Who is responsible?

I was reviewing the Biblical history of Israel, and, frankly, it’s not that pretty.

  • 450 years in Egypt: no leader, no record of good leadership or worship
  • 40 years in the desert: unnecessary because of unbelief
  • 350 years era of the Judges: everyone followed their own way (except for a few interventions)
  • 40 years of King Saul: not the highlight of their history
  • 40 years with King David: in many ways the highlight of their history
  • 40 years with Solomon: in other ways their highlight
  • 350 years of divided kingdom, 10 tribes permanently apostate, 2 tribes with ups and downs
  • 70 years of exile
  • 430 silent years
  • 100 years New Testament times

And then Titus invaded Jerusalem, sacked it and dispersed the Jews (again). (All the dates are approximate and rounded, just to give a rough idea of the time scale.)

The nation followed the Lord in unity for only the reigns of David and Solomon — 80 years out of 1,900 (give or take). In all, hardly a stellar record.

But that isn’t what interested me. What really started it for me was the temple. The temple Solomon built, the grand one detailed in several chapters of the Bible, didn’t even last one generation. The Egyptians came in the reign of Solomon’s son (Rehoboam) and ransacked the temple. It was almost as if the paint hadn’t even dried properly yet. When I read this recently, my heart was just so sad. All this money, planning and resources spent on something to glorify the Lord, and He didn’t even protect it for a single full generation. Wow.

I thought about this for quite a few days. Without verbalizing it, I was questioning the Lord, and in particular His not supporting or protecting His beautiful house. I mean, if He didn’t protect Solomon’s temple, what makes me think He will protect His church in our day? And if He’s not even going to protect His house, how can I expect Him to protect my house? The first question is interesting; the last one is personal.

After a few days, I felt the Lord ask me a question back. What about the ark of the covenant? Did the ark last any longer? Did He ever protect it? As I looked into it, the differences were startling:

God commissioned and designed the ark. He never commissioned the temple; that was David’s idea. In fact, the Lord gave the idea a lukewarm reception. David had the best of intentions, to be sure, but God never ordered the temple. He definitely ordered the ark, though, with detailed specifications.

God protected the ark, and fiercely so. We all recall when the Philistines captured the ark and how the Lord made them return it in short order. The Lord dealt well with those who treated it respectfully (Obed-Edom) and harshly with those who didn’t, even among the Levites.

The ark survived intact from the time it was commissioned until God finally gave Judah over to the Babylonian exile. The temple in Jerusalem also survived, but not in the same glory as that which was dedicated to the Lord in that impactful ceremony.

And, finally, consider the usefulness for the average Israelite. People could enter the temple every now and then, but NOBODY ever saw the ark, except the High Priest and that only once a year. So, from a human standpoint, the temple appears to have had a greater utility for worship than the ark. But… the ark was God’s idea and the temple was man’s idea. One lasted a lot longer than the other, and that had nothing to do with how useful it appeared to be for man.

What’s the point of this comparison? God will protect, even prosper, what He ordains, commissions, promises, designs or implements. As for what we build, there is (as noted in the Ishmael post) nothing wrong with that, but it will last only as long as we can protect it.

What’s more, God made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, knowing full well how imperfect Israel was going to be. The imperfection of the national history of Israel is staggering, but God, knowing the future was not looking for perfection in selecting His covenant partner. He was looking for the miracle birth, and that’s all. That tells me that I don’t need to be perfect to be a covenant partner with the Lord. I only need to be of miracle birth, as in born again. Perfection is not required at all, not of myself and neither of my brothers and sisters. Not now, and not in the future. That is just an amazing thought, and so encouraging!

When we serve the Lord, we serve Him best when He sets it all up.

Setting Out, Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe

What About Ishmael?

When you hear the word Ishmael, is your first reaction positive or negative? I confess mine was the latter… until I actually read the history closer. The facts unfold as follows, beginning in Genesis 16. Hagar gets pregnant and despises Sarai, her boss. Sarai so mistreats her that she flees. The Lord intercepts her, sends her back to Sarai with the admonition to submit. And then God tells Hagar the name she is to give the son in her womb: Ishmael, which means “God will Hear.” God Himself names the child and it is a nice name. The Lord then proceeds to pronounce good things over Ishmael.

Hmm… nothing negative so far. The Lord continues in Genesis 17:20, when Abraham laughed at God’s promise of a son through Sarah. When the name of Ishmael comes up, the Lord clearly and specifically says, “And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.”

