Wednesday, March 27, 2013

To love and be true...

   One last blog generated by Maryam and Marziyeh's story about being imprisoned in Iran and then, for my next blog, I'll move onto a different topic.  (After I deal with this subject, I think it's possible that I might still have a few readers left...)
   In Evin prison, as in so many prisons, lesbian romances were everywhere, creating tension among so many women crowded into such a horrible place, romances which frequently led to hair-pulling, fist fights as one lover betrayed another.
   Marziyeh and Maryam valued each and every woman whom they met in Evin and they told anyone who was suffering that Jesus loved them and that He could help them.They encouraged the other women to ask Jesus for help but they didn't stop there. They bought snacks from the prison store for women who had no money and they watched after the small children who had the misfortune of being locked up with their moms in dark, overcrowded cells. They sometimes risked their own safety to shield children when a particularly violent fight erupted.
  At one point while talking to a lesbian woman, they told her how much God loved her and cared about her distress.  But they went on to gently  ask her to consider how lesbian behavior would look in God's eyes.
  What I'm saying is that they reached out to anyone and everyone in the cell, communicating the reality of God's love, showing that love through their own acts of kindness, and, at the same time, gently standing on the truth of Scripture.
   Right after I finished this book, a caption on the internet caught my eye - it was a link to an article about  Rob Bell. I clicked on it and read the whole article in which pastor Bell said that God was leading the church to catch up with the cultural view of homosexuality and lesbianism. When asked if he believed in homosexual relationships, he said that he believed in marriage, in fidelity, in monogamy - whether it was between a man and a woman, two men, or two women. He went on to say that some people have natural needs that are different from others and they should be able to fulfill them.
   First, let me say two things. The topic of homosexuality has never been high on my list of things to write about, argue about, etc.  Second, I have seen some of Rob Bell's videos and I believe he is a truly compassionate human being.
   Having said that, I was again struck by the contrast between two young women, living out God's love without compromising His truth as  juxtaposed against an American pastor who has led a mega church into the belief that what comes naturally and is culturally acceptable is what matters most to God.
   And so what I want to ask is this: when did what comes naturally become the standard of society, let alone the standard of God?  It's not natural to remain sexually pure for those who never marry, is it?  Yet the Bible tells us that is God's standard.  It's not natural to resist all sexual temptation through, say, a decades- long marriage, is it? Yet the Bible tells us this is God's standard.   It's not natural to refrain from hitting someone who insults you and hurts you, is it? Yet the Bible tells us to turn the other cheek when being wronged.
   When it comes down to it, there is very little in the Bible, if anything, that uses man's natural desires as the tape measure for God's standard of righteousness.
   And although this may come as a shock, there was very little in man's laws back in my parent's day that was based on what comes naturally either. Perhaps that was because people just a generation ago understood that if God exists, He does not exist for us. Instead, we exist because of Him and for Him.  But it could also be, for those a generation ago who did not believe in God, that they simply understood that "natural behavior" is not necessarily  synonymous with "best" or even "right".
  Two examples of how Christians should approach homosexuals: one lived out in the dark prison of Evin; the other lived out in the enlightenment of modern America...  Both advocate sharing God's love through word and deed and, to me, that is a given. But only one involves sharing the truth - in love - as well.  One approach expects God to conform to man; the other expects God to transform man.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

To Have and To Hold...

