Sunny Pathway

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Race

After three serious posts, it’s time for something light. So I’ll tell you something we do for fun at our house. Ken and I watch The Amazing Race.

Do you know what it is? A reality show in which contestants race around the world. Eleven teams begin each race. At the end of each leg they come to a pit stop and the last team is usually eliminated. (Exceptions are more than I want to deal with here.) In each episode, contestants complete two challenges related to the location they’re visiting. Some are funny, some are hair-raising, some are physically demanding. And the transportation from challenge to challenge is exciting, too, because they often have trouble communicating with the nationals—and road conditions are unfamiliar.

We tell detractors of reality shows that The Amazing Race is different than other reality shows—but we can’t say for sure, because we don’t watch the others. In fact, we aren’t big television watchers, but one night several years ago I was restless and did some channel flipping when I noticed two middle-aged women above a huge waterfall. I think they were in South America at the time. They were deciding which one would ride in a boat and do something as part of a race. If I remember correctly, they did well in that challenge but lost the leg of the race. What intrigued me was the comment of the gal who went to the waterfall. After losing, she said the race was worth it just for that experience.

We became avid fans the next time they started a series—when we could watch from the beginning. One night Ken observed, If you were younger and in better shape, you’d like to do that, wouldn’t you? I would.

The irony of this is that he’s become a fan, too. I think the appeal is two-fold. Any race has an element of excitement—and there’s a $1,000,000 prize for the winning team. Then, the challenges of each episode reflects the unique culture of the country they are visiting. Extra hype isn’t necessary. Although competition is intense, contestants seem to maintain a level of civility with each other. After all, they work side-by-side during episode after episode—and they recognize that they’re in a game. Most of the contestants say they entered for the experience, but they also want to win.

Right now, off and on during the week, Ken and I are actually discussing the fine points. When all but three teams are eliminated, those three will run the last leg to complete the race. Well, we’re currently down to four teams and neither of us is willing to predict who will be eliminated. At this point, all four are strong teams with strengths and weaknesses. We can't predict a winner, either.

I suppose I should make a spiritual point so I will mention that when we run the good race of faith, we don’t compete with others. We compete with our human nature. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, but if we walk/run with God, we’re winners! And, if we walk/run with God, when we stop to listen to His voice, we have internal confidence or assurance that we’re winners—even when we’re struggling through a spiritual challenge. Some of those spiritual challenges are funny—even when they’re happening. Some of them are hair-raising. And some are physically demanding—they require endurance. So we don’t need extra hype when living the Christian life, either.

I admit I’m in it for the experience—if you mean the reality of walking/running with God. I intend to stay in until the final leg—and know I will because I’m depending on God’s grace. Furthermore, I predict that I and my many Christian friends will all be winners. That’s the way it works in God’s Kingdom.

Not so with The Amazing Race or any race organized by people. Our human nature wants to beat others. It’s one of our perennial struggles or battles. So, one team will be eliminated this week. One team will win the following week. But who will they be?

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Power of Good Works

A story has haunted me all weekend—even while spending most of Saturday at a workshop. It’s not original with me—I heard it from a Christian teacher—but I’d like to share it.

The teacher had a dream in which he saw an image of a derelict he knew. In his dream, God asked questions and he knew that when God asked, he would wait for the revelation. Then God showed him the derelict’s life-story, a story of childhood abuse and neglect. As might be expected, the derelict became a nasty teenager and then a nasty adult.

One day, sitting on a park bench, a stray animal passed by. Normally the derelict would kick or snarl, but that day he just looked at the animal. The response was unusual. The next day God arranged for the animal to pass again. This time the derelict gave the animal a scrap of food.

Because the derelict responded with those few gestures of compassion, God gave him more opportunities--and as time passed, the derelict’s compassion expanded. Eventually, God gave the derelict an opportunity to hear the Gospel of Jesus and he received salvation.

There’s more to the story—but here’s the point. When he did a good work from the heart—before he knew Jesus—God built on that response. His good works actually became a bridge for him—made a way for him to receive God’s grace.

The story troubled me because it didn’t fit the doctrine on good works as shared in my doctrinal statement. Because of the story, I started questioning something I’d never questioned before.

