A Love Letter

At the church I attended while growing up our pastor’s wife always had a phrase I hated to hear…  Whenever she wanted to ask anyone (including me) to do something, she’d say “Don’t you want to be a helper for Jesus?” (of course, since she was from the South and had that thick accent “Jesus” was emphasized and drawn out!).  It wasn’t that I hated the phrase – it was that I knew I couldn’t ever say no because, well, after all, how could I say know to Jesus!?!?

Last year while we visited churches I found myself evaluating some churches based on people I knew who attended there.  Melissa and I had several conversations that, “I’m not sure I want to go to that church because I know some of those people outside of church and I know how they live; if that’s what kind of people attend that church, well….”  I think you get the idea.  What I was struggling with was really not people’s lifestyles but rather the issue of being “religious” on Sunday but then living the rest of the week anyway you want.  Well, that and being overly judgmental….

Then I started thinking (or maybe God started asking), “But what about me?  What do people see in me?  Do they see Jesus in me, or would they not want to come to church if I invited them because, well, I don’t do a very good job of showing people him?”  Paul says in 2 Corinthians that we are, literally, “Christ’s ambassadors” (5:20), even going so far to suggest that we are “a letter from Christ…written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (3:3)  So it’s not about being a “helper for Jesus” but a “letter from Jesus”.  Which gives me pause…  What type of ambassador am I?  Would people describe me and my life as a “love letter” from God written to them?

Or would they see me as hypocritical and judgmental?  Do I operate like the world wants me to operate or as God wants me to operate?  If they visited my church and saw me standing there would they immediately go, “Wow!  So if this is where Tom goes then I want to go here too!” or would their response be, “Wow!  If this is where Tom goes maybe I need to go someplace else.”  I’m not suggesting Christians are perfect and we need to be perfect for other people, and I am absolutely in agreement that Church is for sinners – sinners saved by grace, redeemed sinners (imperfect saints).  I’m simply remembering inviting a friend to church years ago in another state and her response was, “I would never go to that church – I know for a fact several of the ‘elders’ are cheating on their wives because they’re cheating with friends of mine!”  Not exactly the response I was hoping for…

Which brings me to what happened tonight…  I was watching a little TV with Melissa and she turned on the most recent episode of one of her new favorite shows, Grey’s Anatomy.  One main theme in the episode was a 19 year old who needed a blood transfusion but couldn’t get one because of his religious beliefs.  At one point a friend of his comments to one of the doctor’s that even though they hang out “every day” his friend (the patient) never “once mentioned to me that he was a Jehovah’s witness.  He never talked about it.  I kinda don’t think he is.” (his being a JW is why he can’t get a blood transfusion).  The doctor responds that maybe he’s just a private person, to which the friend says, “If you believed in something so hard you would die for it, would you keep it a secret?  Wouldn’t you at least tell your friends?”

And you could have just smacked me upside the face.   Which raised the question to me, “Would my friends even know I’m a follower of Jesus based on how I live my life?”  Would they know what I’m living for?  Would they know what I’m willing to die for?  When God writes them a love letter, don’t you think he wants them to know what he lived and died for?  And yet I’m the letter; I’m the ambassador.  What message are others receiving?  Am I keeping him a secret?

Here’s the thing with ambassadors – everyone knows who they represent.  If I at a party and someone introduces themselves to me and says, “I’m the ambassador for Argentina,” or “I’m the Saudia Arabian ambassador” I know without a shadow of a doubt who they represent (oh, by the way, I don’t foresee ever attending a party with an ambassador from another country).  Which means that for those of us who are followers of Jesus, people should know who we represent.  Sometimes that’s communicated by our actions, but it also needs to be communicated by our words.  And this is where I struggle the most – sharing my faith through my words.  The last thing I want someone to do is say I kept a secret from them.  Because, in fact, I have the greatest secret ever told – but it’s a secret that’s not supposed to be a secret; it’s a secret I’m supposed to tell.

And what’s that secret?  That I’m an ambassador for Jesus.  What’s that mean?  Jesus died to repair a broken relationship between us and God, and then he rose again from the dead so that we could experience a new relationship with God.  That’s the secret: God loves us and sent his son to die for us.  And in him we can have eternal life and the forgiveness of sins.  And part of that love letter from God to others is me – my life; they need to both hear the secret but also see it lived out in front of them.  We are the love letter.

If our friends and family don’t hear the secret from us, from who will they hear it?


