Fear (Pt. 1) — The Beginning of Wisdom is … What??

Beginnings are important. How we begin can determine whether we wander around in the wilderness for 40 years or take the direct route to the Promised Land. A good start can save us lots of backtracking, and a good foundation means that our work will have much greater longevity. So shouldn’t we build on the most sure foundation? And that foundation is the Fear of the Lord!

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,                                                         But fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Proverbs 1:7)

We are far too quick to dismiss or explain away ‘fear of the Lord.’ It sounds old-fashioned, and it’s not cool to preach fire and brimstone anymore. We have decided that love and gratitude should be our only motivations, leaving no room for godly fear. Never mind that there truly is a day of judgment coming and we would do well to flee from the wrath to come! (Matthew 3:7)

I remember a small group meeting where we were discussing the parable of the Prodigal Son, and someone remarked how sad it was that the son returned groveling rather than confident in his father’s love. I thought about it a little and said that I thought the son had just the right attitude and that his feeling of unworthiness was very appropriate. Stunned silence  ensued– they looked at me like I had lobsters crawling out of my ears and finally continued the discussion without comment. I had attacked a sacred cow. But I still think that the son did have faith in his father’s love and mercy. He believed that his father would receive him, but he also knew what his actions deserved and that he had no real right to expect any kindness or mercy. I still think it would have been the height of presumption to come back announcing, “I’m home!” expecting all to be forgotten.

Skipping the foundation of repentance and fear keeps us from appreciating the fullness of our heavenly Father’s love and mercy — freely given, though totally undeserved. It is only in comprehending the depth of our sin and its dire consequences that we can truly experience the forgiveness He wraps us in as we run to His arms. God would be holy and just and good if He took one look at us and pronounced judgment, consigning us to the fires of hell. This is the God we are approaching — the God who can ‘destroy both body and soul in hell.’ (Matthew 10:28) Jesus tells us to fear this One, so when we approach this God, it is better not to waltz in rejoicing with no thought for our offense against the One who created us and gave all for us. Instead, we should come as the Prodigal did, humbly taking the lowest place. And that is just the person God exalts to the highest place. (Luke 14:7-14) God humbles the high and exalts the low.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount ends with the advice to build our house on the Rock. Look to your foundation, and make sure that you do not find yourself before God hearing the horrific words “I never knew you, depart from me, all you who practice iniquity.” (Matthew 7:23) Begin with wisdom — build your house on the Rock — and let the winds blow and the rain pound. Your faith will stand, and no flood will be able to carry it away.

Who Needs the Old Testament?!?

Reformed theology was a game changer for me in several significant areas. Way out in front of everything else, the doctrine of the sovereignty of God brings total confidence in God’s loving control of every seemingly random downer in life. A second sea change is how Reformed theology pulls together the Old and New Testament in the ‘everlasting covenant,’ bringing home the truth that throughout history, all of God’s children have been saved in the same way — by grace through faith.

I have believed this for a long time, but recently I have been intrigued by this truth in light of the difference in the degree of illumination between the two administrations of the covenant. Just how much did the OT saints understand about salvation by faith? What was the content of their belief? How explicit was their understanding of the coming Messiah? Did they have a relationship with the second person of the Trinity?

It’s hard to get inside the head of other people and especially other people in other times, but I’m coming to believe that we have assumed too little of our OT brothers and sisters. A few thoughts have been kicking around in my head that I have been exploring further:

  1.  The idea of salvation by grace is present in the OT in the beautiful Hebrew word chesed. This is one of those words with lots of different connotations, making it hard to translate. It is the word that is often translated lovingkindness in the AV and can mean mercy, kindness, covenant faithfulness, truth… In the German Bible, Martin Luther translated the Greek charis in the NT and the Hebrew chesed with the same German word for grace. Chesed makes its first appearance in Gen. 19 when Lot is spared from destruction with the city of Sodom, and the word carries all the way through to the second to last book of the OT, Zechariah. Half of its occurrences are in the book of Psalms, which means that in worship, Israel was constantly reminded of this chesed that formed the basis of their relationship to their covenant-keeping God. See a great article summarizing the use of chesed here.
  2. Faith and works are both present in both testaments. Maybe we could say that in the NT people are saved by grace through faith which is evident in their works, while in the OT people are saved by grace through faith which is evident in their works. It truly is a difference only in emphasis. Romans 4 makes it clear that Abraham was saved by faith, but we can’t fail to notice that his faith was shown in his actions. He was willing to sacrifice Isaac, who was the promise of God, because he believed that God would still be able to fulfill the promise. Hebrews 11, the famous faith chapter, shows that faith always produced action. By faith OT saints did stuff. In either testament, skipping over faith or works is a problem. So in the OT, when we see God’s people acting, we should never forget that faith is their motivation. Likewise, in the NT, when we see people believing, we should not forget that true faith always results in works — faith without works is dead.
  3. We have forgotten that the second person of the Trinity is present and active in the OT — and not just in foreshadowing His coming work of justification. Yes, many OT events foreshadow Christ’s crowning work of redemption, but that does not mean that His actions were not meaningful and personal in the immediate context.  Wherever the Angel of the Lord appears, it is Jesus in His pre-incarnate form at work to protect and lead His people. Abraham speaks with the Angel of the Lord personally and intercedes directly for his nephew Lot. In the wilderness, the people of Israel were led by the cloud and fire, which was the very presence of God with them. The Angel of the Lord went out to battle with Israel — He was known as the Lord of Armies, their very present Protector. And He shared in the sufferings of his people as individuals by going through the fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. David Murray’s book Jesus on Every Page illustrates this beautifully.
  4. Some things about Jesus are actually clearer in the OT than they are in the NT because the character of God is the same for all time and in all three persons of the Trinity. In the OT, we see Jesus acting in various roles that are not part of the NT narrative. Seeing Jesus as a Protector, Defender, and even Avenger will add a new dimension to our relationship with Him — and these traits are just as much a part of Him now as they ever were in the OT. Maybe it is hard to relate to the idea of Jesus as our defender/bodyguard when we have always lived in relative safety. But try putting yourself in the place of Syrian Christians who have suffered such persecution that they have fled their country, leaving them exposed and vulnerable. OT ideas of social justice and protection from evil leaders becomes our constant plea before God. And don’t forget that Jesus role as Judge is far from over. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead — eyes like a flame of fire, a flaming sword, blood up to the horses’ bridles, casting His Enemies and ours into the Lake of Fire. Refusing to accept ‘OT concepts’ means that we end up rejecting this type of eschatology.

Let’s be a people of The Book — not just part of it, the whole Book. God didn’t give us a provisional OT meant to be discarded when the fuller, clearer NT came along. He has been at work throughout all of human history, and what He has revealed of His covenant faithfulness from the very beginning will never change because He never changes.

Dropping My Guard

People like me often find ourselves in uncomfortable positions. By ‘people like me’ I mean those who fall closer to the honesty end of the honesty/kindness spectrum. As a Christian, I think that both qualities are essential — not just important, essential. Speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15)  is something we all should strive for — and for the vast majority of us, we only get half of it right, half of the time. Either we focus on other people’s reaction so much that we fail to tell the truth, or we tick people off by just being honest for honesty’s sake.

People like me — who value truth highly, who want to be honest, who want to be understood, much more than we want a hug or a compliment — can come off as unsympathetic and unfeeling. But I am writing this to try to illustrate for those on the other end of the spectrum that people like me have feelings too. Your empathy and sensitivity lies on the surface, and you often seem to look at me with questioning eyes, as though you wonder how I could be so callous as to say that. I’m going to try to explain, but you must believe me when I say that I have no incident or individual in mind when I write this. I am speaking from a composite experience over my 60 years of existence. It’s the feelings I want to convey, not any specific situation.

