I Can Only Imagine…

I live in the Midwestern United States, in an area known for lots of lakes and streams, woods and forests, and fertile farmland. I don’t have to imagine the smell of pines, or the sound of frogs at night, or the sight of cornfields turning ripe in the summer heat. I don’t have to imagine frost on late autumn mornings, or ice and snow on tree branches in January. But I’m not as familiar with mountains, deserts or the ocean. I have visited such areas, but I have to remember the scent and sting of saltwater coming off the ocean, or the dry heat of the desert, or the thin air of the mountains.

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Thankfully, there are photographs, and videos that help refresh memories and capture some of the wonder of jungles and plateaus, waterfalls, tundra, and dunes. We live in an awesome world, and our Creator has filled it with beauty, grandeur, and majesty. Even more amazing, God has created solar systems, and galaxies beyond our ability to visit. We cannot experience such places “in person,” but we can see dazzling views through telescopes of stars and worlds millions of miles away.

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But there are places that are beyond our ability to view– even beyond our imagination.

Heaven is one of those places. We have limited descriptions of Heaven in the Bible– a place of joy and perfection; where God himself is the light and source of life. A place where there is no disease, no death, no sin, and no fear. Several people have tried to depict it, but there is really no way to picture it accurately. Some people imagine a place of boredom, filled with “saints” sitting around playing the harp through all eternity. Others imagine a place filled with all their loved ones– an eternal family reunion, with laughter and singing. But the Bible is clear– Heaven is where God lives and reigns–HE is the focal point of Glory and Dominion and Eternal Praise and Purpose.

Another place we cannot imagine accurately is Hell. Again, we have a few clues in the Bible, and many attempts to depict what Hell might be like– a place of eternal torment and regret, without the presence of God– without light, love, comfort, or hope. We don’t like to imagine going there. We don’t like to imagine anyone being there– not really. Even in anger, we should not want to waste all of eternity watching anyone else suffer the agonies of Hell, and we certainly don’t wish to have a “front row” seat!

The Bible doesn’t give us lengthy descriptions of either of these eternal destinations– and for a reason. We have a life to live here and now! While our eternal destination is of vital importance, it is not for us to spend precious time creating an imaginary set of expectations– pearly gates or fire and brimstone–in our minds. Rather, we are to concentrate on THIS life– THIS gift of God to use and enjoy for His glory.

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Sometimes, we get a small glimpse of eternity– a transcendent moment of such natural beauty that we are hyper-aware of God’s Sovereignty; or a horrific scene of destruction and Sin that makes us shudder and recoil. But the rest is better left to eternity as we pursue God in this life.

Prayer and Freedom

This weekend, we will celebrate the Fourth of July, or Independence Day, in America. Much will be made of the freedoms we enjoy here. Many are freedoms we take for granted; others are freedoms that have been twisted or abused by out citizens, residents, and visitors.

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I am very grateful for the freedoms of America. As a citizen of the U.S., I enjoy Freedom of Speech and Assembly; Freedom of Religious practice; the Right to Bear Arms; the Right to a Jury Trial with representation; the Right to Vote and participate in the democratic process; the freedom to move freely and do business across state lines, and so much more that I take for granted. But I want to be very careful to keep a proper perspective on civil and national freedoms, and citizenship in the United States. My citizenship here comes with many opportunities and freedoms, but it is not perfect. It is also not eternal– my perfect and eternal citizenship is in Heaven.

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The founders of the United States, in their Declaration of Independence, listed three “unalienable” rights– “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” But they were clear about where those rights come from; not from a government, or a king, but from The Creator. Only God can give “unalienable” rights and freedoms. Governments can topple; Kings can be deposed; Laws and Constitutions can be overturned. The rights and freedoms we will celebrate this weekend were written on parchment, not stone.

When I pray, I don’t pray to a government–even one founded on solid principles and good intentions. And even a corrupt government cannot take away my freedom in Christ to call on My Creator. I cherish the freedom I have to attend worship service, and to pray with my husband in public, or meet with other believers to share prayer requests openly. But even if those freedoms were curtailed by a corrupt government, I could still commune with God– there is no prison, or dark corner, or hospital bed, or place of exile where God cannot meet with me, hear my heart, and answer my requests.

And it is THIS freedom that I fear I take for granted most of all– that I can freely and confidently approach the very Throne of the Almighty, Sovereign God, and expect to be heard and even welcomed. I don’t have to apply for permission from a priest or the angels to pray. I don’t have to bribe someone to allow me to speak to God. I don’t have to fear that my very act of prayer will cause God to cut me off from His blessings or His presence. The Ruler of the Universe, who has the authority over not only my life and death, but my eternal existence, wants me to seek Him and talk to Him. The one who has the authority to force my obedience wants me to choose to listen to Him and follow Him.

