution.

I’ve lived most my life with an awareness of both the brevity and fragility of this life.  Life is full of unknowns and unexpected turns.  We have much less control than we tend to assume.

The cancer diagnosis doesn’t change the unknowns, but it does put them front and center for me, right now.  My prognosis is very good.  I have every reason to expect a long, full active life after completion of treatment.  At the same time, there are numerous unknowns.

Right now, the right side of my lip sags, my right shoulder sags, and my right arm is weak.  No, it’s not a stroke…just post-surgery status.  Most likely, some or all of these symptoms will improve or disappear with time.  But there are no guarantees.  I’ve adopted an attitude of hopeful acceptance…I hope it improves, but see no reason to enjoy life any less if it doesn’t.

I still have radiation treatment coming up.  I don’t yet know exactly how that will play out…how often, how intense, how long, or how uncomfortable…nor what long-term effects may linger.  My intent is to make prayerful informed decisions then leave it in God’s hands.

I also don’t yet know what lifestyle changes may be required.  Advice from family and friends include everything from never drink another glass of wine to never eat another dessert…everything from slow down and taking things easier to throw myself into continual positively energetic activities.

Overall, I think I’ve lived a fairly healthy lifestyle thus far, and can’t see anything to point to as a source of cancer.  Post-diagnosis certainly merits more careful assessment.  I’m certainly willing to make whatever changes are likely to result in improved health.  I am not willing to live in unnecessary fear.

I choose life!

For me, choosing life means choosing Christ.  Jesus said,

I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this? (John 11:25-26)

Yes, Lord, I believe!  I believe you are life.  I believe choosing you is choosing life.  I believe choosing life means choosing you.

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I choose faith over fear.

I choose hope over despair.

I choose joy over sorrow.

I choose thankfulness over complaints.

I choose righteousness over sin.

I choose love over selfishness.

I choose forgiveness over bitterness.

I choose health over toxicity.

I choose life over death.

I choose godliness.

I reject Adam’s covenant with sin and death from which Christ has redeemed me.  I embrace the new covenant with God which Christ has enacted on my behalf.

I choose life!

 

Your thoughts?