What a strong endorsement from the Lord!  God clearly doesn’t hate Ishmael. Several years passed and Isaac arrived as promised. In Chapter 21, Abraham makes a feast for Isaac’s weaning, where Hagar ticks her boss off again, for which Sarah tells Abraham to fire her on the spot. Abraham demurs, but God tells Abraham to listen to his wife. (Yes, the Bible really says that in 21:12.) Then the Lord confirms, yet again, that He is going to make Ishmael into a great nation.

This is now the third time God had only positive things to say over Ishmael. I never realized how many times the Lord spoke positively about Ishmael. Abraham listened to the Lord and Sarah, and sent Hagar and Ishmael off with a good supply of food and water. The food and water ran out while they were still in the desert. “This is it,” Hagar thought and placed the fourteen year old in the shade of some greenery. Because she didn’t want to see or hear him die, she went to sit down about a hundred yards or so from him. There, she simply burst into tears and cried. She didn’t do anything religious like pray or cry out to God; she simply wept at her misfortune.

Suddenly and miraculously, God appeared. The last time they met, He reminded Hagar, He told her  to submit herself to Sarah. She didn’t obey, and so she got herself fired because of her snippy attitude. What did she expect? She had reaped what she sowed, God said, and so she had to pull herself together, get over Ishmael, find another job and get on with her life. And next time, be a doer of the word, not a hearer only, or pay the price again.

No, that’s not what happened at all. God told Hagar not to be afraid; both she and the lad would survive and, indeed, prosper. And then God said it one more time: He will bless Ishmael and make him a great nation.

Four times God had His opinion about Ishmael recorded, and each time it was nothing but positive. Like most Christians, I’ve heard several sermons about Ishmael, but none of them echo God’s four-time endorsement of the man.

Where does all this negativity about Ishmael come from, then? The answer is found in Genesis 17:21, right after the second time God said good things about Ishmael. God follows up His endorsement of Ishmael with “…but My covenant I will establish with Isaac…”

Nothing wrong with Ishmael, but Isaac is the one with whom God chose to covenant. What is so different about Isaac? Simply put, Isaac was a miracle baby, the son God intended to use. Abraham and Sarah added Ishmael by themselves. Ishmael was the result of human effort; Isaac came, supernaturally, from God. We know the end of the story. Like all nations on earth, Ishmael’s descendants moved or became assimilated, and gradually ceased to exist as a specific nation. Nothing evil, just the normal flow of the natural. Isaac’s descendants, on the other hand, are still around as a nation. God called them into being supernaturally, and no normal flow of natural events will erase what God creates.

The distinction between Ishmael and Isaac, therefore, is not that one is bad and one is good. It’s that one is of the flesh and one is of the Spirit. Until we are born again, we are of the flesh. However, when we are born again, we are miracle born, because as John 3 tells us, this is a birth in the Spirit.

We can do things in the kingdom of God either in the natural or in the supernatural. Nothing wrong with the natural, that’s important to note. But God’s covenant blessing won’t rest on those things. If the human effort is good, the results will be good, but once the human leader(s) move on, the work will dissipate.

When God calls forth something as He called forth Isaac, and we wait for Him to do what he promised, in His way and in His time, that work will last forever, because that no longer is our work but His. If we want our work in the kingdom of God to last, it’s important to ask: am I doing this in the supernatural or the natural?

Nothing wrong with the natural, but only the supernatural will last.

Course Correction Ahead?

Over lunch with a friend today, the topic turned to the cruise ship which sank a couple of weeks ago on Friday the 13th. One hundred years after the Titanic went under in 1912, the Costa Concordia sank a few hundred feet off the coast of an Italian island. A simple Google search will yield a plethora of images of the gigantic cruise ship on its side in shallow water.

(Source: Wikipedia Commons)

What a Google search won’t yield is why this accident happened. Why, with all the technology available today, can people lose their lives, and a gigantic vessel sink in sight of land? The answer, as with the Titanic disaster, seems to revolve around a sense that technology makes us invincible. We take less care. The Titanic was reportedly considered unsinkable, and today’s cruise ships have GPS and all manner of other navigation technology. Surely that makes us safe, right?

That thought got us talking. And talking. The restaurant emptied around us, and filled again with the next crowd. Our wives eventually came searching for us and, after ordering another round of refreshments, we all talked some more.

