He Who Began a Good Work…

 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

Philippians 1:6 (ESV)
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I have a lot of unfinished projects–scrapbook pages, crafts, stories I began writing, closets I started cleaning out..some projects were abandoned due to waning interest; others due to distractions or other more urgent tasks. A few of the projects I can pick up and continue (if I choose). Others must be discarded or started over again. I began each task with good intentions, but some proved to be more complicated than I anticipated. Their very presence reminds me that I bit off more than I could chew.

Sometimes, it feels like I am an unfinished project– because I am! While I still live, I continue learning and (hopefully) growing more like Christ. But every day I am reminded (as with my unfinished projects around the house) that I have a long way to go. And I occasionally wonder if God will get tired of me and set me aside– lose interest or just decide His efforts will be more rewarding somewhere else. And yet, Paul assures me that I will never be abandoned or left “undone”–God always– ALWAYS– finishes what He starts. And His finished project are always perfect.

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And what is true in my life is true in the lives of others, and in the wider world. We may not see the way forward. It may seem as though things or people around us are falling apart. But God sees the end from the beginning. And He works — sometimes in mysterious ways–to bring all things to their appointed end.

There are two “caveats” to the above statements:

“He who began a good work in you…” God created all of us in His glorious image, but He has not begun a good work in those who have not trusted Him to do so. It is God’s desire that all of us should reach perfection, and that none should perish. However, the Bible is very clear that not all of us will seek to be reborn, reshaped, redeemed, and reconciled to God.

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“…at the day of Jesus Christ.” We will not be perfected in “our” time, but in God’s. We will be tested, refined, purified, stretched and shaped, but what we will be “has not yet been revealed” (1 John 3:2) We should pray for continued growth; we should humbly submit to the renewing of our minds and hearts through the work of the Holy Spirit, but we should not consider that we have reached perfection or that we have learned all there is to know.

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I am so glad that I serve a God who will never tire of me, or find me “too much” to handle. And I am so glad I can fall on His grace and mercy when I fail in my tasks (or fail to complete them). God isn’t finished with me yet– but by His Grace, He will not leave me incomplete or lacking in any good thing!

The Work is “Donne”

Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive those sins through which I run,
And do them still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.
Wilt Thou forgive that sin by which I have won
Others to sin? and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
Swear by Thyself that at my death Thy Sun
Shall sine as it shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, Thou hast done,
I have no more.

A Hymn to God the Father John Donne, 1623
John Donne

I enjoy studying the poetry of John Donne. https://www.biography.com/writer/john-donne Even though he lived 400 years ago, he wrote about very timeless and personal topics. Donne lived during a time of religious tumult and persecution. Born into a Catholic family, he later converted to Anglicanism and became a powerful preacher, as well as a poet, and lawyer. Throughout his life, he wrestled with deep theological questions of sin, guilt, redemption, and death. Yet he did so with wit, humor, and passion. The poem above, written during a long illness and near the end of his life, is filled with puns on his last name, Donne. Would God’s redemptive work ever be “done” in “Donne?” He struggles with the knowledge that his sins, having been forgiven, must be forgiven again and again. Does God never say, “Enough! I am done!?” What about stubborn sinful habits? What about sins that have led others to sin? What about last-minute, unconfessed sins?

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The real question is, “How sufficient is God’s Grace?” Does God sprinkle out Grace sparingly on each sinful act, or does Christ’s blood cover All? Do our stubborn, habitual acts of rebellion pile up to a point where God cannot forgive? Having forgiven us once, twice, seventy times seven– is there a limit to His willingness to pour out Mercy? Theologically, the Bible is clear. The answer is a resounding, “NO.” God will not withhold His Grace from those who have sought it. God will never be “Done” with “Donne.” Nor will He be “done” with any of us who have chosen to follow Him. But in his all-too-human logic, Donne jokingly suggests that though God “hast” done/Donne, He “hast not” done/Donne. In other words, while Donne “belongs” to God– he has confessed his sins, and eagerly seeks to follow Christ, he still wrestles with fears that his small sinful acts prove that God does not fully “have” him– that He still lives separated from God.

