Stories Told in the New Eden

I’ve written about the wreckage we live in, this side of Eden. Sin has messed us up, it has messed up the world; but both you (and I) and the world have hope for renewal.  Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28). He was talking to the 12 apostles, but we will experience this renewal of all things too.  Heaven is no vague thing with us floating on a cloud, that’s a secular version, not what the Bible teaches.  Listen, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had passed away…” (Rev. 21:1).  At the end of time, when Christ returns and this world ends as we know it, it won’t go away, it will be renewed!  We will have a New Eden, where we live free from the impact of sin.  Oh, the stories that will be told.  Just imagine…

You’re sitting on the green grass looking out over the beautiful landscape. The sun feels so good, the perfect temperature.  There are ocean waves crashing up against the beach in the distance, creating a soothing sound you love to hear.  And then you see him, walking over the crest of the hill with a crowd.  It’s Moses!  What a striking figure, beard running down his chest.  Everyone settles into place, Moses stands on a rock, and with acoustics that allow all to hear exactly what he says, he starts to talk.  “I can remember the time when we stood in a place much like this.  We could hear the waves crashing against the beach of the Red Sea.  Thousands upon thousands stood behind me, anxious to know what would occur as the Egyptian army raced toward us.  And then, I raised my staff toward heaven…”

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Another time and you are visiting the holy land, walking the terrain, thinking about all that has happened here. As you top the hill and look out over the valley before you, with a small creek running through the valley, you hear voices over in a grove of olive trees.  You walk toward the sound and find a group of people listening to the storyteller.  Intrigued you set down among them, and you hear a strapping young man named David begin.  “Yes, he was a big man.  Stood about 9 feet tall.  About the size of that statue Michelangelo made of me years later.  His armor looked like it weighed more than me, his spear was long enough to pierce three men with a single throw.  I would have been unable to defeat him in a normal battle.  But God was with me, and I had a skill.  I went to the banks of that creek you see down in the valley and picked up five smooth stones, putting them in my pouch.  His forehead would be my target.  I sighed deeply, then I started to run toward him…”

David and Goliath

And as time goes by you encounter Noah, oh what tales he has for you, you listen as Methuselah speaks about all that he saw in his 969 years on earth; you set in wonder as Elijah sets the stage for his battle with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. When he’s done, he says he wants to tell you something else that is unique, and he talks of the whirlwind and chariots of fire that took him into God’s presence without experiencing death.  One day, as you have your morning coffee, you see a couple walk by.  They come to your door and knock.  You recognize them somehow.  They want to tell you about naming all the animals, and the joyous time of the first Eden.  Will there never be an end to the wonder of it all?

Then there’s Jesus!  And, us ordinary folk.  We have stories too.  Won’t it be grand?!

“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” (Rev. 22)

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Hollywood Preaches

“I have always felt life first as a story – and if there is a story, there is a story teller.” G.K. Chesterton

Life doesn’t come to us as a math problem. It comes to us the way that a story comes, scene by scene. What will happen next?  You and I don’t get to know those specifics of our lives; we just enter in and take the journey as it comes.  We humans have lingering questions.  Who am I really?  Why am I here?  Where do I find the meaning of my life?  What does God want of me?  Sometimes it feels like a movie that we’ve arrived at 45 minutes late.  Interesting stuff, but I don’t get it!  To know the answers, we must engage with the story teller, we must see the bigger picture.

Science does not provide the answers we need. Far too many scientists (not all to be sure) say the answer to the question “How did it all begin?” is “An accident.”  To the question “How will it all end?” they repeat themselves, “Probably by another accident.”  And we sigh, thinking that doesn’t feel like a life worth living; knowing there must be a better answer than that.

Then we go to the movies and watch what on the surface appears to be a secular story, but it is interesting how it plays out. “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”    In all such stories, we see a similar theme.  There is love, adventure, danger, a hero, an evil adversary, sacrifice is required, odds that seem insurmountable, and yet in the end the hero is victorious!  Ever notice how such themes are common in movies, yet depict a scenario so similar to the picture the Bible paints?  Wonder why that is?

