A Great Christ

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of things outside my comfort zone. I’ve experienced several different reactions, including hiding in the ladies’ room and praying. I’ve been afraid, nervous and intimidated. Sometimes I wanted to pull a Jonah and get as far away as I could; other times I’ve sounded like Moses, coming up with excuses and all the reasons I couldn’t do whatever was asked of me. I never did run away and discovered nothing was as scary as I had believed. 

Two emotions that surfaced in those situations are a bit harder to admit. One was wanting to pat myself on the back after doing what I considered a really good job. The other was feeling totally inadequate and wanting to give up. Both of those responses to difficult challenges still come up at times. 

During my most recent go round with the latter, I discovered a quotation from the book Biblical Preaching by Haddon Robinson that is the answer to any and all such adventures in human nature. At the end of the book, Robinson said: “Yet in the final analysis there are no great preachers. There’s only a great Christ who does startling things when we place ourselves and our preaching in his hands.” 

Even though the context of these words is preaching, they can be applied to all of life. Any triumph or seemingly insurmountable challenge we will ever face can be ameliorated by reminding ourselves there is a great Christ who will not only do startling things but will give us the grace and help we need. He is there in our successes and our failures, ups and downs, laughter and tears. 

If you’re like me and sometimes experience the desire to bask in self-praise or the urge to find a big fish, let’s remind ourselves there is a great Christ, the source of our success and our strength when we are weak

Judged By A Label

For most of my married life I have been what used to be known as a housewife. I was also a stay at home mom and now I call myself a homemaker. Those labels aren’t necessarily bad, but they can have negative connotations. Housewives have often been portrayed in movies and television as lazy women who wear sweats and no makeup – oh wait, that’s what I do now! (Minus the lazy part – most of the time.) The label does bring to mind some not so nice images and the resulting judgments.  

When we accept mischaracterizations, we often accept the judging that comes with them. Many of the negative labels given to God have been in place for generations, having been passed along over time and accepted without much question. A lot of folks have taken his measure and found him wanting, and thus the misconceptions continue. 

One such description is judge, which is fair, as he is the judge of all mankind. But as with housewife, the word can come with negative emotions and connotations. How often do we hear of kind, loving, gracious, fair judges? Good judges can be found, but a lot of people believe in the crooked, mean, self-serving and unfeeling stereotypes. Because of guilt and fear, no one wants to go before any judge, let alone one who is strict or unmerciful. 

Lucky for us – all of us who have ever lived – God breaks the stereotype. He is loving, kind, gracious and merciful. He has already judged the whole human race in Jesus and has declared us forgiven, redeemed and worthy of salvation.

It’s OK to use the word judge to describe God, as long as we put good in front of it. And while we’re at it, let’s put a few positive adjectives in front of homemaker too!

Labeled and Judged

We use labels for everything, including each other. Besides our names, we know and judge others in terms of everything we say, do and think. Some are good, some are bad and some are harmful. And sometimes we are completely mistaken in characterizing and labeling. We know we shouldn’t do it but judging the proverbial book by its cover is so much easier than taking the time to get to know someone for who they really are. Hasty judgements are often used to dehumanize people so we can (self) justifiably condemn them. 

Unfortunately, God has also been the victim of bad labels and mischaracterization. He’s been described as detached, uncaring and aloof, among others. The problem with mislabeling God is that, based on what they hear, many people decide whether or not to believe in him. 

One of the most egregious labels I’ve heard given to God is that of a child abuser. This terrible description has been made by those who think God is the one who punished his own son, sending him to be beaten and killed. This is patently untrue for three reasons: God the Father and God the Son are one (God didn’t punish himself); it was the plan from before time and space were created (it was always to be an act of love); and the Son laid down his life willingly. 

Other labels are just as bad, leading people to not only misunderstand God, but to turn away and even despise him. What we say about God, how we think of him and how we tell others about him are all very important, both for those of us who know him and those who don’t yet know him. The better we all know him, the better we can express who he is and communicate him to others, for the furtherance of the gospel and for his glory.

Our Guide For Life

When Sir Edmund Hilary decided to attempt climbing Mt. Everest, he knew he couldn’t do it alone. He knew a lot about mountaineering, but understood having a good guide would make all the difference when it came to success or failure, even life or death. He paired up with Tenzing Norgay, who had been on more Everest expeditions than anyone. They reached the summit on May 29th, 1953, the first to conquer the intimidating mountain. 