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But the final sin of the poem is fear– fear that somehow, at the last, Death will prevail, and Donne will “perish on the shore,” rather than be taken into Heaven. He pleads that Christ’s blood (“Thy Sun/Son”) will be sufficient; that God’s promise of eternal life will indeed hold true, and that the work of salvation is indeed “done.” In the end, the poet hopes that “Thou hast Donne.” And he must trust that God’s promises will hold, for “I have no more.” Donne cannot stop death, he cannot do anything to save himself from sin, but he can be “done” with worry and trust in “Thy Sun/Son.”

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I am strangely encouraged by Donne’s poem. We all have moments of questioning and niggling doubts. And even though we “Know” the truth, our fears and emotions can play tricks on our mind. But Donne, even while putting such doubts and fears on paper, takes them to the Source of Hope. This is not a poem of accusation or despair. It is an honest and passionate desire to hear God’s calm assurance. And it is part of a long tradition that runs through the Bible. Jacob literally wrestled with an angel of the Lord (Gensis 32), Moses argued with God about going back to Egypt (Exodus 4), David questioned God (Psalm 10); even Jesus asked God, “Why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27). But in our doubts and questions, God’s still, small voice echoes, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5), “My Grace is sufficient for you.” (2 Corinthians 12:9), and “Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39).

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God’s work is ongoing, but it is also “done”– it is complete, whole, sufficient, and eternal. And even if we occasionally wonder and even question, we can choose to rest in His promises. Just as the poet concluded, if God “hast” done/Donne, “I have no more”– he needed to have no other fear of sin or sin of fear. And through Donne’s poetry, God’s assurance is being passed on– the work continues to be “Donne!”

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“What Must I Do?”

18 And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” 21 And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. 24 Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” 27 But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” 

Luke 18:18-27 ESV via biblegateway.com

I love that Jesus didn’t just give pithy answers to questions, but often went in roundabout ways to explore the motives behind them. I also love how He would use others’ questions, mixed with parables, metaphors, or other figurative language to stimulate further thought. And His parables and word pictures, while short and simple, have layers of meaning that cause us to ponder deeper issues.

The “Rich Young Ruler” in the above story came to Jesus with a question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Instead of answering the question, Jesus seems to get distracted by the young man’s greeting. “Why do you call me ‘Good?'” Did the young man really think that Jesus was better, or wiser, or more righteous than the religious leaders of the day? Or was he trying to flatter Jesus? Or did he think that Jesus would see him as an equal (or even superior) when he found out how righteous the ruler was? Jesus got to the heart of the greeting– “No one is good except God alone.” And therein lies the true answer to the ruler’s question, as well. There is nothing anyone can do to be “Good” enough to inherit eternal life.

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Jesus could have said this, but would the young ruler have accepted this answer? Probably not. His question betrays an assumption that he WAS good enough– that he had already done all that was required and that Jesus would surely be impressed and announce to the crowd that here was an example of someone who was worthy of eternal life. Instead, Jesus led the man through his pride by naming a few of the commandments– the very ones the ruler was so sure of. Indeed, this seemed to be exactly what the ruler was hoping to hear– proof that he had “passed the test.” Ironically, he was addressing Jesus as “Good teacher, ” but seemed to miss that fact that he was also addressing the only One who is truly Good! Jesus–God in the flesh — the very one whose death would guarantee that anyone would “inherit” eternal life. This young ruler doesn’t want Jesus to be his “Lord” and “Savior,” he just wants Jesus’s opinion.

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But then, Jesus pulled the rug out from under this man’s assumptions. “One thing you still lack.” One thing…I’m sure the young ruler thought it would be a fine point in the laws or traditions he know so well– some minor point that could be cleared up with a gift or a small offering. I find this a fascinating statement, because it is followed by “sell all you have and distribute to the poor…” It seems like such an oxymoronic statement. You lack one thing, therefore, you must give away all that you have. How is that possible? Because the “one thing” the rich man lacked was not an object; not something he could check off a list of “things I can do to impress the religious leaders.” This man lacked humility; he lacked a self-awareness of his own need. And he lacked the understanding of what it means to “inherit” eternal life. No one “earns” an inheritance. Even someone who is rewarded with an inheritance must trust in the goodwill of the person writing the will, and will only inherit under the terms of the will. Jesus’s “terms” were not that the man had to become destitute or spend the rest of this life as a beggar. But faced with the choice of his comfortable life in the here and now, or eternal and abundant life in heaven on God’s terms, this man chose earthly wealth and spiritual poverty.

