Monday, May 10, 2021

Needing Reminders for a Photographic Memory

Suggested Reading: Exodus 13:1-16

My memory is a little schizophrenic. I can look at the words on a page and remember them exactly when I want to. I'm able to recall the tiniest bit of trivia at a moment's notice and recall study notes for tests extremely easily. But ask me to remember that I have to be somewhere at 2:00 Thursday afternoon or to recall a conversation I had with my wife last night and I might as well be brain dead. Now, putting aside for a moment the conversations with my wife (I still insist half of them don't actually take place), the only way I can recall appointments is to set myself several reminders. Sometimes, these reminders take the forms of sticky notes left where I will see them, but my schedule is so inconsistent that sticky notes don't really work anymore. Most of the time I have to plug the appointment into the calendars in my phone and tablet and create a minimum of three reminders, one or two for the day of the event and then a few days before as well. Otherwise, I'm likely to forget completely. Once I didn't set a reminder and didn't remember an appointment until two months after it had passed. Reminders are an absolute necessity for me.

But just as badly as I forget appointments, nearly all of us have a tendency to forget the ways God has intervened in our lives. We have short memories and when the next tragedy strikes or trouble arises we can find it difficult to look past the current circumstances and remember how God has stepped in to help in the past. That is one of the reasons that, when God was leading his people out of slavery in Egypt, God commanded them, "On this day in early spring, in the month of Abib, you have been set free. You must celebrate this event in this month each year after the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Hivites, and Jebusites" (Exodus 13:4-5, NLT). God was setting up a reminder for the people to help them constantly remember God's power, kindness, and desire to set them free from their enemies. Since Israel settled in the land and then consequently forgot their devotion to God, we shouldn't find it surprising that scripture says they didn't celebrate this Passover feast until centuries later under the reigns of Josiah and Hezekiah. They never set up their reminders.

As God intervenes in our lives, as God saves us from various trials, helps us through times of difficulty or provides for us in the most impossible of circumstances, we would be wise to set up little reminders in our own lives, memorials that constantly keep us mindful of God's acts of love and power on our behalf. Sometimes they can be celebrations like Christmas and Easter traditions that have our own little twist. They might be our own little rituals that serve to slow things down and make us think about God's goodness, anniversaries of important events in life or a little plaque that sits on our desk at the office. Whatever God has done in your life, memorialize it, be intentional about remembering it and telling the story from time to time. You will be amazed at how much those reminders help when difficult times arise.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Playing Tickling Games With God

Suggested Reading: Exodus 10:16-11:10

When my son was very young, he and I had a game we liked to play. He would come up and "attack"me when I wasn't expecting it and I would "retaliate" by tickling him. He'd begin to cry out between fits of laughter, "Stop! Stop!" I'd ask if he was going to attack me again and he would promise not to. I'd release him and he would immediately "attack" me again. We would repeat the cycle numerous times until I got worn out or he got tired of being tickled. But the key to the game was my son knowing that I would relent if he promised to stop and my being prepared to tickle again as soon as he attacked.

Throughout history, many people have thought God was playing a similar game with them. Pharaoh was one of them. When God sent Moses to deliver his people from slavery in Egypt, he sent Moses with a repertoire of miracles/plagues to perform against Pharaoh when he refused to cooperate. The first nine of these plagues were temporary kinds of plagues and, when the plague became too much to bear, Pharaoh would promise to comply long enough for God to remove the plague. Pharaoh played a game with God, believing he could go back to doing what he wanted as soon as God relented from the plague. He kept doing it until Moses announced to Pharaoh, “This is what the Lord says: At midnight tonight I will pass through the heart of Egypt. All the firstborn sons will die in every family in Egypt, from the oldest son of Pharaoh, who sits on his throne, to the oldest son of his lowliest servant girl who grinds the flour. Even the firstborn of all the livestock will die (Exodus 11:4-6, NLT). Not until a plague arrived that couldn't be taken back - the death of Pharaoh's firstborn son - did Pharaoh realize that God was not playing a game.

How often do we try to play the same kind of game with God? We suffer terrible consequences for sin in our lives and pray for God's mercy, only to return to our ways when the consequences lessen? How often do we end bad habits because life gets tough, only to return to those same habits when things get a little better?

Whether it's mishandling finances or abusing drugs or simply being nonchalant about spending time with God, are we playing with God, hoping things will get better so we can go back to doing our own thing? My son was never able to win the tickle game with me and we can't expect to win when weplay games with God. Isn't it about time we get serious?

