Holy, Holy, Holy

holyholyholyIf you ask most people, love is God’s number one attribute. I won’t argue with passages like 1 John 4:8 that say “God is love,” but we shouldn’t forget some of the other qualities that scripture attributes to God.

For example, did you know that the idea of “holy” appears 900 times in your Bible? Many commentators say that holiness is the most frequently described attribute of God. Holiness is important to God’s people, too. Hebrews says, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14)

Almost every time that a human gets some glimpse of God, the attribute of God that overpowers them isn’t his goodness or even his grace—it is his holiness. When we see God’s holiness, our unholiness is revealed in stark and painful contrast. When Isaiah peeked into the throne room of God, he witnessed the seraphim crying, “Holy, holy, holy”–the same thing John saw in Revelation 4, by the way—and it nearly broke him. He said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:1-5).

Why, then, does “holy” rarely make the top of our lists of God’s attributes?

Perhaps we haven’t understood the beauty of the word “holy.” Maybe some “holier-than-thou” types have caused us to think less of holiness than we could. Maybe our own unholiness doesn’t like to be confronted with the perfect holiness of God.

Whatever the reason—it would do us well to look into this attribute of God, one that he specifically commands us to imitate. God himself said, “You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Leviticus 20:26). That’s what we’ll be doing for the next several weeks in our worship assembly. I hope you’ll come, ready to be challenged by the holy God of scripture!

Oh be careful little lips…

wordsThe tongue has incredible power. When James wrote about it, he said that the tongue is the spark that ignites a forest fire or the rudder that steers a large ship. He said that humans can subdue and control everything—except the tongue (James 3:1-12).

We don’t often realize the deadly power lurking behind our words.

In a relationship, a harsh word can be devastating and cause nearly indescribable heartache.

In a doctor’s office or pharmacy, a misplaced word becomes a medical error that maims or kills instead of heals.

In society, an untrue word repeated over and over again can become the basis of belief and action that launches out into all sorts of wickedness.

In a church, words of gossip can divide and totally obstruct the work of God.

In an office, words of complaint and negativity can sap productivity and make everyone miserable along the way.

In the military, secret words repeated in front of the enemy cause defeat with loss of life.

Words are more powerful now than they have ever been. Today they can spread to the whole world with nothing more than a click of a button. We don’t often think about the responsibility that comes with the “forward” button on our emails, but these words are just as important as the words that we say or write.

Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37).

“Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble” (Proverbs 21:23).

The Root of the Violence Problem

Stop-the-ViolenceViolence leads the news every night as we’re told of another shooting or attack. The talking heads ponder over the motives. Everyone asks the same question, “How can we keep this from happening again?”

Maybe there’s another question we need to ask first. Why do people hurt other people? Most people aren’t sadists. They don’t enjoy causing each other pain. So why does it happen?

Hate causes violence. If you’re worth less than me, you’re scum, and you don’t matter, then it’s easy for me to treat you with physical contempt. Hate causes us to squash people like little more than bugs.

Anger causes violence. If I feel like I’ve been mistreated, I can rationalize violence as a sort of revenge. When we lose our tempers, situations escalate out of control.

Fear causes violence. If I am scared, I tend to react strongly to defend myself against the perceived threat. Sometimes we are afraid of people who look different. Sometimes we are afraid because we are carrying guilt.

Hopelessness causes violence. If I don’t see any way out of a situation, why not be violent? If my options are to starve or steal, why not steal? When our options are limited, we’re more likely to choose bad options.

Mental illness causes violence. If I am unable to think rationally, I will act irrationally. Irrational behavior is dangerous.

What causes violence? The brokenness of humanity. Do you want to know how to stop violence? Wise laws and policies can make a dent—but the only real, lasting change comes when we are transformed into the image of Jesus.

His perfect love casts out our fear.

His peace that passes understanding diffuses our anger.

His universal love pours water on the coals of our hate.

His hope promises a future.

He grace redeems our broken minds and hearts.

If you yearn for peace in our land, and for justice to roll like the waters, and for the lion to lie down with the lamb, then the answer is not in Clinton or Trump or anybody whose name is on a ballot. The answer always has been and always will be Jesus. We can’t force other people into his arms, but we can run to him ourselves. When people see what we have, they’ll want it, too.

Telemachus

telemachusTelemachus was a monk who lived in a small monastic community near the end of the fourth century. He had a peaceful life of Bible study, prayer, and gardening for the cloister. His peaceful life was interrupted by the sense that God wanted him to move from the country to the distant city of Rome. Telemachus didn’t want to move. He loved his simple life, but he believed it was what God wanted, and so he left.

When he arrived at Rome, he found everything he feared. Political corruption, pleasure gone amuck, wild and godless living abounded. He followed the crowds into the Coliseum.