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Almost lost at the end of Jesus’s surprising answer are the last two phrases, “and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” This man wanted eternal life as an extension of his comfortable life on earth. He did NOT want eternal life enough to sacrifice his present comforts or his preconceived notions of “goodness.” He did not want to follow Christ– he only wanted to consult with Him.

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I find it uncomfortable to hear about the young ruler’s rejection of Christ. I understand the initial shock of the disciples as Jesus uses the illustration of a camel going through the eye of a needle to compare with a “rich” person coming into the kingdom of God. Wasn’t Abraham wealthy? Wasn’t Solomon rich? What about King David? If riches make it impossible to follow Christ, who can gain eternal life? Thankfully, Jesus redirects the focus– it’s not about the riches; and it’s not about what we “do”– it is God’s “Good” pleasure to give eternal life to those who choose to “follow” Him.

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“Good Teacher and Lord, help me to remember this lesson as I come before you in prayer. You have not asked me to ‘earn’ my inheritance. It is your gift to answer my prayers as you see fit; to be the Lord of my life; to be merciful and gracious to me; to prepare a place for me to live with You for eternity. What you ask of me is that I ‘follow’ you– that I listen to your call; that I accept Your “terms” of inheritance; that I share Your Grace and Mercy with those around me.”

More Evidence of Things Not Seen…

I have a story of a miracle that happened this past week.

This has been a difficult year for my husband and I. We had COVID back in February, and between hospital bills and David being unable to return to work for several weeks (and then being able to return only part-time), our finances have been rather tight. God has been faithful throughout, so it was a lack of faith that had me in a panic at the end of the week. Several of our monthly bills come due on the 10th each month, and we had only enough money in the bank to make a partial payment on one of them. David got paid on Friday (the 10th!), but that was still only enough to pay two bills. The one bill I was unable to pay was our health insurance premium– not a comfortable choice with our continuing health issues! We would be behind again, as I had paid last month’s bill a couple of days late. I had no idea when we would have enough money to make this month’s payment.

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So Friday, we got a statement from our health insurance/health share network. I was afraid to open it. It wasn’t our regular monthly statement, and it was on pink paper, which generally means a warning about a past due account, or worse, a cancellation notice. I was sick with worry– so much so that I put the statement aside, afraid to open it and read the worst.

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By Saturday night, I was frantic. I couldn’t sleep, wondering and worrying. I “knew” that God was aware of our situation, and that He was in control. I also knew that another big bill would come due on the 15th– with no money in sight. I cried, and pleaded with God to help me trust Him, and to meet our needs.

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At that point, I heard a clear prompting from the Holy Spirit to find the statement and open it. How could I say I trusted God when I was too scared to even look at the situation? I found the statement and took it into the kitchen to open it and look, without waking my husband. My hands shook as I unfolded the pink paper.

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And as I read, I cried– this time tears of joy and repentance as I read the short note and saw the attached check. Our insurance comes through a health share network. The members of the network pay a base fee each month and can send extra money to help other members in need. Their generosity meant that a check– more than enough to pay our own monthly premium and the other looming bill on the 15th– had arrived just when we most needed it. My fears were turned to praise in an instant as I SAW what God had done, instead of seeing what I dreaded.

God didn’t send us thousands of dollars to meet all our desires. But He sent, through the faithfulness of strangers, enough to meet our needs, and, more importantly, enough to remind us of His power to provide and His grace to meet our spiritual needs.

I know God answers prayer. I know it because the Bible says so. I know it because I have seen it in the lives of others. And I know it from personal experience. I know that, even if that pink notice had NOT been an unexpected miracle, that God was still present, waiting for me to trust His wisdom and timing.