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Clones, Falling Globes, and Frustrated Callings

Suggested Reading: Exodus 5:1-6:12

The final season of Smallville started off with a great deal of hope that Clark Kent would finally become Superman. In fact, the iconic Superman suit made an appearance in that initial episode. Clark saved hundreds of people from being crushed by the spinning globe atop the Daily Planet building when an explosive knocked it from its perch high above the city and he did it in a fashion that resembled flying, the one power he didn't have the hang of yet. But he also became so angry with the man who set off the explosion (a clone of Lex Luthor) that he nearly killed him. When Clark, in his high spirits from saving the day decided to put on the Superman suit, the spirit of his Kryptonian father zapped him away to the Fortress of Solitude, pointing out his fit of anger as an example of the darkness inside him, declaring him unfit to be a hero, and trapping the suit in a crystal enclosure that Clark couldn't open. In one fell swoop, both Clark and the audience that had waited ten years for him to finally become Superman were punched in the gut. Suddenly, Clark's transformation into Superman seemed farther away than ever.

Moses had a similar moment not long after he obeyed God's call to return to Egypt and demand that Pharaoh let his people go. Moses had gone to the Israelites, telling them of his encounter with God and they had believed him. But when Moses went to Pharaoh, Pharaoh laughed in his face and then upped the Israelites' work load just for spite. When the people complained about the added work, Pharaoh told them it was Moses' fault and so they stopped listening to him. When God told Moses to return to Pharaoh again, Moses objected, "My own people won't listen to me anymore. How can I expect Pharaoh to listen?"(Exodus 6:12, NLT). Moses had gone to Pharaoh like he had been instructed. Moses had delivered his message to Pharaoh and it had seemingly backfired. The Israelites had been forced to endure even more brutal conditions than before and had stopped listening altogether. To Moses, it must have seemed that the goal of freeing the Israelites from their slavery was even farther away than before. God had previously warned Moses that Pharaoh would not initially listen, but Moses' frustration overtook him anyway and he questioned whether he should even continue.

God's call upon our lives does not mean that everything will be easy or even that we will always seem to be moving forward. Sometimes God's call leads us down a brutal, trouble filled road. And when we experience those difficult times we cannot act surprised. Jesus described following God's call as abandoning one's life and he told us that the world would hate us because it hated him. One of the few things we were actually promised was that the road would be difficult. We can never make the mistake of expecting an easy path when we follow God's call on our lives. But we must also never make the mistake of doubting God's call just because things get tough or look impossible. Before Moses could free the Israelites from slavery, things had to get worse; a just and merciful God doesn't simply pour out his wrath on someone because he feels like it. Pharaoh had to have the chance to comply and refuse. The extra labor the Israelites were forced to endure was always part of God's plan, even if it didn't feel like it when the people started blaming Moses for their troubles.

Experiencing difficulty and setbacks does not mean that God has not called you to your task. Those troubles may be necessary for you to complete your task, even if your goal seems farther away than ever. Clark Kent did become Superman, Moses did lead his people to freedom, and you will accomplish the task God has called you to, if you don't give up.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Are you really even a Christian?

Suggested Reading: Matthew 9:9-13, 10:1-4

In the romantic comedy You've Got Mail, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan play characters whose personal and political philosophies are diametrically opposed at nearly every point. Their differences are exemplified by the stores they each own and operate. She owns a mom and pop bookstore while he is the corporate CEO of a massive chain. Her business ends up failing because his succeeds. From a business perspective and a personal perspective they have every reason to hate each other. But the two eventually strike up a friendship and then fall in love.

I have often wondered why Christians have such a hard time doing the same thing. I grew up in an "independent, King James only, Bible believing, New Testament Baptist Church" and then went to college and seminary in what is considered, among Southern Baptists at least, as one of those "liberal" schools which happened to have a lot of "conservative" students as well. Much more often than I wanted, I wound up in the crossfire of Christians on both sides attacking each other. They would argue over theology. They would argue over politics. And if it went on long enough, the "debates" would digress to people calling each other names and questioning the faith of the other group. Most of the time there was evidence to support both groups' opinions, both in the political realm and from scripture, but neither side wanted to give the other an inch. At times, it almost seemed like they hated each other.

