Knock Knock

I saw this performance the other day:

As someone who teaches in a low income, urban setting, I can’t even begin to describe what this poem means to me. As someone who still thinks racism is alive and well, as someone who wants better for the next generation, as someone who sees the struggle Mr. Beaty describes unfold every day – words fail me. But I also started thinking about our own spiritual imprisonment and the freedom we have in Christ, so I thought I’d share those thoughts, at least.

One of the hardest things to overcome is the past. We sometimes joke about the Freudian tendency to blame everything on our childhood while we silently act on those lessons and influences of that childhood every day. We are who we were shaped to be, and it can be very difficult to break out of the mold in which we were cast as children. If we were raised in a house where terrible influences were prevalent, our homes will likely be similar. If we saw our parents in bad relationships, we will likely be in bad relationships. If we were in a house where yelling and abuse were prevalent, we may yell and abuse. It can be hard to leap out of those footprints left by our parents or whoever else raised us, and, no matter how hard we try to be individuals, we all have those realizations where we say to ourselves, “Oh my goodness, I am just like my dad (or mom).”

But, if our families were poor influences, we don’t have to suffer those same choices and consequences. We can choose to be better. We can choose to be different. Remember Ezekiel 18:5-18. (I’ve truncated the text below.)

If a man is righteous and does what is just and right…commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully — he is righteous; he shall surely live…

If he fathers a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things (though he himself did none of these things), who even eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery…He shall not live. He has done all these abominations…

 Now suppose this man fathers a son who sees all the sins that his father has done; he sees, and does not do likewise…obeys my rules, and walks in my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live…

Yet, as hard as it is to leap free from the trenches dug by the footsteps of those before, harder still is it to escape from our own worn paths. We know, however, that we can. With Christ, it is possible, but it takes effort and dedication. When we convert to Him, we leave behind our former selves. “We may be our fathers’ sons and daughters,” Daniel Beaty proclaims, “but we are no their choices.” Likewise, we may have been one type of person in the past, but we are no longer defined by those values, those priorities, those choices. We are someone new. We have a fresh start. We have a chance to begin again.

Romans 12:1-2 says,

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

We see this transformation in effect with the church at Corinth in I Corinthians 6:9-11 (emphasis mine):

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

At some point, we have all been guilty of murdering Jesus on that cross with our sins. We have all been enclosed in the prison of our sins, isolated from our brothers and sisters, isolated from our God, alone and sad. Every day, Jesus comes into our prison, and he approaches that glass barrier separating Him from us. Knock knock, he says. Knock knock. Unlike the Daniel Beaty’s father, however, we can respond. We can allow Him to remove the barrier. We don’t have to live in isolation. We don’t have to remain a prisoner. We can seek pardon and forgiveness, but we have to make sure we haven’t built up security walls of pride and resentment that will indefinitely keep our Savior out.

Knock knock. Will you answer the call? Knock knock. Will you let Him into your heart and your life? Will you submit to His word? Our Savior is watching and waiting. He is always there, patiently knocking, patiently inviting, patiently waiting. But every one of us is on his or her own death row; we only have so long to respond, and we don’t know when the end will come. Won’t you respond to His invitation? Won’t you let Jesus take you out of prison? Won’t you free yourself from the worn paths of sin and worldliness. You have but to submit to His word and reach out to Him. He will tear down the walls of your prison. He will lift you from the beaten path. He will redeem. Knock knock.

Awareness Is Not Enough

We fill our calendars with awareness days and months. April, for example, is Autism Awareness Month. April is also home to Earth Day, Construction Zone Awareness Week, Cancer Control Month, National Child Abuse Prevention Month, Counseling Awareness Month, IBS Awareness Month, National Porphyria Week, and National Sexually Transmitted Diseases Awareness Month. Check out other portions of the year, and you’ll find a similarly full calendar of days, weeks, and months dedicated to raising awareness about one cause or another.