In the 100 years since the Titanic sank, technology and human thought have progressed like never before in earth’s history. But what impact has all this innovation had on us as humans, and on that nebulous concept called quality of life? We have more broken families, teen pregnancies and single moms than at any time in human history (other than possibly after a war). Sure, they have smartphones, iPads, iPods and laptops, and they Tweet, Facebook and email, and many even meet at Starbucks for coffee. But today more kids are raised without fathers than ever before. The quality of education is declining and our prisons are overflowing like never before. Our political leaders are now regarded as lower than used car salesmen. Why has the human race regressed when technology and innovation progressed?

After gallons of ice water and a couple of shift changes at the restaurant, the consensus coalesced around a question: could it be that what ails the human race is a lack of adversity? What a disagreeable notion! But think about it: When was England’s finest hour? In the midst of the threat of annihilation in the Battle of Britain. The greatest king of Israel, David, is also the only king who had to flee and endure more than a decade of unjust persecution before ascending to his promised throne. Adversity. We know from stories our grandparents tell us how neighbors helped each other in the Great Depression. Our friends are from the Yukon Territories in Canada, and they tell us that in winter, everybody helps anyone walking or stuck along the road, no questions asked. In summer, it’s more of a hit and miss proposition, but everyone knows when it’s forty below there is no chance of survival without help, and so everyone helps. Adversity seems to bring out the best in us.

We all know the stories in the Bible when God would prosper His nation, upon which they promptly turned their backs on Him, until He sent them another round of adversity. Then they seek His face and repent, and He sets them free and prospers them again, just to start the cycle all over again. Can it be that we are repeating this cycle in our day? Can it be that what we need as a society to improve our “humanhood” is a good bout of adversity? A single mom in our church lost her apartment. Who took her in? Another single mom, someone with less than most. We see this phenomenon around us: those with less help more, are more considerate and less set on their own comforts.

Sharing, they call it, caring. In times of adversity, there seems to be more caring and sharing, it seems. When we are doing well, and are loaded with techno-goodies, our focus turns inward, not outward. When times are tough, those things suddenly lose their importance. Caring and sharing miraculously blossom.

So… could it be that adversity of some form will bring out less of the bad in us and more of the good? Not saying, just asking.

Why would Father care?

One of the foundational scriptures of my life is Psalm 91:14. In the King James Version it reads (God speaking):

“Because he has set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him.”

Father cares because I have set my love upon Him. That’s an easy thing to say, but actions speak louder than words. So, then, how true is it in my life? Have I really set my love upon my Father, or am I still a prodigal, thinking fondly of a distant Father who once might have loved me? How can I tell the difference?

Love comes in many flavors. I love peanut butter, travel, my friends, my wife and my Father. Each love is different, isn’t it? But each form of love involves a choice, a setting aside of something else. Because I love California, I don’t travel to Florida. Because I love my wife, I forgo other women. Every love therefore has a sacrifice of some sort that demonstrates it in action–actions speaking louder than words.

Loving my wife shows in many ways, and one of the biggest is respecting her preferences. That’s not hard to do, because if our preferences were too different, we never would have gotten together. But I got to know her preferences and my love shows in honoring those. If she likes to eat seafood, I make sure that when we go out to eat, it often is to a seafood restaurant. Loving my heavenly Father in action will likewise involve knowing His preferences and honoring those in my actions.

What are His preferences? I think we spend a lifetime learning those. Many are clear and upfront in His Word. He doesn’t like us stealing from or killing each other. Other preferences are a little more subtle, as if He wants us to dig to find them out. In many ways, that’s a fun and rewarding process, as we find out, little by little, what makes His heart tick.

Getting to know our heavenly Father is a process that takes time and consistency. And its only reward at times is nothing more than, well, getting to know Him. If we pursue Him for what we get from Him, that’s nothing better than a gold digger woman chasing a rich man for his money.

Will we pursue Him just for Him? God sees deep into our hearts. He knows. And His response is Psalm 91:14.

The fourth quarter

2011 was the year of Tim Tebow and the fourth quarter comeback. It was also the year my lovely wife and I turned 60. In Psalm 90 Moses says if we’re lucky we get to live to 80. That means the fourth quarter of our lives has just begun. We ended the third quarter with a fairly empty résumé for the Lord. But, as we just learned, the game doesn’t end after three quarters.

So let’s see what kind of magical comeback the Lord can orchestrate!Image