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A Gentle Answer

Can you imagine apologizing for your Christian faith or behavior? I don’t mean saying “I’m sorry” when you speak or act as a Christian should. I mean did you ever have a chance to defend or explain your lifestyle as a Christian or your way of thinking?

Defending or explaining Christian thinking and acting is referred to as Christian Apologetics. It’s what Paul did in Athens and elsewhere. It’s what Peter had in mind when he urged us to be ready to give a gentle and respectful answer when folks ask us about our faith and practice as believers (1 Peter 3:15). 

First-century Christians had many opportunities to explain their Christian behavior—what they did (or didn’t do) or believed. Do you think that this coming year you and I may have some similar opportunities? Do you think we might want and need to give gentle and respectful answers for our faith as we talk with family members, other Christians, neighbors, and folks the Spirit brings to us? We may have the opportunity to answer folks like these:

  • Folks turned off by the church, seeing themselves as spiritual but not religious. 
  • People who are intolerant of Christian standards and ethics and think Christians are bigots.
  • Those whose life-style is at cross-purposes with scripture.
  • Hopeless, desperate, floundering people searching for a purpose in life.
  • Christian friends and family members who need encouragement and help in being faithful and growing in the Lord.

How do we answer these folks? Will we gently and respectfully answer anger-filled accusations? Will we represent God’s love and mercy as well as His moral standards and justice? Will we serve others instead of demanding our own way?

Here are some thoughts on how to defend gently and respectfully.

  • We begin by listening. We respect others by hearing them out. We listen as they tell us about their life experiences. This is more than a casual conversation. We give friends, co-workers, family members as much time as possible, listening to sorrows, questions, joys.
  • When we have earned the right to speak by our listening, we refuse to use our words as clubs. Words can inflame, enrage or calm. We listen to and answer individuals, not members of this “tribe” or that, folks who do this or that. Respectful answers do not abuse the hearer or force them into a corner.
  • Are our answers faithful to scripture’s revelation of God’s character, His authority and willingness to forgive the unforgiveable through Jesus’ sacrifice? Too many of us have our own set of Ten Commandments (or twenty or fifty “thou shalt not” demands). 
  • Are we encouraging “apologetic” conversations by our behavior as well as our words? Are we willing to let the hearers into our lives, to drive with us, to watch us in times of stress? 

Many confusing spiritualities are whirling around us. Pagan, humanistic, Christian, atheistic, African, Asian, Islamic, Jewish  spiritualities and more claim to be the best answer to humankind’s need for more than we see, more than we are. We are called to answer that need with the message of Christ, to answer gently and respectfully.

Begin Anew

Begin Anew

January lends itself to self-examination:  out with the old, in with the new.  

If you haven’t noticed, we serve a God who does “new” very well.  The Israelites had been 400 years in slavery in Egypt and he sent Moses to do a new thing among them.  The Ninevites were about as evil a culture as you can imagine, and God sent Jonah to preach a word so they could be new.  Jesus came to put away the old covenant of law and brought us a new covenant under his blood.

We, however, are not much like God.  While God blissfully may be doing “new,” we humans are decidedly not.  In fact, we are stubbornly hanging on to the old.  

Our old ways, thoughts, and hurts are comfortable in their familiarity. They often come to define us.  We carry around our patterns as labels and do not question them, maybe even using them as justification for why we are this way.  “I am just old,” one says as a way to justify liking old hymns and not learning new ones.  “My family is just like this.  We are all hot tempered,” another says to justify the abusive rage that spews out at any perceived slight.  “You don’t understand! I can’t do that – I just can’t.  It’s not me!” another wails as fear overwhelms them.  We become “old”, “like my family” or “that is not me” because to embrace being different, we would have to face the deep things inside us that render us unwilling to change, to be angry, and to be fearful.   Facing those things can be terrifying.  If we peel back our stubbornness, we will have to own how selfish we are down deep.  If we peel back our rage, we may see deep wounds and ugly scars left by people in our pasts.  If we peel back the fear, we might find we care more about what other people think of us than God’s good opinion.  In short, facing the deep things always forces us to let go of our safe labels.  And (horrors!) if we give up all of that, what will fill the cavernous space?!

No, we humans are not embracing “new”.  We like the old, comfortable t-shirts with our old labels and our old sins still intact, thank you very much.  Believe me when I say I have a drawer full of old t-shirts I drag out and wear around.  You see, even though I may hate them, they are still known and comfortable.  

Yet, I have also — with the strength of God in me — thrown a few of the t-shirts out.  Ask any believer who has rooted out a sin or two:  there is sweet joy in shedding the weight of the old, horrid things. Because that is what fills the cavernous space:  sweet joy, gentle peace.  When you finally break the chains of bondage to the old, you step into freedom from annoyance, rage, fear and the like.

