Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Don't Kill the Goat

Last week on Survivor, one of the tribes managed to catch a wild goat, which turned out to be a mother goat and her small kid.  Surprisingly, the tribe, though hungry, didn't kill and eat the female; they let mother and baby go free, saying they didn't want to "kill Bambi's mother."  

Perhaps their reason was to save "Bambi's mother" or maybe it was to avoid charges of animal crueltyBut I also think the reality of killing a large animal likely "turned their stomachs."   
The Old Testament frequently instructs on and records instances of animal sacrifices. 
Then the goats for the sin offering were brought to the king and the assembly, and they laid their hands on them, and the priests slaughtered them and made a sin offering with their blood on the altar, to make atonement for all Israel.                  2 Chronicles 29:23-24
When I read those "matter-of-fact" verses, I picture the priests having a clean, well-planned system for killing animals. 

But the actual killing of an animal is ugly, bloody, messy.  And those Bible sacrifices were performed for the forgiveness of sins, sins that are also ugly and messy.

Even kids, when they sin, do something wrong, they try to hide it, and lie about it, because they know that payment is required for sins, that punishment is coming.

And the punishment for childish misbehavior is just a foretaste of the ultimate punishment for sin - death.
For the wages of sin is death...Romans 6:23a
Just like those Survivors, the reality of death can "turn our stomachs."  And like that punishment for sins, it's coming...

But Jesus...a sacrifice was provided for our sins...and it was not pretty...
...he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.  Isaiah 53:5
...but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Romans 6:23b
I'm still surprised that, for whatever their reason, the Survivors didn't kill and eat the goat, that they showed compassion.  But I'm more grateful for and in awe of Jesus, who has compassion and love for us, who gave His life, who took our punishment, so that we have life, life eternal, with Him.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Remember Your Baptism**

Lutherans like to say, Remember your baptism meaning, When you doubt, look to your baptism for your assurance of salvation.

But, to many American Christians,
Remember your baptism seems antiquated.  Salvation couldn't possibly have anything to do with getting wet. 

Today's Christian repents of sins, and decides or chooses to follow Jesus, to live a good Christian life.  Assurance is based on a decision and a desire of the heart.  Right?

I recently heard a young woman ask a well-known Christian, How do I know if I'm saved, if I [still] have blasphemous thoughts?  He said that the condition of her heart was to be her evidence - to look in her heart for her love for God and desire for Him. 
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? Jeremiah 17:9
For anyone who's seriously doubted his own salvation, who's honestly examined his own heart - looking inward for that assurance, to a choice one makes, to how one feels...that's no comfort at all.

To look for assurance in my own heart - I see two perspectives.  I can have pride and confidence in my own ability to believe and to live as a good Christian.  Or, like the woman who questioned her salvation, I can despair, recognizing my heart's darkness and duplicity.

According to the Bible, God uses means to assure His people and to save them.

- To assure Abraham that he would possess the land, God passed through a blood path, making a type of blood oath.

- To mark the people for salvation at Passover, a lamb's blood was smeared on the doorpost.

- To seal the covenant at Mt. Sinai, Moses sprinkled blood on the Israelites. 

- To assure Gideon of victory, God used fleece.

And on and on...God's Word is filled with God using the physical to assure and to save.  We are physical beings, and we understand the physical.  

But grace is hard to grasp; grace isn't physical - and we get stuck.

The question becomes,
How do I get forgiveness?  How can I be assured that I'm saved, that I'm a Christian?

I often ask people, How do you know you're married?  And the answer is always, I had a wedding.
So, to the question
How do I know I'm a Christian? the answer is, I'm baptized.
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.   Mark 16:16
And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  Acts 2:38
Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  1 Peter 3:21
...he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit...Titus 3:5
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word...Ephesians 5:25-26 

** I actually remember my baptism.  I was baptized in a Baptist church when I was 11.

Monday, March 6, 2017

To Always be a Plebe at Heart

When people hear that I'm a Naval Academy graduate and served as a Marine Corps Officer, they assume that my life is well-ordered and my house is spic-and-span.  Not true!  You see, I'm a plebe at heart.

