Between a Truth and a Joy Place

A Decision Has Been Reached

Trophies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have never been in the Olympics, but I know exactly how the Olympic medalists feel, especially the silver medalists. Last Saturday, I wrote about how I had once won first place in a school-wide speech contest which meant I was going to represent my school at the district competition. At the district competition, we were all assigned a number which was the order in which we were to speak. I was given a high number which meant that there were several contestants ahead of me. Most of the contestants were good, but didn’t really stand out except for one girl. To put it simply, she was a ball of fire. Even if you didn’t understand anything she said, (which I didn’t) she was still captivating, or scary. She was loud, she was dynamic, and she made up the judges’ minds. There could be no one that would speak better. The highest score was given to her across the board.

A few contestants later, my number was called. I spoke just as I did in the school-wide competition. I was emphatic where I needed to be, made no mistakes, delivered a clean presentation, and sat back down and waited for the results. Then I waited some more. Apparently this year’s decision was taking a much longer time than usual. When the announcement was finally made that the judges had reached a decision, the room quieted as the contestants were called up beginning from the third place winner. I did not receive a third place. The second place winner was called and it wasn’t me. Could it be? Could I have won the district competition? The announcer suddenly paused and said, “Due to the closeness of the scores, we have decided to award two second-place trophies.” Normally, a kid would be happy winning second in district. Not this kid. Although my principal explained that because the other girl had gone first and the judges had already decided on her score before hearing me, and even though she told me that I was only four points away from first, I still wept like a defeated loser.

My point in sharing this story actually has nothing to do with who won or lost the district competition. Bear with me for a moment, because the lesson I learned from this event points directly to what Christ has done for us. You see, many times I would find myself looking at people like my pastor who loves God without condition or missionaries who have sacrificed everything for the sake of the gospel and I think, “My goodness! With people like that, I have no chance of getting my rebellious heart accepted by God.” What I had forgotten is that the Person who completed my test (or gave my speech) has already made up the Judge’s mind. A perfect score has already been given, and if we have received the gift Christ offers, our name is on the test (or the scorecard). It doesn’t matter who does what better. The Word of God says that, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God AND all are justified freely by his grace.” (Romans 3:23-24) At this point the illustration breaks down a bit because the score is applied to ALL who will receive Jesus’ gift, not just one person. However, the point is that the decision has already been made. We are perfect. We are spotless, We are winners because of Christ! No accusation from the devil, no performance from another believer can change the Judge’s mind. Jesus’ trophy is ours. End of discussion. Praise the Lord!

 

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The Guy Is Serious!

 

When I was student teaching, I had the privilege of learning from one of the most organized and compassionate teachers I ever knew. One of the primary lessons my cooperating teacher taught me is that if I make a promise to a student, I better not break it, because I would be breaking more than my promise. I would be breaking their hearts and their trust. That is why, though I was still having coughing fits, I arrived at church almost an hour early to start setting up for the Easter party I had promised my Sunday school students. However, when I got up this morning, something incredibly simple yet profound dawned on me, and made my Easter all the more glorious.

Before I share the simple truth I was reminded of this morning, I’d like to paint a bit of background. You see, I was a kid who had been the recipient of a lot of broken promises. Even as an adult, I often begin to wonder if I can count on anyone to make good on their word. It is so bad that when someone does keep a promise to me, I often forgot they even made the promise in the first place because I hardly take anyone seriously anymore. I figure if I tell myself they aren’t serious and forget they said it, then I can’t be hurt when they are not true to their word. What’s even more tragic is that subconsciously I’ve applied that to God and His Word. Oh sure, I say that God’s Word is true, but I have a back up plan just in case it doesn’t happen the way God says it’s going to happen. More often than not however, that back up plan becomes a destructive addiction that takes me farther and farther from God and his loving plans for me.