Awareness is an incredibly important step in overcoming any great challenge or problem. Twelve step programs for overcoming major life obstacles often begin with awareness – the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. The apostle Paul might word it this way:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

– Romans 12:3

The challenge comes with moving beyond awareness into meaningful action. I can be perfectly aware of a cholesterol problem while I go ahead and order a plate of cheese fries at Outback. I can be perfectly aware of the speed limit while I cruise 15 – 20 mph over it. I can be aware of a suspicious mass while refusing to go to see a doctor. I can be aware of a deadline while procrastinating my way past it. When giving a recent talk about autism awareness at a nearby elementary school, I worded it this way:

Let your awareness take you to new heights as a teacher, for awareness is nothing if it does not motivate us to discover more and do more for the sake of the children we help raise every day.

The same is true of the sin in our lives. We can be aware of the moral challenges we face day in and day out. We can admit to anger issues, problems with porn, bad language or hateful speech, issues with lying, worldly conduct, spiteful attitudes, or long-held grudges; but none of those confessions, none of that awareness, is worth a thing of we continue in those immoral attitudes and behaviors. Remember the words of James:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

– James 1:22-25

We can be aware of the changes God requires in our lives, but that is not enough. My plea to you is this: rise above simple awareness; reach beyond basic acknowledgement. Examine your life. Walk circumspectly, and allow that awareness to push you to new heights as a Christian. Be more than aware of the standard Christ set for us; strive to meet that standard. Yes, the first step to overcoming the challenge of sin in our lives is awareness. We have to admit we have a problem. The next step is to actually do something about it. Be more than aware. Press on to perfection.

Lessons from the Old Testament

In I Corinthians 10, Paul refers to the Old Testament, the “things written aforetime,” as something from which we can benefit and by which we can grow spiritually.

Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did…They were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.

– I Corinthians 10:6-12 (excerpted)

What can we take from these ancient writings to help us on our spiritual lives? What can we learn about our God and ourselves?

The Seriousness of Sin

In Genesis 3, after the creation of nature and humankind, Adam and Even are driven from the Garden of Eden because of sin. Genesis 4 sees Cain punished for his sinful conduct. Genesis 6 tells of a population who care for nothing but evil conduct. We can see that sin was a problem then just as it is today, separating them and us from God just as Isaiah speaks of in Isaiah 59:2. Likewise, Paul makes this same case in Romans 3-6, and we can see the seriousness of that separation through those Old Testament examples.

God’s Authority

In Genesis 8:13-14, Noah opens the ark to see the dry land in the beginning of one month, but he and his family do not leave the ark until the end of the next month when God finally tells them to do so. In II Samuel 7, David expresses a desire to build a better house for the Lord, but God responds by asking when He had ever asked for such a house; David respects God’s authority and relents. As Paul writes in Colossians 3:17, we need to look to God’s authority for all we do, and the writing of the Old Testament help us understand the completeness of that authority.

God’s Expectations

In Genesis 2:16-17, God lays down a single ground rule for living in Eden, simply expecting faithful obedience. In Genesis 4:3-4, God gives regard to Abel’s offering of faithful obedience. Genesis 22:12 records God recognizing the significance of Abraham’s faith, and Acts 10:34-35 shows Peter expressing that God will accept all who will serve Him in faith and reverence. God’s expectation has always been simple faithful obedience, and we can see that expectation endure from generation to generation.

God’s Love

When Adam and Eve sin in Genesis 3, God approaches them and talks to them. He also, in verse 15, sets in motion a plan of reconciliation for all of mankind. Genesis 12, 26, 28 – these record promises of blessings to the nations. Time and again, we see God deal patiently with imperfect and sinful man. We see His love ultimately in the sacrifice of His son, and how can he be so forgiving and loving to those who continually resist Him?

Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

-Isaiah  55:6-8

In Luke 13:34, we see Jesus weeping over the city of Jerusalem, expressing that continual desire to gather His own to Him, even though they reject Him. II Peter 3:9 reminds us that God is patient with us, wishing that all would come to repentance. His love is still the same.