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“Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen”..(Hebrews 11:1). This weekend, what I imagined I saw through the eyes of doubt was really evidence of God’s great faithfulness. I just needed to open the eyes of faith– and open the evidence that was right before me all along!

The Ones Jesus Didn’t “Save”

“For God so loved the World, that He gave His only Begotten Son, that Whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting Life.”

John 3:16 (KJV)
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This is probably the most well-known verse in the Christian Bible. It has given hope to millions, as it explains that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ allows anyone to find forgiveness, faith, and new/eternal life. But what about those who don’t believe; those loved ones (and others) who die without the hope of salvation? Doesn’t God care about them? Why does he let them die without hope? Why do they go to eternal suffering, instead of being forgiven?

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I can’t give a complete answer to those questions…I don’t comprehend the entirety of God’s plan or His mind. But I do know this– God understands our heartbreak and our grief over our unsaved loved ones. After all, Jesus spent three years preaching and announcing the Gospel, yet He was betrayed by one of His closest friends. Jesus– God in the Flesh; Emmanuel; the Perfect Son of God–didn’t “save” everyone He knew. We have the wonderful story of the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus– what about others who didn’t “see the light?” There may have been hundreds, even thousands who heard Jesus preach; who watched Him hanging on the Cross; who heard the rumors that He had risen, only to reject His message–what about them? Jesus had met them. Maybe He had healed them, or eaten at their house, or studied with them at the Temple when they were younger. Some may have been His brothers, or cousins, or mentors and teachers.

On the night before He was crucified, Jesus was in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was in anguish about what He would have to face, but some of His anguish and grief had to be in knowing that, while His death and resurrection would save so many, there were still others who would choose to turn away and reject the Life and Hope and Peace that He suffered to bring.

Even during His ministry, Jesus didn’t heal everyone who was diseased or lame or blind. He even made reference at one point to the kinds of disasters that often leave us questioning God’s mercy:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Luke 13:1-5 (ESV)

Jesus could have “saved” those Galileans from having their sacrifices desecrated; He could have provided a miracle to save those who were killed by the tower that fell in Siloam. And just as we grieve today for the senseless loss of life in places like Afghanistan and Haiti, or New York City on 9/11/2001, Jesus felt the loss of innocent strangers. Just as we plead with friends and loved ones to repent and seek God’s face, Jesus preached the need for all people to confess and seek forgiveness.

Jesus could have forced Judas to turn from his plan to betray the Master. He had the authority to cast out demons and demand that angels come to honor, protect, or comfort Him. He has the authority to make every knee bow down and every tongue confess that He is the Sovereign Lord of the Universe. And someday, He will! But Jesus won’t save people against their will– even those close to him. He doesn’t compel grudging obedience, or demand abject servitude. There are some who choose to serve Him in that way, but that is not His desire. Instead, He compels us with His mercy. We choose to love Him because He first Loved us– sacrificially, unreservedly, without limits or conditions. (See 1 John 4:19)

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Jesus patiently spoke to Nicodemus in the dead of night. He chased Saul down on the road to Damascus and gave him three days of blindness to reconsider the direction of his life. He called His disciples and asked them to Follow Him– even Judas. He invited Himself to the house of Zacchaeus. He spoke with compassion to those who were broken, and outcast, and lost. And just like Judas, they had to make choices– some of His friends and followers abandoned Him when He needed them most. Some of them stumbled. But they HAD followed Jesus. They had learned from Him, and they came back and persevered.

Being loved by God comes without conditions and without reservations. Being “saved” by Christ’s atoning blood comes with a price–not just the price He paid on the cross, but the price of our repentance and acceptance of His Lordship, and yes, even the mysteries of His Grace.

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As Jesus hung on the Cross, He was positioned between two convicts who were justly condemned. Both were sinners; both were paying the penalty for their crimes. One cried out to a dying Savior, and was saved. The other mocked and cursed. Jesus had the power to save him. He did not desire that the other man should suffer. But the other man chose to reject who Jesus was, and so rejected all the mercy and power He could have shown.