This incredible Freedom is available to every person, regardless of their nationality. As an American, I have the freedom to speak and write, and otherwise tell about and show others about this much greater Freedom. Am I using my civil freedom to point others to eternal Freedom? Am I using this incredible Freedom to seek God’s wisdom and grace to follow Him?

Remember..

I love flipping through old photo albums. I’m reminded of special times and special people. Sometimes, the memories make me a little sad, as I see familiar faces of those who have passed away, or times of struggle or stress. But most of the time, memories fill my heart with gladness and comfort, strength and resolve.

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I’ve been reading through the Psalms lately, and many of them speak of remembering. When God’s people faced struggles, they were told to remember the great stories of the past– the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the conquest of the Promised Land, and many other times when God gave miraculous provision, restoration, and victory. These songs were not just a matter of recapturing the “glory days” of old– they were part of God’s command to remember and pass along God’s deeds and His laws to each new generation.

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In the Psalms, we are also encouraged to remember our own past actions– both righteous and rebellious– and God’s faithfulness in spite of our failures. We are to remember God’s correction and discipline; God’s forgiveness, and His Mercy– not just in our own lives, but over many generations and throughout the years.

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God instituted festivals, and rites, and Holy Days of remembrance– special times set aside for remembrance and meditation, because it is important to Him that we never lose our focus. We can get so wrapped up in the present (or worrying about the future) that we forget God’s timeless and eternal nature.

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Even Jesus, before He went to Calvary, instituted a new rite of remembrance– Communion– in which He called His disciples to “do this in remembrance of me.”

Today, I want to pray a prayer of remembrance. I want to spend time in worship and gratitude for who God IS, but also for who He always HAS BEEN.
Thank you for your eternal faithfulness, and for your eternal plan of Salvation. Thank you for the ways you have provided in my life, in the lives of those who came before, and in the lives of generations of faithful saints. May I remember your Great Love and Power as I face uncertainties in the day ahead. May the remembrance of you lead me to trust you completely, follow you boldly, and share you with those I meet.

Laughing With the Sinners

There is a line in a song by Billy Joel (Only the Good Die Young) which reads, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. The sinners are much more fun.”

There is a myth about sin– that sin is fun and obedience is drudgery. Sinners laugh and live carefree, happy lives, while “saints” lead gloomy lives filled with tears, worry, and anguish. Heaven will be filled with sour-faced do-gooders playing harps, while Hell will be an eternal party.

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Nothing could be further from reality. While sin gives momentary pleasure and temporary laughter, it also leads to devastating pain and haunting regret. Broken families, lost relationships, stress, and guilt are just some of the consequences of sin. The idea that “I’m not hurting anybody– I’m just doing what makes me happy” is a false comfort.

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Similarly, while obedience may require us to make sacrifices or suffer momentarily, it also leads to great reward–discipline, wisdom, integrity, and a legacy of hope and help. The idea that “I’m missing out on the fun” is also a false one. “Saints” may cry, but often their tears are for the misfortunes of others!

Unfortunately, the common stereotype of sinners laughing while saints cry or, more often, sit in judgment, is based on observation. I have known some very sour Christians. They may not be crying, but they frequently make others around them cry! They nag, scold, wag their fingers, consign their neighbors and family members to Hell, and act as though they are too good for everyone else. When challenged about their negative attitude, sometimes they suggest that they are just “waiting for Heaven.” Others plead a genuine concern for others, and they worry that the laughter they hear now will turn to mourning in the future.

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But I have also known joyful Christians– laughing, singing, encouraging others, whistling while they work, even laughing in the face of suffering and persecution! They, too, are “waiting for Heaven.” But in the meantime, they are celebrating their new and abundant life in Christ. Their attitude and actions attract others, and reflect the love, joy, peace, and hope that transcends the mere “happiness” of a moment’s sinful pleasure.

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The Bible says much about the value of both laughter and tears; of joyous celebration and sober reflection. In the end, ALL of us are “sinners”–no one is righteous on her/his own. Jesus, when He walked the earth and interacted with people, wept and celebrated with them. The Pharisees reprimanded Jesus and His disciples for their “feasting” and spending time with prostitutes and tax collectors. And yet, Jesus had harsh words about sin and Hell, and often spent time alone and in anguish of heart.

