What’s in a Name?

A couple of months ago I was working my way through the book of Ruth. It’s an interesting book. It is strategically placed after the book of Judges. It takes the gloom and despair of the end of Judges, and points to a solution to all the ugliness that Israel is facing.

It is a book of names. Names tell stories. They can tell an audience something about the person. The book of Ruth is full of names. The names themselves tell a story. This time I was drawn to Naomi. I went into the books remembering her story. This was a woman so discouraged by the way her story was turning out that she demanded her name be changed. “Call me Mara.” The name alone tells a story. This woman is bitter. Everything she cares about has been taken. She believes her story is coming to an end. The only details left are just more death, more depression, and more bitterness. The reader almost begins to wonder if the end we experienced in Judges is only destined to continue on a downward spiral.

If you have read the book of Ruth you will likely already remember everything up to this point. There was a detail I could not remember that pushed me to look at things from a different lens. Naomi requests to be call Mara in verse 20 of the first chapter. Two verses later she is referenced again by the narrator. He does not call her Mara. He still calls her Naomi.

That moment hit me. As I read through the book I realized that she is never again referenced as Mara. She is never referenced for the bitterness she experienced. It’s almost as if God was unwilling to acknowledge her change. This is His story, and He wasn’t finished yet. It may seem hard now, but God’s not done. It may seem like there is a wasteland, but it does not go on forever.

I have never tried to change my name. I have never demanded that I be called bitter, hate, anger, fear, depression, loneliness, or anxiety. There have been moments where I feel my story is defined by those words. We may not change our names, but we often do the same thing Naomi tried to do in those moments. We try and redefine our life. We try and determine our identity off of one part of our story rather than waiting to see what the next act brings.

I try and live my life differently. The world is bound to bring up opportunities to be bring us down. It can determined to convince us that we cannot focus on the beauty it brings. The ugly moments can so easily crowd out anything that is good and worthy of this world. I know this is a reality my kids will face to. This is how I want to live my life, and this is how I wish to raise them. I want them to understand that there is a key element to the moments we most desire to change our names. There is often a new act coming up where God reminds us why we have the name we do. Naomi called herself Mara for the bitterness she experienced. By the end God reminded her why her name was always meant to be Naomi. It was always meant to be what is lovely.

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Teach Them Everything

I have been thinking back on the Great Commission lately. It is one of those passages where you hear it so often that everything just sort of bleeds together. Every now and then there is something that peaks your interest. A word that was always there, but you never really bothered to recognize before. Jesus tells his followers to go make disciples. He also tells them to teach these new believers. We are called to teach all that Jesus commanded. Everything. Leave nothing out. That little word “all” seems to get lost in the shuffle for me, and I genuinely believe this is a common occurrence for most people.

We see it most clearly in the love vs, truth debate. Jesus tells us to love sinners. Some focus so heavily on this aspect that they only use their own definition of love. Love in these situations apparently means we should never risk offending, changing, and preaching to the person.

Then you have the truth side to the argument. Some can fall so far on this side of the spectrum that they become like Paul writes about love. If we preach but have no love we are a clanging symbol. It is just noise. Noise without soul. Noise without purpose. It is just words without any effect on the person.

Christ says to follow all of it. It is this strange balance that Christ always represented in his ministry. A clear example is of the adulterous woman. To the Biblical scholars in the room, please hang in there with me despite the questions of whether or not this story was written in the original text. Too often we use that argument to try and take away the love focused crowds favorite passage when there is clearly no real reason to. All that needs to be done is point out that they stop the story short. We fail to see the big picture.

We have all heard the story. There is a woman caught in adultery. The men gathered around tell Jesus it is time to stone her. Jesus gives the famous line. “He who is without sin cast the first stone.” Everyone except Jesus leaves. He is left standing there in front of this woman. What a powerful message of love and tolerance some will say. What beauty to not condemn the woman in her vulnerability. Jesus then says these words after pointing out to the woman that her executioners are gone “Go and sin no more.” Truth. Jesus spoke truth in those moments.

This begs the question, why tell her to stop sinning? Jesus also taught about judgment. We see this tenderness, patience, and mercy in his ministry, but he acknowledges that there will come a point where judgment takes place. Take hold of the mercy provided to you now, and use it to follow me. Deny yourself. Deny your sin. Deny everything that is holding you back from being what I have created you to be, and follow me completely.

