Hebrews: Broken Promises?

I’ve wrestled with a lot of Scripture in my lifetime. Some have been difficult to understand. Some have been hard to submit to. Some say things that just grate on my nerves. But the passage we’re looking at today has been one of the most challenging. The writer of Hebrews said, “All these people were still living by faith when they died.  They did not receive the things promised, they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance” (Heb 11:13). “But,” you wonder, “I thought you said that the foundation of faith is the faithfulness of God.” I did, I still do, and I always will.

So what are we supposed to do with this seeming contradiction? God is faithful, but these people didn’t receive what they were promised. There are things that I am convinced God has promised to me. Salvation for a lost loved one. A future as a real writer. From my current vantage point, neither seems likely, much less possible. What do I do? I wait. And I hope. How do I keep my hopes up in the waiting? By looking beyond what I can see and looking ahead to what I cannot see.

Abraham was promised a nation of descendants that outnumbered the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the beach. He died with eight sons (Ishmael, Isaac, and the sons Keturah bore to him – see Genesis 25:1-4) – and only one of those was the “promised son.” Not exactly a nation. He was promised land on which his family could settle. Abraham died in a tent owning nothing more than the plot where his wife was buried. Doesn’t sound like God kept His promises, does it?

One reason I struggle with this is because of the western perspective of individuality. In Abraham’s world, the deceased lived on in his descendants. Promises made were not limited to fulfillment in the individual’s life. It would be the sons of the sons of the son of the son of Abraham who would become a nation. It would be many more generations after that before they would take possession of the Promised Land. Abraham didn’t see it happen, but he believed with all of his heart that it would. That’s the kind of faith God can build on. Beloved, is that the kind of faith you have?

Why I would rather study Jesus than Algebra

Do you know who Mahommed ben Musa al-Jhwarizmi is?  He is the person responsible for creating algebra.  If heaven is truly heaven, he won’t be there. In case you didn’t know, I am not a fan of math in any form but I absolutely hate algebra. For the past 9 years, I have been a Theology student studying the Bible.  I love learning, but I bawled my way through a year of algebra. There is no mention of algebra, quadratic equations, factoring, Venn nor Euler diagrams, square roots, linear equations, exponents, polynomials, or rectangular coordinates in the Scriptures. I do not need to learn about angles – I needed to learn about angels. By the grace of God and the patient tutoring of Julia Brown, I passed college algebra with an A. I’m still stunned by that statement.

It turns out that I am more drawn to the purpose of learning than the facts of learning. In other words, the “Why” is what’s important to me. The reason I hated algebra was because I couldn’t find any purpose for it. When I asked Julia, “Why do I have to learn this stuff?” The answer was always, “So you can do higher algebra.” So . . I am slogging through something I hate just so I can do more of it? No thanks! If I know the “why” I can press on. Words have that kind of purpose for me. So does living for Jesus Christ.

The “why” of being a Christian, of following Jesus, of praying and studying the Bible and teaching and witnessing and proclaiming is the force that makes me get out of bed every morning. The “why” is the reality of eternity and of the love of God and the power of transformation and the hope that comes through faith in Christ. Jesus said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). He is the “why.” He is the purpose – the eternal purpose of my life and all creation. We invest ourselves in a lot of things. But what has eternal significance? People. Truth. Love. Jesus. The “why” is because these are all that will matter in the end.

The Apple of God’s Eye

Joy and I were playing with her “princess crown” a few days ago. She was trying to put it on my head but my glasses kept getting in the way so she asked me to “take you gwasses off Nana.” So I took my gwasses off and she started putting the crown on me again, but in her approach, she almost poked me in the eye. As the crown came closer I instinctively closed my eyes to protect them. Only when the crown was finally secured on my head did I open my eyes again. I now have a better understanding of David’s words in Psalm 17: 8 “Keep me as the apple of Your eye; hide me in the shadow of Your wings.”  David was proclaiming the protective nature of God towards His children.