Plebes at the Naval Academy are considered low-life, and they have an incredible amount of information to learn, rules to follow, and stuff to do.  I remember the moment I realized that it was impossible to be a good plebe.  My life went from "Struggling to be perfect and get it all done" to "It's okay to try, to fail, to just get by."  

When I gave up the perfection struggle, my failures and inabilities no longer bothered me.  I still tried hard, but I stopped dwelling on my mistakes and failures; I could laugh and not take myself so seriously.  Looking back - I rather enjoyed it.

As a plebe, I always looked forward to Friday afternoons.  Many of the upper class left for the weekend, and plebe life was more relaxed.  I thought of it as my Sabbath, similar to how the Jewish people cherished Friday evenings and the beginning of their Sabbath rest.  

Part of a plebes' required knowledge was to know the number of days until the next graduation.  While I looked forward to the end of plebe year, more eagerly, I was waiting for my graduation - it always seemed so far away, a day that would never come.

During my final year at the Academy, my roommate put numbered playing cards on our door, changing them daily, thereby noting and counting down our days until graduation.  May 23, 1984, is a defining day for me - I still remember arriving at Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium for graduation, knowing the day had come.


My Christian life is much like being a plebe.  I try to be the perfect wife, mother, friend - to get everything done and to always respond to others with love.  And God's law requires even more But I can't do it, I make mistakes and hurt people; I always seem to be messing up.  And even if I could physically keep all His law, my heart is sinful, and I can't begin to fix that.  

But Jesus.  My God became a man and walked among us, He lived that perfect life, died for my failures and my inability to be perfect, and He rose again...for me.  

Because of Jesus and my faith and trust in Him - I am free to be a part of His church, to try, to struggle, to fail.  I am free to be a child in His household, to look to God as My Father, to know I'm loved, accepted, and forgiven.  

And on weekends, just like a plebe, I look forward to relaxing, to letting go of the week's struggles.  It's a time to rest, to enjoy and worship with my church family, to be refreshed with God's Word and Sacraments.

But ultimately, I look forward to that day when there's no more hurt, no more tears, no more death.  Like graduation, that day is coming.  Until then, I'll try to stay a plebe at heart.

Monday, February 27, 2017

"Lint? What's that?"

My first exposure to Lent was at the Naval Academy when my Calculus professor had a black smudge on his forehead...and I had no idea why.  Then there was all the talk of "giving up something" for Lent - sodas, chocolate, potato chips.  Still, no idea why.  And to complicate the issue, my Roman Catholic classmates had restrictions on meat...sometimes.    

I didn't attend Lenten services back then or even many Sunday services, yet I somehow associated this time of year with fasting.  So my personal observance of Lent began at college.

Lent is the church season leading up to Easter, and is a time of reflection, repentance, and prayer, a time to remember our sins and God's grace.  Several years ago, I read this on fasting:
 "...both hunger and thirst make us aware of our mortality.  Guess what?  They are supposed to!  That is their theological meaning.  Hunger and thirst are sacraments of our mortality.  They are the felt reminders of the fact that we do not have life within us."  Pastor Louis A. Smith
We do not have life within ourselves.  We have to take in something to live - we take breathing for granted, but we must breathe to survive.  And we have to eat.  To not eat, to not drink, to not breathe...is death.  

Physical hunger reminds me of my spiritual hunger.  My spiritual life, my salvation does not depend on something from inside me.  It can't.  I can't "will myself" to believe or to feel like a Christian.  God's Word and His sacraments work to give me that faith, and, like food to the body, they sustain that faith and help it grow.  
Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven...I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”  John 6:32,35
Thinking of my mortality, thinking of my salvation and my need to be fed...puts a different perspective on fasting; now fasting serves to remind me of my salvation, my dependence on Him.  
Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.  Matthew 4:4
Jesus rightly calls Himself the bread of life; He is always feeding, always filling, even when my body hungers.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Wedding

Years ago, at our church in North Carolina, my husband and I led a small group, and  George and Mickey were part of our group We'd known them about a year and a half when we received an invitation to their daughter's wedding.  

At that time, our three sons were ages 12, 9, and 2.  I told Mickey that we really couldn't come. Her response was, "Please come.  Don't worry; bring the kids."  So we did.

