Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Outcomes of Our Futures

In my teens during a summer break, my friend Shirley L. and I took a bus trip from Houston, Texas to Arkansas to visit my grandmother for a week. My Cousin Dorothy and her bevy of teen friends said we could also hang out with them.

The year in mention was long before television remote controls were in use. My grandmother had a large ramshackle home with huge rooms, the heightened ceilings right beneath the sky. Her spacious bedroom contained two full size beds, a sofa, several chairs, and her television. The week of our visit, we “girls” all slept in her bedroom -- Shirley and I in one bed, and Grandma Dora in the other.

My grandmother’s TV sat nearest the wall at the foot of the beds, but electricity powered it through a long extension cord plugged in near her wrought iron headboard. If she fell asleep while watching television and she often did, she could reach down without getting out of bed and unplug the TV.

One night during our visit, all tucked in, we began to watch a late movie. Soon after, we heard my grandmother’s soft snores. An hour of so later, just as the plot of the movie came to what we hoped would be a happy ending, my grandmother roused, thought we were asleep, and pulled the plug on the TV. We never found out how the movie ended.

As I read and meditated on the book of Numbers this week, it caused me to consider the outcomes of individual lives. When God freed the transitioning Israelites from Egyptian slavery, they had choices to make. Because of individual choices most became wanderers and grumblers. But some came to fully trust God and became obedient believers. Even though the book is called “Numbers” (two censuses recorded), it contains a wealth of other information and good news. In Numbers, readers encounter a mention of the promised Messiah when Balaam said, “A star shall come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.” (24:17).

The account of Balaam riding his donkey is a favorite story included in Old Testament Sunday school curriculum (chapters 22-24). Balaam, armed with curses, rode toward the Israelites. While traversing a narrow path, God placed a sword-drawn angel in the donkey’s path, but only the animal saw the angel. Balaam beat his donkey to get her to move on, but the donkey stubbornly refused. Finally, the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth and she spoke to Balaam, questioning his severe treatment. The Lord also opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel. He recognized that the stubborn female pack-ride had spared his life, through God’s plan.

One of the children in our family was born with a very shy nature. One Sunday, the child’s teacher prepared to tell about God, Balaam, the angel, and the donkey by letting the children act out the scenes. Before the children heard the story, she asked who wanted to play the different parts. Our shy grandchild chose the part of the donkey, never realizing the donkey had a speaking part!

When we are young, because of our inherent nature and the circumstances into which we are born, we may think we are destined to manual labor or a profession, to shyness or boldness, to poverty or riches. But God remains the master of our outcomes. He knows the best path to set our feet upon so we can achieve the most for him. Like the Israelites, the outcomes of our lives may differ significantly from our early plans and dreams. Like Israel, we may be the family through whom a significant humble servant arises to help the stubborn human race.

Keep in mind that God still writes the scripts of our circumstances and numbers our days. Compare your life to a movie format? Where are you? Just getting started, or in the middle, or near the conclusion? Wherever you find yourself, look for blessings and hope through the same words God gave the Levite priests to bless the people of Israel.

Index Card Scripture for week four: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26).

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Call to Holiness

Early this year, my home church was called to participate in a Bible reading program called E100. We’ll read an “Essential 100” Bible passages -- Genesis to Revelation -- from January until Easter Sunday. Anyone reading through the Bible may bog down when they reach Leviticus (listed laws). Steve Yates, pulpit minister, where I worship, calls that stall the “Leviticus logjam.”

I’m hearing from many of you who have accepted this column’s challenge to record the Index Card Scriptures and meditate, memorize, and allow God to etch his words into your hearts. Some of you chose electronic methods to keep track by programming them into your iphones and other devices.

Others are using scraps of paper. Yes. I’ve heard from you, too. Actually, the method matters not. By participating in this weekly progress through the Bible, one verse at a time, you allow God to chisel his words into your hearts. This third week in our series, we’ll “tackle” the book of Leviticus.

The Hebrew word “Leviticus” means “and he called.” The Greek word “Leviticus” means “relating to the Levites.” The tribe of Levi, called to be priests for the Israelites, had specific job descriptions: a chorus which sang praises morning and evening, overseeing sacrifices, teaching the laws of God, and administering justice.