Jesus died to save “whosoever” would believe. He did not die to save “howsoever.” We may not fully understand why He chose to offer Salvation in this way, but we believe it to our everlasting joy, or reject it to our everlasting anguish.

Fitting In

(Today, I am republishing a post from last year. I will be back with a fresh post on Monday.)

Matthew 5:1-12 (NIV via biblegateway.com):

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

The Beatitudes

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

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No one likes to feel “left out.” We have a deep desire to be accepted, liked, loved, respected, and needed. We want to “fit in.” But sometimes, acceptance and inclusion are not possible. Sometimes, they are offered, but at a price too steep. Sometimes, we make unhealthy compromises in our efforts to avoid conflict or to win respect.

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In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us at least seven principles/actions that will bring us blessing. But they are in opposition to human nature– NOT designed to help us “fit in” with most of society. Elsewhere in scripture, we are told to stand apart from what others are doing or saying. God wants people who will follow HIM, not the world.

  • People who are poor in spirit— this can be taken at least two ways: those who consider themselves poor in a material sense, and hold their money and possessions lightly; or those who are aware of their spiritual poverty, knowing that they need guidance and wisdom from above. Such people will “possess” the kingdom of heaven– not by fighting and straining and striving and grasping for sole ownership–it is God’s gracious gift to be shared by all who are poor in spirit.
  • People who mourn–not people who are eternally gloomy and depressed, but those who mourn the loss of innocence, the injustices of the world, the suffering and grief of others. Such people also rejoice at the sight of a glorious sunrise, or laugh to see children playing– but they do not deny or circumvent the realities of a fallen world. Such people will be comforted, even in the midst of mourning, by God’s sovereignty and righteousness.
  • People who are meek (humble)–there is a difference between being meek and lacking confidence or being a stooge or a fool. Meek people still have boundaries– and they respect the boundaries of others. They stand up for what is right, but they don’t insist on always being “right.” Such people will not stake a claim on the earth or try to grab their “fair share.” Instead, they will inherit all that God has in store for them!
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  • People who hunger and thirst for righteousness–hunger and thirst are natural and ongoing processes. There are people who want “justice” or “righteousness.” They want it NOW. They want it to be retroactive. They want it to be a foregone conclusion. And they want it to be eternal. But they don’t long for personal righteousness, and they don’t want to feel hunger or thirst for it. They don’t want to seek after true righteousness; they just want the results. They just want the world to spin righteously all around them. But for those who hunger and thirst– Jesus is both the Living Water and the Bread of Life. He brings a daily portion of all-sufficient Grace, wisdom, and forgiveness to keep us filled.
  • People who are merciful–I was struck as I read this again by the term merciful. We spend a lot of time and energy talking about God’s Grace– the fact that God gives us untold blessings that we don’t deserve. But here, Jesus is talking about the merciful– not giving others the condemnation or punishment they deserve. I find it much easier to be Graceful than to be Merciful. It is easy to bless others; to be charitable, or charming, encouraging, or bountiful. It is much more difficult to bite back an insulting or critical retort, to forgive a debt, to let go of a grudge, or keep from passing on a juicy morsel of gossip. It is easier to focus on the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would like them to do unto you, than to Love your enemies. Jesus asked us to do both– but the blessing here is for those who show Mercy!
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  • People who are pure in heart–not just shiny on the surface. I can say all manner of spiritual-sounding things; I can do all kinds of good deeds; I can even write blog entries on scriptural truths– but God looks on my heart, to see if it is pure. And if I haven’t covered my heart in posturing and false rituals, justifications and excuses, denials and rebellion, I should be able to “see” God– to have a clearer picture of who He is, what He is doing in the world around me, what He wants me to do and say and become…
  • People who are peacemakers–not just people who “go along to get along,” but people who are willing to help bring about peace, and who will create an atmosphere of unity and respect–at home, in the workplace, and in their neighborhoods. When we bring peace to a chaotic relationship, or create a peaceful atmosphere, we are doing the work of reconciliation, and we are showing others the nature of our Father.
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  • When we cultivate (or allow God’s Spirit to cultivate) these characteristics in our lives, we will not “fit it” with the world around us. We will stand out and stand apart. And that will make us targets for persecution, abuse, misunderstanding, insults, and false accusations. But we can be encouraged, not only because of the blessings Jesus promises in the Beatitudes, but in the reminder that we stand in very good company. We may not fit in at the office; we may be ostracized by our family; we may be targeted in our community– but we fit in with a host of prophets, apostles, saints, and with Christ Himself!