Is there something that no longer serves you well? Take a long look at your life patterns.  Is there anything dogging you that you’d rather not take to the grave?

If we were all honest, there is a yes in there for every one of us.  Perhaps this is the year to take off an old t-shirt and lay it at the foot of the throne.  

I won’t lie and say it will be easy.  As a point of fact, for most of us it is a long slog.  We have to lay down our burden at the throne and walk away, only to discover we have picked it up again before the day is out.  We have to apologize to God for our refusal to let it lie.  We have to apologize to other humans for the damage we’ve done them in our old patterns and the damage we do to them as we fumble and practice new ways.   We will feel naked without our old label and old t-shirt.  We will be awkward, maybe embarrassed. We will have to ask our brothers and sisters to cover our errors with love and mercy,  and encourage us when we falter. We will cry sometimes. We will repeat this cycle — far more times than we ever wanted to.  But if we persevere, we will also, gradually, become something new.

We are not called to be sad, broken, lonely, weary, isolated, fearful, angry, selfish, arrogant, snarky, or domineering – in short, slaves to sin and in bondage to our pasts.  We are called to be new.  

As a child of The King, part of the inheritance is to be loving, joyful, peaceful, forbearing with others, kind, good, faithful, gentle, self-controlled – free!   We may be a long way from possessing that inheritance at all times and in all ways – but oh, my brothers and sisters!  Let us not weary in well doing – let us press on towards the goal!  This means owning a few (probably painful) truths and unclenching our fingers from things we need to release to God’s hand.  Swap out an old t-shirt for new robes.  And today?  Well, today is a good day to start.

Begin anew.

Not because we wanted,

For change is not usually our choice.

But the Lord of All says “change”

And His children heed His Voice.

My life is Yours, and so as well my breath.

My time is Yours, and so beyond my death.

The old has passed away.

We cannot now it reclaim.

My future made of mist

Waits for You to name.

I breathe in…

I begin.

Anew

Isaiah 43:18-20

 Forget the former things;
       do not dwell on the past. 

 Behold! I do a new thing!
      
       I am making a way in the desert
       and streams in the wasteland.  

Growing in Grace

Grace is NOT a Blue-eyed Blonde is the title of a book by a Christian counselor. But we knew that already. Indeed, many of us have heard grace defined as either God’s unmerited favor or, using the acronym GRACE, as “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.”

“Grace” is a familiar word in Christian circles and beyond. The great hymn “Amazing Grace” is well-known to both church folks and many who are not church folks. To many without any relationship to God, the hymn expresses a longing for something more, something this world cannot provide. To those in Christ, the hymn celebrates God’s kindness and mercy throughout life and beyond, a kindness that declares us innocent before God. By grace and because of grace we are saved through faith, gifted by God with that salvation.

Is there, though, a side of grace that goes beyond that moment when we come to faith and God pronounces us “not guilty”?

Toward the end of his second letter, Peter urged his readers to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18 NASB). Unpacking that a little, Peter is urging us to “grow in the grace given by our Lord and Savior and grow in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” I understand the idea of growing in knowledge of Christ by our experience of Him. But, what does Peter mean by growing in grace?

If we ask Paul to help us understand Peter, we can begin to see two sides of grace. In Romans 5:2, Paul referred to “the grace in which we stand.” Paul was writing about believers position before God. We are justified. We don’t ever become more justified or less. We are innocent in Christ because of His sacrifice and we will always be. 

Paul referred to another side of grace when he quoted Jesus’ words to him, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:9).

Paul had prayed three times that his “thorn in the flesh” would leave him. Jesus’ answer was that His grace would be enough for Paul to endure. In fact, the greatness of Jesus’ power would be seen through Paul’s weakness. In a sense, then, Paul would grow in his experience of the Lord’s grace as the Apostle carried out his tasks despite his difficulties.

Paul understood this truth already, that God extends more grace when believers are stepping forward. Earlier when Paul assured his readers that as they gave more, even out of their relative poverty, God would make His grace abound. God’s grace would be sufficient in all things (2 Cor. 9:8).
Now back to Peter’s urging, that we grow in the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. How do we grow in that active, powerful, dynamic grace? We grow as we learn by experience to trust God more. The more we trust Him, the more room there is in our lives for God to “grace” us. The less we depend on Him, the less room we have in our lives for God to work. In practical terms, if we are able to live relying upon our reasoning power, our abilities, our resources, or the gifts God has given in the past, where is there room for God to “grace” us?