I remember the day I was talking to one of my former pastors about God’s judgement. I was afraid because I read in the Bible that God will judge every idle word we say and thought that for sure I was going to hell because I said enough idle words to fill all of the world’s oceans to overflowing. He said that the judgement of believers was a judgement to determine rewards not whether we will be in heaven or hell. All of a sudden I remember my eyes get wide as I thought, “So God really means it when he says we’ll be in heaven?” Subconsciously, I had thought that God’s promises are questionable because it all depends on what God thinks about it at the time. So in other words, I was never certain of fundamental things like my salvation because I thought, “Well, if at the time of judgement, God decides that I spoke too many idle words or that I didn’t act like the Christian I said I was, then he might not want me in heaven and I’ll have to go to hell.”

Boy am I glad for days like today to dispel that dangerous lie! I am grateful for verses like Matthew 28:6 that remind us that “just as he said,” he has done. When Jesus told the disciples he was going to rise from the dead, the disciples thought, “Hmm, this must be another one of his parables. I wonder what he means by ‘rise from the dead.’” I also picture the disciples turning to each other after Jesus appeared to them on Easter Sunday and saying, “That guy was serious! When he said ‘rise from the dead’ he actually meant rise from the dead!” In a world where no one knows what is for certain or who he can trust, we can bank on the words that come out of God’s mouth, throw out our back up plans, and tell our doubting hearts that He will do it, “just as he said!”

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I Still Have the Trophy

trophy 1 | the both and | shorts and longs | julie rybarczyk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At times it feels like my entire childhood revolved around trophies. Having been raised in a very performance-driven home, my brother and I were sent to Chinese school every Sunday afternoon. Each year, our school held a variety of contests such as speech contests and vocabulary contests. As students, the first thing we looked for when we entered the room was the trophy table. Of course the first place trophy was always the most elaborate and the most coveted. One would think this was the Olympics by the way the second and third place contestants cried when we received our trophies. I say “we” because I was often either second or third place and I shed many tears along with my fellow non-winning contestants. To us, those trophies, which have been collecting dust ever since, defined our worth for that day. Getting a second or more often for me, a third place trophy meant that I was a third-rate person.

I remember the day that changed. One year, for my speech contest, I told my mom that I wanted to write my own speech. Instead of memorizing and giving a speech someone else wrote, I asked my mom if she would translate a speech that I wrote in English and have me give the Chinese version in the speech contest. That year, for the school-wide competition, I won first place. Holding that trophy in my hand, it didn’t matter that I had had a rough morning. It didn’t matter that I had to go home to mounds of difficult homework assignments. I had won. I had the trophy in my hand. I was going to the district-wide competition for the first time in my life. In my mind, I was finally valued, (until I placed second in district, but that’s a discussion for another day).

I remember carrying myself with a new sense of dignity those two weeks prior to the district competition. I was chosen to represent my school! I remember the difference in the way I conducted my activities and even the thoughts that ran through my head. Every time I went through something difficult, or had a bad day, I would think to myself, “I’ve still got the trophy. I’m still the winner.”

My Good Friday started out anything but good yesterday. My emotions were sending me into the pits of despair and my nasty cough was starting to get the best of me. I didn’t even want to go to church on Easter. I didn’t care that I was the Sunday school teacher or that I had promised the kids an Easter party. I was done pretending to be happy and I figured that if I went to church, I would have to do what I’ve done most of my life, put on a smile and say “I’m doing well, thank you” to anyone who asks. This time I wasn’t ready to do that. So I slumped back into bed and kicked up the pity party volume a notch.

As my mind wandered, I suddenly saw a picture in my mind of a man (whose back was to me) and he threw a fist in the air and yelled, “Yess!!!” It sounded like he had won something. When he turned around, I saw that it was Jesus with a big smile and a trophy in his hand. As he approached me, he handed the trophy to me and suddenly I understood. Jesus won an awesome victory over death, over condemnation, and over the enemy and his schemes to destroy all of God’s children on Easter Sunday when he walked out of that tomb alive. However, that’s not the best part. The best part is he gave us the trophy. He gave us his prize! He already had the prize of intimacy with God. He didn’t need to fight that battle for himself. He fought it for us! His victory is ours!