In Mark chapter 3, we are given an example of two disciples who could easily have fallen into a similar situation. Jesus went up on a mountain and called to him those men who would eventually become the apostles. In verse 19, two of the men listed are Matthew, the tax-collector, and a man known as Simon the Zealot. Matthew was a man who not only accepted Rome's rule over Israel but had chosen to make his living by helping them to enforce their rule. Simon, as a member of the Zealot party, was vehemently opposed to Roman rule and had committed his life to removing Rome from its position over his homeland, even if it required violence.

According to the customs of the day, these men would probably have hated each other. But we are never given any indication that they were at each other's throats. I'm sure there would have naturally been some initial distrust and probably even some debates along the way. But these men followed Jesus together and, together, they helped turn the world upside down. So what made them different than us? My guess is that they allowed their mutual devotion to Jesus to override their differences.

We don't have to agree with every political and theological stance that another believer takes. But we do need to allow for the fact that Jesus calls people from every walk of life and from every political ideology. And we need to remember that everybody's opinions are going to be a little different until Jesus sets all of us straight in the end. We must be willing to allow our mutual devotion to Jesus to be stronger than our political differences or our relatively minor theological disagreements.

Jesus said people would know we were his disciples because of how we love each other. Are we really loving each other or are we too busy fighting over our own opinions?

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Becoming Superheros for Jesus

Suggested Reading: Matthew 17:1-13

Over the ten years of Smallville's run on television, a particular plot idea popped up several times: what kind of person would Clark Kent be without all of Superman's powers? A couple of times his powers were transferred to someone else and Clark had to save the day without his powers and while fighting someone who did have his powers. Once, his consciousness traded bodies with Lex Luthor's father and he had to save the day, powerless and from behind bars. Another time, he disobeyed the spirit of his father living in the Fortress of Solitude and was stripped of his powers as a punishment but he still stepped in front of a bullet to save someone. Repeatedly, the show tried to demonstrate that the powers didn't make a superhero. Clark's character made him a superhero.

In Matthew 17, Jesus was having a conversation with his disciples in the wake of the Transfiguration, when Elijah and Moses appeared on the mountaintop with Jesus. According to Jewish tradition, Elijah was supposed to come before the Messiah came. But, clearly, the Messiah was here in the person of Jesus and they hadn't spotted Elijah yet. So the disciples asked Jesus why the scribes taught that Elijah would come first. Jesus answered, "But I tell you, Elijah has already come, but he wasn’t recognized, and they chose to abuse him. And in the same way they will also make the Son of Man suffer." Then the disciples realized he was talking about John the Baptist. (Matthew 17:12-13, NLT). See, when the Jews watched for Elijah they were watching for a man of powerful miracles instead of a truth-telling prophet who confronted kings with their sin. They were looking for the powers of Elijah when they should have been looking for the character of Elijah.

We often make this same mistake ourselves, desiring the flashy, spectacular "power" of a godly disciple rather than the character of a godly disciple. Sometimes, we yearn to heal the sick or raise the dead or speak in an unknown tongue like the apostles when we should be imitating their character: a willingness to change course when realizing they were in the wrong, an attentiveness to the Spirit, an unyielding integrity, and a boldness to share the Gospel with anyone able to receive it.

The ability to perform miracles was incidental to who the apostles were, not their defining characteristic. God may or may not use us to perform miracles someday. But right now God is trying to refine our character, conforming us to the image of His Son. Our character is what counts. It's what sets us apart and identifies us as powerful disciples of Jesus.

Don't judge yourself based on your miracles or incredible accomplishments. Judge yourself based on your character. If your character improves, the chances of accomplishing something amazing for Christ increase dramatically. 

Monday, May 3, 2021

Vengeance on the Playground

Suggested Reading: Romans 12:14-21

As a substitute teacher, I had much more opportunity to work with young elementary students than I ever thought I wanted. One of the things that amazes me is the variety of personalities and the different ways in which those young children respond to injustices. Some children, as soon as another child looks at them wrong, run to an adult to tattle and get their would be assailant in trouble. Other children, whether because they are stronger or simply stronger willed, decide to deal with it themselves and put an end to the problem. If someone has taken their toy, they take it back. If someone has teased them, they end it by putting their hands on the offending child. And while it is great that these students want to deal with their own problems, because they are young and immature they often handle these situations in very wrong ways. These children end up getting into trouble at school because they forget that they are only children and that they should let an adult handle the problem.