Our lives can be like climbing mountains. We go through valleys, scale the peaks and encounter storms and obstacles. Just as mountaineers can’t anticipate the difficulties, neither can we. But each of us has been paired with the ultimate guide, whom we can trust absolutely to get us through any and every situation. The Holy Spirit is the only one we can rely on to lead us through not only the vicissitudes but the joyful moments as well. He’s with us from start to finish because Jesus went before us and is even more intimately familiar with our path than any mountain guide could ever be. 

Some say the Bible is God’s instruction book for humanity, and it does function as that, but we need the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to understand it, show us how to apply it, remind us it’s all about Jesus and convict our hearts of the profound truth of who he is. 

Just as Sir Hilary would have taken a big risk by climbing one of the most challenging mountains in the world by himself, we also place our lives at risk by going through life without relying on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We can be confident of his expertise, care for our every step and ability to take us all the way to the summit – eternal life.

Mind Maintenance

Walking the trails adjacent to our property has been a big blessing to me. On my morning walks, I’ve seen deer, birds, a rabbit and lots of banana slugs! Ours aren’t yellow, but brown, and they are often six to eight inches in length. When I first saw them, I wondered if aliens had invaded our planet. So far, I’ve managed not to step on any of them. I have, however, tangled with the blackberry brambles on several occasions. The native variety creeps along the ground and also seems to be an alien species. It vines across the trails, almost tripping me when my foot has been caught in the spiky tendrils. 

One thing I’ve learned about the trails is that they have to be maintained. If the brambles and fallen branches aren’t cleared regularly, the trails become unusable. In the same way, our minds can also become overgrown with brambles or weeds, and clogged with debris. I notice this when I’m praying or trying to concentrate on just one thing. My thoughts flit from one thing to another and it’s hard to rein them in and get back on track. It’s difficult to establish and maintain good habits in our thought life. 

I wish it were as easy to keep our minds focused, clear and on track as it is to maintain a walking trail. Employing a chainsaw, a weed-whacker and some good pruning shears are effective against encroaching forest growth, but for a disciplined thought life, we need other tools. A good starting place is to eliminate distractions (not easy, I know) and then practice silence and solitude. But perhaps the most important thing is to be aware of when it happens and to consciously choose to bring our minds back – even if it has to happen over and over – and over. 

Keeping the mind, which is our most valuable asset, free of clutter, unnecessary and even harmful thoughts is an important but mostly ignored endeavor. It is only possible as we work together with the Holy Spirit, who has given us the spirit of power, love and self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7, NLT).

Two Signs

A lot of homeowners in my area have “No Trespassing” signs on their property. I put one up as well (long story). The same kind of signs are around the perimeter of the walking trails, with the addition that violators will be prosecuted. The 120 acres of trails belong to the homeowner’s association. I’ve been making good use of them, exploring and enjoying the quiet and beauty of the woods. 

As I came across one of these signs, I had the happy thought that I was neither trespassing nor violating – I belonged there. I continued on my walk, thinking that having a sense of belonging is such a wonderful thing. We all want to be included, to feel wanted, accepted and loved. Many don’t experience this and as a result, look for belonging and acceptance in harmful ways. 

For Christians, belonging is found in Jesus. We are his and he is ours. In John 17, we are told we have been given to him by the Father and all who belong to Jesus also belong to him. Sometimes we can feel a bit left out, lonely or isolated, but reading the conversation between Jesus and his Abba reminds us we are his forever, kept safe and protected by the great love shared by Father, Son and Spirit. He never tells us to keep out. If he did hang up a sign, it would say “All are welcome; come to the place I have prepared for you, beloved of my Father.”

No Skipping to the End

During the wedding of Prince Humperdinck and Buttercup (in the movie The Princess Bride), the prince became impatient and told the clergyman to skip to the end. He was a very busy man – in fact, he was swamped. We are often like Humperdinck, wanting to skip to the end so we can get on with other things. We want to skip things like illness, grief, hard times and anything even a little bit unpleasant. It’s a natural human desire – we don’t want to suffer. 

One of the reasons Jesus came to earth as a human was just for that purpose – to suffer. He not only came to suffer and die, but he also entered into our suffering. He took on our pain, sorrow, misery and even hopelessness to redeem all the sin and evil that come with being human. Paul understood this to the point of wanting to suffer with Christ, as he said in Philippians 3:10-11: “I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead” (NLT).

We know we can’t avoid pain and suffering and we also know death awaits us all. We’d like to skip over all of that and get to the joyous, wonderful time when we will share eternity with God, but as Paul said, sharing Jesus’ suffering and death gives us a way to really know him and to experience the incredible power that raised him from the dead – the power that will allow us to share in his resurrection.

