Monday, August 18, 2014

A Most Bizarre Promise

I love to watch God work in people's' lives.  Even more, I love to experience His work in my life. 
Out of the abundance of our God's grace, mercy, and providence, he turns the hard times into immeasurable blessings. Only by the power of God can a hard stone turn into a pillow of blessing. That's what He did for Jacob, and I've witnessed this transformation in my own life as well as in the lives of others. I've also read about it in the biographies and accounts of Christians who had a stone for their pillow. 
Jacob fled for his life from his twin brother, Esau, after tricking their father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing. The blessing rightfully belonged to Esau, the older of the two brothers. When Esau discovered the deception, he became murderously mad and went after Jacob.
Jacob was an unlikely candidate to receive the promise that God gave to his grandfather, Abraham, which wasn't fulfilled until the Hebrews occupied the Promised Land. But, God had said at the twins birth that the younger, Jacob, would inherit the promise instead of the older, rightful heir, Esau. 
The working out of God's promise was fraught with doubt, drama and danger as is all the promises that God gives to us. Jacob's adverse situation caused him stress and anxiety. He was always looking over his shoulder.  He was always looking back to try and detect any sign that Esau was closing in on him.
On his way to Paddan Aram to find a wife among his people, Jacob laid down on the hard ground using a stone for his pillow. His sleep was fitful, restless, and taut with tension. He dreamed of a ladder with angels ascending and descending on it that caused him great anxiety. He woke up in terror. And exclaimed, "God lives here!  I've stumbled into God's home! This is the awesome entrance to heaven!” (Genesis 28:10-12). Such a vision of glory would be anyone's nightmare. It is enough to send any mortal to his/her knees. 
In that horror, Jacob heard the voice of God. "The ground you are lying on is yours! I will give it to you and to your descendants" (Genesis 28:13). This is one of the strangest promises ever conceived. The place of my humiliation, the place of my collapse, will become the place of my conquest.

It is not uncommon for a person in the hour of adversity to have hope and a vision of a better fortune. But this promise is different. It is remarkable in how bizarre it is.  God said, "The ground you are lying on is yours!" There is a time coming in which your glory shall consist in the very thing which now constitutes your pain. Nothing could be more dismal to Jacob than the ground on which he was lying. It was the hour of his poverty. It was the season of his night. It was the seeming absence of God. 
But God declares that this rejected moment is to be the scene of his glory. "The ground you are lying on is yours!" The place of your prostration will be your paradise." There is no promise in the world so bewildering and yet so sweet to a distressed soul as this. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Hush of the Land

My wife, Joyce returned to me August 4. On her flight home that day, she reflected on her nine days in the Montana Rocky Mountains Bob Marshall Wilderness  riding horseback on the trail, camping, and experiencing the wonders of God's creation and love.  Here are her reflections.

Sitting here on the plane, I know this trip was meant just for me. A gift from God. A spiritual renewal for me.

I can't say I "prayed fervently" every day, but I worshiped every day. Just praising God for the beauty, the sights, and His protection through the storms especially the time I was almost struck by lightning high up on the trail which split a tree and set it on fire.  To not be afraid for in Him, I found my strength. To see with my own eyes the "grander"work of the Creator God. Yes, it was my "Experience of the Best." How grateful I will always be for this.

I came to realize that love should be given away - for in giving you receive. God gives the beauty and wonder of the mountain wilderness, and I received.

I rode horseback about 86 total miles over my eight days in the wilderness according to Mark, our trail ride leader. I really enjoyed it. It was hard, but I enjoyed it. I lost weight. I don't know how much if any, but I am down to my last belt notch. So, I lost in inches for sure.

I gained a deeper respect for our forefathers and the courage and strength it took to settle the West. I talked with Sandy last night at dinner around the camp fire. Her husband was a Lutheran pastor, and she recently lost him due to Alzheimer's. She questioned if she had strength. I responded and told her that if she did this trip, she had the same stuff our forefathers did to settle this wild country. She did the same things - rode hard  and camped!  Yes, she had strength to face life without him. A weak woman couldn't have rode the trails and camped in a tent day after day.