     I have finished reading the story of two women, Maryam and Marziyeh, who were  held captive in Iran for their faith  in Christ.
     For over 8 months they sat in Evin prison because they love Jesus. And because they felt that everyone in Iran should have the  right to choose what they want to believe. If the people want to believe in Islam that is fine but they should at least have the opportunity to choose.  In Iran, an oppressive theocracy, no one has the  the right to choose much of anything.
     Early on in their captivity, the women realized that the government of Iran was embarrassed by the media
storm over their unjust imprisonment.  Within months, it was clear that the government was looking for a way to "save face" and, at the same time,  release the girls so that the pesky  media would go away. In the eyes of the judiciary the way to accomplish both goals was simple:  all the  women had to do was to say they didn't believe in Christ. Then they could be set free, the judges would be "vindicated", and everyone could go back to life as normal. The girls  could go back to handing out New Testaments to people who asked for them as well as   praying for people in the name of Jesus and no one would be the wiser.
    But the women couldn't do this because they said to deny Christ would be to deny themselves, that Jesus was so much a part of their being that they could never turn against Him - He was everything to them.
    When their lawyer mentioned a practice of Islam where a person can tell a lie if he is in danger, he asked the women if Christianity had a similar teaching. They said that it didn't and even if it did, they wouldn't use it because they would never deny Christ.
    When they finally arrived in court 7 or 8 months after being arrested, their lawyer told the judge that these women respected other religions, which was true.  But he added that they believed in Jesus the way all other religions believe in Jesus.   The women had made it clear to their lawyer that they would not deny Jesus. Now, at their hearing,  they fully understood that  he was trying to "lie" for them so that they wouldn't have to  do it.  But even in that moment, fraught with danger, they interrupted the lawyer and boldly stated that their lawyer was not saying the correct thing. Then, to everyone's astonishment, they reiterated in court, directly to the judge, that they did not see Jesus as other religions do. Islam teaches that Jesus predicted someone would come after Him who would bring in the "complete" religion. They rejected this by saying that Jesus said, "It is finished" because He brought in the complete religion and no one else can add to it. They said that He is the Son of God and the Savior of all mankind and that no one else in history or in this present time comes close to equaling Him - that He stands above all others who have walked on earth.  And again, they boldly stated that they would rather die than renounce Christ.  The judge accepted this and told them they might as well state what they believe and pay the price because everything in this world comes at a price.
    Really?  Is that true? And if it is, do we "get that" here in America - that everything comes at a price?
    When the women were asked at various times throughout their imprisonment, "Who turned you away from Islam?"  they would basically say that no one turned them away from Islam, that they met Jesus and He drew them to Himself.
    Sometimes they were asked things like, "We have heard that you can follow the principles of Muhammad, pray five times a day, and still believe in Jesus. Is this true?"  And they would answer, "No, this is not true.  To believe in Jesus, you must follow His teachings." They would also elaborate by saying things like, "Jesus lives within me. Why would I bow down and pray five times a day to someone who lives in my heart already?"
    And this is what I'm thinking today.  These women (and many other people  like them) sat in a squalid, filthy prison, existing on starvation rations, shut away from home and loved ones, often sick and in pain when all they had to do was tell a simple lie and they could walk free: No, I do not believe in Jesus. One simple sentence and they could have been out of Evin, back with their loved ones, sharing Christ with any who were interested.
    How many Christians today in the U.S. would do what these women did? Even more to the point, how many Americans  who claim to be Christians would tell you in a heartbeat that all religions are equally valid, that Christ is just one among many religious figures?
   This is what I cannot get out of my mind: These sweet girls sitting in prison for months because they would not deny Christ while thousands of Christians here, living in nice homes and eating in  fine restaurants, would daintily wipe their mouths after eating and calmly explain that there are many roads to Heaven and that to believe otherwise is to be intolerant and possibly even bigoted. While Maryam and Mirziyeh were constantly hungry, often cold, disdainfully treated, sometimes afraid, living in unimaginable filth, and almost always in pain.
    All I can say is that Maryam and Marziyeh really know the risen Christ and have found that  He's worth everything they suffered in Evin and more.
    And that many here in the West would be wise to go and do likewise.
    Do you know the risen Christ ... or do you just know your opinions about Him? Is He the risen Lord or is He  just a cultural icon who looks good in stained glass but who would never violate the mores of modern society?
   Do you know Jesus?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Please read... and sign...

This blog will be easy to write, hard to read. It's not mine, really.
After reading half of the book, Captive in Iran, by two Iranian women who are now, thankfully, free from Evin prison and have been for a couple of years, I found myself crying out to God that this horrible regime in Iran would be removed from power and that Evin would no longer be a place of torture. I found myself praying for the poor souls in that prison today, whoever they may be.

Then I came to the internet and found this letter from an Idaho pastor (of Iranian birth) who is in prison in Iran for trying to start a legal orphanage over there.  And so that's my blog for today - Saeed's letter... to you.

We have just obtained a new letter from imprisoned American Pastor Saeed Abedini written to his wife, Naghmeh, and his family in Iran.  In it, as in his previous two letters written inside the brutal Evin Prison, he documents the results of the continued abuse and torture he endures.
This letter, likely written weeks ago, was received by his family just yesterday.  Written on the margins of scraps of newspaper, it is only the third letter Pastor Saeed has been able to get to his family in the past nearly 180 days of imprisonment and underscores the difficulty of getting any information from Iran about his condition...