Do I still have uncontrollable mood swings? Yes. Do I still have my nasty cough? You should have heard me this morning.  Am I still severely hearing impaired with no sense of smell and a very impaired sense of taste? What was that you said? Has my financial situation changed? Nope, but guess what? I still have the trophy! I’m still the winner! Jesus didn’t snatch back the trophy he gave me because I was throwing a fit or because I’m a mess. Instead, he points to it and says, “Remember who you are. You are more than a conqueror because of the victory I won for you.”

Are you going through some trials that have made you feel defeated? Look in your hands. You still have the trophy! You are still the winner! Jesus’ victory is still yours!

All of a sudden Paul’s admonition to “give thanks in all circumstances” doesn’t seem so preposterous. With the trophy in hand, we can turn to the one who did all the work and say with a tear-stained smile, “Thank you Jesus!”

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Because I Love You

I have a very bad confession to make as a teacher. I don’t love my students. I know it’s horrible to imagine, but I must say something in my defense. I’m a sub. I see anywhere from 24-600 students a week on the weeks that I work. I don’t even know their names, much less love them. I know a true teacher is supposed to love all the students she comes into contact with, and yes, I’m a certified teacher who is subbing after being laid off, but I don’t. So when I tell my kids (for the day or hour) to do something, it might be for their best interest, but it’s more for my own sanity. The students find out as soon as they walk in the room (or before) that I will not tolerate disobedience. Every command I give (and I give lots) are fiercely barked at them with little or no compassion. Even little kindergarteners know that when Miss Wang is the sub, no one moves, or talks, or smiles, or breathes. Why am I so mean? It’s not because I want these kids to grow up to be responsible adults. I really could care less what they grow up to become. I play dragon lady only because I want MY day to be pleasant, even if I terrify poor six-year old’s to tears in the process.

 

Growing up, many of my authorities were very self-serving as well and a few even abusive. I soon learned that although they said that what they were asking me to do was for my own good, often they were thinking only of what would make their lives more pleasant. Because punishment for disobedience was often very severe, I didn’t dare upset them. However, I soon began to resent them and it wasn’t long before I began using my creativity to find ways to rebel against them. Of course not ALL of my authorities were self-serving, but the ones who were made enough of an impression on me that I transferred my experience with them to all other authorities, even and especially God.

 

I grew up spiritually in a church where obedience was stressed beyond all other virtues. It was even taught that without consistent obedience, one could lose his salvation. So I began to see God as this record keeper. Every disobedient act I did was recorded, and if I crossed that line and committed too many sins or if I died without repenting of all my sins, I was doomed to an eternity in hell. Why? Well I reasoned it was probably because God wanted to ensure that his life was pleasant, and disobedient children would make his life unpleasant, so that’s why he doesn’t let disobedient people into heaven. Even though the church I currently belong to has dispelled those lies and I have been embraced with the gospel of grace, I am still wary whenever God tells me to do something.

 

A couple weeks ago, God spoke to me in a very powerful way regarding obedience. He showed me that obedience to someone who loves me perfectly is a beautiful and liberating thing. Well, that sounded nice, and I consented excitedly. However, as soon as things got hard, I decided that I knew better than God what was best for me, and I took matters into my own hands. To say that I made a mess in doing so is the understatement of the century. All of a sudden I realized that God wasn’t causing my pain. I was. By refusing to do what God had told me to do, I had caused immense pain to myself and those around me. It then dawned on me that maybe God tells us to do things not because he wants to make his life run smoother, but because he loves us so much that he will not tolerate anything that destroys us and stands in the way of the intimate relationship he wants to have with us. When I began obeying him, it was like night and day. My deadly addictions were defeated as they no longer became attractive to me, my relationships with my friends improved, and my dependence on God was so sweet that I almost welcomed my times of weakness so that I can run to his embrace and be comforted by his love. All this because I said, “Yes” to my Father who loves me more than anyone ever could. Even when he asks me to do something painful or difficult, I am excited to obey even though my stomach may be in knots because deep down, I hear my Abba whisper, “I’m asking you to do this because I love you.”