Conclusion

In I Corinthians 10, Paul writes about some specific events and shows how they point to the New Covenant. Our salvation in Christ began with roots in the times of Adam and Eve, and that plan built up through generation after generation. During that time, the problem of sin persisted, as it does today. Also persistent is God’s love, though, and if we respect His authority and render unto Him the faithful obedience He expects and deserves, then we can hope to be with Him one day.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Losing Our Taste for Sin

Ever since we became parents, my wife and I have been trying to eat and live in a more healthy manner. We’ve cut most snacks and junk food from our diet. We’re more active with our daughter, and we’re eating much more home-cooked, unprocessed, and organic fare. It’s been a good change overall, but I’ve noticed something unexpected lately when I’ve let myself slip back into bad eating habits – I simply don’t like the stuff I used to eat.

It’s hard to eat healthy, at least it is when you first start. The junk is so much cheaper, so much more available, and, quite frankly, the junk is addictive. Unprocessed food lacks the sheer amount of sugar, salt, and other additive that make your body crave those french fries, that bag of chips, that Big Mac, or that breakfast cereal. It’s not addictive. Once you adapt, though, it’s rough going back.

Case in point: Our daughter was having a very rough Sunday morning recently and fell asleep on the way home from worship. We decided to take “the long way home,” but we were also hungry, so we stopped by a Wendy’s to grab a couple of sandwiches and drinks. Now, relatively speaking, there are far worse places to eat than Wendy’s, but that didn’t matter. We both felt pretty miserable the rest of the day. More than losing our taste for this type of food, our bodies simply rejected the junk.

The same needs to be true of our taste for sin. In I Corinthians 6:9, Paul begins to list some fo the sins filling the past of those Christians in Corinth, but he concludes verse 11 by writing:

But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

At one point, our souls subsisted upon spiritual junk food. We lived in sin, but, upon joining Christ in baptism, we made a promise to reject that past life. Paul goes on in this chapter in I Corinthians to draw a contrast between how we should conduct ourselves and how we may want to conduct ourselves. Starting in verse 12:

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food” — and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.

Paul is arguing against the idea that these past sins may have been seen as permissible, even beneficial, by their society, but they are not how the spiritual man lives. See also how Paul speaks to the addictive nature of sin: “I will not be enslaved.” Just as additives and sweeteners in unhealthy food can enslave our cravings, so too can the fleeting pleasures of sin ensnare us.

In the end, it comes down to the habits we make for ourselves. My wife and I have reached a point where those unhealthy eating choices make us feel miserable. Sin should do the same for anyone walking in the word of Christ. If we can acclimate our bodies and our minds to spiritual living, those times we slip and fall will be distasteful to us. They will make us feel miserable. Such experiences should only drive us to stay away from sin all the more diligently. I can assure you that Wendy’s will no longer look as appetizing to my family. Likewise, sin should lose its appeal to a Christian.

Put simply, we have to lose our taste for sin. Only then can we avoid returning to it.

 

 

Memorializing the Innocent

Standing before the Lord’s Table, we often revisit thoughts surrounding the various memorials we have in our culture, whether they be monuments, days, or ceremonies. The vast majority of these memorials center around the numerous military conflicts this nation has been a part of, and we memorialize soldiers who have fallen and great leaders that led us to triumph. We lionize and idealize those to whom these numerous memorials are dedicated, but there are two groups involved in these conflicts we seldom commemorate, or indeed recognize at all: our enemies and the innocents.

The past hundred years or so have seen some of the largest and bloodiest conflicts in the history of this world. Sennacherib’s loss of 185,000 at the hands of Jehovah in II Kings 19 is mere child’s play by today’s standards. War casualties in the last century number in the millions, and if you break it down only to civilians, some casualty  figures look like this:

  • WWI: almost 7 million
  • WWII: 40-52 million
  • Korean War: 1.5 million
  • Vietnam War: 2 million
  • Iraq + Afghanistan: as many as 1 million

Counting only these conflicts – a small fraction of the wars and battles that have been fought the last hundred years – over 60 million have died in the crossfire of opposing armies. It may surprise you (as it did me) that in every conflict listed, except World War I, civilian death tolls outnumbered military deaths by a margin of at least 2-to-1. In almost every case, the number of innocents who died were more than double those actually involved in the conflict, and, with a couple notable exceptions, these lives are seldom remembered. (Memorials dedicated to the Holocaust and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki come to mind.)