It is critical that we redouble our efforts and do all we can as a nation for this imprisoned pastor, one of our own, a U.S. citizen.
You can read Pastor Saeed’s letter below:
Hello to my dear love and wife,
When I saw my family for the first time behind the glass walls, I could see my mom four meters away. As she approached me and saw my face, she broke down and could not get closer.  She was crying. I understood what she felt because after weeks of being in solitary confinement in Evin Prison, I also got to see my face in the mirror of an elevator that was taking me to the prison hospital.  I said hi to the person staring back at me because I did not recognize myself. My hair was shaven, under my eyes were swollen three times what they should have been, my face was swollen, and my beard had grown.
It was a few days ago when one of my family members, with weary eyes and after running around for 15 weeks in trying to get me out of prison, said that my dad says every single day that “this week I will get my son out of prison.” But this does not happen and he is not able to get me out of prison.  In that instant I looked into the wrinkled and tired eyes of my dad. I could clearly see that he had ran around for months and he had no more strength left in him. It was very hard seeing my family in such a situation.
You, my wife, on the other side of the world, alone with the kids. Alone and worried. My family here in Iran, being interrogated, tired and under so much pressure.
With the loud voice of the prison guard, our visitation had ended and they put covers over our eyes and we returned to the dark room void of any natural sunlight.
I started praying for my family. My dear Naghmeh. You are the love of my life. I am always in love with you.
Dear Naghmeh, I have been stung so many times that I have become full of poison. This is an Iranian saying. A lot of people say that they have been stung by so many people that their whole being is full of poison like a poisonous snake. It means that we have been bitten by the snakes of this world so many times that, that all of the poison has collected in us and that we are like the poisonous snake. But if we sting anyone, we will die. This Iranian saying is full of spirit of revenge and unforgiveness and every time I would hear this in Iran, I would get very sick hearing it.
A few days ago they brought a young war veteran who was disabled in 80% of his body in my cell.  He had been put in solitary confinement with his horrific condition. And this had made him very mad and he kept saying “why did they do this to me? I gave my whole life for their sake. See what they have done to me!!!” And when he would get very mad he would say “I will take my revenge!”
I spoke to this young man until 4 in the morning. I spent time with him and spoke to him to forgive.  When we don’t forgive, we drink the poison ourselves and then wait for the other person to die. And we take the knife that has hurt us and we stab ourselves with it again! And this is the will of the evil one who wants to destroy us.
But when we forgive, we pour out the poison of the enemy and of the devil and we don’t let the poison stay in us and we don’t let the poison make us into poisonous snakes!  So that we don’t become like the person we despised and who persecuted and tortured us.
Maybe you ask, what is the secret of being so happy in such a hard situation?
Forgiveness and a change of attitude. When we forgive, we become free and we become messengers of peace and reconciliation and goodness. And whoever stings us, we can take into our embrace and love them. And in this dark and evil time, we can live full of love and full of peace and full of joy and shine like the stars! Glory be to His Name.
I forgave the prison doctor who did not listen to me and did not give me the medication that I needed. I forgave the interrogator who beat me. Every day when I would see the interrogator and for the last time when I saw him, I forgave him. I smiled at him and with respect shook his hand and I said my goodbye. The minute I forgave them and loved them, that second I was filled with unspeakable joy. I saw in the eyes of the interrogator that he had come to respect me and as he was leaving, he could not look behind him. Love is as strong as death.

 We have to get rid of the poison in our body because if we don’t, we will die. We have to get rid of both poisons; first the poison of the snake that bit us and also the poison in us that was created by that bite. We can get rid of the first poison by forgiveness and we can get rid of the second poison by humility, by dying to ourselves, and allowing the band-aid of love and goodness to replace the empty place of the wound. So that we are not a tool of darkness and revenge, but that we can be light and love and a vessel of forgiveness and we can be transformed in the process.
Surely you have someone in your family, city, work or environment that have become like poisonous snake who have bitten you and tried to make you poisonous. So, forgive them and use the antidote of love and be Victorious!
One of the chances of forgiveness came when I was blindfolded and a guard was holding my hand guiding me. He asked “what are you here for? What is your crime?” I said “I am Christian Pastor.” All of the sudden he let go of my hand and said “so you are unclean! I will tell others not to defile themselves by touching you!” He would tell others not to get close to me. It really broke my heart. The nurse would also come to take care of us and provide us with treatment, but she said in front of others “in our religion we are not suppose to touch you, you are unclean. Baha’i (religion) and Christians are unclean!” She did not treat me and that night I could not sleep from the intense pain I had. According to the doctor’s instructions, they would not give me the pain medication that they would give other prisoners because I was unclean.
I could not fall sleep one night due to the pain when all of a sudden I could hear the sound of dirty sewer rats with their loud noises and screeches. It was around 4 in the morning. It sounded like laughter in a way.
Even though many would call me unclean and filthy and would not even want to pass by me and they had abandoned me and they were disgusted to touch me because they were afraid that they would also become unclean, but I knew that in the eyes of Jesus Christ, and in the eyes of my brothers and sisters, I am like the  sewer rat, beautiful and loveable – not disgusting and unclean – and like the rats I can scream with joy within those prison walls and worship my Lord in joy and strength.
The Joy of the Lord is my strength. Amen.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