So with the trip at its close, I have these reflections.

No matter where you are, God is with you.

No matter what, God directs your footsteps.

He is the Creator. His "Eden," His Earth" is proof.

He reminds us to acknowledge Him in all things.

His love for me is beyond my understanding.

His desire is to bless.

And most of all, I must do like Jesus, and on occasion, go to the "mountain" to reflect and to pray in order to reconnect so I can go back to the "valley" a stronger person - a person full of faith and love.
Being in the "wilderness" puts everything else away. It's you and the land and God - nothing else to distract you. There you can hear His voice in the "Hush of the Land."

Joyce went with the Bob Marshall Wilderness Outfitters owned by Connie and Mack Long who are also guides on the trip. Click this link for their Facebook page. 
Click this link with Rocky Mountain scenes and the beautiful hymn rendition of "For the Beauty of the Earth" performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or click the arrow on the imbedded video.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Guilt Game - Don't Play It

Do you allow others to control you by guilting you? Do you change your plans or feel shame and inferior because someone poured the hot grease of blame and shame down your back?
Shame and blame are cruel weapons to manipulate people into doing and into thinking ideas that you are reluctant to do and that are against your better judgment by a person who desires to control you.  Controlling people throw guilt to make you feel bad for the purpose of ruling you which fulfills their sick need for power. And in some cases, they simply want you to feel indebted to them in order to make you serve them.
Jesus refused to play the throw and catch guilt game. To maintain your integrity and identity, you and I need to decline playing that game too.
The Pharisees couldn't control Jesus by guilting Him. Oh, they tried and used every weapon in their arsenal. But, they couldn't control him. He knew who he was and is, and therefore, He was confident in his actions, teachings, and thoughts.  His Father affirmed his identity by saying on several occasions, "This is my beloved Son" (Matthew 3:17).
Both His opponents and friends tried guilting him into submission. Their fiery attacks were powerless against him.
Their are numerous instances in the Gospel narratives that show how Jesus refused to play the throw and catch guilt game both with the Pharisees and with his disciples.
One example is found in Matthew 15. The Pharisees were infatuated with their love for power and control. Anyone who questioned or threatened their dominant position had to be quickly eliminated, discredited, or silenced.
Jesus was their biggest threat as more and more people followed and listened to His message of hope, forgiveness, and love which was the antithesis of the Pharisees legalism based on making people feel guilty.
But, the Pharisees weren't alone in their thirst for power and significance. It was desired by Jesus' disciples.
Jesus' disciples wanted power too as evidenced by James and John's desire to sit on the right and left hands of Jesus in His kingdom. They coveted power and authority. And, the disciples did not want to upset or embarrass these power-brokers and be shunned by them. They questioned Jesus when He challenged the Pharisees and teachers of the law.
Here's the incident that embarrassed the disciples from Matthew 15 with my comments.
"Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 'Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat.'" In effect, the Pharisees were saying, "We want to control you. We will control you by throwing the mud-ball of guilt at you. You and your disciples don't wash their hands like the Law of Moses says you should do. It's Bible. It's in the Old Testament. Wash your hands before you eat! You're not obeying the Bible. Obey the Bible and wash your hands! Do what we say or your guilty of breaking the commandment."
You see, the real issue was not obeying the Bible. The real issue was that they couldn't control Jesus so they threw some Bible-guilt at Him in an effort to rule over Him like they did everyone else. If they could control Him here, then they could control Him in other ways until they had total mastery over Him.
Have you ever had the Bible thrown at you? I have. Here's one instance out of many. After a sermon I preached, a church member came up to me and and spread the shame manure all over me. She said, "And you call yourself a preacher!? My Bible says divorce and remarriage is adultery! How can you stand up there and preach?" The issue was not my divorce and remarriage but a sermon I preached that this woman didn't like. I explained to her my basis for what I had said and my interpretation of the passage that she intercepted differently. When she failed to win me over to her point of view, she threw the old guilt slime ball at me using God's Word no less just like the Pharisees did to Jesus. I refused to catch it! She huffed off mad as an old wet settin' hen and gave me the silent treatment for a few Sundays. She even went out of the sanctuary's side door rather than the front door to avoid shaking hands with me.