In fact, far from being memorialized, these deaths are often marginalized and trivialized. They are reported as “collateral damage,” or we breathe a sigh of relief that “at least they are not American lives.” Then we forget them as readily as any other unpleasant fact we’d rather not dwell on. Try, however, to tell an Afghani mother whose son was cut down in a skirmish on the streets of her hometown that her child was merely collateral damage in a conflict for a greater good. Tell an elderly Japanese man or woman who lost loved ones in Hiroshima or Nagasaki that their loss saved American lives in the long run. See how it goes. Who memorializes the innocents, lives cut short by the choices made by others?

Now I want you to imagine, for a moment, that Great Britain launched a war against us. Imagine they carpet bombed strategic locations and major metropolitan areas to cripple us quickly. Imagine you had a son or daughter in one of those locations who was killed in those bombings – not because they were part of the military trying to fight the invading forces, but simply because they were in the way when the bombs fell. Imagine that son or daughter became “collateral damage.” How would you feel after that?

After the dust cleared, the treaties had been signed, and the troops gone home, would you ever be able to look at England the same way again? Would you ever be able to forgive them? Might you cringe every time you heard and English accent? Would you throw away all of your old Beatles albums? Adding to this, what if the attack on our soil was completely justifiable by political standards? What if history was on the side of Great Britain? Would that change how you feel? Would the pain be erased, knowing that your child’s death, in the long run, saved the lives of those you view as enemies? Somehow I doubt it.

This, however, is exactly what Christ’s sacrifice was, and it is what God did for us.

  • Jesus was an innocent death. II Corinthians 5:21 and Isaiah 53:9 refer to Christ as sinless or blameless. Even Pilate attests to Jesus’ innocence in the face of unjust accusations.
  • Jesus was “collateral damage.” Repeatedly, in Isaiah 53, the prophet tells us God’s chosen Servant would be bruised, beaten, and killed in our place. We should be the casualties of the war with sin, but those sins cut Him down instead.
  • Jesus died for His enemies. The first few verses of Romans 5 make it clear that Christ came and died for us while we were at enmity with God. Where few would think to die for a righteous man, Christ laid down His life to save those opposed to Him.

Unlike the numerous civilian casualties of war, however, Jesus was not merely caught in the crossfire haphazardly. He was not in the wrong place at the wrong time. His death was no accident. He walked into the conflict willingly to be the innocent sacrifice that would save those who would reject Him. God sacrificed His child that those who set themselves against Him might not perish but have eternal life, and I have to ask myself, “How could God do this? How could He send His Son to die in my place? How could He offer such a sacrifice for an enemy?” Then I read Isaiah 55:6-9, where the prophet extends an invitation of forgiveness to a people who rejected God:

Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

God’s ways are higher than our ways. His love is greater than our love. He was willing to sacrifice His Son for the sake of those on the side of sin and lawlessness that we may have hope of life after death. That’s why we take the time to memorialize this innocent death.

Seeing Our Reflection

Lately, we’ve been revisiting the Old Testament in our Bible classes, and we understand that, while we are no longer bound to that law, studying the triumphs and failings of God’s people can benefit our own spiritual growth. As Paul writes in Romans 15:4:

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

I want to take some time in this lesson to look at a few individuals from the Old and New Testaments. What will we see in them? Will we see characters to judge and condemn, or will we see reflections of ourselves – the same faults, the same misplaced priorities, the same desires, the same misdirection, and the same stumbles we all share? If we can see ourselves in them, then we will be able to see our reflections in one another and handle the sins in our lives and others all the better.

Seeing Ourselves in Them

We know the figures of King Saul, King David, and the Apostle Peter pretty well. We’ve studied their lives time and again, and I don’t think this lesson is going to shed any new light on these individuals. I want us, however, to be self-reflective as we take a look at specific events from each of these lives.