What’s the Big Deal about Easter?

Earlier this week I read a blog post entitled “Why Easter is Bigger than Christmas” and that got me thinking…  What is the big deal with Easter anyway?  I mean, it’s a celebration of Jesus being raised from the dead.  But that’s it…or is it?

Paul broaches the subject in 1 Corinthians 15:13-19, so let’s try and put this into context.  Jesus’ resurrection is a big deal.  A Really Big Deal.  A Really, Really, REALLY Big Deal.  So big, in fact, that it is the essential event every human must respond to at some point in their existence – either in this life or the afterlife.  It’s that big.

Think about this with me for a second…  If Jesus didn’t get up from the grave then obviously everything he said and did has been invalidated.  But not only that, since the Bible contains the story of Jesus, if what Jesus said and did becomes invalid then everything else in the Bible is also invalid (that whole “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” thing).  You read that right: if Jesus didn’t raise from the dead we can dismiss the entire Bible and everything in it.  But it goes beyond that even.  I’m arguing that without the resurrection then the very presences of an Almighty God is lost.

Think this through with me for a second… The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is what sets Christianity apart from every other world religion.  No other religion says that God came to Earth to save us.  No other religion says that God died on a cross.  And no other religion says that God came back from the dead.  Without the resurrection, Christianity is no different than any other religion or philosophy; religions all try to address the question of what to do with God – and, in essence, all religions (except for Christianity) say, at best, we have to do something to earn the approval of God.  This is where Christianity stands in contrast to world religions, because it says there’s nothing that we can do to earn God’s approval.

Think of three competing philosophies: one that says there is no God, one that says we need to find a way to God, and one that says God reaches down to make a way for us.  Christianity is obviously the last, but without the Resurrection Christianity is proved false.  Yet because there are so many competing philosophies that fall into group B, all that basically say the same thing, one could argue that the very presense of so many competing philosophies in-and-of-itself invalidates them all (this is the argument Christian apologists have to argue to separate Christianity from other religions, because with so many competing viewpoints pretty much everyone is able to recognize that none are true).  So after Christianity and Group B are both gotten rid of, the only choice left is that there is no God.

But what’s the big deal with that?  Simple.  Without God we are left ultimately with nothing but the here-and-now.  Without God we have no purpose, no authority to answer to… We should “eat, drink, and be merry – for tomorrow we may die.”  How does that look practically?  To start with, we would have no reason to teach good and bad to our kids, but there is no right or wrong.   We’d have no reason to listen to those who have authority over us because, well, no one is in authority over them to put them in authority over us – so we have anarchy.  We have no reason to fulfill or honor any vows we have made throughout our life – be it to our spouse, our friends, our family, or our jobs.  Life truly becomes survival of the fittest, and so any and everything I do is justified and “right” as long as it helps me survive.  I keep my promises – as long as it helps me and makes me stronger; I don’t cheat in business – as long as it means I come out on top; I don’t honor authority – as long as doing so doesn’t get me killed; I don’t value the life of anyone – unless their value brings me strength and victory.

See, without the resurrection we have absolutely nothing.  What purpose is there to being good, honest, and fair?  Why fight for the freedom of other people – when they might end up being stronger than we are and overtake us?  Why work for “the good of humanity”, when humanity will just be out to get me?  Without the resurrection we have nothing.

But with it – well, now that changes things.  Because Jesus did raise – bodily – from the dead, that means there’s a God out there who is just.  A just God means that there are rules to be followed, order to be enforced, rewards to be earned, and punishments to be given.  Let’s just say it – a just God means there is right and wrong.  But it also means there is a God who paid the way for that justice to happen without compromising it in the least.  The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are not just because “God loved me so much…” (though they are about that).  The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ mean that God is so just that he was not able to accept sinners into relationship with him unless a price was paid to wipe out their sin.  The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ show us that God paid that price and made a way for us to live in communion with him for all eternity.  The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ paid the way for a just and loving God to offer forgiveness to individual people.

That’s huge – it’s absolutely mind-blowing to consider this, but the Almighty God of the universe demanded something that we could not do, and instead of lowering his standards he made a way by which we could meet them through the death of his son Jesus.  And then when Jesus got up from the dead, God showed us that he had the power to do everything the Bible said.  And that’s really, really fantastic news!  Now I have a reason to honor my vows, keep my word, obey those who are in authority over me, teach my children right and wrong, and work honestly.