The problem with the accusers in the story is not that they acknowledged the woman was sinful. The problem was that they were prepared to cast out the sentencing on their own terms. Jesus says wait. Show love. Show compassion. Use this as an opportunity to change her life. She doesn’t have to live in adultery anymore. Yes, judgment will come. The tie is limited, but I pick and choose the time.

Here is the neat thing about love the way Jesus teaches it. It calls out to people to change their lives. It demands action. That is why it is so hard for some people to take. They know when they are experiencing genuine love from God’s people that it shows what is missing in their own life. Love taught by Christ will inherently demand there is truth spoken as well. It will require pointing out that there is sin out there. There are people who are rebelling against God, but it is not for the purpose to call out judgment. The purpose is to avoid receiving that judgment.

We rob ourselves and others of only teaching specific elements of what Christ taught. It is all well and good to love someone for who they are, but imagine how much more impactful you can be if you love them in a way that points them to the opportunity for change. God tends to use passionate people. He uses people who have been broken by their own sin. He uses people who are damaged. He uses people who have a past. This is because those passionate for themselves can be equally as passionate for him when they change. The broken can relate to the broken. Those with a past can be a testimony to God’s grace.

We teach them everything. All of it. We don’t leave any of it out. This isn’t a choose your own adventure. It is a packaged deal. It is all or nothing.

What is Religion? James 1

I recently decided to go back through the book of James to refresh myself on the overall themes in preparation for a paper I am writing for a class. I went through the first chapter of James. All of it is very familiar to me. It is full of popular verses that are quoted often. I found myself gravitating towards the last few verses of this chapter today. Specifically verses 22, 26, and 27.

James is laying an important groundwork in this chapter. He will later discuss the importance of a partnership of faith and works. There is an incredible need from James message that pulls for his readers to live out a life worthy of the message they have received. I want to say before moving forward that I struggle with all of these themes. I don’t think it comes easy, and I think the balance that James calls for us is incredibly difficult to achieve, but I did want to share a few thoughts based off of some misconceptions some might have in these verses.

Verse 22 says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” This is the point where most messages would start to talk about how we need to live out what Scripture says. This is all well and god, and is ultimately the main point James is making in this verse, but I want to pump the breaks here for a second. We need to be in the Word in order to follow its commands. I would also argue that we need to be around others who speak God’s truth to us in order to act on it. People will often tell me that they don’t like “Going to church. Church is not a building where we meet on Sundays.” I completely agree, but a local community of believers that actively worship, and study Scripture provides a necessary refuge for the life of the believer. We need to learn God’s Word together in order to act on it as one body. Not everyone is this way, but I have had people try and use this passage to tell me that living I community is not important. Saying that completely ignores the message and context of this verse. It was never an either/or it is a both/and.

Now we have verses 26 and 27. “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: To visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

It is popular to beat up on religion. A ridiculous amount of time and energy has gone from both sides writing about why religion is good or bad. Both sides do their absolute best to show why the other side doesn’t really know what they are talking about. I have contemplated over this issue, and this passage specifically in the past. Let’s start with the obvious. At no point does James say religion is bad or evil. He doesn’t say religion is wrong, or that Jesus hated religion without any clarifying statements is irresponsible. What James does say is that some people have a wrong idea of what religion is.

Here is what religion is not. It is not listening to God’s word and ignoring its application in your life. It is not fattening yourself up on church events and doing nothing for those in need. It is not being a hypocrite. It is not merely acting on traditions in order to try and appear religious for others.

Religion is about caring for those in need. We all like to get on board with that part. It is the often quoted element to this passage. It is a part that I think we often miss. The topic of abortion is a great example of this. Many Christians fight for the right of the unborn child, but many don’t stop to think about what they are doing to try and increase the quality of life for that child once it is born. This is not every single believer. Many parts of the Church are doing a fantastic job caring for those children who enter the world in broken homes, and taking the mother under their wing, but I realize that I personally need to do so much more. How am I living out God’s word in a way that makes this world a better place for children to live in?