You know how I love word terminologies – and I found a good one here. The Hebrew word for “keep” of course means to guard, to keep watch, to shield, and protect. That’s God being a watchful Father, always looking out for possible danger. Nothing sneaks up on Him and He will not allow anything to come near to you that does not fulfill His perfect plan for your life. Notice I didn’t say He would protect you from every unpleasant thing in life. Some of them are necessary. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m rather stubborn. God has had to sand off my self-will with some pretty rough sandpaper. We’ve been through this more than once and I know that when hard things come to me, it is because God is working to remove something in me that interferes with His plan.

The word “keep” also means to “look narrow.” I love that because it tells me that in a world full of people, His focus is on me. Just me. I often feel like just one face in a very large crowd. One more person among so many people. But God’s vision is narrowed so that He only sees me out of the throng. And somehow – at the same time – He sees you. Just you. And every other person that claims the name of His Son. I don’t know how, I just know it’s true.

God’s child is never out of His sight. He will keep you, Beloved, because you are the apple of His eye.

Hebrews: Persevere

I’ll be honest, some days I just want to quit. Quit school. Quit writing. Quit trying. Life is full of some precious – but heavy – responsibilities right now. Everything revolves around my granddaughter and her needs right now. I don’t have much time for me and what I need to do. I stay up late doing schoolwork. I get up very early to write. I try to snatch 30 minutes here and there to prepare a Sunday School lesson. I’m tired. But I can’t quit. Not school, writing, or teaching, and certainly not being a grandmother. And so I press on.

The Bible has a lot to say about not giving up; the two words that biblical writers used most frequently in their encouragement were endure and persevere. Both of these words share the same root meaning: “to be in a state that begins and continues, yet may or may not end.” But they each have another word attached that makes all the difference: endure includes the word hypo meaning “under”; while persevere attaches the word epi, which means –“on” or “over.” The writer of Hebrews said, “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what He has promised” (Heb 10:16).  He is exhorting his readers to overcome the pull to walk away from Jesus in an environment that was hostile to Christians. Not unlike ours is becoming.

His statement begs a question: “What, exactly, is the ‘will of God’?” Jesus spelled it out plainly: “My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life” (John 6:40). To believe and keep on believing until you receive the eternal life that Jesus promised. Believing – faith – is not a one and done in the Christian life. It’s not some decision you make one day when you walk the aisle and get baptized. It is an every day, moment-by-moment decision you make and continue to make to take one more step with Him and one more and one more.

I am a busy person, but school and teaching and writing and even being a Nana are not God’s will. All the things I’m doing are God’s call on my life, but His will for me is to believe in His Son till He brings me home. And never give up. I know a lot of you are busy like me. Just make sure, Beloved, in all the things you do to serve Him, that you are in His will all the way to the end.

Holy Father

When I pray, whether written or spoken, I use my favorite name for God: “Holy Father” (John 17:11).  It comes from Jesus’ prayer just before his arrest. I love that name because it is expressing the two most important aspects of who God is. Taken separately, each word speaks volumes.

“Holy” describes the highest moral quality, something or Someone set apart and sacred. I think of the Most Holy place in the Tabernacle where God dwelled among His people. It was a sacred space and entry by man was forbidden – except once a year and then only by the high priest who came to make sacrifices for the sins of the nation. A holy thing would never be used for common purposes by common people. The angels in Isaiah’s vision of God’s throne room constantly called out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty” (Is 6:3). Not just holy, but thrice holy.

“Father” is, of course, a male parent or significant leader to a family, a nation, or an individual. It is a title of honor and reverence. It is also a title of endearment – at least for some. My Dad and I didn’t have the best relationship when I was growing up and we were estranged for much of my adult life. (We did reconcile a few years before his death.) “Father” was not a warm fuzzy thought for me. But coming from the lips of Jesus, the affection was deep and sincere. Most Jews would not dare refer to God in such familiar ways. Remember He is holy – set apart from common, sinful people. But after His resurrection, Jesus told the disciples, “I am returning to my Father and your Father . . . (John 20:17). And He is our Father.

But together “Holy Father” serves as bookends with all the wonder and awe and majesty of God in between.  And together they are the complete picture of this God who is both holy and dear, who both demands perfection and makes us perfect through the blood of His own Son. The words speak to my heart of a Father who will never wrong me, never leave me, never hurt me or shame me but will always love me with the holiest of love. With perfect love (1 John 4:18). Because He is a perfect Father (Matt 5:48). Yes, “Holy Father” says it all.