When Joseph's father died and his brothers, fearing retribution for selling Joseph into slavery as a boy, approached and begged for forgiveness, Joseph responded, “Don’t be afraid of me. Am I God, that I can punish you?" (Genesis 50:19, NLT). Joseph, through his suffering and misfortune had managed to learn an important lesson. If he were a child on the playground he might have said, "Don't be afraid of me. Am I the teacher that I can punish you?" Joseph understood that our role is to live the best lives we can, taking care of our own business, and leaving the punishing to God.

As adults, we don't always have a teacher to run to when someone wrongs us. Sure, we can take people to court or go to the boss in the right circumstances, but a lot of life we live on our own without someone to watch over our shoulders and we can be tempted at times to take care of things ourselves. We want to humiliate someone who has hurt us. We want to find a way to make our abusers feel the same pain they have caused us. We want to out-maneuver people who are playing games behind our back and try to teach them a lesson. Sometimes, we simply want to find a way to end the problem, even if it means flirting with or outright crossing a line. In short, we want to deal with the problem ourselves. But most of the time we are unable to foresee all the possible consequences of our actions. Because we are never as mature or as wise as we think we are, we end up mishandling things and, rather than bringing God glory, we look like villains.

Like Joseph, we must remember that we are not God. We must remember that our job is not to pay people back for how they have wronged us or to end it when people are attacking us. Our job is to trust God and live the best life we can possibly live. Repeatedly throughout scripture, God reminds us of this sentiment: Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, “I will take revenge; I will pay them back,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:19, NLT).

When people attack, when they abuse you and accuse you, remember to take it to the Supreme Adult. Turn it over to God and trust your Heavenly Father to avenge you. Then live the best life you can. Anything else will not only be less than satisfying, it will just play into your abuser's hands.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Revenge, Slavery, and Personal Demons

Suggested Reading: Genesis 50:14-21

A few years ago I experienced a great deal of tension with someone I never wanted to have problems with. This person was convinced that I despised them, that I thought I was better and more important than this person and that I was only interested in using them, not in having any type of relationship with them. This person looked at everything I did and read it as an attack against them. It was impossible to win. Even when I apologized and took blame upon myself for things over which I had no control in the first place, my apologies were dismissed because this person "knew how I really felt." As far as I could tell, I had never actually done anything that should produce such an attitude against me, at least not for more than a decade, stretching back into my youth. But this person was convinced I held ill-will toward them.

In the book of Genesis, Joseph faced a similar problem. While he had been sold by his brothers into slavery, he had long ago reconciled himself to the idea that God was responsible, sending him to Egypt in order to save the lives of his family and countless others who would suffer from famine. Joseph had told his brothers as much and assured them that he held no ill-will toward them. But when their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers became fearful. “Now Joseph will show his anger and pay us back for all the wrong we did to him,” they said. So they sent this message to Joseph:“Before your father died, he instructed us to say to you:‘Please forgive your brothers for the great wrong they did to you—for their sin in treating you so cruelly. ’ So we, the servants of the God of your father, beg you to forgive our sin.” When Joseph received the message, he broke down and wept (Genesis 50:15-17, NLT).

His brothers' obvious fear pushed Joseph to tears. For years he'd had the power to take his revenge if he had wanted. For years he'd had the opportunity to pay his brothers back for what they had done, selling him into slavery. But for years he had demonstrated his good-will and talked with his brothers about the providence of God in sending him ahead to Egypt to provide for them. And still they feared Joseph, not because Joseph had given them reason to fear but because they were still dealing with their own demons.

When dealing with people who seem to have irrational vendettas against us, it is important to extend patience and understanding, knowing that their problem may have nothing to do with us, and to give them time without judgement to work through their own demons. But it is just as important to remember that we ourselves are susceptible to that kind of behavior. We can be just as guilty of seeing malice and ill-will in others not because they actually have any, but because we are struggling with our own demons. We may believe we deserve malice and so we see it whether it is there or not. We may need to embrace God's forgiveness for past mistakes through Jesus' death and resurrection and remember that God can even use our mistakes and sins to bring about good.

Be patient with people who hold irrational grudges against you, without judging them, but examine yourself as well. If you sense intense feelings of malice, prejudice or persecution directed toward you, it might be real, but you might just be dealing with your own demons. Confront those demons and banish them. Don't allow your own insecurities and mistakes to destroy the relationships in your life.

Needing Reminders for a Photographic Memory

Suggested Reading: Exodus 13:1-16 My memory is a little schizophrenic. I can look at the words on a page and remember them exactly when I...