When We All Get To Heaven…

Last week, I attended the funeral of my mom’s cousin. It was a joyful funeral–not only was it a celebration of a life well-lived, and an acknowledgement of God’s grace, but it was a reunion of sorts. Not only were there cousins I hadn’t seen in awhile, but I met people I hadn’t known before, but we were connected through my cousin and through the legacy of a tiny country church and the faithful witness of those who have been blessed there.

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Friends and family spoke of my cousin’s generosity, his quiet and steadfast character, his diligence, and his love for Jesus Christ. We sang together, prayed together, and remembered. And some of the stories shared involved a small country church, once pastored by my cousin’s in-laws, and the site of many confessions of faith, prayer meetings, weddings, funerals, evangelistic services, pot-luck fellowships, Bible Schools, Easter services, Christmas programs, and weekly worship services. It was the church where I was introduced to the gospel. It was the church where I met my husband. It still stands, attended by faithful friends. It has, over the years, sent missionaries to Zambia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico, and the Philippines. It has supported local rescue missions, and local families in need. It is a tiny country church; I can remember when it had hard wooden pews, no fans or air conditioning in the summer, a damp and leaky basement with the occasional toad or salamander on the stairs, and no indoor bathroom.

Bethel Church

After the funeral, Mom and I went to the fellowship meal at another local church. It was beautiful, with a small cafe, a large sanctuary, two sets of bathrooms, a fellowship hall, and all the modern conveniences– located in an old strip mall. A far cry from the church of my youth, but filled with caring and gracious people who were there to provide food and comfort for the family. I don’t know how many local or foreign missions are served by the congregation there, but I suspect it would look similar to the list above.

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As we found a seat for the meal, we were joined by a woman I had never met. As we made introductions, we realized two things– we were distantly related, and we had both attended Bethel Church as young children (though separated by a couple of decades). We both had fond memories of that small country church, and the wonderful people there.

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Over the next few days, I thought about all the amazing people I have known–family members like my cousin, and this distant cousin I was able to meet; the various families who came and went over the years at Bethel Church and other churches I have attended; missionaries and evangelists, pastors, teachers, and their families; the people I have met through mission trips and conferences–and how many more amazing people I have NEVER met, but whose lives are intertwined because we belong to God’s family.

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Someday, we will all be in the same place at the same time–HOME– with our Loving Father! When we all get to Heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be! Until then, we are scattered by distance and circumstance. We worship in different ways, different languages, in different types of buildings, in small house churches, cathedrals, arenas, and strip malls. We have different outreach opportunities, different social challenges, different budgets, and different worship styles. But we are connected:

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There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:4-6 ESV

Heaven will be incredibly diverse; and uniquely cohesive– brought together by a Love that transcends differences, disparity, and even death. And we will meet those whose lives paralleled ours, even if we never met on earth. We will meet those whose faithfulness brought about the little country church where I grew up, and those who planted churches in malls, and jungles, caves, hills, forests, and “underground.” All our amazingly diverse stories will be woven into one eternal “Hallelujah” as we praise the author of them all.

Funerals can be anguished events. But I was blessed last week to remember God’s incredible faithfulness. One of the verses quoted during the service was Psalm 116:15–“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” Earlier in the same Psalm, the writer has this to say, “I love the Lord, because He has heard my voice and my supplications.  Because He has inclined His ear to me, therefore I will call upon Him as long as I live.” I have seen and experienced God’s faithfulness– through the lives of other saints, through the work of His church, and as He has personally “inclined His ear to me.” May I be faithful to all upon Him for as long as I live. As my cousin was blessed and blessed others, may we hold true to our “One faith” as we await that day when we all get to Heaven!