Hollywood Preaches

The Sound of Music, Braveheart, Gladiator, Rocky, The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, Spiderman, etc. On and on we could go with movies that tell the Bible story, they just don’t use the Bible characters.  A positive scene with peace, then something goes wrong, there is an evil person who wants to hurt the protagonists, things seem desperate, a battle is fought, and the hero must overcome many obstacles to win the day and restore peace.  Isn’t that the Bible story?  Hollywood preaches this over and over without even realizing the parallel.  All such stories have the same basic structure because these stories borrow from the Larger Story of life. Use this as a teaching tool with your kids as you watch movies.

Maybe we can learn from Hollywood how to better position ourselves for life’s story. Not religion as usual, just going to church on Sunday with proper manners. Religion is often man’s attempt to find God, but with Christianity we find God’s attempt to find man (you and me) through Christ.  That relationship and what it means defines our part in the story. Do we side with the evil one, or with the hero?  To wade into the muddy water in-between puts us in danger.  But we play a part in this story, to be sure. “Going to church” is a piece of it, we sure aren’t super heroes, so we need encouragement and resources.

And we finally realize that the only person who can properly define this story is the author himself. Wouldn’t it be something if he wrote it all down for us to read, to study, to learn from and work from?  “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?” says Sam to Frodo in Lord of the Rings.  I wonder.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1) A hero has arrived; read of him and learn the true story.

Eat This Book!

I’m the leader of our Wellness Team at work, a group of people called “Vitality Champs” because we develop programs and encourage people to become involved with Vitality, a website oriented wellness program where you do a variety of things to gain points, qualifying for a lower health premium and hopefully improving your health in the process. At least that’s the goal.  One of the things emphasized in Vitality is eating good balanced meals and paying attention to your nutrition.  No matter how much you exercise, if you don’t eat nutritional things, you will not be in good health.

In the Old Testament book of Ezekiel we find an interesting account of God telling Ezekiel to eat a scroll. Here’s what is recorded: “And he said to me, ‘Son of man, eat whatever you find here.  Eat this scroll, and go speak to the house of Israel.’  So, I opened my mouth and he gave me this scroll to eat.  And he said to me, ‘Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.’  Then I ate it and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey.”  (Ezekiel 3:1-3) do

Eat This Book 2
How do we eat this book?

There is an old Jewish tradition that says when the rabbis teach their students, before the lesson begins they will put a drop of honey on the student’s tongues, to remind them of the sweetness of studying God’s Word and what it provides for them. Not a bad idea (dad and mom, with your kids).  Ezekiel’s account is not the only place we see God’s Word compared to honey.  Psalm 19:9, 10 says, “The rules of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.  More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.”  But, if we neglect them, if we claim to follow the Lord but disregard his teaching, we see something else.  “And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it.  It was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter.” (Rev. 10:10) Here John has a revelation that is similar to what Ezekiel experienced, but for those who hear God’s Word and don’t do anything with it, God’s Word turns from life to death, from sweetness to bitterness.

Do we truly “hear” God’s Word? It’s more than just allowing words to go in our ears.  In fact, the Hebrew word “Shema” is what precedes what Jesus called the greatest commandment.  “Shema (hear), O Israel, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might.”  For the Israelite, “to hear” meant more than words going in your ear, it meant truly hearing, resulting in heeding the words and obeying the Lord, truly loving him.  Are we exposing ourselves to the preaching and teaching of God’s Word, and are we meditating on what we learn and acting in response?  Only when we do so have we truly heard.  Only then are we spiritually nourished.  And such defines real faith.

The writer of the book of Hebrews continues the metaphor by saying that we need the meat of God’s Word, not just the milk of a new Christian, as we mature in faith (Heb. 5:12). Yes, we need the spiritual nutrition that only comes from study and application of the Bible.  Don’t neglect to eat this book!

“Your words were found and I ate them; and your word was to me the joy and rejoicing of my heart.  For I am called by your name, O Lord God of hosts.”  (Jeremiah 15:16)

Church – Why Bother?

Church-Why Bother

I grew up going to church. Mom was a dedicated Christian, but Dad was not in the early years. He would drop Mom, my sister, and myself off on Sunday morning at the side door of 1st Christian Church in Vandalia, MO. I’d attend a Sunday school class, then I’d attend worship and set with mom, my sister Sandy, and mom’s parents (my grandparents). This continued for all of my growing up years. Eventually my Dad became a Christian and was there with us. Over the 13 years until I went to college this was part of almost every week. I was part of the youth group as a teenager, part of the Christmas plays, even sang in a quartet a few times (I know this part of the story is hard to believe). Then I went to college and strayed for a few years, but as Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he’s old he will not depart from it.” There was danger in my straying, but I came back and with some bumpy roads since then have continued as a man of faith in Christ ever since.