The last verse in Leviticus sums up the book: “These are the commands the LORD gave Moses on Mount Sinai for the Israelites” (27:34). The New Testament sheds light on the purpose of the law: “So the law was put in charge [schoolmaster, KJV] to lead us to Christ” (Galatians 3:24). The supervision of that old law would eventually stop, when the Messiah came, offering his holiness in place of our sinfulness. He would become the new rule in faithful people’s hearts.

Basically, Leviticus contains five law sections: the first gives details about the commanded sacrifices. The second part describes the inherited priesthood, that only men from the Levite clan performed priestly duties, serving at the Tabernacle and eventually at the Jerusalem Temple. The third section gives laws of cleanliness, some of which were essentially orders to help their community be healthier, others were ones that taught about the sin debris in hearts. Fourth, God ordained holy days and seasons, and in the fifth part, the Israelites were charged to obey God and keep vows to him.

In the cleanliness section, two types of offenses are detailed: ceremonial uncleanliness and moral transgressions. Legal uncleanliness included such things as touching a leprous person, dead animals, or human bodies. Light offenses could be purged by washing with water, serious offenses by sacrifice. Moral offenses were crimes which injured persons or properties. These deserved punishment. Those laws could be stated laws or written in human hearts. Even without law degrees, moral people still know when crimes deserve punishment.

The Law tutored this nomadic community to know God as the one true God, to realize that holiness belonged to God alone, to show them that sin offends God and has consequences, and it taught them to respect and take care of one another. Our scripture this week reminds us that mean-spirited teasing of the less fortunate remains offensive to God.

One prominent sin in our time is bullying, both in person and in cyberspace by adults and youth. Just this week, two teen girls were arrested because they set up a false Facebook page for a female classmate. Their public nastiness, coarse language, and inferences were done because they thought it would be “a funny joke,” and “nobody liked her.”

Help the children in your family learn to honor God by watching you respect family members, neighbors, even troubling people with whom you disagree. Adults, curb faultfinding and replace it with common courtesy. No name calling. No minor bullying. No major bullying. Those sins still offend God Most High. This week as you walk about your life, remember the people you encounter were created in the image of God. You were too. Live up to his holy name.

Index Card Scripture for Week Three: “Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:14).

Friday, January 14, 2011

GPS--God Positioning Salvation

Global Positioning Systems, known as a GPS, became all the rage in the past decade. I used one recently to locate an address in Houston. Guided through a maze of toll roads, freeways, and near-back-alleys, my GPS took me the most direct route to my destination -- a narrow backstreet housing a tarpaulin company.

Have you ever wondered why you are positioned where you are on earth? Why you were born to your parents? Have you speculated why you live where you do? Why some of us are at the right place at the right time and others at the right place at seemingly the wrong time?

I’ve had those thoughts this week as we witnessed via newscast from Tucson, Arizona, the chaos that evil can foist upon innocent bystanders. At times like these, we need great doses of hope. A couple of things came to mind this week, springing from the Bible’s first two books, Genesis and Exodus.

Moses, inspired by God, wrote the accounts of the beginning of the earth and the laws given from God. He recorded what God inspired him to know about the period before the flood. God said that the earth was filled with violence, and that’s one reason the earth and its inhabitants were destroyed and the family of Noah chosen to further inhabit and create the new generations.

Violence breeds in evil hearts and can also cause the mentally unstable to commit deadly harm. From experience, we know that the majority of people cherish life. God-believers sanctify life because of our knowledge and belief that God created the man with a soul, in his own image. It’s what we teach our children because we long for a world without sin and evil. We want wickedness subdued as seen in Tucson last week. We want life spared, as seen last week, when many came to rescue the destruction caused by one.

The apostle Paul spoke with the Athenian philosophers, who had built altars to many gods, even one addressed to “THE UNKNOWN GOD.” He took the opportunity to explain to them that God “who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth.” That God does not dwell in temples built by human hands. He is not served by human hands. Our catering and pampering don’t keep him alive. He is the source and beginning for mankind, “life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:25).