New Biographies... :)

     I know the technological age left me behind  long before it ever got here, actually ;)
     But that's okay as long as they keep publishing books...
     I love biographies and always look for them whenever I am in a bookstore. Unfortunately, I can go for  long periods, even months, without seeing what I would consider to be a good Christian biography.  Today, while others were doing the right thing by spring cleaning their homes, I was at Lifeway Christian Bookstore with my 25% off punch card gripped tightly in my grubby little hand.  (I love punch cards!!  Especially when they are full!!)
    To my amazement, they had not one new biography but several new ones!  I showed restraint and didn't get all of them - only got two with my discount card!  (Will probably get the rest on my kindle later on... :)  I haven't read any of them yet but spent  quite a bit of time (we won't say how much...) checking out each book there in the store and probably couldn't have been happier  if I'd been at the Riviera.  (Yes, I am a book-a-holic).
     Below I've listed the titles and given a little information about each book because it's a sad day when a good biography goes unnoticed, just sitting on a public shelf somewhere, with no one to love it... :)

    1.  Captive in Iran:  A Remarkable true Story of Hope and Triumph amid the Horror of Tehran's brutal Evin Prison by Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh.  I have been waiting for this book since early Feb. and had read it wouldn't be released until early April.  Somehow Lifeway already has it and I know it will be good.  These young Iranian women were imprisoned in Evin for the crime of handing out Bibles to thousands of Iranians and in spite of great pressure, they never renounced their faith during the 259 days they were in jail. Instead, they had "church" in the prison and helped others to find the comfort of Christ.  Anne Graham Lotz wrote the introduction and I'll be reading the whole book as soon as I finish this blog!

     2.  A Dream so Big:  Our Unlikely Journey to End the Tears of Hunger  by Steve Peifer.  I had never heard of the Peifers but in looking through this book, two things came to mind:  1)  By the time I read this, I'll have a much better picture of what life in Africa is really like and 2) this guy is really funny!   Basically the Peifers have been serving in Kenya for 13 years, which is interesting in and of itself because they originally went to Kenya to serve as dorm parents for one year.   Apparently they liked the job... Another interesting thing is that they were not graduates of Bible college.  Steve has a degree in political science  and had been in the corporate world when they decided to take their two kids to Kenya for a year.  The last thing that caught my attention was why they went. Although most of the book is about their experiences in Africa, early on in the book Steve tells why they went in the first place.  His wife, Nancy, was  expecting their third child when the doctors told them that the baby was deformed and would not be able to sustain life.  It was recommended that they have an abortion but they decided to carry the pregnancy to term and care for the child as long as he lived. The boy lived 8 days and his passing left them with a huge void in their lives. Afterwards  in a series of events, God showed Steve that they needed to get away for a while and then opened the door for them to go to Kenya.  As the book says on the back cover, "After one life was lost, tens of thousands were saved."  But again, I also liked the humor in it. At one place in the book he describes bargaining for an item at the local market. The seller quotes an astronomically high price for the item. Steve looks at him and says, "You must think I'm rich and dumb."  The seller looks at him in all seriousness and says, "I didn't think you were rich." I think it's going to be not only an enlightening read but also at times, a  hilarious one.