Is there a Scriptural precedent for good works leading to salvation? Scripture must be our guide, but it seems the characters we read about in the Bible come to us as fully-developed people of faith. We don’t know what preceded their walk with God.

Well, there’s Gideon. He and his countrymen lived in caves and dens, trying to produce their crops in secret so they wouldn’t be robbed by the Midianites. While thrashing wheat in the secrecy of a wine press, the Angel of the Lord appeared. Gideon’s lashed out: if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds. . . ? (Judges 6:13a ESV) Apparently, in spite of his anger, Gideon was marked for a special anointing before the Angel appeared. God saw something in his heart.

Talking with Ken about this was interesting. He mentioned the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan was a character in a story Jesus told, but I began thinking about other Samaritans. Of the ten healed lepers, the one who returned in thanksgiving was a Samaritan. Jesus commended his faith. (Lk. 17:11-19) And Jesus met the woman by the well in Samaria. She witnessed of him to the people of her village who then came to hear Jesus for themselves. And many more believed because of his word. (Jn. 4:41)

Ken also said that he feels Jesus said things that confounded Pharisees. The teachers of the law had everything down pat, and Jesus unsettled their theology.

I realized that when it comes to theology, I rely heavily on my background. Luther received the foundational understanding of The just shall live by faith. (Rom. 1:17) And one of the verses that became my favorite after coming to God has been, For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Eph. 2:8,9a)

There’s a problem with putting all one’s theological emphasis in one place, however, so I’ve always given credibility to James 2:17: So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But none of these verses address my central question. Can a good work become a bridge to God?

People have the capacity to respond in kindness, and I'm sure everyone reading this blog has done acts of kindness. In fact, Americans routinely give to people in need. My personal feelings on that has been that some give for recognition—but some give as a response to the prompting of the Holy Spirit—and some give simply because the heart is touched. Here’s a thought: is the heart ever touched apart from the Holy Spirit?

I know I’ve done good works for the wrong reason—and the results were much better than they would have been had I followed my sinful inclinations. Perhaps I wanted to look good—sometimes because I felt competitive. Perhaps I knew I had to obey the law. Or, perhaps I wanted to make up for something that bothered me. Trying to make restitution rather than turning to God. See why I liked to focus on faith and de-emphasize works? God forgives.

And yet, when I review my walk with God, I realize that every time I responded with genuine compassion, I received grace. This was true before and after I entered into a vital walk with God.

So I've revised my thoughts on good works—although I'm not ready to make a change to my doctrinal statement yet. I need to think about it. If you're interested, here's a preview:

1) Good works have significant social value—even if done for the wrong reasons. Tragedies are avoided when people do the right thing out of fear of reprisal or condemnation. However,

2) Good works cannot pay the penalty for sin. Only the Blood of Jesus has power to cover our sinful nature. But,

3) Good works can be a response to the voice of the Holy Spirit. By responding to Him, we open ourselves to His grace—regardless of where we are in our walk with God. Good works in this context can become a bridge to receiving His revelation, His grace.

For those not into doctrine, I’m sorry for this extension. Theology and philosophy have been major interests for me. Perhaps God is unsettling my pat solutions to theological approaches. I’ll try to get back to normalcy in the next post.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Statement of Doctrine

After so much hype on Tuesday, it turns out the most remarkable thing about my doctrinal statement is what I don’t include.

Quite a few years ago I published a tabloid-size newspaper-insert. This statement is similar to a doctrinal statement I put together for it. Being I’m now publishing for a different audience, I thought I’d include an addendum dealing with thoughts on other issues—as well as further thoughts on these issues—explaining why I limit myself in my basic doctrinal statement.

In the end, however, I felt that would be divisive and counter-productive. When I ran my thoughts by Ken, he agreed. In my world, the doctrines as stated here are sustaining and empowering. When viewed in their Biblical context, they provide food for meditation. Because they offer so much, I suspect I'll occasionally elaborate on one or more in future posts.

A Doctrinal Statement

God is creator of heaven, the earth, and the universe.

