“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.”

Plenty of Room…

14 1-4 “Don’t let this rattle you. You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live. And you already know the road I’m taking.” Thomas said, “Master, we have no idea where you’re going. How do you expect us to know the road?” 6-7 Jesus said, “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him. You’ve even seen him!”

John 14:1-6 “The Message”

My mother is fast approaching that time in life where she may no longer be able to live independently. Her health issues and failing eyesight mean she can no longer drive, and her house in the country, while familiar to her, causes her anxiety– What if the furnace breaks down in the winter? What if her pipes freeze? What if she can’t get back and forth to her mailbox, or falls down in the bathroom?

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My siblings and I are facing questions, too. Are any of us able to provide room for Mom to stay with us? Can we provide proper care? Can any of us “be there” when she needs us? Where can she go, if she can’t stay in her own home? How will she manage if she has to go “into care” somewhere? Will they provide for her needs?

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These are questions that plague us during our lifetime. I remember looking for housing after I left college and got my first job. Where would I stay? Could I afford rent? Would it be safe? Noisy? What about maintenance and utilities? When I got another job– Could I find another place close to my new job? How would I get moved? Would I be able to fit my furniture into the new space? Would I need to buy new appliances? Would the neighbors be friendly?

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One day, we will “move” to our eternal home. If we have trusted Christ’s promises, we don’t have to worry about any of those questions. Our new and everlasting home has been prepared especially for us by our Loving Father. There is plenty of room, and it is rent-free! We don’t have to worry about the location, the safety, or the utility of our Heavenly home– it comes with an eternal guarantee.

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Jesus gave this promise to His disciples during the “Last Supper.” Preparations had been made for them to eat the Passover meal in an “upper room.” Jesus didn’t own a house; He had no apartment or condo or even a hut where He could invite His friends or family to join Him for a meal. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20 ESV) This is the same Jesus who was born in a stable “because there was no room in the inn.” (Luke 2:7) This is the same Jesus who was “in the beginning” creating the whole of the universe.

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We can trust the promise of Jesus– there is “plenty of room” in God’s Kingdom. There is room for all who come to the Father’s house. No one will have to wonder or worry about heat or light or plumbing. No one will have to wonder about food or clothing, mobility issues or health concerns. No one will have to worry about the neighbors or the neighborhood. All we have to do is follow the “road” laid out by Jesus Christ.

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Jesus came into a world that had “no room” for Him– a world that rejected Him– so that we could have plenty of room with Him, forever.

Even though we may have decisions to make about finding a temporary “place” for Mom, we can be very sure that God’s already prepared a place for her– better than anything we can plan for or imagine! 

The Righteous Will Live By Faith

“Look at the proud! They trust in themselves, and their lives are crooked, but the righteous will live by their faith.”

Habakkuk 2:4

Is it rational to believe in God? About three and a half centuries ago, the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, drew up what is now known as “Pascal’s Wager.” In it, he gives a “rational” justification for belief in God (theism). In it, he posits that if God doesn’t exist, it doesn’t matter whether or not we believe that He does. But if God is real, the consequences of our belief or denial are crucial. If the God of the Bible exists (along with heaven and hell, sin and salvation), the failure to believe will lead us to lose everything; the decision to believe will lead us to gain everything…there is no in between.

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I’m not a big fan of Pascal’s Wager. Not because it’s bad logic, per se, but because it depends on belief, but not faith.

What’s the difference? Belief says that God exists–that He is supreme, that He controls our destiny, and that He must be obeyed. It will produce a life of theistic obedience to God’s Law, including a life of “good” works, moral conduct, and “right” thinking. But it will not produce a Godly character. It will not be a life of righteousness.

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Faith, on the other hand, believes that God not only exists, but that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him (Hebrews 11:6) and that He so loved the world, that He gave His only Son (John 3:16) to save us from Sin and Death (1 Corinthians 15:56-7). It is not our belief in God’s existence that saves us and gives us life; rather it is Faith by His Grace! (Ephesians 2:8-9) in the nature and character of God– in the atoning work of Jesus as revelation and proof of His character– that saves us from Sin and Death.

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Pascal’s Wager is a way of thinking about God. It can lead someone to believe, which can produce a life of Faith. But it can also produce a kind of life that is ruled by grudging obedience, resentment, and pride in one’s own powers of self-control and understanding. Faith lives in dependence and humility, and joyous gratitude for God’s gifts.

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The prophet Habakkuk, who first wrote the phrase, “the righteous will live by faith,” learned this lesson in dramatic fashion. He “believed” in God– in His righteousness and justice. He spoke to God about the wickedness he saw all around him, among his own people. God gave him a difficult answer: Justice was coming in the form of an invasion by the Babylonians– a group known for their wickedness and cruelty and lack of justice! God’s answer was shocking and counter-intuitive. But Habakkuk chose to believe in God’s Eternal Character, as God revealed the “rest of the story.” Israel would suffer; justice would be cruel–but God’s glory and His salvation would triumph. Habakkuk’s response was a song of praise and faith. Regardless of his circumstances, Habakkuk would wait and rejoice, knowing that God’s ways are perfect.