     3.   Taylor's Gift:  a Courageous Story of Giving Life and Renewing Hope by Todd and Tara  Storch.  This is the book I didn't get but can't really forget.  As I browsed through it, I felt over and over again that it had rich spiritual insight as well as gut-wrenching reality.  I don't doubt that I will read it in the future, just not today. It is a hard story as Max Lucado says in the forward.  Basically Todd and Tara lost their young teen-age daughter in a skiing accident.  Their grief was overwhelming and they are extremely honest as they talk about their walk through the valley of the shadow of death.     At times for Tara, it was more of a crawl than a  walk.  At one point, she basically quit even crawling. However, the key note is hope, as the title implies. God brought them through this horrible experience and then opened doors for them to meet the recipients of Taylor's organs, even before the donor association was ready to let them do that.  So the story is not just about Taylor and the accident that took her life but it's also about how God showed up during moments when they had no hope or when one (or both of them) was so angry with God that they couldn't stand it.    And then the book, amazingly, tells the story of each person who is alive today because of Taylor's Gift - definitely heartwarming.  I'm thinking for an honest, no-platitudes-just-faith-stumbling-through-grief book, this is very valuable.

I guess it's also interesting to me that while each book that I've described is about loss, every narrative seems to be about finding life again by ministering to others.  Maryam and Marziyeh lost their freedom and Marziyeh lost her health temporarily but they focused on starting a church right under their captor's noses. The Peifers handled their loss by going to another continent and falling in love with needy people who seemed to them to live more than a world away as they adjusted to what appeared at times to be like life on another planet.  And the Storch family have started their own foundation to promote organ donation  - the main reason they wrote the book.

Which leads me to end this blog with a prayer that my mom had hanging on our wall at home and that I once cross-stitched.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
 to be consoled as to console...
  to be loved as to love. 
For it is in giving that we receive...
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
- St. Francis of Assisi

Thursday, March 7, 2013

How Near to His Heart Do You Want to Be?

           People suffer all the time and we can only pray for so many.  So I try to pray for those the Lord brings to mind and  more than once, when I've asked God to lead me to pray for whatever is on His heart, the next thing to cross my mind has been the names of people whom I know are in prison for their faith.  Since this has happened several times, I feel safe in saying that His children who are suffering for their faith are very dear to His heart, which should come as no surprise.
         Back in the late 1970's, I first heard about Christians being imprisoned in communist Europe through a book called God's Smuggler.  I think I probably thought it was a spy novel - that's about all I read back then. And in a way, it was.  However, not the kind I normally read :)  This book told about a Dutch man called Brother Andrew who had been smuggling Bibles into the "Soviet satellite" countries of Eastern Europe for decades. It was, for me, an eye-opener and I can still remember sitting on the floor of my bedroom - my favorite place to sit but I'm not sure why - thinking about what I'd just read.  Could it be true??  Were people languishing in jail on the other side of the world simply because of their faith???  Didn't that just happen in ancient Rome, like when they fed people to lions???