Avoiding the Heat

We’ve been experiencing a heat wave. The temperatures are high, but the humidity makes it feel even hotter. People are doing whatever they can to avoid the heat– everything from driving around to stay in the air-conditioned car, wearing loose fitting clothes, wearing wide-brimmed hats for extra shade, drinking lots of cold water, or staying indoors with fans. Others have no alternative– they must walk in the heat, work in the heat, or try to find whatever shelter or shade is available, even if it offers only relief from the harshest rays of the sun.

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Today, we are getting rain– blessed relief– cool drops of water and lower temperatures, along with clouds to hide the sun’s piercing rays. Even so, the rain has come with wind and even some flooding and storm damage. So even our “relief” poses some danger. So there is limited relief from the heat, but once the rain front passes, the temperature may rise, and the humidity will once again make the air steamy and oppressive.

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Watching how people work and plan and worry about avoiding the heat of summer reminds me of how we work and plan and worry about avoiding another kind of “heat”– accountability and judgment. Hell is described as a “place of eternal torment”, a “lake of fire,” and a “blazing furnace.” People will do almost anything to avoid such a place. They try to pretend it doesn’t exist; they create “air-conditioned” philosophies and religions that block the reality of judgment and punishment; they worry and work and plot ways to escape their fate.

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Jesus clearly taught that Hell is real, and that it is a place of darkness, suffering, gnashing of teeth, and despair. Someday there will be a “heat wave,” as all those who have rejected God’s offer of forgiveness and His Sovereignty face His judgment and righteous wrath. There will be no rain to bring relief or refreshment; no shade or cooling breeze of grace– only the unbearable oppression of guilt, shame, and self-torment that comes from being outside of God’s loving care.

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There is a way to “avoid the heat” of God’s wrath– He offers complete restoration and eternal life for those who turn from sin and follow Him. Jesus, through His life, ministry, death, and resurrection, made it possible for us to live in God’s presence– His Light, His Glory, and His Love– in joyful eternity. We do not have to worry and work and plot how to “avoid the heat.” We need only put our trust in the one who sends the heat and wind and rain in their seasons, and whose Grace shades us from His wrath.

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Part of this trust is being able to call out to God in our times of “heat”– whether from guilt or oppression–and ask for His blessed relief. Sometimes, we need to call on His Grace and forgiveness. Sometimes, we need to call on His promises– not to remind Him, but to remind ourselves that our “heat” is temporary, and His relief is eternally effective. This week, our “relief” from the heat came in the form of rain storms. We might be tempted to complain about the manner of God’s response to our cries for help in the moment. But we must remember that the storms and the heat waves of this life are temporary– the fires of Hell, and the blessings of Heaven are eternal.

Orphan Train

Across from our shop, there is a mural that tells the story of the first “Orphan Train.” In October of 1854, 45 children– some orphaned, others abandoned–arrived in southwest Michigan from New York City. Conditions for such children in the large cities were dangerous. Floods of immigrants included children who had lost their parents on the voyage to America, or who had been separated from their families upon arrival. There were very few orphanages, and almost no resources dedicated to child welfare. Hunger, disease, crime, and exposure to the elements meant that many children never lived to maturity. Most of them lived on the streets; ignored, preyed upon, or simply forgotten. A group called the Children’s Aid Society, founded in 1853, had tried helping children– especially boys–but their limited resources were overwhelmed within the first year.

Orphan Train mural, Dowagiac, Michigan (Ruth Andrews)

It was the idea of a man named Charles Loring Brace that large numbers of these children could escape the dangerous environs of the city and find safety and hope in the expanding “West.” With the help of the new railroads, groups of children could travel west, where kind-hearted families could adopt them. Food, shelter, education, fresh air, opportunity, and a loving family- this was the promise of the orphan train. For some children, it was the start of a wonderful new life. For some, it was trading a hard life in the city for a hard life on the frontier.

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I can only imagine how frightening it must have been for the first train-load of orphans to travel here. Few people had ever traveled by train in those days. Some of the children had never traveled more than a few blocks from where they had been born– had never seen a farm or a forest. Part of their journey was on a steamboat. The journey would not have been comfortable, but it would have been exciting and even terrifying at times. They had no guarantee of finding homes or families who would be willing to take care of them– only the hope that someone might.

