Friday, April 28, 2017

No Debts ................ Parables 581

January 6, 1981

For every person in the U.S., there are two credit cards— a contributing factor to a per capita debt of $20,886 and a per household debt of $55,869.

Canadian statistics are not as easy to find but we have a similar problem. In fact, living in debt is so common that the term “debt-free” seems an impossibility.

Freedom from every kind of debt. Can it happen? Can a person ever be financially current? Is it possible not to owe anyone anything? The Bible says it is. Regarding human debt, God even commands us, “Owe no man anything.”

While this is an unbelievable command (especially after holiday spending that stretches budgets and credit to its limits), there is another type of debt-free situation that is even more astounding. It involves being free from spiritual indebtedness, free from the account we owe God.

To illustrate, Jesus once told a story about a servant who owed his king a huge amount of money. When the king decided to settle his accounts, this servant could not pay his debt. The king ordered him and his family sold to cover it. The servant begged for mercy. The king was merciful, took pity on him and completely canceled his huge debt.

Later, that servant approached another man who owed him a much smaller sum. The debtor begged for extra time to pay it but the servant became angry and told the man he would put him in prison until he could pay it.

When the king heard about what happened, he was furious with his servant. He said, “I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?”

This story is mainly Jesus’ instruction to His people to show mercy to others. Because God has forgiven us, we need to forgive others also. However, key to being able to forgive is first knowing how God is like that king and our debt is like the servant’s debt.

Some assume that those who receive God’s forgiveness and give their lives to Him, now owe Him something, that a lifetime of service somehow is payment for their debt. But can anyone possibly repay their debt to God?

The story Jesus told also illustrates the size of the debt God has forgiven. Like the servant’s account with his king, the size of our sin is far greater than we could ever repay. Think of it this way: one unkind thought, or one lie, or one sin of any kind, per day for fifty years equals more than 18,000 sins. Remember, sin is simply going our own way and ignoring God’s way.

Since the Bible also adds that “whatever is not of faith is sin,” our account is large. We cannot count the full number of our debts to God, never mind repay them. Besides, what would we pay them with? God says, “All . . . fall short of the glory of God” and “all our works of righteousness are like filthy rags.”

The Gospel is the good news that our debt can be canceled— in two ways. One is that someone pays it for us. The other is that the King has mercy and forgives it. The Bible describes how God did both.

Jesus is fully human yet sinless. He is full of the glory of God; He does not fall short. His life is filled to the brim with the goodness we do not have. When He died on the cross, He paid our debt for sin, both as our substitute and as our payment.

God accepted that sacrifice. To those who acknowledge their debt and make known their desire to settle their account, He says, “Your debt is paid. Because of My Son, you are debt-free.”

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Everyone serves a master ................ Parables 580

January 20, 1998

A simple statistic reveals human attitudes. For instance, 44% of American youth say if they do not like the candidates, there is no reason to vote. If political leaders don’t please them, they opt out of the system and refuse to support any leader.

Public support encourages leaders but voters’ personal preferences do not determine who makes a good leader. Leaders usually advocate change. Voters do not always see change as positive. They may decide to not follow that leader, even if the change would benefit them.

What if change challenges moral values, personal ethics or spiritual waywardness? Leaders who do this could be unpopular because of it. Does that make them poor leaders?

Sometimes the best leaders are the least popular. For instance, more than 99% of the population of Israel rejected Christ’s leadership. When He was arrested and taken to Calvary, His best friends abandoned Him. However, lack of popularity did not change His value as a leader.

In Jesus’ case, and perhaps in other situations where people refuse to support a leader, the difficulty is their own independence. Some people simply refuse to follow anyone. They fiercely proclaim self-reliance and will not let someone else tell them what to do.