There is a second half to this. It is the part that the section who dislikes religion often forget. “Keep oneself unstained from the world.” This is not saying we go into hiding. It is not saying that we treat those on the outside like dirt. It does not tell us to be legalistic. It does not tell us to never associate with unbelievers, but it is a blatant call that tells us to be different. Ironically, this second part looks an awful lot like the kind of religion that many people seem to be disagreeing with.

It is another situation of a both/and. I used to give all monasticism a rip for being so separate from the world, but recent personal research has shown me that there were actually some monastic movements that maintained a rigorous personal study of God’s Word and were what we might consider “religious.” They also remained incredible active in their communities by caring for the needy and spreading the Gospel. We should be different. We should be set apart. Sometimes this can be found through what many would call religious traditions. This is not a bad thing so long as those traditions have purpose in reminding us of who we are, where we come from, and what we are called to do. They can rejuvenate us. Those moments can remind us to remain in the world, but standout as something completely different from it as well.

Look at the Stars

Psalm 147 4:5 “He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names. Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.”

I love this verse. It takes place in a Psalm that talks about how God cares for us in our difficulties. Our struggles are something he wants to help heal. A while ago I read a book called Nightfall. It was a Science Fiction book about a alien race on a distant planet that is always orbited by a sun. Because there are multiples suns orbiting the sky there is never darkness on the planet. However, roughly every 2300 years there is a solar eclipse during a period where only one sun is in the sky.

The alien race is not use to darkness, and everyone is nervous on what to expect when darkness comes. Ironically it is not the darkness that pushes people over the edge. It is the countless stars in the sky that they suddenly see. Suddenly there very limited world has been insurmountably expanded. They realize they must look like an insignificant speck compared to the grandness of the universe.

Have you stopped to look at the stars recently? We appear to be nothing next to the sheer mass of the universe, and yet God is still intricately invested in who we are. God knows each of the stars. This creation that is too large for us to explore as a human race is known intimately by its creator, and yet he humbled himself on a cross.

It’s easy for us to lose sight of how huge the Messiah coming to earth is. When we look at the massive nature of this universe and realize that God knows everything about it we suddenly get a better glimpse of the weight of what Christ did. He gave up his the knowing in order to come down as a man, and lvie like us. He would experience hunger, fatigue, and pain. He would show that he carried the same emotions we do. Emotions like anger, joy, sadness, and weariness.

You see, when I look up at the stars I am overwhelmed by the mass of space there is. I am even further blown away when I realize God knows every inch of it. Every star has been named, every molecule in movement he is aware of. I am then filled with gratitude when I realize he still chose to come to us, die for us, show himself in a way that can be known, and wants to live in a intimate relationship with us.

Our failure with the golden rule.

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)

It is such an overused rule. It is the golden rule. The law of God that encompasses all laws that deal with the interaction of your fellow man. It is strange though that we choose to do two things with it.

1. We choose to misunderstand what it clearly says.
2. We willfully choose to ignore it.

The first one is one we do not even realize we are doing. Perhaps the confusion is found in the translation of this verse that actually does not exist in any current translation “Do unto other as you would have them do unto you.” We take this made up version, and misunderstand the word “unto” and get this general gist of the verse, “Don’t do something to someone that you would not want them to do to you.” This is a popular understanding of the verse, and creates the mistake of us missing the real point by a continent. Yes, that’s right. A whole stinking continent.

Saying this verse tells us to refrain from what to do misses a whole perspective to things. This verse tells us to go one very large step further. We need to treat others how we wish to be treated by them. We cannot simply refrain from showing hatred to someone. We must also should love and kindness to them if we wish to receive the same from them. We need to go out of our way to show care to them. We need to strive to meet their needs.

We ignore this rule though. Instead we follow a rule built out of pride. It is the rule of “earn it to receive it.” Do you want my respect? You better earn it. Do you want my encouragement? You better work for it. Do you want me to listen to you rather than think up my answer while you are talking? You better say something I actually want to hear.

Properly carrying out this verse requires us to put ourselves in the shoes of the person we are interacting with. It is not enough for us to do things the way we would like them to be done. We need to show these things in a way that individual cares about. What I may view as an incredibly kind and loving act of compassion may not register that way to someone else. A proper application of this verse demands of us to be entirely focused on others. In no way are we remaining focused on ourselves.