 

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The Very Best Gift

I once read a moving story about a young man whose father had promised him a car for his birthday. At the time the man had a great relationship with his father and they looked for the car together. They spent weeks going to different dealers, test driving several cars, and discussing several possibilities. Finally, they found a car that the man really liked and they negotiated a price with the dealer. Everything was set for the man’s father to purchase it and present it to him on his birthday. On the morning of his birthday, the man excitedly came downstairs where his father presented him with a small neatly wrapped present. To his great disappointment, when he unwrapped the present, it was a leather bound Bible. In a fit of rage, he threw the Bible at his father and stormed out the door without giving his father a chance to speak. He never spoke to his father again.

 

Decades later, when word came to him that his father had died, he returned home to collect his father’s things. In a box that held a few of his father’s most prized possessions was the leather Bible. He opened the cover of the Bible and found a check made out to him in the exact amount of the car. Inside the cover, his father had written, “Follow the words in this book, and it will always steer you in the right direction.”

 

I share this story because it reminds me of something that God has been trying to deal with me about. Despite my positive Thanksgiving blog, I had a very thankless Thanksgiving. Actually, I had a very thankless few months. Although God has showered his blessings in my life, I was angry because he had not given me what I expected him to give me in the way that I expected him to give it to me. He had promised abundant life, and I see people all around me living abundantly while I still struggle with health issues. He had promised me healing, and I see people all around me getting healed while I seem to be forgotten. He had promised that his plans are to prosper me and yet I remain an object of reproach to my family because I cannot support myself financially. Other people get good parents (and constantly boast in front of me about how great their parents are) while I have to invent stories on the spot when some stranger asks, “Why don’t you ask your dad to come?” (Don’t I throw a good pity party?) So I had pretty much decided that God doesn’t mean me when he makes promises. Oh, I know all his promises are yes and amen, just not for me.

 

Soon after I joined my church, my pastor shared with me a passage in 2 Corinthians that has been an anchor for many of the struggles I was facing at the time. If you have read my previous blog Reason Enough to Hope, you know what I’m talking about. However, recently God brought me back to this passage for a very different reason. Here is the passage in 2 Corinthians 1:8-10, “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers,of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.” God is showing me that he has not chosen to bless me with earthly blessings and has even let me feel that I’ve “received the sentence of death” because he wants to bless me with himself. He may let other people have wealth and resources and no fear of where their next meal will come from but he wants to provide for me daily out of the unseen treasury. In other words, he has allowed certain struggles in my life because he wants to create a void that he gets to fill with himself, In his own words spoken to my heart, he wants “to give me the best.”

 

Just like the father of the man in the opening story fulfilled his promise to his son by buying him a car, God has fulfilled his promises to me in the giving of his Son. However, like the young man in the story, I sometimes get angry because God’s fulfillment of his promises doesn’t always come packaged the way I expect them to be. They rarely are. In fact, weren’t the Jews a bit confused when the “savior” God had promised came to them in the form of a helpless baby who would later be crucified instead of a mighty warrior who would free them from Roman rule? So to those who may be feeling “the sentence of death,” yes, God has promised us abundant life, though he doesn’t always give us that abundant life by removing our struggles. Instead, he gives us abundant life by giving us himself, the author of life, the very best gift of all.  

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An Unusual Thanksgiving

I was once sitting in a Bible study where someone had brought a book entitled, “Everybody’s Normal Til You Get to Know Them.” Though many in the room had differing opinions about the author, we all chuckled at the title. I for one, can certainly relate. Not regarding people I know, but regarding myself. Take my scrapbooking instincts for one. One time I was at a church of about a few hundred people. (I had only visited this church for less than a month.) During one particular service, I was having a bad panic attack and had to leave the service. Later on that day, I got a call from one of the guys at church who happened to be in my small group and he left a voicemail saying that he saw me leave the church and got up to follow me, but he couldn’t find me. He wanted to make sure I was okay. Now, in case any of you are having any suspicions, there was no ill intentions with this man, just a genuine concern since I had openly shared my emotional struggles with the small group. When I told my therapist about the incident, he asked me what I thought it meant. When I didn’t know, he said about the man, “He values you.” That stopped me in my tracks because I had never heard it before. It had such an impact on me that when I got home, I scrapbooked it. That’s right, I made a scrapbook page for that one sentence. I told you I was weird.