  • King Saul (I Samuel 13:5-12). Scared of the impending doom he perceives and anxiously impatient for Samuel’s arrival, Saul takes it upon himself to make an offering to the Lord. The problem is that it is not his place to do so, and he acts outside the authority of God’s word.
  • King David (II Samuel 11:3-5). David sees a woman bathing and desires her. He goes to great lengths to have her and to greater lengths to cover his sin, resorting to lies and murder to prevent the knowledge of his indiscretion from spreading.
  • Peter the Apostle (Matthew 14:22-33). Peter walks on water to reach Jesus, but his faith falters. He begins to sink, and Jesus must pull him up, chastising him for a lack of faith.

What do we see with these individuals? Do we only see the rebukes and the consequences their actions inspire? Do we only focus on their failings? Do we sit back and judge, patting ourselves on our back that we are not as bad as them?  Do we just see Saul as an impatient egomaniac; David as a womanizer; Bathsheba as immodest; Peter as faithless? It’s very easy to look at these people as mere character whom we can academically dissect and discuss while failing to see our own reflection in them. Can we not see that you and I are no different today? Should we not be learning about ourselves as we are learning about them?

When we examine Saul’s action in I Samuel 13, we can see our own fears and insecurities in him. How often do we want God to work on our own timeline? How often do we feel when need to do His work for Him? After all, Christians are fond of quoting Benjamin Franklin: “God helps those who help themselves.” With David, it’s easy to throw blame all over the place in those events, but do we not see our own struggles with lust and desire in him? Are we not as guilty of increasing our own sins to cover our own faults? Finally, in the case Peter, we all have our moments when our faith meets its limits and falters. At least in Peter’s case, he turns to the right source for salvation. At times, I am Saul. I am David. I am Peter, and so are we all.

Forgiving Others

If we can empathize with these distant historical figures, it should be all the easier to be compassionate and forgiving toward our fellow man. Jesus’ ministry is filled with moments of kindness, compassion, and forgiveness – especially toward individuals with whom we might have a hard time relating – activists, tax collectors, prostitutes. The Hebrew writer gives us some insight into this empathy in Hebrews 4:15-16:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has     been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may     receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Jesus can empathize with our struggles and shortcomings, and we should be able to do the same with our fellow man. Just like we often say we should be quick to hear and slow to speak, we should be quick to care and slow to judge others’ sin. After all, if we look closely enough at their problems, we might just see a reflection of our own.

Forgiving Ourselves

If we can forgive David, Peter, and Saul their failings, we should be able to more easily forgive our own. If we are quick to criticize and condemn those we see in the Bible, what will we do when we see our own reflection in them? If we are too harsh on them, will we be too harsh on ourselves? II Corinthians 7:10 warns of falling too deeply into regret over our sins.

If we want to beat down individuals like David, Peter, and Saul for their faults; if we want to beat down others around us for their faults, how will we handle it when we fall into the same traps? Will we be like David and try to conceal our sins, regardless of the cost? Will we beat ourselves down for these failings? Instead, we should be helping each other up, turning to each other for that help, and ultimately allowing our Lord to lift us up when we begin to sink into the despair of sin.

Conclusion

The Bible story is one of redemption and reconciliation, and time and again we see that anyone, regardless of their pasts and their faults, can take advantage of God’s grace. Saul could have turned back to the Lord instead of sinking deeper and deeper into bitterness. David and Peter do ultimately grow. My mind keeps coming back to the imagery of Peter sinking beneath the waves; he knows who to appeal for salvation. There are many lost and wandering in the world, sinking in sin, and we can be that rescuing hand if we can look upon them with the love and compassion demonstrated in our Lord. Conversely, we will need that mercy at times. We will need a brother or sister pull us up, and we have to be able to forgive ourselves when that happens.

It all starts with what we see when we look into God’s word. If we can see ourselves reflected in the people within, with all their faith and all their faults, then we can better forgive others and ourselves for their faults. We all have David moments. We all have Saul moments. We all have Peter moments. The measure of our spirituality comes when see those moments in ourselves and others. We can look into that flawed reflection and see a soul that Christ loves and for which He was willing to sacrifice Himself. We can see the value of our own souls and those of others, and, in so doing, we can see the need for our Savior in our own lives and theirs. What will you do with others when you see them sinking in sin? What will you do when you need rescuing? It depends on what you see when you look into the mirrors in God’s word and those all around us.