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The crying of saints is not, in itself, of any more value than the laughter of sinners. But laughter and happiness in the moment cannot save us from the sting of death or the yawning emptiness of an eternity without God. And that is no laughing matter! Unfortunately, the song is based on an empty myth. Death comes to all of us, young or old, “good” or “bad,” gloomy or exuberant in life. What makes the difference is not our laughter or tears, or even our efforts to obey or live “good” lives– what makes a difference is GRACE and FAITH. And I’d rather live with the redeemed than die with the defiant!

Celebrate Life

My husband has celebrated his birthday this week, and it reminded me of some of the many ways we celebrate life. Before a baby is even born, we share special moments of excitement–sonograms, gender reveal parties, baby showers, picking out names, feeling little “kicks” and movements in the womb. We give gifts and blessings when the baby arrives. We take baby photos and commemorate all the “firsts”– first tooth, first steps, first words, etc. And each year, we remember. We send cards and other birthday greetings; we give gifts and have parties with special cakes and songs and party hats. We invite others to celebrate, as well.

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Not everyone celebrates birthdays, and some people make a mockery of their advancing age, but most of us think birthdays are a big deal, and worth celebrating. LIFE is a big deal. Life is a sacred gift, and we should cherish every moment of it. We celebrate the events of life– achievements, milestones, graduations, new jobs, promotions, relocations, marriages, anniversaries, retirements, and much more. Celebrating life is an industry– cards, balloons, T-shirts, reception halls, catering, special clothing (wedding dresses, tuxes, caps and gowns, etc.), special foods, party favors, confetti, gift items– we spend a lot of time, energy, money, and even “life” celebrating our lives.

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And we also celebrate life at its end. Even as we grieve the loss of loved ones, we seek to memorialize their lives. We hold funerals, publish obituaries and memorials, erect tombstones, build monuments, and write tributes and biographies. We celebrate the achievements, memories, and legacies of those who pass on. Their lives mattered. They don’t cease to matter when death comes. For the Christian, there is a special reason to celebrate the end of life– because it is NOT the end! Imagine the celebration of Life that will never end–the celebration of eternity with the Author, Giver, Redeemer, and Sustainer of Life!

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Many people have wished my husband an happy birthday this week, and they’ve offered prayers and good wishes. Today, I will be praying for many people who are celebrating a birthday. I will offer up a thanksgiving for their life, and celebrate the One who created each unique person on today’s list.

We’re going through a journey that has focused on worldwide death– fear of death and disease, despair, anger, desperation, and hopelessness. We shouldn’t ignore the reality of death around us, but we mustn’t let it overwhelm the life that is within us. Life is worth celebrating–ALWAYS!

God and Sinners, Reconciled!

Every year, we celebrate the birth of Emmanuel– God With Us. It is amazing to consider the Love of God that brought Him from His Heavenly throne to a lowly manger stall, the King of Glory contained in the tiny body of a sleepy infant.

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But we should be careful not to miss the rest of the story. As wonderful as it is to think that God would love His creation enough to visit among us, to “taste” life as a human, the story gets gloriously magnified as Jesus leaves the manger to enter a ministry. Jesus didn’t just live among us, He healed, taught, laughed, formed friendships, and served among people– many of whom scoffed, scorned, and rejected Him and His message.

And His message was this: God wants– in fact He passionately yearns– to restore the relationship WE have broken. Jesus didn’t come to “taste” human life– He came to GIVE His life as a sacrifice for those who didn’t deserve it, to extend forgiveness to those who had no right to ask for it. The Holy and Perfect God became the guilt and shame of Sin, so that we could be reconciled to Him. He accepted the penalty of Death, so that we could be given eternal life.

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This miracle of reconciliation can be difficult to understand. I sometimes get “stuck” in the weight of my past–I know that Christ offers forgiveness, but I sometimes act as though the penalty hasn’t been removed; only suspended. But that’s not what Jesus taught. Like a leper cured of leprosy, I am clean–no scars, no stains, no relapse–all traces of my disease removed. In this world, I will still feel the sting of the consequences of Sin– betrayal, sickness, injustice, even death. But death is no longer my destiny; it is a temporary rest stop on my way HOME.

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Jesus didn’t come to “taste” human life; He came to “taste” death– and He came to destroy its power, so that we could know true Life, and live it to the fullest!

Joy! Peace! Reconciliation! Eternity! Emmanuel!

The Now and the “Not Yet.”

As followers of Christ and believers in an Eternal God, we live in the “here and now,” but we also live in something called the “not yet.” Our life here is finite, but our life in the “not yet” is eternal.

Most of what we pray for belongs in the “here and now.” We pray about what we see and know. We may pray for an upcoming surgery, or a looming job loss, or give thanks for something that happened in the recent past, but most of our prayers do not venture into the eternal future.