This God is One, but He is existent in three persons: God the Father—Jehovah; God the Son—Jesus; and God the Holy Spirit. He is all-powerful, everywhere-present, all-knowing, and eternal.

The Bible is a supernaturally inspired work of God the Holy Spirit. It reveals his nature by telling the story of his participation in human history—and it reveals his nature through teaching, prophecy, and poetry.

Jesus was born on earth of a virgin and He lived a perfect, sinless life. As a teacher, He introduced principles related to a Kingdom unlike any kingdom on earth. He performed miracles. He shed his blood and died on a cross to pay the penalty (atone) for sin. He rose from the dead to defeat Satan and secure eternal life for believers. He ascended into heaven where He continually prays (intercedes) for people. He will come again to judge all people and then He will reign in righteousness over those who belong to him.

All people are separated from God by their sinful nature. No attempt to remove guilt by doing good works can ever change a sinful nature or pay the penalty for sin.

The blood of Jesus can purchase (redeem) people from their sinful human nature, and it is available to all who repent or turn away from sin. People supernaturally receive this vicarious sacrificial payment through God’s grace by faith in Jesus Christ (justification). The Holy Spirit works in people’s hearts, encouraging them to receive the life of Jesus and drawing them to God the Father (salvation).

The supernatural ongoing work of the Holy Spirit within Christians includes:
- the indwelling work (sanctification) of the Holy Spirit that produces fruit of the Spirit and
- the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that offers gifts of the Spirit for ministry.

All who come to Jesus Christ and belong to Him are supernaturally joined together to form His invisible Church. As Christians walk in unity with God through the work of the Holy Spirit, they are ready to do the good works of God. Walking in unity with God makes it possible for Christians to walk in unity with others.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Confession versus Confession

Every now and then I spend a lengthy period of time surfing the net. Yesterday was such a day and I was struck by a trend—trying to convince atheists that Christianity is true. First a person claiming to be an atheist—and I suspect they are—challenges the blogger with questions. Then the blogger comes back full steam to refute and convince by arguing passages of the Bible, etc.

I’ve heard of atheists who became Christians (for an example, see Conversion Diary in the blogroll), but never an atheist who became a Christian because someone argued them into the faith. Every testimony that I’ve read from an atheist-turned-Christian included a catalyst that challenged their basic worldview. Then they began looking for God and seeing His hand where they hadn’t see His hand before.

I also noticed interesting variations in how the word confession is used. Both uses are correct, but the implications are the opposite.

Confession can mean acknowledging guilt. Or, confession can mean a statement of faith—as in the Apostles Creed. The common denominator between the two meanings is stating what you believe is reality or truth.

Confession as a statement of beliefs might elude most people—but it’s alive among bloggers. In their confession mode they uphold basic doctrines, share the truth of the confessions, engage in dialogue about the confessions. They try to convince atheists that the Christian confession is the true confession.

But perhaps most people associate the word confession with admitting guilt. I think of my grade-school friend Dorothy. One day after school she asked if I’d wait for her when she went to confession. So the Lutheran’s pastor’s daughter waited on the steps of the Catholic church—even though it meant walking six extra blocks. To my mother's credit, she smiled when I explained why I was late getting home.

Today, one of my favorite blogs is by a Catholic convert from atheism who recently shared her thoughts on the merits of the Catholic Rite of Confession. (Again, check Conversion Diary on the Blogroll.) I think you’ll be challenged and blessed by her story.

One of my favorite Scripture passages reads, If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (I Jn. 1:8,9 KJV) The last phrase of The New Living Translation reads, cleanse us from all wickedness. I love this confession, because I know I need cleansing.

Here’s my first point. Are we Christians so intent on confession as a statements of belief that we’ve lost sight of the larger meaning of the word confess? If we focus on doctrinal statements, we become obsessed with being right. Isn’t it dangerous to focus on being right—and possibly ignore the call to confess sin?

Paul wrote to Timothy, Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (II Tim. 2:15 NIV) The word of truth at that time consisted of the Old Testament plus a few letters circulating from one city to another. But it was enough—basic truth illuminated by revelation from the Holy Spirit.