Tangled Prayers

There have been times in my life – even recently – when I was overwhelmed with pain and confusion and frustration. My heart was broken and when I tried to pray my mind was awhirl with a thousand thoughts going this way and that. It was like a hundred different voices all speaking at once in my head. I couldn’t shut them up long enough to get a word in edgewise. I know you’ve been there too. I’ve read your posts and we’ve had some deep conversations. When chaos surrounds us it affects our ability to think and to pray.

But that doesn’t mean that God isn’t hearing our prayers. Listen to Paul’s words: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will” (Romans 8:26-27)

This verse promises that the Holy Spirit is praying for us when we cannot pray for ourselves. The Greek word for “groans” finds its root in the word stenos – which means “to narrow.” The image in this passage is of the Holy Spirit sorting through the jumble of thoughts and feelings to pull out the thin, narrow strand of truth from our hearts. From that small filament, He weaves a tapestry of prayer to present to the Father. All you and I need to do is pour it all out and let the Spirit, who knows both our hearts and God’s will, sift out the prayer our lips can’t express.

Beloved, you don’t have to filter your heart when you come to God in prayer. You don’t have to have your thoughts and feelings organized – you don’t even have to know what you should pray for. That is why Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit. Let Him do the sorting and sifting – He’ll find the golden thread of your heart’s prayer and carry it to the Father.

Six tips for effective Bible Study

If you ask me how to grow spiritually, I will tell you to read your Bible. All of it. I’ll also tell you don’t expect to blossom into a super-Christian overnight, or even after you’ve read it through one time. I’ve been reading my Bible for more than thirty years. (I know – to some of you, I’m a teenager in the Scriptures.) I didn’t understand much after the first time through nor the second. But by the third time through, I started recognizing things and the more laps I completed the more the Bible began to made sense. I still can’t claim super-Christian status, but I know more now than I did when I started. I thought I’d share a few things that transformed my Bible-reading – and me.

The very first step I took into Bible study was chasing down the cross-references in the margins which sparked the passion I still have to connect the Old and New Testaments. That made me hungry for more. Another tip that revolutionized my Bible study is to consider the full context of the Scripture you’re reading. Context is like x-ray vision glasses that help you see deeper into the passage. What happened before your passage? What happened after? How does your passage fit into the whole?

Then the Holy Spirit started sending me on digs for word meanings. Word meanings change from generation to generation. We need to know what the original author was saying, not the 21st century meaning of his words. And writing out Scripture helps me focus on each word.

I also slowed my pace. I learn so much more when I take smaller, deeper bites. I’ve found that consuming the entire Bible in about 3 years is best for me. And I love to read the Bible in chronological order. The events in Scripture didn’t happen in the order in which our modern Bibles place them. Following a chronological reading plan helped me see the overarching story and discern the long-term (aka – eternal) plan of God throughout human history. It helped me to better identify His character and faithfulness as I watched Him consistently work out His plan.

The Bible is not a “one-and-done” kind of book. You can’t just read through it in a year and expect to gain all the wisdom and knowledge you need for life. The most important tip I can give you for effective, transforming Bible study is time and faithfulness. An investment of time- every day – in the Word of God brings huge dividends. Come on, Beloved, let’s dig in!

Only Words?

How can we rate our faith in God? Listen to your words when your guard is down. Our truest selves come tumbling out of our mouths in our private moments, when life is hard or when we’re weary, anxious, in pain, or taken by surprise. Our unguarded words reveal a lot about us. Let me give you two examples from the Bible. Raw emotions often speak the truth from the deepest part of our hearts.

God had rescued Israel from Egyptian slavery and was leading them toward the Promised Land. Moses sent out twelve spies to investigate the area. Their report was both encouraging and frightening. The land was very fruitful but it was also inhabited by fierce giants. The people began to grumble asking, “Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword . . . [and] our wives and children [be] taken as plunder?” (Num 14:3). Wait. Did they not just walk through the sea on dry ground!? But their words expressed the fear and lack of faith in their hearts. And God was listening. He said “I have heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites. So tell then, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Lord, I will do to you the very things I heard you say.’” (Num 14:27-28). That’s a terrifying statement.