       At that time, you could request more information on the persecuted church from Brother Andrew's organization, Open Doors, so I did that.  In the packet that I received, there was a little key chain with the picture of a  Volkswagen on it since Brother Andrew drove a Volkswagen all over Eastern Europe, with Bibles hidden away throughout the vehicle.  I carried that key chain for a long time as a reminder to pray for the persecuted church and in fact, I still have it.
      While I was still carrying that key chain, I visited California and found myself in a room full of, not movie stars per se, but still what I would call "Hollywood oriented" people - people whose tans were perfect, hair was perfect, make-up perfect, clothes stylish and expensive - basically a room full of people who seemed a bit strange to this Arkansas girl.  Several of them had been married to each other at one time and they all just seemed to be one big happy family in spite of divorces and remarriages, which also seemed strange to me, coming from a state where jokes were plentiful about "shotgun weddings" and  the divorce/remarriage route was usually not a way to make new friends and keep the old ones too...
     At one point, a slender, attractive woman picked up my key chain and asked me what the symbol meant. I told her. She said something to the effect of, "Oh! Isn't that negative?  Wouldn't you do better to think about positive things?"
    Well, yes... I suppose I would do better, maybe...  But what about my poor brother or sister in Christ who is chained to a wall somewhere or enduring another beating simply because they believe in Christ? What about my sister in the Lord who has just become a widow because her husband was executed simply  for the "crime" of being a pastor?
     Over the years, I occasionally still hear comments like, "I don't want to think about that stuff... That's depressing."  And I know the people are well-meaning and I understand their point.
     But I always reply, "If you were in prison for your faith, would you want others praying for you?"
     That's partially why Hebrews 13:3 tells us to remember those who are in prison as if we were in prison ourselves.  If I were in prison for my faith, I'd be praying for me and hoping everybody else on the planet was doing the same!!  God answers prayer in ways that are best from His perspective. His job is to answer; ours is to faithfully pray. In a country where churches are underground and few in number, who will pray for the prisoners if we here in the West  don't?
    But beyond that, over the years, I have learned so much about faith and about God by following the stories of my brothers and sisters who are willing to take a stand and even give their lives if necessary for the gospel.  At every opportunity I try to read what they've written or listen to their testimonies. Why?  Because they have so much to teach the rest of the body of Christ.  Because, to me, they are the true heroes of the faith.  Because, although I am not as strong as they are, each testimony encourages me to go  a little deeper in my walk with Jesus.
    Basically, if you don't get to know these people through the web, through books, through testimonies, you are missing out on the opportunity to "know" some of the sweetest Christians on earth.
    Truly wherever they go, they prove the truth of II Cor. 2:14-17.   This doesn't mean that they are perfect, that they don't experience fear, discouragement, and even feelings of abandonment at times. But it does mean that when their ordeal is over, ending either in release to this world or in  release to a better world, they leave behind the sweet fragrance of Christ.
    If you want to be blessed, get to "know" some of the heroes of the faith who, even now, are carrying the torch for Christ as well as for the rest of us, their family in Christ.
     And pray for them. Even just once a week.
     After all, they pray for us.
     And turnabout is fair play, don't you think?