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Yet, God speaks to us of things to come. No, He doesn’t always reveal details or give us a calendar of times and dates; but He does remind us that what we see is not the whole picture. And we need to remember this when we pray and when we look around us.

Much of the Old Testament, plus parts of the New Testament, are given over to prophecy– visions, promises, warnings about the future. Many of the prophecies have already been fulfilled– in detail. Some of the prophets prayed for revival in Israel and Judah; others prayed for the coming of the Messiah. Their prayers were answered– but not always in their lifetime, and not always in a way they understood. The Apostles, writing to Jesus’ followers looked forward to His return– but they never saw it in their lifetime.

Prayer is not just about us and our immediate needs. Today, spend some time praying with an eternal mindset–that God’s will would be done, in His time and His way. And then, trust that whatever is going on in the “here and now,” it is all part of God’s perfect plan. One that we will understand more fully in the “not yet.”

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What a Waste!

The author of Ecclesiastes (presumed to be King Solomon) was a wise man. Yet he concluded that almost every aspect of life was meaningless– nothing more than “chasing after the wind.” Health, wealth, learning, entertainment, popularity, achievement– they can give pleasure and temporary satisfaction. But in the end, everyone dies, and their health is gone, their wealth goes to someone else, their learning is lost, their name and accomplishments are all forgotten and/ or destroyed.

In chapter 3, the author states that there is a time for “everything”– all the seemingly important activities of life–building, and tearing down, war and peace, living and dying…https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ecclesiastes+3&version=NIV And then he makes a curious statement in verse 11: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Solomon describes this as a burden– mankind can sense eternity, but can live and see only a brief span of it.

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So what are we to do?

First, we need to make an important distinction– Solomon explores the pursuits of life and finds them all meaningless. At no point does he say that life itself is without meaning. Nor does he say there is no difference between wisdom and foolishness, honest labor and laziness, or self-indulgence and connectedness. I know some people who, after a quick reading through Ecclesiastes, use it to justify a hedonistic lifestyle. “Nothing matters,” they say. But that’s not what this book actually promotes. It isn’t that “nothing” matters. Rather, it is that none of our personal pursuits produce meaning in and of themselves or beyond our own limitations.

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Next, we should be wise in light of the eternity that God has placed in our hearts. Even if our pursuits seem trivial and temporary, they have consequences that ripple through time– long after we are gone. We may not be able to see the future, but we CAN see the effects of wisdom and foolishness in the lives of others, and we can heed the advice of those who have come before us. Most of all, we have the wisdom that comes from God. Solomon’s wisdom, though incredible among humans, was limited to his own experience and learning. His frustration and despair came from knowing how limited it was!

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Finally, we must read Ecclesiastes in context. Solomon was wise, but he lacked the vision of his father, David, to fully anticipate the coming of Messiah. Solomon’s ambitions were for the span of his own earthly life. He did not have his hope firmly rooted in a resurrection and an eternal life shared with his Creator. For all his wisdom, he was found lacking in faith. After writing such wisdom (not just in Ecclesiastes, but throughout the Proverbs), Solomon ended his life in a foolish pursuit of relativism and compromise that ruined much of the strength and prosperity he had brought to his kingdom in earlier years.

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One thing remains– to fear God and follow His commands. God is eternal–and all that is done for Him and by Him and through Him will never be wasted. Solomon’s life may have ended with failure, but his words and wisdom live on. Our lives may be short; we may have wasted precious time in meaningless pursuits–God has promised that “all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 CSB) and that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6 NIV)

Believest Thou This?

John 11 (KJV)

In the Gospel of John, there is the curious story of Lazarus. Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary, were good friends of Jesus. There are other stories throughout the gospels of Jesus interacting with this family. But this story appears only in John’s gospel, and it contains some details that raise several questions.

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The story begins with an urgent message. Lazarus is gravely ill, and the sisters send word to Jesus to come quickly. Yet Jesus seems to dismiss the message, saying that it is not a sickness that will end in death, and he lingers two days before he decides to begin the journey toward Bethany. There is no sense of panic or urgency in Jesus’s response. And, though it says he loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, he seems unmoved by their obvious distress.

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When Jesus finally arrives, Lazarus has been dead for four days. The two sisters both mention, with some bitterness, that if Jesus had come sooner, their brother need not have died. Jesus never gets defensive, but he challenges the sisters about their faith. In his exchange with Martha, he says that her brother will rise again. She agrees that he will rise again in the resurrection at the end of time. But Jesus redirects her faith–“I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth on me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?” (v. 25b-26). Her statement of faith, in spite or her grief and bitterness, prompts her to act. She goes to find her sister and bring her to the Savior, that she might be comforted.