And now, my dreaded second point. I can be quite authoritarian at times, but I haven't felt I had the last word on doctrine for years. And in the middle of that quandry I feel impressed to write a doctrinal statement—a confession of my faith. In fact, I plan to post it later this week. This is so out of my comfort zone that I’m writing this blog to explain the blog that’s coming—to prepare you before you get the real thing. If, as I’ve stated so many times, no one ever gets it right, will I be humble enough to let God to show me where I’m dead wrong? And would I get it right the second or third or fourth time? And if not, why bother? Then, can a person have a confession of faith without thinking everyone should agree? If people don't agree, can I fellowship with them freely? Of course to the last question. The rest is a can of worms.

I’m not going to be inclusive—a term applied to what some call the emerging church which, if I understand it right, accepts or includes many things that shouldn’t be accepted or included. But I do think God is bigger than doctrine. And yet, doctrine calls. Oh, woe is me.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Resisting Evil

On Monday I wrote, among other things, how the Thoughts for Inspiration blog received hits from countries around the world—and about a comment from a sweet-looking girl who said she liked the blog. She looked like she was Thai.

I'd already thanked the girl, but on Tuesday I thought I should reply. I remembered that successful bloggers expand their numbers by making comments and by commenting on comments. So I scrolled back, found the comment, brought it up, and clicked on a porn site.

For five days Thoughts for Inspiration—dedicated to sharing glimpses of truth from God’s Word—provided a link to a porn site. Reality didn’t even register right away. I just knew I had to get it off. My little trauma was not being able to figure out how. I could have asked on a question board—which would be the same as announcing the porn site's location.

Yesterday—Wednesday—I decided to remove the specific posting in hope of removing the comments as well. I did, it did, and then I posted again. That worked on the blog site while messing up the RSS feed, but I was so relieved I laughed.

As a result of this, however, I’ve made two changes on all three blogs. To encourage openness, I removed a restriction related to being a registered google user. That was obviously ineffective anyway. But I installed the device that holds comments until I screen them and decide whether or not they should be posted.

I hate the idea of screening comments, but it feels right.

A sidelight of all this was my reaction to the people involved in porn—and to Thailand. I’ve read several accounts from both Christian and secular sources about human trafficking. They identified Thailand as a country where beautiful women and children are routinely sold for profit and sexual exploitation. I understood my angst was insignificant compared to the evil experienced by the victims—perhaps even the young girl pictured. Imagine being sold into a life of torment—and sometimes, parents sell their children in order to feed other members of their family—and sometimes, young girls sell themselves as a matter of survival. And imagine the misery of the hardened people who do the buying and selling.

Thailand has been added to my prayer list.

Praying for another country didn’t come out of the blue. When our youngest daughter was in Indonesia I prayed daily for Indonesia until she and her husband moved to the States. But, although my prayers had been intense—they lasted for a season. When our oldest son moved to the United Arab Emirates, I prayed for that country, and—those prayers lasted for a season. Last October we went to Ethiopia for our granddaughter’s baptism, and again I offered prayers for a country, but—they lasted for a season.

In December, when busy with the month's demands, it occurred to me I had stopped praying for these countries and that I should at least pray about praying for them. When I did, I felt God gave me a simple approach.

I can’t pray for them intensely on a regular basis, but I can pray for them simply—with a sentence or two—each day. And that’s what I’ve done. Even on days when I’m busy, I have time for a few sentences for Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia, and now Thailand.

It occurs to me that those sentences add up. I think I've become a dripping faucet like the widow who prevailed against an unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8). Hopefully, others are praying with me. Answers might be a long time a'coming. Maybe God will answer tomorrow. Whatever, He hears and is pleased.

I’m concerned about two things. One, because praying for these countries has been a private matter between the Lord and me—something I’m still establishing—I’m afraid sharing it openly will bring attention and pride. Two, I don’t think Satan knew I was doing it because I did it quietly. Now he’ll be on me with distractions, devices to move me away from the commitment.

If you’re a praying person, think about asking God if there is something specific you should pray for that would include resisting evil—for a country, a person, an industry, a political circumstance, a school—whatever—and see if it could become part of your life. Remember, you aren’t committing to lengthy, intense prayer. Many prayers add up. Especially if God initiates them.