After the ceremony, we went to the reception and meal, and the five of us sat way in the back, in that big banquet room.

Eventually, the wedding party arrived up front, and we saw them visiting tables and greeting guests.  George and Mickey looked around a bit, stopped at a couple of tables, and then they started walking...and walking...and walking...and I realized they were heading towards us.  

When they got to our table, Mickey said, "We think of you as family. Come and sit up front."  And Joe and I, with kids in tow, followed the bride's parents past all those other people, up front, to the head tables.
I love remembering this story and not because we were honored; but because Jesus told this parable...and it happened to me!
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you.  Luke 14:8-10
This parable is about humility - humbling yourself to the point of not considering yourself at all.  I struggle with that, often feeling as if I don't belong.  Or even feeling proud of how humble I can be.

But it's not about me.  The truth is...Jesus humbled Himself on the cross - the One who matters most, made Himself nothing. 
...who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:6-8
And it doesn't matter where we sit in church on SundayEach week, all of God's people are brought forward...to the head table, The Lord's Table.  We all belong, His guests, His family.

In life, we don't need other people to tell us we're special.  We already are - our worth is in Christ.  And we're free to sit in the back for awhile, forever...be nothing, not noticed...because of Jesus.
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. 1 John 3:1

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Never the Same Thing Twice

When I was a Marine officer at Parris Island, South Carolina, every 3 or 4 months, I’d get a new series of about 130 recruits, and, I’d spend the weekend reading their autobiographies.  It was futile - I read the stories, but couldn’t envision any of the recruits - they were too many and too different.

I recently read that God never does the same thing twice in people.  We're all unique.

During the past 4 years, I've spoken to just about every visitor who's attended my church.  So many people walk through our doors with different stories, backgrounds, ways of being.  It's crazy and cool. 

I’ve read books and articles with strategies for welcoming visitors.  And I’ve realized there is no “one size fits all” approach. 

Each individual is unique, but is also made in God’s image, and is someone Jesus died for.  I’ve learned to “go with it” with whatever that person needs.  Most of the time, that approach seems good; sometimes, I worry that I've offended.

Our God is the same with us, only better.  His Word is abundant.  By abundant, I don’t mean many words.  I mean His Word is abundant in substance and depth of meaning - so powerful that it speaks the gospel to each of us, His many and varied people, and it addresses all our myriad layers of struggle, and all the needs of our hearts.  I’ve learned that it’s not me who matters to the visitors...it’s Him, His work, and His Word, His love.
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. James 1:17
Even though we’re all different, He is always the same, never changing, always loving and providing, always working in us, always saving, always there.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

"What is a god?"

I recently saw the question, "Would you describe what you believe God is?" with this answer from the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
"God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth."
While that's a true statement, the quote reminds me of math - somewhat impersonal and academicImmediately, I thought of Luther's Large Catechism:
"What does it mean to have a god? Or, what is God? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress.  So, to have a God is nothing other than trusting and believing Him with the heart...Now, I say that whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god." 
Note the difference in emphasis - the Westminster Catechism gives a definition of God; Luther's writing answers, "What it means to me? And what He means to me?"  

Our "god" is who or what we look to for help, for all good things, for satisfaction.  Some people put their trust in money; some look to their leaders; and many people look to their own efforts and success as their "god." 

But the Christian goes to the Bible for the answer.  And God's Word bears out that He helps and provides for His people.  The Bible has many, many incidents of people calling out to God, and God saving them. 
He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap.  Psalm 113:7
And Jesus was always caring for people and meeting their needs.  At one point, when Jesus was being rejected, Peter said to Him:
Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.  John 6:68
I was outside praying this morning and it occurred to me - I'm praying to and sharing what's on my heart with a person, not with an idea or definition.  An idea does not comfort; a person does.  Jesus said to pray "Our Father."  He also said, "Believe in Me."

He is my God because I put my trust in Him; I trust that Jesus' death on the cross was for my sins.  And, because of that, I know He forgives me and gives me peace with Him.  He's my God and that means He loves me; He listens to me, answers me, provides for me, and comforts me. 
"...to expect all good...to take refuge in all distress..."
 That's our God.