 

While you will find other strange things in my scrapbook, including people I’m envious of, one thing you will not find in any of my scrapbooks is a page on a holiday. Though “normal” people find holidays to be one of the main things worth scrapbooking, I relate better to the group of people who dread holidays for one reason or another. The purpose of today’s post however, is not to express why I dread holidays like Thanksgiving, but it is to shed a different and hopefully comforting light on this holiday.

 

A couple days ago, I was trying to think of something positive to insert into Thanksgiving this year when I thought I heard God say, “I’m very thankful for you.” My first reaction was, “What? No. God isn’t thankful for me, I am thankful to God.” The next thought that popped into my mind was, “Are parents usually thankful for their children?” I thought of some of my friends who are parents and thought that if I asked them, they would probably say that although they may want to strangle their kids at times, there is never a day that goes by when they aren’t so thankful for each of their children. Still, the thought that God would be thankful of rebellious and stubborn me sounded almost blasphemous. I thought to myself, “Wait a minute, God created me, he doesn’t need me, I have nothing to offer to him except gross rebellion and filthy sin, why in the world would God be thankful for me?” In fact, to punctuate my point, right before I thought I heard God say, “I’m thankful for you,” I was not exactly thinking very pure things in my heart. Sure, I was trying to be positive, but what resulted was only more bitterness and anger. Why would God be thankful for that?

 

I’ve been saying that I thought God had said that he is thankful of me because I have a very imaginative mind, and when a thought pops into my head that I think is from God, I try to check it out against Scripture to make sure it wasn’t all the jelly beans I just ate. While I didn’t find a verse where God says, “I’m very thankful for these little people I created,” I did find many, many references to God as Father. Since every good father that I know is thankful for his children as I described above, I decided it was pretty safe to assume that God is too. Besides, every time I’ve thought of God being thankful for me, I felt my heart soften just a little. Maybe a little light comes into the dark corners of my heart too, and maybe, just maybe there is still hope. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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Water-Walking 101

“You work too hard.” I still remember my shocked expression when my orchestra director said those words. All my life I’ve heard, “You don’t work hard enough. That’s why you got a B instead of an A. That’s why your piano teacher yelled at you last week. You need to work harder so that you can have a chance at making it in this world. Now my orchestra director was telling me I work too hard? What on earth did she mean by that? I thought teachers want kids to work hard. So I had been working hard and now I get scolded for that? Looking back, I think she was thinking about the long hours I logged in on my practice record sheet which only resulted in a tearful student during rehearsals. It seemed the harder and longer I practiced the more insecure I was of my abilities. Of course it would have helped immensely if someone had realized my hearing impairment had also caused a great deal of tone-deafness, but to myself and everyone around me at the time, I just looked like a confused and unhappy musician. When my director told me that I worked too hard, I took it as a reprimand and started to, you guessed it, work even harder.

 

I had a very similar reaction last night as I was thinking about the story of Peter walking on water. There are a couple things in the story that have always bothered me a bit, but tonight, I will just focus on one of them. Many of you know the story. Jesus had just done a miraculous feeding of the crowds, and had sent the disciples ahead of him across the sea. As the disciples sailed across the sea, a huge storm arose and Jesus, who had been praying by himself, goes and meets the tired and fearful disciples. Jesus had no boat, so he decided he would just walk on the water, no problem. He gets to the boat and scares his disciples half to death thinking that he is a ghost. After he tries to reassure them, Peter, the drama king, says to Jesus, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” (Matthew 14:28) So Jesus tells him to come and he starts walking on water just like Jesus! Then he sees the wind and starts slipping. He cries out to Jesus and Jesus rescues him. What was troubling to me was what Jesus said to him after that. In vs. 31 of chapter 14, Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

 

Little faith? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never walked on water before. I certainly would not have come up with the idea to ask Jesus to tell me to walk on water. Even if Jesus did command me to walk on water, I’d probably say, “Nah, that’s alright. You can go ahead and keep walking and maybe ask some spiritual giants to walk with you.” Spiritual giants like Peter. Oh, you mean he had little faith? What are you talking about?! If Peter had little faith, then there’s no hope for the likes of me at all!