Monday, April 13, 2009

And God Showed Up

Of course I know God is everywhere present. It’s one of His unexplainable characteristics that we know to be true because we’ve seen Him at work. Plus, He tells us as much in the Bible.

But it’s always nice when He lets us experience Him, especially if we’re in the middle of something new, strange, or challenging. And we had an unusual Easter this year.

First, our worship experience was different.

Because of the flood, a major dike runs down the road between our church and the Red River of the North. We didn’t meet at all one Sunday—most churches didn’t, due to a blizzard. On Palm Sunday we met in a theatre. On Thursday we had our one-and-only Holy Week service in an auxiliary room of the Assembly of God Church. Yesterday, on Easter Sunday, we met in the South High School auditorium. This space is familiar to Ken and I because we go there for our grandchildren’s concerts. The space was big enough to accommodate the congregation with two services. There was a decent stage for our worship band. But by this time our plight is familiar and TV cameras were present. The entire scenario irritated me—until we started to worship. And God showed up.

Second, our family experience was different.

Ken and I were alone. Although this has always been a time for the families of our children’s spouses, we usually spend time with one or the other when they’re on their way or coming back. The only interaction this year was a quick drop-off of small gifts for the local grandchildren—who are kinda embarrassed that grandma still gives them something for Easter—don’t let them know I told you.

At some point I decided the celebration was bigger than family. We scaled down our dinner from ham with the trimmings—Ken grilled steaks and I made pilaf and salad. In the afternoon I read Anne Rice’s Jesus Christ: the Road to Cana. Guess what? We had a wonderful day, and God showed up.

Third, my writing experience was different.

Since I felt impressed to take time off from Red, Red Berries, I’ve focused on my third blog, Thoughts for Inspiration—adapting and editing way ahead. Now, on one hand, working on Thoughts is a blessing because it fulfills a Word I felt God gave me. On the other hand, it’s old material. I’ve referred to individual pieces as relics from my past. But I feel I have to complete the task, so I keep going.

I’m working on July now—hardly related to Lent or Easter. I was so intent I only posted once last week for this blog.

Blog readers are interesting. According to my confusing stat counter, this blog has picked up a few readers. If I only post once a week, they fall off—which will probably happen after last week. Sorry. As for Red, Red Berries, I think I personally know everyone who ever logged on—just a handful, although I felt it was my most important writing. But Thoughts receives occasional hits from other countries, and some spend a little time. None have returned, but I get excited every time, because that blog focuses totally on Scripture.

I have no idea what triggers these hits—well, maybe I have an idea now. On Wednesday and Thursday I made some changes in the format—going back to the beginning of the year. On Saturday I decided to look at the confusing stats—and it indicated 109 hits. Really. 109 hits!

About 60 were from me from when I changed the format of the short individual posts. The rest came from South America, Europe, the Mideast, Asia—and a few from the states. Most stayed briefly—they may or may not have read the short one-day posting. But many stayed between five to twelve minutes. One—from Turkey—stayed over 53 minutes. (Maybe they had a phone call and didn’t log off? Oh, where do I get those negative thoughts.)

Were the people who spent time already Christians? Were they searching for God instead of a god? Were they looking for a Word about Jesus? Were they simply mildly interested? Could God use this? Did God use this?

I know I can’t log on to Thoughts 60 times a day to generate hits from other parts of the world. But I sure called Ken in to look at the stats with me, and the two of us marveled. Of course, I had to check the day’s postings to read what they read. Holy Week material. Let me just say, I felt our God showed up.

Praise Him. Praise Him. Praise Him!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

More Incomplete Definitions

There's no better time to seek God and His Son Jesus than during Holy Week. He always offers more to His children when we take time with Him. Keeping that in mind, I'm offering a few more incomplete definitions.

God -
the ultimate issue of life

God -
the great unknown (Remember, we see through a glass darkly.)