There is one other warning that must be made in this verse. Nowhere does it say that we will automatically receive the same response back from the individual if we do things right. We may show love, kindness, compassion, and respect to someone, but not receive anything like this in return. God never gives us that guarantee. He does not say, “do this and you will get what you want form someone.” He doesn’t tag on, “If they still treat you like a jerk then you can disregard this command.”

There is no loophole in this command. There is no way to get out of it. There is not secret way to abide by it, but be coasting through it. There is no way to act on this verse and remain focused on yourself. There is no guarantees of happily ever after with the individual you are having issues with. It is because it is never about getting what you want. It is about honoring God, depending on Him, and sharing a glimpse of His truth into the lives of those around you.

Don’t miss this verse by a whole continent.

Praying for the sinner

First let me encourage you to check at the post before this one from karch on “Obama won. Now what?” It best expresses my own feelings on Obama’s reelection and my lack of concern over it in the grand scheme of things. This post can easily have some connections to the events of these past couple of days, but it also can relate to us in other areas of our life. It is based off a passage of Scripture that hit me so hard I nearly flipped over when I really read it for the first time.

It is a time of difficulty for Israel. They have gotten out of a nasty rut of worthless judges for a while and have had Samuel governing them as a nation. Samuel is now old. He has made the mistake of setting his sons up as the new judges, but they are not ready for such responsibility. Israel responds by making a request. Israel wants a king to rule them like all the other nations.

This is a controversial issue because God gets pretty ticked at Israel for requesting a king. He gets angry at them even though he tells Abraham kings will come down from his line, and even gives Israel guidelines in Deuteronomy for picking a king. Why then was God so angry? To go into the nuances of this issue will take another post for another day, but a very brief explanation is to take notice of the full request of Israel. Israel did not simply ask for a king. They asked for a king like all the other nations. Israel did not want to be set apart. They did not want to be unique as a nation guided by God. They wanted to fit in with other nations. It was not the request of the king that should Israel turning form God, it was the desire to be like the outside world that caused the issue.

God allowed it though. He let Israel have their king, but made a point to send a message. Samuel told Israel what a mess they were getting themselves into by wanting to have a ruler that would turn them from God, and lead them into a time of despair, taxes, and war. Israel was getting an insane rebuking for their sin. Israel responding with sorrow and guilt over their sin, and they ask for Samuel to pray for them. It is Samuel’s response that I want to focus on.

“Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil. Yet do not turn aside form following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. For the Lord will not forsake his people. Morever, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and right way. Only fear the Lord and serve him faithfully with all your heart. For consider what great things he has done for you. But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king.”

People sin and turn from God. They need to be called out on those things. However, as believers we still have another responsibility beyond the confrontation. It is the responsibility of intercession. How often are we praying for those who are rebelling against God. Are we praying for God to be patient for them? Are we praying they will turn from their lifestyle and seek Him? Are we praying that God would spare them from punishment for a little while longer?

Samuel said that if he stopped praying for Israel he would be sinning against God. What a mind blowing concept. Did you catch that? Are job is not done when we confront sin. Our job continues by getting down on our knees and passionately praying for those we confront. Our response to sin is anger, and that is good. There have been sins that have hurt me and loved ones in the past. It was so easy to right the sinner off after those moments. However, this passage told me how wrong I was for that mindset. I need to be praying for the person that rebels against God.

Right now there are some of us that are angry at America for picking Obama. I have already seen the sea of response resembling the idea of “God, go ahead and smite our country and give it what it deserves.” My prayers are going to be a little different. It is the same prayer I give for adulterers, murderers, alcoholics, and everything else. “Father. Please be patient a little longer. Please spare your wrath on those who rebel against you. In your patience may you help them see the truth. May they turn from the darkness and move towards the light. May my heart always be lead with compassion over the rebellious heart. I long for your return, but I can’t wait a little longer if it means more will turn to you.”

God’s wrath will come when it comes. In the meantime let us intercede for others with humble hearts reminding ourselves that we once also lived in darkness. Anything less is darkness itself.

Things you were never told about Jonah.