It’s not difficult to say we believe in God. But are we living in Faith? I find it easy to let circumstances–especially injustice and wickedness–overwhelm me and rob me of peace and joy. But I find it comforting to know that my momentary doubts cannot stop God’s promises, His Mercy, or His power to help me live by Faith. That’s due to His righteousness, not mine, but through Christ, I can trust in it, walk in it, and live in it!

Abide With Me

Often, when I pray for those who are in pain or grief, I will ask, “God, BE WITH…” This is a natural desire, but in one sense, it is also superfluous. God is always with us; always present, no matter our circumstances.

So when I ask God to “be with” someone, I am not really asking that He stop whatever else He is doing and go to that person. He is already there. I’m not asking Him to become aware of their heartache or suffering; He already knows. I’m not asking that He do something new or different from His will or His plan. What I am asking is that His presence would be revealed in and through the situation– that my friend or loved one (or stranger whose needs have been brought to my attention) would have a supernatural sense of God’s abiding, powerful, compassion and grace.

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Intellectually, I can know that God is omnipresent and omniscient. I “know” that God is always with me. The Bible is filled with God’s promises to “be with” His people. (See https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-study/topical-studies/beautiful-verses-to-remind-you-that-god-is-with-us.html) But I also know, emotionally and experientially, that I don’t always feel His presence. I have moments of doubt and despair– I think all of us do. That’s part of the curse of Sin–being separated from the awareness of God’s continual presence. Even Jesus, as He was dying, felt the awful anguish of being separated from the Father, crying out, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

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God promises each believer that He (through His Holy Spirit) will dwell with us. He will “abide” with us. But just like living with a spouse and other members of a family, there are times when His presence seems to be in another room; and we feel alone. There may be many reasons for this– sometimes, it is because we have walked away, or turned our face away. But at other times, we long for that closeness, that awareness that God is right beside us, only to feel that He is far away. As strong as that feeling may be, we need to remember that it is NOT the reality. God still abides with us. He is still present, even if He is silent.

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So, when I know that feeling, or when I know someone else is going through that feeling, I pray, not that God will come to us, or come back from being away, but that our awareness of God’s presence and closeness will be deepened or reignited.

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Someday, I won’t have to pray that prayer. Someday, and for all eternity, we will be surrounded by God’s Glorious Presence. But in this fallen world, what a privilege and hope to be able to pray to a God that abides with us!

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.

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.

Lord, Lord!

21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by thy name, and by thy name cast out demons, and by thy name do many mighty works? 23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

Matthew 7:21-23
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In just the past three weeks, three of my family members and one of my friends have made the decision to be baptized as a public declaration of their decision to live for Christ. All of them (and the others who were baptized at the same times) were baptized by immersion, signifying that they have, spiritually, died to self, been buried, and are raised with Christ to eternal life. This is not a step to be taken lightly, and I have confidence that all four (and more) of those I know are serious in their passion to follow the Lord.

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When I write about prayer as a pursuit, I hope to convey that prayer is part of a larger pursuit of seeking God. And seeking God must include acknowledging Him as Lord above all– especially self. Jesus warned about people who claim to follow Him in word, but do not obey Him. It is, unfortunately, very easy to “speak Christian-ese”: to sound righteous and reverent when we are around others who claim to believe, but justify behaviors that may or may not stem from selfish motives.

There are obvious examples of hypocrisy in our world, but in His famous “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus warns that many who seem to be doing good deeds, and “talking the talk” will not be part of God’s eternal kingdom. We are not to be seduced into thinking that God will be impressed by charitable giving, memorizing Scripture, or working on the Mission field if we are not willing to repent of our “secret” sins and false attitudes. And it is not for us to point fingers at “other” hypocrites– it is for us to humbly assess whether or not we are truly acting in obedience and submission to our Lord, or satisfying our own selfish desires and hoping for God’s stamp of approval.

Prayer should be a two-way communication. We pray to God, but we also listen for God’s guidance, wisdom, conviction, and encouragement. And we must act in obedience, and confess our disobedience if we want to “keep the slate clean” and keep a close relationship. When we refuse, we are just giving God lip service, and using His name to impress others and deceive ourselves. Others may judge us on appearances, but God sees what is in our heart. And “in that day” (v. 22), He will not let imposters through the gates of Heaven.

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The Good News is that Jesus doesn’t leave us hanging in verse 23. He goes on to say, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house upon the rock..” (Matthew 7:24) Jesus is our Lord, but also our Savior and our Advocate. When we call on Him AS our true Lord, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins (1 John 1:9), and His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3a)

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The act of Baptism alone does not have the power to save us. The practice of prayer alone has no saving power. But the pursuit of a relationship with Christ depends on such acts of obedience, humility, and trust. And the other good deeds that come from that relationship will not only help others, but will please God and strengthen that relationship. Instead of hearing, “I never knew you,” we can hear, “well done!” Not because of what we’ve done, but because of the partnership we’ve developed in God’s work.

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May God bless all those who have recently taken the step of Baptism. And may we all continue to pursue that relationship of dying to self, being buried with Him, and rising to new life in Christ!

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

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!

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