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What does this have to do with prayer? Well, the obvious connection would be that everyone involved with this venture must have prayed diligently. All 45 children were placed with local families in that first journey. And the success of this first placement encouraged future endeavors. The “orphan trains” ran for 75 years, and carried nearly a quarter of a million children to new homes throughout the growing United States. And while not every child found a “happy ending” with their new family, most of them survived to create a new life as adults–an opportunity many other orphans had been denied.

Orphan Train Mural, Dowagiac, Michigan (Ruth Andrews)

But it struck me today, as I was looking at the mural and thinking about the fate of these children, that we are or were all in a similar situation. I am so thankful to be able to pray to my Loving Father– but there was a time when I was lost and without hope. There was a time when Sin had made me an orphan. I was alone and frightened and helpless to save myself. Like the orphans in first part of the mural, I was sick and sad, my best intentions were no more than tattered rags. Even as they line up to board the train, their faces show fear and pain.

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It can be frightening to call out to God– frightening to leave the life we know, even when it is dangerous and unhealthy. God’s way takes us to uncomfortable and unfamiliar places–we can’t see the road ahead, and we don’t know what our “new” life will be like.

As I gaze once again at the mural, the last section shows an idealized version of the “new life” experienced by the riders of the “Orphan Train.” It shows a groups of children in a circle, holding hands and playing in the sunshine among grass and trees, while a bird flutters nearby. It is a heavenly place– the children’s clothes are clean, and they look healthy and happy. And while this is an ideal, rather than the reality for some of the children, it is a reminder of the contrast with the life they left behind.

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Thanks be to God for His Grace that rescues us from the ravages of Sin. He offers us an escape to a new life– complete with a new family and a glorious hope of Heaven. He offers full adoption– guaranteed by the blood of His own Son– for those who will choose to leave their old life of Sin behind and travel as an orphan on His own “Orphan Train.”

I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”

Galatians 4:1-6 ESV (via biblegateway.com)

https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/adoption-the-heart-of-the-gospel

Nothing But the Blood

As I write this, it is still Sunday evening. This morning, we sang a classic hymn at church– “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus.” It’s an old hymn, and familiar; we often sing such hymns on auto-pilot and without really thinking of the wonderful words and truths coming out of our throats.

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“What can wash away my sin?– Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” “What can make me whole again?–Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” When I come to God in prayer, confessing my sins, it is not my prayer that makes me clean. Nothing I can say or do will give me right standing before God. I am a sinner, and I fall short of God’s glory. I also trespass against His holiness, and even His mercy. I am guilty, and there is no “magic” prayer that will heal me or exonerate me.

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Yet I come before a Holy God and make my confession. Not because He doesn’t know that I have sinned. Not because my words will save me. I come because I know that the Blood of Jesus Christ has, and will make me whole and justified. I have no need to hide the truth of my condition, or try to make my own justification or sanctification. Christ has done it all.

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Prayers of confession are not for God’s benefit, but for ours. To hide our guilt, or to excuse it, is to despise God’s amazing gift of Grace. When we confess to God, it is not because He wants to humiliate us or cause us additional guilt– though this is often the lie we tell ourselves. God is eager to remove our guilt and to guide us in His righteous ways. But He will not save us against our own will or without our permission. He will not conspire with us to hide our secret sins, or pass the blame on to someone else. To do so would be to submit to OUR will. WE are NOT God, though we sometimes act as though our ways are better than His.

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I’m so glad that God is God– that His ways are perfect, and that I can trust Him completely. Even when I fall short, I can trust that God has already paid the price to make things right– something I could never do, and something I find too wonderful to fully comprehend.

Nothing but the blood can save me. And anything other than the blood will fail to set me free. My prayers of confession– no matter how polished or pious or piteous– cannot unlock the mystery of salvation and restoration. But they acknowledge the marvelous reality that it IS FINISHED! God’s Grace is sufficient! Hallelujah!

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