He was shocked when he saw the gladiators stand and salute the emperor, saying, “We who are about to die salute you!”  It turned his stomach to see crowds watching men slaughter each other for pleasure.

Telemachus had enough. He climbed a wall and shouted out, “In the name of Christ stop this! Stop this now!” but nobody listened. The gore continued.

Finally he jumped down into the arena and approached the gladiators, yelling, “In the name of Christ, stop this! Stop it!” Generally, they ignored him, pushing him out of the way, but the crowd grew agitated that this little monk dared to interfere with the sport. Someone in the crowd shouted “Run him through! Kill him!” and the rest of the crowd joined in.

A gladiator listened to the crowds and struck Telemachus with a mortal wound. Telemachus fell to his knees, and with his last breaths, gasped, “In the name of Christ…stop this!”

Then something strange happened. The soldiers and spectators stopped, watching this monk die. His death wasn’t like the deaths that entertained them moments ago. It was different. There was no roar for the victor. Silence overtook the arena. Then one onlooker walked away. Then another. And another, until the spectators deserted the Coliseum, never to return. Tradition says that the death of the little country monk brought an end to the spectacle of organized murder for entertainment.

There is much to admire and learn from the life and death of Telemachus. What principles of scripture does he remind you of?

More than a Feeling

loveverbLove is more than a feeling. It is a choice, a pursuit, a decision, an action, a lifestyle. When we reduce love to something as fleeting as an emotion, we tear out the support that allows it to weather the storms of life. Here’s a short lesson on Christian love from a helpful book about the purpose of marriage by Gary Thomas called Sacred Marriage.

“Christian love, on the other hand, must be chased after, aspired to, and practiced. The popular culture completely misunderstands this principle.

One of the cruelest and most self-condemning remarks I’ve ever heard is the one that men often use when they leave their wives for another woman: “The truth is, I’ve never loved you.”

This is meant to be an attack on the wife — saying, in effect, “The truth is, I’ve never found you lovable.”

But put in a Christian context, it’s a confession of the man’s utter failure to be a Christian. If he hasn’t loved his wife, it is not his wife’s fault, but his. Jesus calls us to love even the unlovable — even our enemies! — so a man who says “I’ve never loved you” is a man who is saying essentially this: “I’ve never acted like a Christian.”

Thomas calls us on the carpet for our tendency to blame others for our failing at the simplest commands of Christianity. Love isn’t optional. It’s more than a feeling.

So even when you don’t feel like it, love anyway. When the other person doesn’t deserve it, love anyway. When you’re tired and cranky and you’ve had a bad day, love anyway.

From Selfishness to Selflessness

selfless-selfishPicture_65Most people marry for selfish reasons. “She makes me happy.” “She’s beautiful.” “She treats me well.”

Many marriages fail for selfish reasons. “He didn’t make me happy anymore, so I found someone who did.” “I don’t feel what I used to feel about him.”

For marriages to succeed, we have to move from the selfish to the selfless. Selfishness may lead us to the altar, but the vows we make are vows of selflessness. We promise to love, honor, and cherish in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer until death do us part. Successful couples grow out of selfishness.

We can see the same phenomenon in raising children. We hope our children will bring us joy, but that hope can easily turn into co-dependence or vicarious life that strangles a healthy relationship. Successful  parents are selfless parents.

The same pattern can be seen in church. Many guests first attend a congregation and ask, “What can you do for me and my family?” They analyze the programs and preaching and evaluate the church based on what the church does for them. It’s a normal, but selfish, approach.

Many relationships with congregations fail for selfish reasons. “They didn’t do what I wanted.” “They pushed me out of my comfort zone.” “I disagreed with a decision.” Before long—these people have moved on to greener pastures, because the church asks you to be like Jesus, who served, rather than expecting service (see Mark 10:45).

Selfishness is easy in the short-term, but deadly in the long-term.

“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:4)

To paraphrase J.F.K., ask not what your spouse or child or friend or church can do for you…but what you can do for them.

You won’t find happiness at the end of a road named selfishness.” (Gary Thomas)

Help!!!

drownImagine that you’re relaxing by the pool on a warm summer afternoon. You’re watching a child play when suddenly the smile vanishes from his face. He’s no longer splashing and having fun. He’s thrashing in terror. He drifted into the deep end, and he can’t swim. He’s drowning.

What would you do next?

Option One: Run inside, grab a copy of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Swimming,” and bring it to the pool and throw it to the child so he can learn how to swim.

Option Two: Yell at the child, “You should really stop drowning! You’ll die if you don’t quit that! Start swimming!”

Option Three: Jump in the pool and carry the child to safety.

Option Four: Do nothing and watch.

Which option did you choose?

If you anything but number three, never offer to babysit our kids!

There are scenarios in which each of the options might be correct.

There are times that we need instruction. “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Swimming” might have been useful to prevent this situation, but in the moment of panic, it is totally useless.