 R. Lofton Hudson, Grace is not a Blue -eyed Blond, Word Books, 1972.

Glory of God in a Wee Babe

I have family members who are not members of God’s family (yet).  One of them, knowing my faith, reminds me upon occasion that she does not need “a white male to save her.”  I forget that the culture in the USA usually shows Jesus as a white male.  Since he was a Jew (probably had dark, curly hair, with brown eyes and olive skin tones, I have to agree with her.   There is no white male to save us.  There is only Jesus.  He became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). For those of us who are in God’s family, “we have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

But what does it mean “to see his glory”?  Is it some aura thing that only the most holy can see?  Nope.  Is it some internal feeling where you never have dark days because God’s glory is with you?  Nope.

There are actually several Hebrew words and one Greek word that are translated as “glory”.  They each have slightly different overtones of meaning.  We won’t pause to do a word study here (though feel free to go there yourself!).  The gist of all these words is the outshining of God: His character, attributes, majesty, importance, honor, and presence.  

Further, scripture tells us that God’s glory is not a secret.  He is manifest in the world around us (Romans 1: 19-20; Psalm 19: 1-2). Being manifest in the world, however, was not enough –  God actually desires us to see his glory in heaven as well. To this end, He became flesh to show us the way.

He came to be our kinsman redeemer from sin. (Romans 8:17, Hebrews 2:11)

He came to be our propitiation. (Hebrews 2:17)

He came to be our friend. (John 15:15)

And because He is those things, He also came to make our joy complete. (John 15:11)

As we each go about our Christmas celebrations, we can see the glory of God around us, in us, and among us.  Oh, not the fullness of God’s glory – we won’t see that until we are in Heaven.  But here on earth, wherever we see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control there you see a piece of the glory of God.  Whenever we see a sunrise so glorious that moves us to tears, there you see another bit of the glory of God.  As we see a person sacrifice for someone else, there we see yet another slice of the glory of God.  These things have no skin color – they have no gender.  They are the glory of God made manifest in you and I, his vessels of mercy (Romans 9:23).  For He is Immanuel – God With Us, the Word become flesh in a wee babe.  

May God open your eyes to see His glory this Christmas – and may your joy be complete!

The Prophet Who (Almost) Couldn’t Believe

Habakkuk (hu-BACK-uk) didn’t know whether to curse or cry when he saw sin of every kind around him. Injustice, immorality, greed, violence, and fake religion were just part of his nation’s sin. But God’s answer to all this seemed as bad as the sin. God was sending the cruel Chaldeans to take over Judah. Who could believe God would do that to His own people? “I can’t believe that,” Habakkuk thought.

The prophet could hardly believe God would do that, but God did what He said He would do. He brought disaster on Judah that resulted in a long period of captivity in Babylon. Habakkuk could hardly believe, but he faithfully bowed before the Lord. Then he went out to proclaim God’s message, judgment is coming, “ but the righteous one will live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4, CSB). Then, sometime later God gave him a prayer as the days of judgment drew near, a prayer the prophet recorded in Habakkuk chapter three.

Habakkuk’s prayer began saying essentially “Lord do it again” (Hab. 3:2). He prayed God would dramatically rescue His people and punish those who conquered them. But this prophet’s message was not simply, “God make things good again.” Habakkuk knew God’s people would experience suffering and trouble, the consequences of their sin. But Habakkuk and all those who believed his message knew, too, beyond God’s judgment on sin, God’s people would again rejoice in the Lord, the God of their salvation. They knew that as God had created the sure, steady tread of a deer climbing the heights, God would give a sure, steady faith to those who lived in trust.

Those of us who recognize the Habakkuk’s message “the just shall live by faith” (KJV) from Paul’s writings connect it with being saved by faith, eternally secured in Christ. Paul taught us well. In Habakkuk’s day, though, eternal life was not the immediate focus of the prophet’s word. As God revealed trouble coming to his nation, Habakkuk understood that those who trusted God’s message would live, survive, endure on the basis of their faith. God had and would plant their feet securely, and they would praise the Lord despite crop failures, famine, and war.

Twenty-first century people of faith are challenged by the faith of this ancient prophet and those who believed his message. We hesitate to see God’s hand in the crises that sweep over the world today. Is this God at work? How do we respond, believe, live? We want to think that better days are ahead, but we cannot see a clear path to a peaceful and secure future for ourselves or others in the world. Do we hunker down and hope for the best? Do we fall into the trap of people who have no faith in God, those who put their faith in technology, science, education, social change, human reasoning to create a more desirable future.

If we look back over the last sixty or seventy years it is evident that believers have tried several ways to turn our nation and others back to God. Some announced these days of difficult are the end times and Jesus is coming back to rescue His own, so get ready, repent. Other Christians determined that godly leaders could use political power as a way to turn our present and future back to God. Instead unbelievers looked at Christians as power-hungry and demanding. In more recent years the church tried a softer, seemingly more relevant way to engage the culture. The church offered God’s way as the path to a better, more rewarding, more fulfilling life. But God seems more interested in changing lives than meeting the world’s definition of “better, more rewarding, more fulfilling”.