Monday, March 4, 2013

A Good Place to Start..

     I'm a sinner ... saved by grace... And there's a lot of us around. It's a large club:)
     I don't think I ever had to have anyone convince me that I was a sinner.  You see, I was the spoiled brat of the family who threw wall-eyed fits on the living room floor  but it was never because I thought it was the right thing to do... Oh no!   I did it simply because - it worked.  On my grandmother at least.  And being a bit hard-headed,  it took me a while to figure out that what works for Grandma doesn't necessarily work for mom.  To this day I'm glad my mother had small feet and wore soft soled slippers...  On rare occasions when the sole of her shoe met with my posterior, I found that I could, after all, give up my agenda, get off the floor, and conform to family standards.
     By the time I was in second grade, my teachers were talking about how good I was in class, how quiet I was, how polite I was.... I was still a bit rambunctious at home (although no longer one to fall on the floor and scream!) and so sometimes my mom would get these little positive notes from school, shake her head, and say:  "Quiet?  I'm not sure which little girl they are talking about here... This is certainly not the Cathy I know!"  But on those occasions  I knew she was teasing me and that being talkative at home  was really okay.
    By the time I was in the third grade, I was a straight "A" student and a fairly productive member of my family.  I would still try to slip out of household chores  on long summer evenings and I could definitely pick a fight with my brother and/or my sister, but at the same time, I loved my siblings enough to hurt when they hurt, etc.   I really appreciated the things that my parents did for me, like staying up all night with me when I was sick or comforting me when I was scared.  I was maturing.
     But there was something still missing in my life and that was the goodness of Christ.  Even though I was turning into a genuinely productive and loving member of my family, a good student, and was well on my way to becoming a decent member of society, my "goodness" was not enough to allow me to come into the presence of a holy God.  If I compared my actions and thoughts at age 8 to what I had been at age 5, then comparatively speaking, I could look back and say, "I've arrived.  I'm not a spoiled brat anymore..."
    If I compared my behavior to that of the girl next door, who was constantly in trouble, I could say, "I've arrived.  I certainly don't get in trouble all the time the way she does."  And since at this time in my life, I'd never heard of hormones or sex, I was still pretty innocent.
   But still, I was a sinner and one day I realized it.  Sitting in the balcony, I heard a pastor talk about the sinlessness of God and I knew I didn't measure up.  He talked about how the penalty for sin, any sin, is Hell and I knew that was where I was headed. When they gave an altar call, I asked God to save me and He did.
   Corrie ten Boom talked about her experiences in a concentration camp during WWII.  When she was still in the "trial" phase, such as it was, she was taken to a hut within a row of such structures in order to be interrogated.  She had seen one hut where someone had planted flowers outside of it and she hoped that when her time came to be interrogated she would be led to that particular place.  To her relief, she was.  The man who questioned her and her family turned out to be a "decent" person who hated his job but who felt trapped, not knowing what would happen to his family if he tried to go against the Nazis openly.  So he did what he could secretly.  Corrie once asked him if there was darkness in his life and he told her there was. HE talked about the darkness of worry concerning his family so many miles away, of his angst concerning the war and all the people around him who were suffering, of his disgust with his horrible job and his feeling of being trapped.In turn, he let Corrie and her family talk to him about God and he drank in every word that they said.  And finally, he took a sheaf of incriminating evidence against them and threw it in a fire in front of them so that it could never be used against them by Nazi authorities.
     He was a "decent" man caught in the devilish schemes of the Nazis, whom he abhorred.  Although he lacked courage, he did take risks to try to alleviate the suffering of those he could help.   Had the Nazis discovered the small things he did to help their prisoners, he could have been killed. So he wasn't even totally without courage.
     After the war, Corrie met this man again and led him to the Lord.  At first, it took a little while to get him to see that he was a sinner simply because he was not a Nazi at heart and had tried to do the right thing, even in the midst of an unprecedented and very cruel political maelstrom. 
     He was what Corrie ten Boom would have called a "decent" sinner.
     Some people are destined to be ax murderers whose thoughts are filled with horrible things.  Most people in "civilized" society, however,  are probably not in that category.  They love their families, exhibit integrity at work and in the community and  can honestly compare themselves to the "bad guys" who end up in the crime section of the paper and say, "That's not me. I don't even know how people can  think things like that, let alone do them."
     The issue from God's perspective is not how we rate compared to the worst of society. The issue is: how do we compare to the God of the Universe?  God is truth - He never lies.  He's never uttered a lie or acted upon one.  God is totally unselfish.  He's never broken at the head of the line or taken the last chocolate out of the box, if you will.  God is totally righteous. He's never had one sinful thought or committed one sinful action.  God is pure.  He's never used anyone for His own gratification or made false promises to get His way.  God is gentle and reasonable. He listens to His people and invites them to come and reason together with Him, promising that though their sins be red like scarlet, He will make them white as snow.
     God is amazing, all-powerful, just, and loving. However, there is one thing He cannot do. He cannot tolerate sin in His presence. Not one white lie, one selfish thought, one greedy act.  As light cannot co-exist with darkness, He cannot coexist in the same place with sin.  As light dispels darkness, His presence banishes sin - and the hearts that harbor sin...
      So we have a choice. We can look at others who are not as "good" as us and hope God will "grade on the curve". (He won't.)  Or we can accept the sacrifice of Jesus, who lived a sinless life and then died in the sinner's place, paying the penalty for sin for all those who believe in His atonement.
      Basically you either try to pull yourself up to Heaven by your own bootstraps.  Or you accept what Jesus did on the cross as payment for your sins.
      For those who have decided to accept the atonement of Christ as payment for their sins, Heaven is ahead.  But with this caveat. In Heaven, as wonderful as it will be, there is at least one thing that you cannot do.  That one thing is this: you can't warn others about the dangers of sin and the reality of Hell. The only time we can do that is now, here on earth.
      If God has washed your sins white as snow and covered your sins with His grace, then now is the time to share that information - the good news - with someone else.  If you aren't sure how to do it, I recommend the book shown below. It's a good place to start.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Saying It and Meaning It!