 

At this point, I must say, “Thank God for cross references!” I looked up the cross references for verse 31 and found three other times when Jesus scolded people for having little faith. The first one is found in Matthew 6:30, “But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith!” The second is found in Matthew 8:26, “He said to them, “Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?” Then He got up and rebuked the winds and the sea, and it became perfectly calm.” The final reference is in Matthew 16:8, “But Jesus, aware of this, said, “You men of little faith, why do you discuss among yourselves that you have no bread?” If you are not familiar with the Bible and do not know the stories behind these verses, I encourage you to read the stories in those chapters to get the context. For the sake of being concise, I will briefly summarize these three stories. The first one is in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is telling us not to worry about what we will wear or eat because God provides for us. The second story tells of another storm where Jesus was in the boat sleeping and the disciples woke him up thinking they were going to drown. The last story was when the disciples forgot to bring bread and when Jesus started warning them about the leaven of the Pharisees, the disciples thought Jesus was upset about their forgetfulness.

 

As I looked at these verses and stories, I suddenly saw a common thread in all of them that put my heart at rest about the you-of-little-faith thing. I saw that in each of these situations, including the one with Peter, he was rebuking self-reliance and striving to do what we need to trust Jesus to do for us. In the first passage, he was addressing those of us who tend to look at our own resources to be our provider instead of God. That’s what makes us worry about things like food and clothing. In the second story, the disciples were looking at their own insufficient skills as sailors to keep the boat afloat. The final story reveals the disciple’s dismay at the lack of provision because they looked to themselves to provide instead of realizing Who they had with them. When Peter looked at the waves, he realized that he did not belong to a water-walking species and so he got scared.

 

Like my orchestra director, Jesus was not telling Peter he needed to try harder, instead, he was telling him that he needed to stop trying all together. He wanted Peter to stop trusting in his own strength, but to trust Him to keep him safe, and to provide everything he needs. Thinking of this reminds me of the times when I felt God take my hands, catch my eyes and whisper, “It’s okay. I’ve got this. Just trust me.”

 

Maybe some of you are in a storm tonight. You’d like to be victorious as Peter was in the few moments when he obeyed Jesus and walked towards him, but the waves are huge! I pray that you would feel the touch of your Father’s hands as he whispers, “Daddy’s got this. Go back to sleep.” I pray that your rest would be sweet after the eyes of your heart are opened and you exclaim with the disciples, “Even the winds and waves obey him!”

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Save me!

If you’ve been reading my writing for some time, you may know of my near-drowning incident. For those of you who don’t, here’s the story. I was twelve years old and at the pool with a friend. Even though I couldn’t swim, I loved playing in the water. My friend however, was an accomplished swimmer and it wasn’t long before she decided that hanging out with me in the shallow end of the pool was getting a bit boring, so she swam off to the deep end and hung out there. After awhile, I got pretty lonely in shallow end and decided that I’d join my friend in the deep end. I figured that as long as I held on to the wall, I’d be fine. So I inched my way along the wall to the deep end of the pool. As I watched my friend swim around, I thought it looked easy enough to try, so I let go of the wall. Very quickly, I started sinking and I didn’t know how to keep myself afloat. Being too shy to show any alarm, I remained under water until I wasn’t sure I would make it. As I thought about what it would feel like to die that night, I suddenly felt a strange feeling in my legs and they started kicking. I found myself returning to the surface of the water and swimming back to the wall.

 

I share this story because I had a very interesting dream last night that reminded me of this incident. The lesson from the dream is so elementary to the faith that I am almost embarrassed to post it, but partly because this dream is such a contrast from the nightmares I usually have, and largely because this is such a crucial lesson that’s worth hearing again even if you already know it, I decided to share it here. So here’s the dream.