There are times we need correction. A reminder of the consequences of our actions can be really helpful. But once we’re in over our heads, it serves as little more than a self-righteous “I told you so.”

There are times when we sit by and let people learn lessons from the natural consequences of their actions. This story isn’t one of those times, the stakes are too high.

Sometimes, the only option is to jump into the mess and pick someone up and hold them.

It can be messy, dangerous, and hard, but sometimes that’s the only way. Jude says that some people need a gentle act of mercy, but we “save others by snatching them out of the fire” (Jude 1:23).

When people around you are drowning—spiritually, emotionally, financially, relationally—make sure to help in a helpful way.

He Won’t Remember

forgetMemorial Day is bigger than backyard barbeques. Our nation has set this day aside to remember the men and women who died in the military. The sacrifices of these brave soldiers deserve to be remembered. It causes us to think of the painful consequences of war. It inspires others towards the virtues of sacrifice.

We work very hard not to forget important things. We have calendars with important dates highlighted. Our doctors send us messages to remind us of appointments. We tie strings around our fingers and stick Post-It notes on the wall, all in an effort to remember.

One of the beautiful promises of scripture is when God promises not to remember. In Jeremiah 31:31-34, the Lord speaks of a new covenant that Jesus would make with his people. This covenant is unlike the covenant that the Israelites broke with God after Egypt. This new covenant ends with a promise: “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34)

The book of Hebrews uses this text to remind believers that they have something worth remembering: God’s promise to forget! When the prophet Micah described God’s forgiveness, he said, that God “will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” (Micah 7:19)

When God forgives us, he forgives us totally and completely. He doesn’t put us on divine probation. He wipes the slate clean and promises never to bring it back up again. What a blessing!

How the Temple Came to Be

“Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to dove_1xGod.” (Hebrews 13:16)

There’s a fable that the old rabbis would tell about how the spot was chosen for the Temple of Israel.

Two brothers farmed one tract of land and shared one mill. Each day, the brothers worked the fields together. Each night, they would gather together whatever grain they produced and bring their portion home.

One of the brothers was single. The other was married with many children. The single brother decided that his married brother needed much more grain than he did. So secretly in the middle of the night, he snuck over to his married brother’s storehouse and gave some of his portion to his brother.

The married brother realized that his single brother had no children or anyone who could care for him in his old age, so he decided that he needed to have more in storage for the future. So each night, he secretly deposited some grain into his single brother’s storehouse.

One night, the two men each undertook their secret mission when their paths crossed halfway between the storehouses. When each realized what his brother was doing, they embraced and wept.

As the story goes, God witnessed what happened there and said, “This is a holy place—a place of reconciliation, love, and sacrifice—and this is the place where my presence will dwell.”

The story isn’t historically factual, but I believe it is theologically true. God is present when his people take care of each other and are reconciled to each other. You can make your home a “holy place” by practicing the art of forgiveness and sacrifice.

An Important Greeting

fearAlmost every time that an angel meets a human, the angel says the same thing: “Do not fear.” I assume there’s good reason for that, because almost every time an angel meets a human, the human is face down on the ground, trembling in terror.

Two truths are revealed by the angels’ greetings in scripture, and both truths must be kept in perspective.

Truth #1: God is awesome.

“Awesome” means awe-inspiring. That means awe-full. That means terrifying. He is bigger, stronger, smarter, brighter and better than you. Being in his perfect presence makes my imperfections and limitations so painfully obvious I cannot stand it. Moses was so changed by being in God’s presence that the Israelites begged him to talk to God on their behalf because they would die if exposed to his radiance (Exodus 20:18-21).

Truth #1 means that we are wise to fear him.

Yes, I know, perfect love casts out fear. But yes, we need to know that his presence is bright and full and terrifying in a way that we cannot stand to be in his presence. Scripture affirms this in Ecclesiastes 12:13 “Fear God, and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” (See also Deuteronomy 10:12)

Truth #2: We shouldn’t be afraid when the terrifying Lord of Heaven shows up, because he tells his people not to be afraid. (See Luke 1:30, Matthew 1:19-25, Luke 2:8-20 and others).

In summary, we need to be afraid. We need not to be afraid. Confused yet?

This is one of those beautiful and powerful paradoxes of scripture. “God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29, Deuteronomy 4:24). We should never let our view of God become too tame or too small. “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31 NASB).  If we forget that we are dealing with God, we risk minimizing him, disobeying him, and trivializing him. When Lewis imagined him in Narnia as Aslan, he was not “a tame lion.”

This fear should not be our only or overwhelming response. If fear is all we have, we don’t have a relationship with God who invites us to fear no more. We remember his mercy towards us. Paul said, “Notice therefore the kindness and harshness of God” (Romans 11:22 NET).

Don’t neglect the fear or the kindness, rather, bow before the God who says do not fear!