The universal cry for freedom often means that kind of freedom. We are just like the Old Testament prophet Isaiah said we are— prone to turn to our own way. However, the Word of God says everyone is in bondage to something. Doing our own thing does not make us free. If we follow our own desires, they rule us. If we ignore the demands of political, legal, religious or social leaders, we will be at odds with a society that does not function very well without some conformity to its rules.

Besides this practical reason to follow social and political leadership, the Bible says we also are responsible for choosing our masters. Some of our options: we can follow our own lusts (they will bring us into addictions and bondage). We can follow the desires of friends (and find ourselves slaves to their demands). We can select political leaders (yet we are seldom happy with the outcome). Not one of those options gives us the leadership we want or the freedom we seek.

How startling that Jesus claimed “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Yet most people, including the Jewish leaders, did not go for that either. They liked their system of law with its 600 plus rules for life. They liked to think they were obeying those rules. They said of Jesus, “We will not have this man rule over us.”

However, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” He also said if they did not want the freedom He offered them, they would “die in their sins.”

The Apostle Paul restated it: “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience (to God), which leads to righteousness?”

Both affirm that everyone is a slave to something. Both affirm that those who do not follow God follow their own way, which is sin.

We may not like God’s definitions of our options but we do have the freedom and the responsibility of choosing our own master . . . and of accepting the outcome of that choice.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Walking by faith or walking by sight? ................ Parables 579

(published date?)

Jesus was born long ago in a stable, in a manger meant for sheep or cattle. If He had been born in modern Alberta, all sorts of unusual animals could have been there. Farming is changing; pastures once containing ordinary cattle or horses are now home to exotic livestock.

One odd-looking barnyard critter is the ostrich, a large, long-necked flightless bird. Ostriches do not appear to be speed demons but these birds have 3.5 meter strides and can run 50 kilometers an hour for 15 minutes or longer. If something is chasing them, ostriches can top 70 km/h. A cornered ostrich is no slouch either. With two clawed toes on each of its long, featherless legs, it can kill or seriously maim animals or people with its powerful kicks.

While strong and speedy, the unfortunate ostrich is not noted for being terribly brilliant. In fact, its eye is bigger than its brain. Maybe that is where we get the derogatory expression “bird brain.” For this bird, seeing comes far easier than thinking.

Rather than be too hard on ostriches, it seems that everyone struggles with a similar problem. We find it much easier to rely on what we can see or experience with our other senses than trust more abstract ideas or concepts. Who has not said, “I will believe it when I see it” and in the realm of faith, who has not wondered about a God they cannot see?

The usual argument about faith vs. sight goes like this: “You cannot see electricity but every time you plug in your coffee maker you are expressing faith in it.” Faith in God is something like that, but anyone who trusts God will be quick to agree that we do not make Him work as simply as plugging in an appliance. God is God, not a servant like a toaster or vacuum cleaner.

Perhaps that is the biggest reason we need to “see” Him through the eyes of faith. No matter the size of our physical eyes or our clarity of vision, we simply cannot take in the wonder of God, of who He is or what He does. Without faith, who can grasp that He created the world and all that is in it? Without faith, who can believe He became a baby and lived among us?

Technology may unwittingly be helping our propensity to demand visual proof. More and more, what we see is not very reliable. Film technology makes animals sing and dance. Magicians make elephants, jumbo jets and huge buildings disappear, at least that is what our eyes tell us. However, faith (in natural laws) says this is not happening; it is just an illusion.

Faith in God does not need to rely on our eyes either, although we can use them to develop it. The Bible says, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom He made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being, sustaining all things by His powerful word.” It also says that “faith comes by hearing. . . a message about Christ.”

Through reading God’s record of the above revelations about Himself, faith is nourished in our hearts. In this black and white record of what God has done, we can see what He looks like. We can see how He influenced events and changed lives. By faith, we can believe that God not only exists but that He offers us a personal relationship with Himself. Imagine, knowing God and experiencing an intimate relationship with Him!