 

I was talking to someone and we were talking about God and salvation. The only part I remember (the most important part) was when that person told me I needed to make Jesus my Lord and Savior. I recognized this as what my old church used to tell people they needed to do in order to go to heaven. I immediately panicked and said, “Well, I don’t always live like Jesus is my Lord because I follow my own appetites and desires a lot more than I follow Jesus. If I live like I am my own lord does that mean I can’t go to heaven? Immediately the person I was talking said with a startled expression, “Oh, no, no, no, no! You get to go to heaven when you trust Jesus as your Savior. When you realize you’re drowning and you can’t get out (make it to heaven) on your own and you cry out to Jesus because you believe He is able to save you, you’re saved and going to heaven. Once you’re safely ashore and see the one who saved you for who he is, then you’ll want to follow him.”  It’s kind of like if someone came into the pool where I was drowning and said, “Now, before I save you, you need to submit to me and make me your lord. Then I will save you.” Well, the fact is I am about to perish, I need a savior before I can submit to a Lord. Like David said in Psalm 6, “For there is no mention of You in death, in Sheol who will give you thanks [or make you Lord]?”

 

Like I said, it’s a very basic lesson that I already know, and many of you probably do too, but just in case we get too excited about our wonderful submissive lifestyle or start to despair because of our idolatrous behavior, it is good to be reminded that we have a merciful Savior and not a tyrannical dictator. We are saved by grace through faith alone by a God who loved us enough to take our punishment upon himself. Now who wouldn’t want to crown that kind of a God Lord of all?

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The Biggest Hug

Since I live in a lower income community, I often run across many pan-handlers as I go about my day. Although I have come to realize that many of their stories are fabricated, there is the occasional true desperation that comes from an utter helplessness that always stirs my heart. These days I am thinking a lot about weakness, especially my own. While I may not be in the financial state of a pan-handler, I am constantly aware of my spiritual and emotional poverty. Perhaps that’s what draws me to passages like the one in Mark 9.

Before I go into the story of the demon-possessed boy mentioned in Mark 9, I would like to share a story about a woman that a former pastor told us about. He said that he didn’t even know if she was a Christian, but she would sit in the corner of a public street and people would line up in a long line just to receive a hug from her. A hug! From a complete stranger! He said that when people got up to her, she wouldn’t say a word but would give these long hugs that usually had the people who came to her sobbing in her arms as she held them. When I heard the story about her, I wondered what kind of desperation and pain would drive someone to seek solace in the arms of a complete stranger. Probably, I thought, a similar kind of desperation a devoted but helpless father had regarding his beloved son who was being tormented beyond his ability to help.

Let’s listen to this story in Mark 9 beginning in verse 14. “When they came back to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. Immediately, when the entire crowd saw Him, they were amazed and began running up to greet Him. And He asked them, ‘What are you discussing with them?’ And one of the crowd answered Him, ‘Teacher, I brought you my son, possessed with a spirit which makes him mute; and whenever it seizes him, it slams him to the ground and he foams at the mouth, and grinds his teeth and stiffens out. I told your disciples to cast it out, and they could not do it.’ And He answered them and said, ‘O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him to me!’ They brought the boy to Him. When he saw him, immediately the spirit threw him into a convulsion, and falling to the ground, he began rolling around and foaming at the mouth. And he asked his father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. It has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us!’ And Jesus said to him, ‘If you can? All things are possible to him who believes.’ Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, ‘I do believe; help my unbelief.’” (Mark 9:14-24 NASB)

I am going to stop there and some of you may know the rest of the story. Jesus commands the spirit to come out and the spirit came out and the boy was healed. I stopped here because I want to focus on something very specific today. I had heard and read this story many times before, but I was recently reading it in the New King James Version and in the last verse, the NKJV adds, “with tears” so the verse reads, “Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.’” (Mark 9:24 NKJV) I love it when the Bible shows emotion because it helps me remember that these are real people in these stories. Real people who hurt like I do, who get excited like I do, who fail miserably like I do, and whom Jesus loves as much as he loves me. So as soon as I saw the word tears, I wanted to read the whole story again carefully to find out just what exactly was going on. And what I saw opened my eyes even more to the character of my Maker and Savior.