“The God of the Old Testament is to full of wrath.” I hear that statement more than I would like to admit. Everyone loves the God of the New Testament because He is so full of love and peace, but we tend to separate him from the God of the Old Testament. We think he either grew up and changed his ways, or that he simply no longer has a reason to have wrath now that Jesus came. Let me first say that God still has wrath. People still got killed form God’s wrath in the New Testament. God still shows his wrath today. However, that is not my focus today. I want to point out that God has never changed, and the compassion we see in Christ is also found in the Old Testament. If anything, we as humans are the only ones guilty of pointless wrath.

When God gets a bad reputation for His wrath I always point to Jonah. It is sad how little we really know of this book. The only thing we know of this book is that Jonah was swallowed up by a giant fish, and that he eventually decided to obey God. Do we recall what God wanted him to do? Do we recall that even in obedience Jonah defied God? Do we recall how depressing the story ends for Jonah?

Jonah was sent to a city called Nineveh. I don’t think I can really exaggerate on how rotten this city is. Evil would be an accurate description in every sense of the word. They were a hateful people who performed unspeakable acts. They were considered to be about as corrupt as you could possibly get. The most interesting quality to them is the fact that they were not part of Israel. This was a city of Gentiles. They were not part of God’s people.

We know the middle part of the story. Jonah refuses to obey God. We believe it is out of fear. Jonah is wrongly portrayed as a man who is afraid to go into a hostile city that is full of evil. He does not want to face these wicked people because he likely fears for his life. He runs in the opposite direction, but God makes him go anyway. In the end, God got what he wanted even with Jonah dragging his feet.

In the belly of the fish Jonah seems to realize his error and agrees to do as the Lord wishes. He goes to the city. He gives God’s message. Nineveh is doomed. They should expect God’s wrath in forty days. Nineveh will be destroyed. They will become another Sodom. God will pour out his wrath on these evil people. They have forty days to wait on this wrath. Something happened that Jonah had expected though. These evil people were brokenhearted over their sin. They repented to the Lord, and turned from their evil ways. God saw this and spared them.

That is where we assume the story ends. We believe it ends in chapter three. There is a fourth chapter though. Jonah gets angry. He pours what he truly feels in his heart. Jonah never feared the wicked people of the city. Fear for his life was not what kept him from going to Nineveh. It was fear of their salvation that did so. “O Lord. Is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” Jonah did not wish to go to Nineveh because he wished to see it burn. In fact, he still hoped God would change his mind again so he sat outside the city and waited to see these people die from God’s wrath.

God gave him a huge wakeup call, and it is the same wakeup call you and I need to hear. Jonah sat in the heat so God made a plant grow to give him shade. The next day the plant died and Jonah was upset over the death of the plant. God then cut straight to the heart. “You care more about a plant than you do the souls of others.”

What does Jonah’s story mean for us? There are a few takeaways to keep in mind.

1. God is rich in mercy. He is patient and desires to see people turn from their wickedness. Anyone who says God shows no compassion in the Old Testament has never read it.

2. It is never too late to turn from your sin on this earth. Nineveh was facing judgment in forty days. They turned from their sin to seek God’s face. No matter what you have done in your life you can still turn back to God. He will welcome you with open arms.

3. We must have compassion for the wicked. Jonah failed at this. He did everything he could to keep Nineveh from hearing God’s message. We need to look inside our hearts and see if we are brokenhearted over the sins of others, or simply judgmental. A broken heart calls people out on their sin and seeks to have them redeemed. A judgmental heart condemns people in their sin and decides when their time is up.

4. God gets what he wants. God was going to have his message sent to Nineveh. He used a man he had no desire to get that message there. When God wants something He is going to make it happen. We can either join in with Him and delight in His message, or sit in the heat as bitter cynics waiting for the world to burn.

5. Unrighteous wrath is not what God is about. The Westboro cult worships a God of wrath and destruction. I still believe evil will be punished and destroyed, but I set my eyes on who the true enemy is. He just happens to have a lot of people chained up in the process. Jonah sat and waited for the city to burn. Evil will suffer wrath, but people can turn from evil.

6. It is the biggest cliché in the book, but its truth is timeless. God loves you and wishes to see you turn away from your sin. God wants to see you redeemed. Yes there is judgment as Jonah mentioned, but there is more to that message. Life can be found in the midst of judgment. Christ has come. Repent and seek God’s face.