Martha’s faith is small comfort in the circumstances. Her brother is still dead. His body lies rotting in a nearby cave. Her faith is fixed in the distant future, even as the author of Life and Eternity stands next to her. Her belief is wispy– more of a wish or a dream than the solid God-in Flesh standing before her.

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Yet Jesus chose to use this seeming defeat as a showcase for His power to give life and resurrection. Many people who saw this were transformed and put their trust in Him. Others saw Jesus’ growing ministry as a threat to their own power and authority. They reacted with fear and even anger, that Jesus would bring the miraculous into their well-ordered normality. The Pharisees, including the chief priest, Caiaphas, determined that Jesus must die in order to “save” them from the Romans. Instead of seeing Him as the agent of their eternal salvation, they saw Him as an obstacle to their limited “freedom” to operate under the Roman oppression.

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What is my faith like as I pray today? Do I believe that God “could’ve” or “should’ve” solved a problem in my past? Do I believe that God is not acting fast enough or decisively enough? Do I have a wispy faith that God will make all things right in Heaven, but is uninterested in the “here and now?” Do I believe that God’s answers might upset my life or cause me to “lose” control?

God, as you challenge my faith, help me to declare even my weak and imperfect belief; help me to act on it, and bring others to you for comfort. For in doing, so, I may be preparing the way for an incredible miracle– for revival and renewal; for the glory of Your great Name! And help me to see your answers through eyes of faith, and not fear of the unknown. Help me to trust you for the future I cannot see– a future that is in your capable and loving hands.

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These Three Remain.. Hope

I have to start this by saying I don’t feel particularly hopeful right now as I look around and hear all that is happening. There are a lot of reasons to be discouraged, even depressed. Riots, plague, disasters, anger, death, and evil surround us at nearly every turn. I can say that my Faith sustains me, and it does, but I still feel beaten down and exhausted by all the chaos and hurt and anger and misunderstanding.

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In 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul talks about things that are temporary– possessions, knowledge, gifts, prophecies– and three things that remain: Faith, Hope, and Love. Last time, I wrote about Faith. But Hope is a more difficult and more nebulous concept. The writer of Hebrews defines Faith for us– “the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). But there is no substance or evidence for Hope. Hope is not an anchor; it is not a realization. It is a wish, a dream; at best, it is an expectation. Yet Paul says it “remains,” even when other things pass away.

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How is this possible– that a Christian should Hope after all else has been lost, abandoned, or destroyed? Isn’t Faith more solid, more important, than Hope? Aren’t knowledge, obedience, and perseverance more important and more tangible? Isn’t hope wispy, fleeting, and conditional? Lately, it sure seems so. I say that I hope we all get through these tough times; that we will come through all this stronger, wiser, more compassionate, more just, more prepared, etc., but what am I really hanging on to? Where is my Hope?

My Hope DOES have substance and a sure foundation–in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I may have wispy dreams and half-formed wishes of what I would like to see in my life or in the world around me tomorrow, or next year. I may have dreams and visions of what Peace and Justice and Health look like– and I may never see them materialize in my lifetime. I may have to adjust my vision within the temporary world of possessions, and gifts, prophecies and human systems of government and society. But I can remember the life of Christ; in spite of His circumstances, He remained true to His purpose. In His death, He remained compassionate, humble, and loving toward those who hated Him. In His resurrection, He brought eternal Hope to all who choose to trust Him. I can Hope because He brought Hope. I can be inspired by the dreams and hopes of other Christians throughout the years, even if their dreams have not been realized. I can be inspired by the prophecies of others, even if they don’t match my visions. And I CAN see beyond the darkness of the moment (or the year) to see that people (even I) can change; situations can change; circumstances can change; rhetoric and tone can change for the better. Painful valleys and unexpected upheaval may not be what I would want, but sometimes, it serves to clear out the “sinking sand” where dream houses would otherwise be built.

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And Hope is necessary to Prayer– Faith tells us that God hears, even when we can’t see Him or hear His answer. Hope tells us that God cares. He is not aloof in hearing our prayers. He doesn’t answer us out of some worn sense of duty or obligation. He doesn’t just give us His law or even His forgiveness– He gives us restoration and Hope and abundant life! Hope for change in our own lives; hope for progress and healing in our world; hope for victory over sin and evil. Most of all, hope for eternity. God is just and merciful, but He is also gracious and loving beyond all measure. I can cry out when all other hope is gone– His Hope Remains! His Hope is a Solid Rock. His Hope comes with an eternal guarantee.

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