But even more important than that – more important than “living a good and honorable life” – I have a reason to worship, to respond to what God has done.  Yes, Easter – the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead – is a really, really big deal.

Promises Kept (3.25)

Celeste loves music – I mean, she loves music – and one of her things she likes to do is ask me to sing to her.  Today the song she was singing all day long was Jesus Loves Me – which is still one of my all-time favorite songs.  Today’s devotional reminds us of the love God has for us.  As with last week’s devotional, this week’s comes from a2observeslent.com and was written by Jenny Walters.  I hope you find it as meaningful to read as I did.

Promises Kept

We’ve all heard these phrases, “He will send you His Comforter.” “He will give you peace that passes all understanding.” “His grace is sufficient.” — all real promises from God’s word. What if you had to trust God and take Him at His word?

What if it is all you thought about night and day, if you had to “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not unto your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5)?

On April 22, 2006, Billy and I got the phone call a parent never wants to receive.

Our youngest son, Kingsley, then 22 years old, had been in an accident. He was being airlifted to UAB. The call was unexpected, just as so much in life is. Our lives would change from that day forward.

The weekend had started with anticipation. Kingsley had worked all week; he worked in surveying and was glad to have the weekend off. He and his friends had been looking forward to this weekend for months — it was the “big weekend” for off-roading at Gray Rock. It only happens once or twice a year, he had said, as he headed out the door with a big smile on his face.

He loved the outdoors, hunting, fishing, and off-roading in his red jeep. He was so excited. Our oldest son, Kendall, was working all weekend, and Billy had headed out for a fishing trip with his brother in Panama City, Florida.

So, my sister and I spent the day together, touring the parade of homes in the area. We had just finished and were heading home when Billy called telling us Kingsley had been in an accident and was being airlifted to UAB. Time stopped. “Go to UAB,” he said, “I am heading home.” My sister agreed to drive me to the hospital. All the way she kept asking “What are you thinking?… Are you ok?” Honestly, I can only remember thinking, “I just don’t understand.”

Later, I would be reminded, it was not for me to understand, only to Trust in Him.

We arrived at the hospital, friends and family started to arrive, then the doctor wanted to talk with the family in the chapel. I had worked in a hospital admitting area, and I knew what this meant. We all gathered, except Billy, he was still in route, the doctor told us that, “they did all they could.” There had been a terrible accident, the jeep dropped a tire off solid ground and had rolled over; it landed on Kingsley, crushing his chest. “We are so sorry.”

Our world was out of control…trying to make sense of it all. When Billy finally arrived, we gave him the news…he was devastated.

We planned a funeral. We cried, we grieved, we missed our son.

Fast forward, 5 months to the day, Sept 22, 2006: another call came unexpected…Kingsley’s girlfriend, Jessica, only 20 years old, had passed away in her sleep. The cause was determined to be a “pulmonary embolism.” There were speculations but the reason was “unknown.” We cried and grieved with her family. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the family did not have a place to bury their daughter. We discussed this with the family, and it was agreed, she would be placed next to Kingsley. Two young lives, with such a bright future, gone. We searched for answers, we read the book of Ecclesiastes, again and again; we tried to understand these words, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” We looked to God’s words in Isaiah 55:9, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.”

We know in our hearts we will see them both in Heaven, and God has victory over the grave. We hold to these promises in His Word.

We still do not understand the “why,” but we do trust in a God who is in control, even when we are not. We trust His Word and His promises.

Fast forward 5 years…to today, God has restored: our oldest son, Kendall, has two children, our beautiful healthy grandchildren, so full of life we have a hard time keeping up with their energy. God is good. We are amazed every day by how bright and intelligent they are. They are so much fun. We love watching them learn things they have never experienced before, their world of child amazement at all of God’s wonderful creation. He has kept His promises…He sent us His Comforter when we needed it the most. He sent us His “peace that passes all understanding” and His grace has been sufficient to heal our hearts. He has restored, as only He can.

God freely gave His Son for a sacrifice for your sins, to heal your hearts, and to restore your life as only He can. He also knew the pain and grief you would suffer when He went away and so He sends you His Holy Spirit as a Comforter to help ease your pain. Our God has you on His mind…He loves you. He will never leave you or forsake you, He will be with you always.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What promise of God gives you strength and comfort?
  2. Sing the song “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know”; talk with someone about what it means to know that Jesus loves us because “the Bible tells us so.”