Courage -
facing the ultimate issue

Courage -
grappling with the unknown

Seeker -
a person who acknowledges their need for more revelation of the unknown

Seeker -
a person willing to pursue unsettling revelation

Quandry -
a confusing state of being that can lead a seeker toward revelation and unsettling change

Quandry -
a glorious state of being that can lead a seeker to Truth

Lord, thank You for grace. Move on us to seek You and Your Son, for You are the Ultimate Issue of Life. Prepare our hearts to receive a greater revelation of Jesus who gave His Life so we could receive Life. In Jesus Name. Amen.

Blessings! And have a great Easter.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Snowman and the Flood

The hardest thing about floods is that they take so long. I can’t really remember when or how this began. I only know I initially felt guilty for saying I loved blizzards when the aftermath of too many blizzards is a flood.

Because we’re in no danger, I unintentionally began reliving and working through the negative emotions left by the flood of ’97. It’s been cathartic and healing. I realized yesterday morning that our experience in ’97 wasn’t as bad as I had let myself believe. I don’t think I’m minimizing or denying anything by saying that. In fact, at the time I didn’t feel overwhelmed—the overwhelmed emotions came when thinking about the event later. Somehow, I gave it all to God—and now it’s neither a good or bad memory—just a memory of a stressful event that’s over.

Much of the fatigue during a flood comes from the intense focus. Are other things really happening in the world?

Television coverage has included pictures of farm families leaving homesteads surrounded by a ring dike. Leaving knowing they are probably going to lose it all. And they’re upbeat. While I know a special grace covers such situations—it covered us in ’97, too, even though we were far from evacuating—their attitude seems deeper than mine was. Perhaps, as farmers, they’ve learned to deal with the aftermath of unpredictable weather. Truly, all we stand to lose is stuff. That can be both good and bad. I’ve been downsizing ever since the flood— primarily because we’ve moved a few times. Downsizing has been liberating.

But in the end, whether or not in danger, an extended flood means fatigue. I can’t explain why, but it’s so. It might even be fatigue that makes the memories hazy and difficult later. So many of life’s little comforts are gone because life is dramatically disrupted. There’s the issue of conserving water. Streets are almost impassable because road crews are working on flood control. Authorities want us to stay home anyway—to stay out of the way. Little things, but they’re repeated inconveniences. We want normal again.

Then, consider the people who haven’t been able to go to work. I get my hair done at a shop in the mall. When I realized it was open Monday, I quickly called in for a haircut. “You know,” my beautician said, “a lot of people don’t get paid unless they work. And they’re not working when everything is shut down.” It didn’t take long to realize she was talking about herself. And that made me think of the many struggling because of the financial crisis. If we can be exhausted by a flood, think of the disheartened people who’ve lost homes and jobs to that front.

Relaxing in God’s Presence doesn’t come naturally for me when I’m tired or preoccupied. My mind wanders. But I’m not normally at the other side of the curve, either, and I’m certainly not into expletives or their substitutes. Nevertheless, yesterday I woke up with, “A pox on blizzards.” And I meant it! I wanted a new environment now, but another blizzard was dumping about twelve more inches of heavy wet snow that will eventually melt and drain through our bloated Red River of the North.

The short-term blessing is that accompanying cooler weather has delayed the melt-down and river levels are declining. But no one knows what will happen when this snow melts and our dikes will be about as tired as we are.

Then, although waking up as negativism personified, I opened the great room drape to see a snowman across the street. He had wobbly stick arms waving in the wind and a scarf around his neck. A neighbor couple formed it sometime after dark and there it was in the morning light.

Have you ever had something completely cut through your mindset, take you into another world? We don’t have many snowmen in our neighborhood—we’re all over 55. (The last snowman was two years ago last Christmas, created by our granddaughter Emily for our youngest daughter’s children when they visited.) But something about that brave creation yesterday, standing defiantly against the stress of flood reports, convinced me we still have the capacity to enjoy life.

To celebrate I made caramel rolls, but this blog is long enough so I won’t tell you about that. I’m just glad something penetrated me, took me beyond myself and the present trauma. I ended up ignoring my email inbox and spent much of the day writing. I actually thanked God for the snowman. It came as a present when I needed one.

Here he is—photographed this morning after his stick arms were removed by the wind and his facial features were distorted by the melting temps. I think he’s still rather elegant—and a very brave fellow. Just what the world needs in the face of a flood.