However, He does not enter our lives by our senses. We may have better-than-bird brains, quick feet, powerful muscles, twenty-twenty vision — all helpful in life — yet none of these help us see God. We can look in a manger (don’t expect an ostrich) and still not see Him. The key is not that our eyes are wide open but that our hearts are open, that we accept what He says as truth and invite Him to make an impact on our lives. Then He comes into our hearts and minds and even opens our eyes so we have a capacity to know, see and experience Him.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Beware of rumors ................ Parables 578

(publish date ??)

A few years ago, someone started a rumor that there would be a worldwide shortage of toilet paper. Before long, people were buying rolls by the carton and stockpiling it in their basements, just in case the rumor was true.

Those involved in the industry may have been amused or dismayed by this all-out rush on their product; however, they were close enough to the supply to realize there was no danger of a shortage. The rumor simply wasn’t true.

I wonder if that is how other notions, even some widely-held ideas, are spawned. Do they start with rumors from people who are not close enough to the situation to really know for sure if what they say is true? Are they then perpetuated by human fears or other emotions?

For instance, some decades ago, a few people grabbed on to the idea that the Word of God no longer has authority over our lives. These people kept saying we are free to be our own boss, do whatever we want, forget God and the Bible. This notion permeated a culture that once took the Bible seriously. Even though we still make oaths with one hand on our heart and the other on the Bible, for the most part, it gathers dust.

This rumor was further fueled by slogans such as: “God is dead” or “the Bible is outdated” or “it was written by men therefore must be full of errors.” Unfortunately, people seldom checked any of it for themselves. Instead, their Bibles now occupy a bottom drawer or a dusty top shelf.

These notions have also infected the church. Some who call themselves Christian do not believe God’s Book is fully authoritative. For instance, consider the following statistics from the Barna group’s latest findings, published in April of this year. Among Christian men (possibly meaning “Evangelical Christian men”): 28% believe that Jesus was not physically raised from the dead, 27% believe that He committed sins, and 55% believe that everyone will have the same outcome after death, regardless of their beliefs.

Of course the Bible affirms otherwise. It says Jesus was “like us in every way except that He was without sin.” It also affirms that He rose from the dead in a body. It goes on to say that if He didn’t, the Christian faith is totally useless; all who believe it will “die in their sins.”

The Bible also warns about the options regarding eternal destiny. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth: a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God. . . all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.”

Oddly enough, the same survey showed that 47% still believe that there are absolute moral truths. Another 40% believe that the Bible and religion should be the main influences on moral thinking. In other words, the Bible apparently does have value, but not authority?

How then, if God’s Book is not believed in its entirety, is it possible to use it as an anchor for morality? What do we do when our self-focused natures eventually come to a place of resistance to what God says? Is it not His authority that we revolt against, even when we know what He says is true and right?

Mere mental assent to this Book may acknowledge it is God’s book or that it says things that are good for us. Faith is trusting in the One who wrote it and submitting to His authority over us. We already know we are not able to live as we ought. We need help. Faith is turning from our own way and our own efforts and giving ourselves to the care and leading of our Creator. It is yielding to and following Christ, fully dismissing that old rumor that He has no right to our allegiance.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Hiding under layers? ................ Parables 577

December 16, 1997

There is a lake in the Antarctica with water reading 80 degrees Fahrenheit. However, if anyone wanted to dive in and explore it, they would have to take with them a drill or a saw. Chilled by cold air above it, this lake is covered with ice.

George (not his real name) is like that. If there is a warm person on the inside, he keeps it well hidden under a self-protection layer of reserve. Others cannot get to know him or experience what he is like on the inside.

George might admit that he is afraid if others knew him well, they would not like him very much. He protects himself from rejection by what Christian counselor and psychologist Larry Crabb calls “layers.” Like the ice over the lake, these layers hide what is underneath. Crabb says it is almost always insecurity about acceptance, worth or competence.