Receiving and Giving Gifts (Issue 2.12)

Originally Written for 12/13/09

Christmas is a time that is too often spent trying to find the perfect gift for that special person, or fretting over whether the one we’ve found is the right one.  We give because of our love, and because God gave to us.

But I was reminded today that the real message of Christmas is not that we give, but that we can receive the greatest gift of all.  It is a reminder that we are finite and, ultimately, there is nothing we can give that will ever get us into Heaven.  Christmas is a reminder of how essential it is for us receive.

Read this quote I came across earlier:

“Rabbi Michael Goldber, in his book Jews and Christians, says that as a Jew he is impressed in reading Matthew’s account of the nativity by how utterly passive the actors are.  As a Jew, he answers to the story of the Exodus, a story  of how God liberated the chosen people through the enlistment and prodding of people like Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.  But the Christmas story implies that what God wants to do for us is so strange, so beyond the bounds of human effort and striving, that God must resort to utterly unnatural, supernatural means.  It tells of an unimaginable gift from a stranger, a God whom we hardly even know.”

When I read that it caused me to pause and reflect – in fact, I’ve been reflecting on it for quite some time.

Christmas, like worship, all to often focuses on what we should do – what we have to offer (even our songs this morning spoke of this – bringing an “offering”).  Yet the truth about Christmas (and of worship) is that our job is to respond to what God has already done.  I’m not suggesting at all that we shouldn’t give gifts to others or to Christ, but we must constantly remember that the reason we give is as a response to what we have received.  John writes, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son…”  (1 John 4:10)  Paul writes, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8).

Our job is to respond to that love.  The first step in our response is to receive.

Let’s reflect a little over the coming days on how well we receive the gift God has sent us.

What God Has Done (Issue 1.30)

Originally Written for 6/7/09

I don’t know about you, but this morning’s music really focused me on the essence of what God has done for us and how we should respond.

In love Christ died for us, and because of that we have hope of “no more tears, no more pain” because we “will rise” to live with Him eternally.

This means I shouldn’t boast in anything “but the death of Christ my God,” and I need to “sacrifice [everything] to his blood.”

Why?  Because “Love so amazing…demands my soul, my life, my all.”

I think that’s it for today – just take the time you normally spend reading the devotional and meditate on those truths.  My prayer is that these were more than emtpy words sung on a Sunday morning but that they truly are our heart’s cry.

Believing in – and Loving – God (Issue 1.28)

Originally Written for 5/3/09

I’m reading a book entitled Crazy Love by a pastor out in California named Francis Chan; to be honest, it’s the first I’ve ever heard of him and (obviously) the first book I’ve read by him.  I want to quote a few things he wrote in a chapter entitled “Crazy Love”:

“Recently, out of my desire to grow in my love for God, I decided to spend a few days alone with him in the woods.

“Before I left, a friend prayed, ‘God, I know how much you’ve wanted this time with Francis…’  Though I didn’t say it at the time, I secretly thought it was a heretical way to pray and that he was wrong to phrase it that way.  I was going to the woods because I wanted more of God.  But He’s God; He certainly wouldn’t want more of me!  It seemed demeaning to think that God could long for a human being.

“The more I searched the Scriptures, however, the more I realized my friend’s prayer was right on, and that my rejection to his prayer indicated how much I still doubted God’s love. My belief in God’s love was still theoretical, not a reality I lived out or experienced.” (emphasis mine)

Later on in the chapter Pastor Chan discusses the difference between loving a person for who they are versus loving a person for what they give us, and he draws the parallel to how some Christians approach God – they seem to love Him more for the gift of everlasting life than loving Him for who He is; he even goes so far as to write, “[A]n important question to ask ourselves is: Are we in love with God or just his stuff?”  It reminded me of an experience earlier this week in court where I saw a young man apologize to the judge and say “I’m sorry.”  To his apology, however, the judge looked at him and said, “I don’t believe you – you’re not sorry because your behavior doesn’t demonstrate that.  You’re sorry that you got caught and that you’re here in my court room, but you’re not sorry for what you did.”

I think that’s what Pastor Chan is referring to.

Let’s go back to the first quote, though, and look again at the section that I put in italics.  I’ve been thinking a lot about that quote this week, and I’ve been asking myself what I do that demonstrates my love to God.  Another question raised in the book by Chan was, “If we stopped believing in God right now, how would our life change?”

And when it was phrased that way, it started it hit home a little more.  I pray you and I meditate on that question a little bit this week, and then use the answer to determine our response.