We can too easily condemn past strategies, but we still long for a nation that honors God. Is there an answer to today’s ever-growing crises? Habakkuk longed for his people to turn back to God and this was the prophet’s prayerful answer.

Lord do it again. Show Your power to redeem.

Though that redemption waits and the intervening years are difficult, our days are in Your hands

In faith we will lift You up, in trust we will walk secure. For Yours, O Lord, is the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory forever and ever, Amen.

WHEN IT ISN’T ALL TINSEL AND JINGLE BELLS

It is tinsel time.  And jingle bells.

However, not every person is jolly this time of year.  As the tinsel goes up, for some, the soul drops into despair.  

I have a very short word of hope for this:  God.  He is the first and the last word in hope for the broken hearted.  Our Enemy, however, makes it hard to hold onto that truth.  We must often rehearse the truths in its parts to combat his lies.  Here are some foundation blocks on which you can stand firm when The Enemy is in your face.

  • You. Are. Loved.  The first lie The Enemy would have us believe is that we are UN-lovable.  It is easy to buy into.  Other people may have done things to you – horrible, betraying, demeaning, abusive things.  It has made you wonder if you are lovable because why would that person do this to you…unless there was something wrong with you.  That is a Lie.  Or perhaps you have done things that you think are so shameful and so unforgiveable you could never be loved if someone really knew it all.  Lie, again.  Or maybe it is rooted in something I can’t even imagine.  It is still a lie.  All lies.  The Enemy wants you to believe this lie so you remain defeated, especially when the rest of the world is tinsel-and-jingle-bells joy.  Here is The Truth:  Christ loved you so much He died for you.  Even if no one else ever came to faith because of His sacrifice, He would still have died for you.  Did die for you.  And why? Because He loved you that much – you are so precious to Him that He could not bear Heaven without you.  For God so loved, he gave his son.  The Holy Spirit is the seal of proof in you until the time you go home to Heaven.  You are known.  You are seen.  All of you – every bad and every good thing.  You are known.  And you are still loved.  There is nothing in you, or that has been done to you, that can render you unlovable by the Father, the Son and The Holy spirit.  TRUTH:  You. Are. Loved.
  • You. Are. Not. Alone.  This is the second lie The Enemy would have us believe.  It is tied to the first.  I mean, if I am not loveable, then that is why no one wants to be around me.  And if I am not loved or wanted, then why would I force my presence on them – better to stay in my room.  Alone.   When we buy into this lie, we think we are alone in our sorrow and mourning; no one cares.  Lie.  Still a lie.  Always a lie.  The Enemy wants you isolated and broken.  Here is the Truth:  I am with you until the end of the age, Jesus told us.  The Holy Spirit is with us at all times.  There is nowhere we can go in the earth that God is not already there.  When you are sleeping He sings over you; when you are awake He watches over you.  He bends low to hear your every gasping prayer and collect every tear, and He will never leave you – never.  TRUTH: You. Are. Not. Alone.

Perhaps you already have a favorite verse you’ve worn thin from repeating it to yourself.  But in case you don’t, let me leave with a few (just a few!  There are many more!) of God’s promises to you.

God is your refuge, your strength, and your shelter:

  • Psalm 119:114 You are my hiding place and my shield; I put my hope in Your word. 
  • Proverbs 18:10 The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.
  • Joel 3:16 The LORD will roar from Zion and raise His voice from Jerusalem; heaven and earth will tremble. But the LORD will be a refuge for His people, a stronghold for the people of Israel.

God loves you with a love stronger and deeper and wider than any human can love:

  • Romans 5:8  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
  • 1 John 3:1 See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!
  • Ephesians 3 17-19  …And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power… to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

God is with you – He will not abandon you:

  • Isaiah 41:10   Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
  • Leviticus 26:11-12 I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.
  • Romans 8:31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?
  • Deuteronomy 31:6  Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.”

This year has been harder for most of us than many other years.  It is not one many of us want to repeat.  If you face this holiday with more sorrow than joy, or more anger than peace, or more fear than you can remember having in a long time, take heart.  God is still with you.  You are still His beloved child, the apple of His eye.  He is Big Enough to walk with you thru your entire sea of grief and thru every horror, memory, hurt.  God doesn’t need (or want) you to be tinsel-and-jingle bell when inside you there is only pain.  God is OK if you are real with Him.  He will not turn from you.  

You are loved.

You are not alone.

God is your strong tower.

He is with you unto the end of the time.