People like this lady and the Pharisees misuse the Bible to throw guilt and rule over the person they seek to control.
Going back to the dialog along with my comments on Matthew 15, how did the disciples throw guilt at Jesus?

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Tribute to My Wife

Joyce with guide,
Connie, before disappearing
 into the Montana
Rockies for 8 days
I miss my wife. I missed her terribly. Her 5:30am flight out of Augusta was canceled.  We both teared up thinking her dream trip was doomed.  We will never book a flight out of Augusta again! 
Fortunately and after prayer, she was rebooked and confirmed out of Atlanta for her trip.  I took her to the Atlanta airport to go on her Montana Rocky Mountain wilderness adventure on Friday, July 25. She arrived in Missoula, Montana that night.  One of the guides picked her up Saturday morning from the Marriott, and they drove to the trail head that begins the Bob Marshall Wilderness. They saddled their horses and along with three pack mules and five staff personnel, her group set off for the adventure she has longed for.
She'll return August 5th. That's 11 long days. I say long days without her. It's the longest we've ever been apart in our thirty years of marriage. I thought I'd be OK. I encouraged her to go. "Fulfill your dream.  Seize the moment while you've still got your health. I'll be all right."
She deserved a break. She works hard. She's a Proverbs 31 wife. I don't deserve her. Out of God's overflowing grace and mercy, He brought us together.  For some reason unfathomable to me, she said, "Yes," when I popped the question. I was a broke, broken preacher. My life had collapsed. I was selling cars and serving a small rural church near Augusta, Georgia, when we met. She was a nurse.  Good job.  Good benefits. She owned a home and a car. I owned nothing. She said, "Yes."  Even after thirty years, I still can't believe it.
I have to confess. After all, they say confession is good for the soul. I have to confess I take her for granted sometimes. I just assume she'll always be there for me.  I don't show my gratitude and love like I should. You see, not only does she work as a nurse, but she runs the household too. I try and pitch in, but she does the lion's share or should I say the lioness' share of work around here which allows me to write, study, minister to my church, and teach part time at a small Christian school.
Bob Marshall Wilderness
Chinese Wall. Joyce will be
camping on the summit
Joyce wanted to get away. And what a place to get away to. She wanted to feel the creation and majesty of God speaking through the mountains, gurgling in the clear mountain streams, and whispering through the forest trees. She wanted to count the stars. Hear the silence before drifting off to sleep snug in her sleeping bag. She wanted to eat cakes on the griddle beside the morning campfire. And, she's finally doing it. Or should I say "being it."  For such an experience is not doing but being, renewing, and worshipping.  I imagine it's as close to heaven as a person can get.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Message from the Birds

Sitting here this morning in my screened in man cave, I watch the cardinals, tufted titmouse, hummingbirds, and house finches busy themselves at the bird feeders. The mocking bird who built her nest in a bush next to the garage sits on top of the feeder singing away. Sweet songs rise in chorus from all of them as God summons the first light of morning. It's an ethereal experience.

The happy birds are fed from a harvest they did not sow. They build their nests from materials they did not purchase. The momma birds lay their eggs, and together they raise their chicks from the bushes around our house that they did not plant. The Heavenly Father provides for them.

It's a beautiful picture of God's providential care for me through the years.

This morning's scene caused my mind to drift back to a moment 38 years ago. I was 35, and in seminary just a semester from graduating. I had a wife and was responsible for them. I worked the graveyard shift as a psychiatric technician at a hospital in downtown New Orleans. I caught the bus each night and morning to make it to my 8 o'clock class where I fought to stay awake. I could barely pay the bills and wondered how I could enroll in my last semester.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Religious Freedom and Politics

Religion and politics mix well in American freedom. They don’t mix in an autocratic government.