That revelation was found in verse 21 which reads, “And [Jesus] asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” If you notice, the father tells of much more serious and dangerous things the spirit has done to his son after Jesus asks this question. When he first sees Jesus, he tells him that the spirit slams him to the ground, makes him foam at the mouth and grinds his teeth. All weird things, but not life-threatening. Once Jesus asks him this question, he begins to tell him about how this spirit has tried to kill his son. I tend to think that if it were me, I’d get down to the serious stuff right away. It’s like calling 9-1-1 and when they ask, “What’s your emergency?” instead of saying “My son has been thrown into the fire,” you say, “My son is grinding his teeth and foaming at the mouth.” So what makes him disclose the serious stuff and even admitting his own weakness? I believe it is the same thing that draws the crowds of people to the old woman I mentioned in the beginning.

He saw Jesus cared.

Jesus cared enough to pry open the cistern of grief and sorrow and helplessness buried within this man. Jesus did not just do a miracle to show his power and move on. He stopped to engage this father in a conversation. The people he healed were not his “projects” or “trophies” to show his power and credibility. They were his beloved whom he created and died to save. His one question communicated to the father that unlike the scribes and the disciples who were arguing about this “phenomenon” before them, he loved the boy and his father so much that he wanted to bring them not only physical healing but he also wanted to strengthen them spiritually so that they would trust him completely to provide everything they needed.

I pray that you would hear the voice of your Maker speaking to you through his question to the boy’s father. I pray that you would see in his eyes his passion for you, not an agenda to save the world, but his desire to save you. He loves you so much, and he longs for you to open up your heart to him, and tell him of your fears and weaknesses, and let him give you the biggest, most healing hug you’ve ever experienced.

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The Greatest Gain

I was once hired as a private Mandarin teacher for a four year old boy. I rightly assumed that they were wealthy since they were able to afford a private tutor five days a week. When I walked into their home it was obvious that this was a wealthy family. However, I remember a conversation I had with the boy’s mother where she revealed her concern that they would someday be poor and she wouldn’t be able to care for her son. I was surprised at her concern, but given the state of the economy, I realized that it was a valid concern for anyone. However, what I was intrigued with the most was her husband’s response to her concern. She said that he told her she never has to worry because he is valuable enough (with his skills and abilities) that he will always have work and be able to provide for the family. I was reminded of his reassurance when God shed a new and wonderfully applicable light on a familiar verse tonight.

 

I was in Bible Study listening to a teaching on chapter 6 of 1 Timothy and was looking up some of the cross references in the chapter. In verse 6 of chapter 6, Paul reminds Timothy (and us) that “godliness with contentment is great gain.” The cross reference for this verse pointed to one of the most often quoted verses in the Bible, Hebrews 13:5, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Some of you might be wondering, “Well, that’s a really nice verse, but what does that have to do with contentment?” I’m glad you asked, because I discovered tonight that what I just quoted is not the whole verse. Here is the entire verse of Hebrews 13:5, “Keep your life free from the love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” Wow! I did a double take when I saw that! I cannot tell you how many different contexts the second half of that verse has been used in with me (or others for that matter). Of course God’s promise to never leave us is helpful in many different situations, but the context in which this statement was made had to do with money and being content.

 

That really got me thinking. This verse seemed to say that the antidote for worrying about money is knowing that God is always with us. Like the assurance my Mandarin student’s father gave his wife, because of who he is, having him with us guarantees that we will always be provided for. Furthermore, he does not provide us with handouts, but rather, with himself. When we truly grasp what treasure we have in the person of Jesus himself, it will not be difficult to “be content with what we have” because we have God himself! All the time! I don’t know about you, but I cannot think of a “greater gain” than that!

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