Why do I say all this? To illustrate that church matters. The primary teacher of children growing up should be their parents, but even when this happens effectively it is very important to have a social element that reinforces such teaching and provides encouragement, connections and resources that help the individual stay the course. I’m here to tell you: church matters! We live in a day when you don’t hear that message much. Many ask: Why bother with church? They just prefer to “believe” and go their individual way.

People are busy. The kids have school activities, mom and dad both work, there’s always something, and Sunday is the one opportunity to sleep late and relax (unless there’s a school or sport activity on Sunday, even Sundays are busy now days). Then there’s the typical church services. They don’t appeal to many men who are action oriented, who love to be outside, who work hard and don’t particularly enjoy group singing and sitting through an hour of religious stuff. It becomes easy when the culture disregards such things to disregard them ourselves.

And then there’s those people. You know, those Christians. They can be an odd sort, with personalities that are as varied as the general population, some are mature, some not so much, some have unusual perspectives, some are very loving, some very strict, some are hypocrites who proclaim values they do not live up to. All of that and more. It can become very easy to be frustrated with such people who don’t always live up to the standards that even you believe should be “Christian.” I recall the old rhyme: To dwell in love with the saints above, well that will be glory; but to dwell below with the saints I know, well that’s a different story. But then there’s you….

You struggle with sin (things God in the Bible state are wrong), just like everyone else. The people criticized in the church are really a lot like the critic. A lot like you. For all of us there’s a process we must go through to take an infant faith and allow it to mature. So yes, there are plenty of those who wear the name Christian who can be criticized. Some aren’t really Christian at all; they just wear the name. Others are sincere, they just need to get further into the maturation process, growing more like their Savior. But it takes a process, for them and for you.

And that brings us back to the church. The “gathering of Christians” (what the word church means) is for that very purpose. We gather to encourage each other, to study God’s Word together to learn the path he wants us on, to remember what Jesus Christ has done for us through his death and resurrection (in the Lord’s Supper). We pray, we sing, we give to the gospel cause. We attend a class or small group and get to know others on the same path. Kids grow up having what their parents teach them at home reinforced in a social environment. It’s not always a pretty path, but in this sinful messed up world, it’s the best path of all! Can’t we recognize the value of church?

“Let us consider how to stir one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together.”  – Hebrews 10:24, 25

Happiness and Hedonism

An old story goes like this: A Texas sheriff was pursuing a bank robber who kept crossing the Mexican border to hide out. Finally, the sheriff crossed the border himself and the posse tracked the robber to his hideout, where the robber was cornered. The sheriff needed an interpreter since he spoke no Spanish, and one was found. “Tell me where you’ve hidden the loot?” he asked. The robber wouldn’t answer. After several tries the sheriff got tough. “If you don’t tell me this time, I’m going to shoot!” He was serious, and it was obvious. The robber spilled his guts, admitting to his fault, telling where the money was hidden with detailed directions. “What did he say?” the sheriff asked the interpreter. After a few seconds the interpreter replied, “He says, ‘Go ahead and shoot.’”

The pursuit of happiness can take many avenues. If being happy is truly our deepest concern, we’ll rob for it, we’ll lie for it, we’ll do whatever it takes to be happy. Such is the Happiness & Hedonism Picture2life of the hedonist. They plunge into the experiences of life with one goal – enjoy! Sex in any form, lifestyles to please self, whatever it takes. A recent academic book suggests that, if the acquisition of pleasure and the avoidance of pain are our chief desires, maybe we’ve got the evolutionary theory backwards. Animals actually score highly on the pleasure scale, yet have few of the complex psychological pains, such as anxiety and disappointment, that are built into the human psyche. Yes, pleasure and happiness are good things, but they are not the only good things, and without boundaries they can enslave us. C.S. Lewis once said, if happiness was all he was after in life, a good bottle of port would do the trick.