We certainly will have life after death, but we can also count on having a rocky road along the way. Let’s embrace it the way Paul did, asking God not when we can get out of the suffering, but what we can get out of it. Jesus didn’t skip to the end and neither can we, but oh how glorious new life with him will be! 

Our Power is His Power

Very few people have been or can be described as powerful. Some have great physical strength; some have been given the power to command countries or armies; some have intellects that allow them to solve big problems, write great novels or masterful pieces of music. I am not such a person and I can’t even recall a time when I felt even a little bit powerful in any way. Most of the time, I’ve felt weak, powerless or not able to control large parts of my life. I think that’s why I like superhero movies, especially when the heroes are the good guys. They have power we can only dream of. 

Paul wrote about power greater than any ordinary human being (or superhero) has ever experienced – the power that raised Christ from the dead (Ephesians 1:19-20). He said he had the same power: “That’s why I work and struggle so hard, depending on Christ’s mighty power that works within me” (Colossians 1:29, NLT). We also have this power, as Paul said in Romans 8:11 (NLT): “The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you.”

How do we make use of this power? We can’t use the Force like Luke Skywalker. We can’t rely on a spider bite like Peter Parker or undergo some chemical or cyber transformation. But we also can’t access it by flipping a switch or even by praying for God to turn it on inside us. As I contemplated this, the Holy Spirit spoke a word to me: “death.” It seems so much of being in Christ always comes back to death. We die with him in baptism; we die to self by dying to our desires and the pull of worldly power, wealth and fame. We put to death what belongs to our earthly nature (Colossians 3:5). 

In laying ourselves down in death to self, the incredible power of Jesus in us comes alive, giving us both the will and the strength to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). His power is our power, as we die to self, grow in grace and learn the attitude and mindset Jesus had in Philippians 2:5-8. We don’t have to feel powerful, but we can, in our weakness, let his power and grace shine forth to give him praise and glory. 

Surrender First

In 1940, Winston Churchill addressed the British House of Commons on the defense of Dunkirk and the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force. Toward the end of this dramatic speech he stated that England would defend itself no matter the cost, fighting on the beaches, on landing grounds, in fields, streets and on the hills. “We shall never surrender,” he promised. 

Surrender is usually the last thing on the mind of any commander. Rather, the troops are told to keep fighting, no matter what. Even if captured, a soldier maintains his loyalty and determination not to give up to the enemy. Most of us are the same. We’re taught from an early age that giving up is not a desirable trait. We should keep going, no matter the odds or difficulties we face. Anything less is seen as weakness. 

When Jesus walked the earth, he did and said many things that seemed to oppose the traditional ways of doing and thinking. Some have even said he turned the world upside down. He said to be great, one must first become a servant; the first shall be last and the last shall be first; to live we must die. He turned surrender upside down too. As Christians, surrender is not a last resort, but a beginning strategy. Surrendering our lives to God begins with admitting our weakness and believing we can do nothing without him. We are then able, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to begin giving up everything that makes up the self – self-will, self-determination, vanity, pride and arrogance. 

Instead of fighting to the bitter end, like soldiers who only consider surrender when they’re outnumbered, surrounded or out of ammunition, let’s employ the strategy of Jesus. His battle plan for his followers calls for absolute surrender of the self, to the Father, in the power of the Spirit, and always as a first resort.

In Need of Rescue

I’ve never needed to be rescued from a burning building or been in danger of drowning, but I did experience a rescue of sorts when I broke my arm several years ago. I started walking to an urgent care center about half a mile away, in pain, in my socks and pushing my bike. A nice woman driving an SUV stopped and asked if I needed help. I gratefully accepted a ride. She put my bike in the back, took me to the doctor and even dropped off the bike at my home. I could have made it on my own, but I’ve never forgotten her kindness and the relief I felt at getting some help. 

We know God is our rescuer. David called him Deliverer many times. The name of Jesus means savior or the one who saves or rescues (Matthew 1:21). He has saved us from the misery of sin and death, to be welcomed into his eternal kingdom, which is the most amazing rescue ever. But he also helps us in small ways, letting his mercies rain down on us even in the minutiae of life. Everything about us is important to God because he loves us and he knows everything we experience is an opportunity for trust, love or praise – or all three. 

A greeting card sentiment I’ve used in my handmade cards says: “God is not too great to be concerned with our smallest wishes.” I like this reminder that my life matters to him and he is always ready, willing and able to rescue me in matters large and small. And just as I had to walk for a little way in pain, we all sometimes have to endure a bit of pain before he comes to our aid. That just makes the rescue all the sweeter and the gratitude more heartfelt. What a Savior!