Paul further explained that we “live and move and have our being” only through God (17: 28). I’m comforted by the fact that God put me on this earth in the years, and locations, and with the specific people where he wanted interaction. Paul gave information about God’s positioning of the people he creates, that God determines “the times set for them and the exact places they should live” (v. 26).

The book of Exodus tells us how God globally positioned Israel’s (Jacob) family to Egypt where they grew to several million over 400 years. When the time was right, God rescued them from this temporary homeland where they became slaves and were exposed to many gods. He moved them out into a desert place through his servant-leaders Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (Micah 8:4). God re-positioned them and provided a desert training ground and sustenance, so their faith and trust could grow for the one true God. One of the first commandments he gave them was to “have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

Exodus remains a superb book, but two verses especially speak to me at this juncture in life. Moses asked a favor from God, and it became my theme scripture for 2011. “If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so that I may know you and continue to find favor with you” (Exodus 33:13).

In the Pulpit commentary God’s pursuit of each of us is described as the “courtship of the soul.” Those words also portray the index-card-words for this week (below), what God said in a gorgeous metaphor when he brought the children of Israel away from Egypt. GPS may be a new invention of mankind, but God’s desired placement of us has always been to move us near his heart – God Positioning Salvation.

God seeks our companionship for our own good. Dedicate this week to allowing God to crowd out all the nonessentials and fill your heart with him as you remember his words to the rescued Hebrew slaves.

Index card words for week two: “I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4).

Friday, January 07, 2011

Favor and Blessing

Column reader Gary Doggett told me how this scripture blesses his life: “The LORD has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy” (Psalm 126:3). He said, “I have this one taped inside my briefcase so I can be constantly reminded to count my blessings.” Gary further said, “For so many folks, the briefcase is the epicenter of countless references each day.” His comment fit this week’s Genesis scripture – about the words “bless” and “blessing.”

Whenever anyone asks me, “How are you?” I typically reply “I’m fine.” And I am because I have clothes on my back and pantry shelves of food. The apostle Paul said, “But if we have food and clothing, we are content with that” (1 Timothy 6:8). Statistics prove that when we can stave off hunger and we’re robed that we’re among the most blessed of the earth. So, I think “fine” describes my life, even if some ornery circumstances scuff the edges.

I longed for my answers to the common greeting “How are you?” to better reflect the generosity of God. Soon after those thoughts, an office worker, at the nursing facility where my mother resides, asked:

“How are you?”

“Blessed,” I replied.

“And highly favored,” she said.

I see this woman once a week, and she turned my thoughts toward God with her answer “and highly favored.” Those three words continue to lift up my spirit and cause reflection. The angel Gabriel spoke those exact words to Mary when he told her that she would bear and mother the Christ child.

God chose a role for Mary, and God chose a role for you and me. Our scripture this week comes from Genesis, the first book in the Bible. That book gives details about the beginning of our earth and God favoring people to continue blessing others in his name. The word “favor” means “grace in person.” God favored chosen people with his presence, and they in turn blessed others.

Even in the beginning, perfect people were not chosen. God chose pliable people, who when exposed to his grace (favor), could bless others. Abraham gave into fear and trickery and caused two different leaders to take his very beautiful wife into their harems, but God protected her from molestation. Much later, God tested Abraham’s devotion to him, and Abraham proved that he esteemed God even more than he loved his son Isaac.

Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, whose early life also illustrated deceit, was chosen to be the father of the nation of Israel. Twelve male heirs would become twelve tribal leaders of Israel. God changed Jacob’s name (figuratively meaning deceiver) to Israel (meaning struggles with God). When God rubs shoulders with man, his holy character rubs off on us, if we will allow it.

Genesis reveals that the chosen people had a charter to “bless” those with whom they came in contact. The Hebrew word “bless” come from a root word meaning “to kneel.” As in man blessing God by kneeling in adoration, or vise-versa, God kneeling to bless man, to serve mankind. It only takes a minute to connect the thread through the Old Testament to the psalmist David who wrote that God in blessing “reached down from on high and took hold of me” (18:16), on a successful rescue mission.