If this life on planet earth is all there is, if the Bible’s promise of an eternity somewhere is not true, then hedonism makes some sense. Enjoy life while you can! The only boundaries you need are those that provide some level of safety, otherwise do whatever it takes to be happy. The trouble is, creating those boundaries is a fuzzy target. They vary with the individual’s background and worldview. And that’s exactly what we see in our culture, which has largely adopted the hedonistic philosophy. People stake their ground, then fight for their view of what can create happiness for them. Yet sexual fulfillment never really fulfilled anyone; financial security never really made anyone secure. Break God’s law for the sake of happiness, you end up proving God’s law, while breaking yourself.

I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. (Ecclesiastes 2:1)

There was one person who could have taken this approach and been completely successful. Jesus. All he had to do was not create the world and the people who inhabit it. Then he could have stayed away from such craziness and rested in the fellowship of God, only pleasure, the absence of pain. But he didn’t. He wanted to have fellowship with humans. He gave them free choices of right and wrong. He even allowed them to accept him and follow his way, or reject him and do what they wanted. He spelled out consequences, but there was always a choice. Because humans chose the sinful path routinely, rather than push them away, Jesus chose to come to earth and suffer, and die, a ransom price paid to win us back. Isaiah 53 tells us, “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering and familiar with pain…surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering…he was led like a lamb to the slaughter…for the transgression of my people he was punished.” This is the life Jesus chose. During his life on earth he healed the sick, provided direction for the downhearted. What is it that motivates our choices?

The Christian life comes with a cost of discipleship. God provides boundaries in his word. More than that, he provides a reason to follow joyfully. Purpose in life, finding it’s true meaning, helping others know the love of God. Hope for an eternity where the real reward comes, where the burdens of life can be laid down. Meanwhile we take up our cross and live a life of self-sacrifice for the good of others. Happy? Yes, deep down. But it’s not the same as the hedonistic type. It comes as an unsought side benefit of this God-centered lifestyle.

 

To the Closed Heart

I am not better than you, whoever you are. And I’m not the nut “Christian” that you saw on the news doing something political or strange. I am not your judge. I do not have all the answers. But I do have a few questions that I’d like you to consider:

What do you believe? You’ve closed your heart to Christian faith, I’m not sure why, but surely you believe in something. Is it really God you have rejected, or just an inaccurate portrayal of him? If we are honest, even though we don’t think about it much, we know that we face death one day. On what basis do you have hope beyond the grave? If you take the time to really read the Bible, about how God revealed himself in Jesus Christ, how through Jesus he died for our sins, and how through the resurrection of Jesus we can have hope for resurrection one day, that’s a pretty amazing thing. Is that what you’ve rejected? Take a closer look, please.

Are you an atheist? That would seem odd to me. Most people don’t define themselves by what they do not believe. I don’t call myself an “a-Buddhist” or an “a-Muslim” (“a” in front of the word means you are not what follows). Yet some call themselves a-theists. They do not believe in God, and that’s how they define themselves. But I don’t know you: how do you define yourself?

In spite of a huge amount of evidence to support creation and the Bible and the historical person of Jesus and his resurrection, there are tough questions that arise; but tell me, must all of your questions be answered before you believe? In the realm of science, for example, there are many unanswered questions, many mistakes they make, do you fail to believe in science as a result?to-the-closed-heart-pic

Maybe a church or an individual in a church, maybe even a priest or pastor, has let you down in a major way. If that is the case, I am sorry. Really. Too many people suffer from such things. Maybe the person who hurt you wasn’t in fact a Christian at all, many wear the name who do not sincerely swear allegiance to Christ. Others who are truly Christian still make mistakes as they grow and mature in their Christian walk. Please try to understand, that gives further evidence of the sin problem Christ dealt with. It is not a reason to reject him, but a reason to run to him.

If you read one of the gospel accounts (I might recommend Mark, a short, fast paced account of the life of Jesus), I bet you’ll be surprised by the frustration Jesus himself expressed for religious leaders and the people who claimed what they did not live. Yet crowds flocked to Jesus, those who honestly faced their sin and wanted a solution to it. When the Apostle Peter preached the first resurrection message (in Acts 2) people who were convicted cried out, “What must we do?” And Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins…” Many (3,000) responded.

That was just the beginning. Such can be the beginning for you too. Please open your heart back up and consider the true message of Jesus.