Whether or not we use the term “layers,” most of us are aware of what we think are our flaws. We might use cosmetics to hide external marks and blemishes but there are no cover sticks for feelings of inferiority. Instead, we either withdraw or go overboard to prove ourselves.

Some people do it with their possessions. They buy the latest car or computer and show off by boasting about it. Others hide their inadequacy behind shyness, reasoning that if people do not notice them, they will not ask them to do anything and they will never betray their inabilities.

Others hide in alcohol or drugs, or become involved with one boy or girl friend after another. Some become powerful controllers who manipulate people so no one can see their weaknesses. Some retreat and become doormats. For them, being told what to do is easier than having people find out they are unable (or so they think) to make their own plans, never mind carry them out.

People who try to feel loved, valuable and competent through making demands on others or their own performance or possessions, always fall short. The main problem is that material things never last and people, even at their best, are unreliable.

For people made in His image, these three core needs can only be met by the triune God. He can make us feel complete. He says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love, and in loving kindness I have drawn you.” He always cares, and proved it by sending His Son to die for us. When others fail to love us, God’s love is reliable and unconditional. We do not earn it or deserve it but it is something in His nature. He is a God of love. That is what He does.

We can also measure our worth by the price that God was willing to pay for us. To Him, our value is the life of His Son. That is what He paid to redeem us. We are people of worth to God. We do not need to prove ourselves but entrust ourselves to His love and value system.

Competence comes also from God. He gives His Holy Spirit to each one who believes in Him and receives His Son as personal Savior and Lord. The Holy Spirit is a willing helper but we are not His robots. If we want to have His power and live using His competence, we must yield to Him. That yielding is immediately forfeited whenever we put up layers.

Instead, God tells us to deal with our inadequacies by dropping all self-protecting layers and acknowledging our insecurities to Him. Through Christ, we can know we are loved and have worth. Through His Spirit, we “can do all things.” We do not have to hide or prove anything.

In God’s care, we may at first feel vulnerable without our layers but as we learn to operate in His three-sided triangle of love, worth and competence, feeling weak gradually becomes something to appreciate. The Apostle Paul even said he could “boast gladly” about his inadequacies. He knew that God Himself promised His power is made perfect in our weaknesses and His grace is sufficient to set us free from all our fears.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Aging well ................ Parables 576

December 2, 1997

My dad had a sign in his workshop that read, “Never take life too seriously. . . you’ll never get out of it alive.”

As certain as death is, life expectancy is at an all-time high: 75.8 years in the U.S. and it could be a little higher in Canada. Fear of dying plus this expectancy contributes to a common practice of joking about death rather than seriously discussing this universal certainty.

My dad, now eighty-eight years old, used to be one of those who never talked about death. Whenever anyone he knew died, his bulging temples gave away the fact that he was troubled and grinding his teeth, but he never said anything.

Increasing frailty and aching bones have made his life less enjoyable yet like most seniors, he realizes more than we do, how precious life is and that both life and death should be taken seriously. Life is a gift from God and we are responsible for what we do with that gift. Further, death is not the end because the Bible says that all die but all will also be resurrected. It clearly points out that what we do with this life will have a bearing on the quality of the next.

Author Eugene Peterson says that to live well and in harmony with God is the best way to spend our years on earth. He says obedience to God is not difficult but sin is difficult. Sin throws us out of kilter with the intention of our Creator. We were not made to sin and it harms our quality of life in every way.

For example, using addictive drugs destroys a person’s health, warps their thinking and ruins their usefulness. Adultery weighs down the mind with guilt, ruins intimacy with one’s spouse and raises havoc with families, sometimes splitting them and leaving hearts in pieces. This is not how God intended we use our years.

Someone once asked me what I wanted to be “when I grew up” and I replied, “I want to be a sweet little old lady” yet aging well is a challenge. According to the Bible, grey hair can be a crown of splendor, but only if it is attained by a righteous life.