Contrast their words with the words of Job, who suffered more in one day than you and I will suffer in a lifetime. He lost his wealth, his children, and his health. Oh, he was very upset with God and was not shy about expressing it. But despite it all, Job said: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end He will stand upon the earth. He said that a day is coming when “I myself will see Him with my own eyes” (Job 19:25,27). Do you hear the heart behind those words? That is faith speaking.

Listen to Jesus’ words about words: “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). What you say in those unguarded moments says volumes about what you believe in your heart. And God is listening.  If he did to you the very things He heard you say how would that turn out for you? Beloved, make sure that the “words of [your] mouth and the meditation of [your] heart are pleasing in God’s ears (Ps 19:14).

Perfect Balance

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I read it first on a Bible cover, It was embroidered with red thread on a quilted grey paisley print. “One thing God has spoken, two things I have heard: that you, O God, are strong and that you, O Lord are loving” (Psalm 62:11-12). For some reason, I couldn’t stop staring at it.  I’m sure the woman who owned the Bible was a little concerned that I might try to sneak off with it. The verse captured me – and like the Holy Spirit often does, He asked, “What does that mean?” I quickly jotted down the reference and turned my attention back to the teacher.

When I got home I went to my concordance and started to dig. Guess what? Strong means strong and loving means loving. Well, that was . . . enlightening. But then the Spirit said, “Not the individual words, the whole verse – what does it say about God?” He is strong. He is loving. “Don’t separate the two words. What do they mean together?” God is strong and loving. And then I understood.

If God were just strong, we would fear for our lives. His power would overwhelm us and He might use His strength against us. If He were just loving, He could do little to help us. He would look on us with pity and sorrow for our sufferings, but could only pat us on the shoulder and wish us well. But He is strong and He is loving. His strength is perfectly balanced by His affection. His love is equally matched by the power to rescue. His love allows Him to see our needs and respond with compassion, mercy, and grace. His power enables Him to work mightily on our behalf, parting seas, holding back the sun, bringing down strong walls, and overwhelming enemies. And rising from the grave.

There have been many powerful men throughout history who had no compassion and left a wake of pain and destruction behind them. By the same token, many benevolent hearts offer empathy, but cannot render any real aid. God is sufficiently both; He cares and He moves. This, Beloved, is the God who listens to your heart’s cry and responds with power. He sees you. He hears you. He loves you. And He is coming to your rescue.

The Week after Covid

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This is a repeat and I apologize for that, but I am tired. Weary-to-my-bones kind of tired. Needing-more-than-a-day-off kind of tired. The tired that drains you physically, emotionally, and spiritually. After a week of battling Covid in my entire family, I’m drained body, mind, and spirit. At times like this, it’s really easy to sink into despair and cry “Woe is me!” and post my feelings all over social media. But how does that serve the cause of Christ?

Paul, who had every right to whine, choose instead to look at his life from a different perspective. “We are hard-pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:7-9). He acknowledged that his circumstances were hard – he was being pressed from many different directions by people who all wanted something from him (boy can I relate). He was perplexed; he couldn’t understand why his own people were rejecting the Messiah they had so long sought. He was persecuted – his life was often in danger, his ministry was detested by the Jewish leaders and even by certain factions of the church. He was struck down – beaten and stoned more than once for his dogged devotion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Despite all that, he refused to give in to misery. He knew that no human could crush him because he belonged to the Lord. He rejected despair. He reminded himself that his Lord and Savior would never abandon him, and had even come to stand beside him in prison (Acts 23:11). He knew that the Lord he served with all his heart would not allow him to be destroyed.

Beloved – this is YOUR testimony too if you are in Christ. You are not a victim—you are a victor! Yes, life gets very hard sometimes, but you and I need not give in to despair because our Lord will not let us be crushed or destroyed. He has promised to never abandon His own, not even in our darkest, hardest moments. Like Paul, we must learn to hold fast to Jesus and trust Him despite our circumstances or feelings. I am tired, but the Lord promises to give me strength. I am overwhelmed, but He will carry my burdens for me. I am weary, but He will sustain me. I can focus on my fatigue, or on my faithful Father. The choice is mine. The choice is yours too. Where will your thoughts take you today?