This image of God stooping down, kneeling down to help us threads to the New Testament when Jesus took up a towel and washed his disciples’ feet. John, who was present and had his feet washed, wrote that Jesus showed “the full extent of his love” (John 13:1). God kneeling to bless us – it’s an accurate picture, and it takes my breath away.

God blessed Abraham. Abraham, in turn, blessed others. God chose the role of servant for all his children, and he patterned our role after himself, God Most High. Bask in God’s choosing, you who are “highly favored.” Allow God to mold you into his servant as you focus on God’s commission to Abraham this week:

“[Y]ou will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2, write on your index card).

Saturday, January 01, 2011

During 2011, Inspire Me, Lord

Walk into my office and you would see lime green walls. Sherwin-Williams’ specific name for that shade of paint is “Gleeful.” A cheery room, the color was chosen to inspire a bright and sunny outlook where I write.

My computer desk sits in front of a double window that faces a large mounded pasture, surrounded by a fringe of tall pines and oaks, often reminding me of the dome of a bald head framed by hair. You would not see curtains above my double window, nor see a cornice board or shelving. You’d see borrowed words above it–longtime favorite words on loan from God via a psalmist. They will be our first get-in-the habit index card words for the coming year, written at the end of this column.

Last week I asked you to tune in this week and find out how we will embark on “The Year of the Index Card.” In 2011, at the end of each column, I’ll include a scripture to be written on an index card because our days become more wholesome when we have daily hope presented through God’s inspired Bible. Our over-consumption of newscasts containing dire news or our personal problems of bad health or family stresses sometimes color our worlds one shade darker than black. And what we long for at those times is good news that circumstances can get better.

With God’s anointing, the authors of the Bible write from their stories of affliction, despair, delivery, and victories. And their words tell us that God gives both new birth and healing. He breathes new light into our dark days. The Bible stories reveal again and again that God will always do what’s best for us, whether it’s changing the outward parameters of lives or changing our hearts to accept our paths.

I’ve heard from readers who tell me that a column, phrase, or word borrowed from the Lord helped them during a particularly difficult time. Or maybe a scripture simply realigned their notions about God, or brought to remembrance a truth about God that they had known for years. They just needed a memory-jog, a resurrection of a truth about our Father.

Christians mature at different rates, but all of us need repeated lessons as life crowds us. We need daily reminders of God’s intended goodness. My bed ridden mother has communicated less and less to her family over the past decade because of dementia. Even though she’s not with us mentally most of the time, I still love to sit on the side of her bed, and get eyelevel with her, hoping that my touch and eyes convey my love.

One day about three years ago, as I leaned close, she came out of her dementia long enough to tap me with her finger over my heart and say, “He promised to do us good all our days and not evil.” That one affirmation of God’s goodness has strengthened me again and again even though her suffering continues.

We’ll journey through the Bible one week at a time in 2011, so, plan to buy a packet of index cards (about a dollar for 100), or use a stenographer-tablet or cut 53 scraps of paper (53 because at the end of this column, I share a scripture). I personally like index cards because the paper is thicker, uniform, and can be grabbed up, taken with along, and seen through your day. But if you don’t have index cards, just jot them on anything. The palm of your hand. The dashboard of your car. A restaurant napkin. A small child.

In 2011, at the end of the column each week, I’ll include the index card scripture. I’ll choose my favorites that inspire, instruct, or correct. Next week, we’ll begin in Genesis and work our way through Revelation by next December. By combining some of the Old Testament Minor Prophets and any book in the Bible that has a first and second before its title, we can journey through the 66 books in 52 weeks.

I’ll include my E-mail address at the end each column; you may want to share how a particular scripture influenced you. We’re going to jumpstart our “Year of the Index Card” with this extra scripture, the one that decorates the space painted on the “Gleeful” wall above my office window. Because I suspect that all our lives -- at sometime through 2011 – will need a large helping of God-inspired courage.

Index Card: “When I called you answered me; you made me bold and stouthearted” (Psalm 138:3).