We never start out righteous but if somewhere along the time line, we acknowledge our sin and failure to God, and receive the righteousness of Christ, we can begin to age well through taking the lessons of life seriously. When God uses them to shape our faith and give us godly character, we can not only finish well but with joy and courage.

The Old Testament cites Moses as one example. He “was a hundred and twenty when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone.” Caleb was another. At eighty-five, he could say, “I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out (forty years prior); I’m just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then.”

Aging well means being able to approach death without fear. The Bible says that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” and that Christ Jesus has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” By sharing in our humanity and dying for our sins, He “destroyed the one who holds the power of death—the devil—and set free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

In the seniors’ lodge where my parents live, some residents are cheerful and enjoying their remaining years. Thankfully, Mom and Dad are among that group. Dad has changed; he talks about death and even expresses his hope that the Lord will soon come and take him home.

Others in the lodge happily speak about their faith in the Lord. The God of peace is helping them to age gracefully and with joy. From them, I clearly see that if I am to be a sweet little old lady someday, faith in Christ and walking alongside God will take me there.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Information Explosion ................ Parables 575

November 25, 1997

Nearly four years ago, an American company opened an offsite storage service for universities and libraries. Besides space to keep books and records, member libraries also receive retrieval and delivery services for any items requested by their patrons. Soon after it opened, one university put in storage about 110,000 books, dissertations and bound periodicals.

Had this business opened a hundred years ago, few would have shown interest. However, as we approach a new millennium, educators, historians and lovers of research insist all information be preserved and accessible.

Today’s information explosion is mind-boggling. For example, the University of Waterloo’s electronic library claims one million titles. Another says they have 9.75 million articles in their catalogs. The OCLC Union catalog has 30 million bibliographic records. For those who have problems with those big numbers, someone said one issue of the New York Times contains more information than the average 17th-century Englishman encountered in his entire lifetime.

The ancient Scriptures predicted a time when knowledge would increase. In a vision, the prophet Daniel was told: “But as for you, Daniel, conceal these words and seal up the book until the end of time; many will go back and forth, and knowledge will increase.”

Interestingly, the Hebrew word used here for knowledge takes a slant toward technical ability. People may not agree about this being “the end of time,” but there is no argument that we live in an era that fits this description; technical knowledge is rapidly multiplying.

Today, we associate knowledge with knowing information and having data and facts at our disposal. The Old Testament men and women had a different understanding. For them, knowledge meant a deeper relationship with the information. One of their words for “knowing” is the same word used in other parts of the Bible for sexual intimacy between a man and his wife.

With that in mind, Daniel seems to be saying that people would be highly involved in travel and in learning more and more. However, in the context of his vision, he did not extend this “knowing” to a deeper, intimate and personal relationship with God or even with truth about God.

The New Testament picks up the same concept. Paul wrote to Timothy about a day when people that would be “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Here, Paul is finishing the ideas of Daniel. People will be gathering information of all kinds yet despite all the data and facts, many will miss the most important knowledge: truth.

Pilate, the Roman governor, asked the question: “What is truth?” Jesus Christ, who Pilate crucified, said, “I am the truth. . . .”

Pilate was a knowledgeable man but he missed it. He did not recognize truth because he did not know God nor acknowledge Jesus as God’s Son. Because He denied God, he was blind to the fact that the One he put to death was Truth personified.

The Bible says that many will reject Jesus because they reject the other truths that He came to show us. For instance, He says we have turned our back on God’s way and are lost to God. We need restoration and forgiveness. The Bible also says He is life and He can give His life to us if we are willing to receive Him, and that He becomes our wisdom when we do.

As an incurable “information gatherer,” trying to grasp the amount of data now available simply frustrates me. I am far more interested in the data God stores in His mind. What library collection numbers the hairs on our heads and names all the stars of heaven? What information retrieval service can offer us the wisdom of Christ? No matter how much knowledge we can heap up, none of it compares to knowing Truth and trusting Him to give it to us as we need it.