During the American Revolution, the Congregational and Presbyterian pastors made patriots out of their members to the point of taking up arms against the Loyalists, the British army, and the oppressive rule of British King, George III. The Separatist and Regular Baptists also took up the call toward the end of the War. Their persuasive message proclaimed that God was on their side and that their cause was just.

It helped fuel the preacher’s patriotic fire when many of them were arrested and jailed for preaching without a license from the government church, the Church of England. Rev. Lewis Craig and his brother, Elijah, unlicensed Baptist preachers were jailed in Virginia for preaching without a license. Rev. Daniel Marshall was arrested in Augusta. Only Church of England pastors were permitted to preach. All others had to have a license. The rebel preachers believed that they had their authority to speak from God, and that was all the authority they needed. 

Rev. Elijah Craig whose famous Kentucky bourbon is still made and sold today, would later collaborate with James Madison on constitutional guarantees for religious freedom before moving his family to Kentucky.

Two Charleston activists preachers, Presbyterian William Tennant III, and Baptist Oliver Hart, were sent to the South Carolina back country by the provincial congress in 1775 to convince wavering citizens and pastors to join the Revolution. Hart and Tennant were the most influential pastors in the Low Country and were absolutely opposed to autocratic rule.

Their efforts to persuade many in the Back Country to convert to the Patriot cause met with strong resistance by prominent pastors like Baptist Philip Mulkey who was an avowed Loyalist. However, the Charleston pastors were able to persuade many to sign a pledge of fidelity to the patriot cause in spite of heckling and opposition from the Loyalists.

The Congregational Church in Midway, Georgia, and the parish that contained the church was a hotbed for Revolution giving us Dr. Lyman Hall, and Button Gwinnett, signers of the Declaration of Independence from Georgia. Nathan Brownson was a member of the church and served in the Continental Congress from 1776 to 1778. Midway Church was burned to the ground by the British in the Revolutionary War in retaliation because the church mixed religion with politics.  

Patriot preachers like Baptist Tidance Lane, and his seven sons, and many others whose religion motivated them to fight, soundly defeated the Loyalists at the Battle of King’s Mountain, North Carolina, on October 7, 1780. Thomas Jefferson called this victory "The turn of the tide of success."

America has a long legacy of religion mixing with politics that began with the Revolution. Our freedom of religion legacy extends to today as Hobby Lobby made a case and won that the government cannot violate what a closed corporation or family owned business believes is morally right based on their religious beliefs.  

Baptist preacher, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., captured the spirit of mixing religion with politics causing him to be arrested and jailed in Birmingham, Alabama like the activists preachers of the American Revolution. He wrote, “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws… I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all." …To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.” The African-American church led by Dr. King mixed religion and politics in the Civil Rights movement until the government changed its unjust laws.

Religion gives moral direction to government by asking the question, “What does the Lord require of you?”

And then, religion answers that question loudly and clearly. “The Lord requires of you to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Religion must mix with politics to have any chance that government is and will be fair, just, and merciful to its citizens. Our religious freedom guarantees it. Our heritage and history proves it.

Click the link for Lee Greenwood's, "God Bless the USA."  Or click the arrow to play.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Sorrow and Joy

Who hasn't experienced sorrow?  It is the knife that pierces our soul with the blood of tears flowing like waterfalls from out wounded emotions.

I have seen the strongest men weep. I have wept with them in their despair. I have cried in funeral sermons I've preached. And, I have wept from the painful losses I've experienced. Who hasn't experienced sorrow?

Sorrows like sea billows roll over us. Sadness and grief overwhelm us. We become as helpless as a baby. Everything secure is shattered into a thousand pieces.

There was a time in my life when I lost everything. I lost my job, my career as a full time pastor, and my family. I cried and couldn't turn off the tears. My mind said, "Stop!"  It my emotional pain from he injury and loss I suffered wouldn't listen to my rational voice. I couldn't sleep even though my body was tired. When I was able to sleep, I slept in fits and starts awaking and hoping that it was time to get up. Sometimes, I'd just get up anyway and pace the floor.