       At times, when we have been really broke, I've had random thoughts go through my head - like: if only I could find  a check in the mail instead of a bill... just once. Like maybe the utility company would pay me for being such a good customer all these years... ha!   Or maybe I would envision this scenario:  I save  the child of a millionaire from crossing the street on a green  light... or something... and then the father asks me what I need and while I'm thinking: a 100.00 for a repair job on my car would be nice,  the dad busies himself by writing a check for a thousand!  (Well, I said upfront that sometimes I have random thoughts!)
     So has anything like that ever happened to you?
     Me, neither.
     Except... according to Eph. 1:7, I think maybe it has.
     When we were in Memphis a couple of weeks ago, I was stressed.   I realized that somehow I had inadvertently made our hotel reservation through a third party. This meant we would be paying 150.00 to possibly 200.00 more than we should have been paying for our three day stay in Memphis.  By the time I navigated the worst phone maze I'd ever encountered, talked to at least 3 different people overseas, and been directed to first a subsidiary of Expedia and then a subsidiary of the subsidiary of Expedia (no one would tell me the name of the company I had somehow booked our reservation through) - at any rate, after slightly more than an hour on my cell phone, I finally got to someone who acknowledged our reservation. By this time, I was on the verge of tears.  And then, when they told me I could cancel the next two nights of my reservation but I would have to pay the entire amount of the reservation  as a penalty, I was no longer on the verge of tears, I was bawling.
      The woman on the other end of the line was concerned  - I could hear it in her voice.  She asked me, "Ma'am, could you please give me a reason why you have to cancel."  The way she said it, I knew instinctively that she was wanting me to say the magic words "illness" or "death"  as my reason for cancelling. But I knew I simply wanted to cancel so I wouldn't have to pay the extra money.  I felt sure that there had to be some deceit in the way the subsidiary of the subsidiary had lured me onto their web  site without my knowing it so   I was tempted to lie - after all,  turnabout is fair play.
      But I'm pretty sure  lying is a sin!!!:(   So I opted to remain silent.
     The woman asked me again, almost pleading.  Bottom line:  I compromised. I told her the truth, "I want to be home with  my son."  (And at that point, I did!)    But I knew the implication - that I was canceling the reservation because I would be going home to be with my son -  I knew that  was a lie.
     As soon as I said the words, the woman said, "Let me talk to the  manager!"  Within seconds, she was back on the line, telling me the good news - that they would wave the penalty for the two nights that I was canceling.  Then she told me to go clear it with the hotel, which I did.
      I "checked out" of the hotel and instantly rebooked at the cheaper rate for the next two nights - in the very same room I had just "vacated".
      Then I had to navigate the phone maze again in order to confirm that I had checked out of the hotel.  I got a different person on the phone and this lady asked me three different times to state my reason for canceling.  This time I just flat out lied by saying that I was going home to be with my son who was sick. (Our son was sick but at 22 years of age, he hardly needed me to come home to be with him and as I've already said, I had just finished reserving a room for us for the nights I had just cancelled - I wasn't going anywhere).
       Normally I don't lie and I pride myself on that.  But even more, I know that lying is a sin and sin is serious business, no matter how small it may seem at first glance.  But still, I did it.  I felt terrible, but I did it.  The next day, after I'd had some rest, I seriously considered calling them back, confessing, which would mean paying for the two day stay twice which at that point I was willing to do.  However,  I didn't make the call, largely  because  I had phone numbers scribbled all over a piece of paper but no names -not even of the company I was dealing with-  and   I just didn't feel like I could handle the phone maze all over again.  Plus,  I wondered if they put people in jail for lying to nameless companies...
       Going back to the previous day, after I finally got off the phone and the deal was done, I walked to the nearest store, which happened to be a Christian bookstore.  God helped me at that point as I confessed my sin first to Him, silently, and then to  a total stranger who saw I was distressed and who cared enough to stop, listen, and counsel me and then, finally, God helped me once again  through the words of Christian authors as I browsed through books there in the store.    I left feeling better, calmer, but still guilty. I mean I had done wrong and forgiving my sin was more than enough.  I wasn't supposed to feel comforted!
         But this week I looked at  Ephesians 1:7  and that's when I saw it: one little phrase, "... according to the riches of His grace."  And I knew that was it!  He forgives on the basis of the shed blood of Jesus, out  of the riches of His grace...  He doesn't whip out His checkbook of grace, lick  the tip of His fountain pen (for some reason I don't think He uses Bic pens but I could be wrong), stare over the top of His glasses at me,  and grudgingly write out a 70.00 "check" to cover my 100.00 sin, taking the other 30.00 worth of grace out of my hide as He lectures me for the wrong I have done.
      Instead, He gives me a thousand dollars worth  of grace by not only forgiving my sin but by sending others into my path to comfort me, by calming me down, by giving me rest that evening, and   by restoring me to fellowship with Him - all things I clearly did not deserve.
      So, yes, in a way that matters deeply to me, I have asked for  a 100.00 worth of forgiveness, so to speak,  and received a 1000.00 worth of grace in return.    And in the process I have learned something; that  He measures grace to us, not on the basis of our need but on the basis of how much He can afford to give. And I can testify that He can afford to give a lot...
      So many times we exclaim, "Thank God!" and we don't really mean it.
      Tonight, I'm not only saying it, I'm meaning it.

      "in Him, we have redemption, the forgiveness of our trespasses according to the riches of His grace."  Eph. 1:7.

      Or as the song writer, Annie Flint, put it:
      His love has no limits, His grace has no measure,
      His power no boundary known unto men;
      For out of His infinite riches in Jesus
      He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.