Let’s just start by saying that it’s hard to put ourselves in another person’s shoes. For extroverts, it can be a revelation to realize just how draining it can be for an introvert to spend the whole day schmoozing with clients, and introverts wonder why that guy is stir-crazy if he has to be alone for a few hours. Likewise, this honesty/kindness divide deserves some notice.

So here’s the thing. I’m about to bare my soul, put my real feelings out there, and invite you to judge me and tell me that my feelings are not valid. I get that all the time, but this is important enough for me to stick my chin out again. I feel like I’m climbing out on a limb and handing you the saw.

A big part of my frustration lies in the constant feeling I have that everyone else’s feelings matter, but mine don’t because I appear insensitive. I am constantly being called on to tone it down, be the grownup, and think of ‘where others are at’ and ‘what they can handle’ — the assumption being that I’m doing something wrong if I make anyone uncomfortable. But my plea is for you to try to understand that I am just as uncomfortable in your world as you are in mine. I know that you break out in a sweat when there is disagreement in a discussion. I see you sinking into your seat, wishing someone would just end this… So I usually back off and don’t say all that I think should be said. But for all your empathy, I don’t think you ever notice how uncomfortable I am in your cozy space.

I am dying a little inside every time I have to nod and smile when I don’t fully agree. When I speak, you smile and look like you are listening and then nicely ‘agree’ with me by saying just the opposite. I feel manipulated. I think well enough of you to believe that you are smart enough to know that we don’t actually agree, but for some reason, you are uncomfortable saying that you see things differently. Instead, you prefer to put me in a spot where you have been ‘nice’ and that makes me argumentative if I notice that we’re not saying the same thing and try to have a discussion.

When tension is running high in a group and there are issues, you are the first to try to smooth things over with kind words, food, or a nice social activity meant to bring us together and smooth over the tension. I truly appreciate your concern and initiative. I really mean that. I believe that you are following the Golden Rule and treating me as you would like to be treated, and I appreciate all your good intentions — and it makes me feel bad that I can’t respond ‘the right way.’ I just can’t feel really loved without being listened to, understood, and taken seriously, so just being nice and putting this behind us does not work for me. All that allows me to do is settle into a relationship that will never be unpleasant, but will only be as close as our shallow understanding of each other. I feel held at a distance and that I am not worth the effort to actually listen and understand. Maybe this is a ‘love language’ problem, and we all need to learn to show our love in ways that are meaningful to others. I’m not sure why ‘niceness’ has become the only recognized standard of love and sensitivity.

Sometimes you simply confuse me. You try to make people feel better all the time — and it doesn’t seem to bother you  if you have to bend the truth to do it. For example, you talk about how lazy you are to make a truly lazy person feel better, while you are probably one of the hardest working people I know. I see you think through something and make a good decision based on what you objectively believe is the best course of action — but as soon as there are tears, or outrage, or hurt silence, you back down. I look on wondering what you want me to do. Should I help you stick to your original resolve? Should I trust your new judgment and ignore what you said before? When I want to hold the line, I become the ‘bad cop.’

I wish you could understand my motives in places where I seem hard and inflexible. I wish you could understand my experience. I have gone through things myself. I know that escaping consequences only prolongs the problem. I know that hard truth is worth hearing because it brings deep comfort in the end. I know that healing a wound slightly, leaving a festering sore beneath the surface, only leads to complications that can be fatal. So when I want to lance the wound, my motivation is love, and I truly desire the best for that person. Yes, I can be too zealous — I need your help with my timing, tone of voice (sigh!), and priorities — but I want you to understand that sometimes I am not just being difficult and argumentative. At root, I have a deep desire to see lives change, relationships go deep, and people to be truly free.

 

Death is Swallowed Up in Victory

At Easter, we especially think about Jesus’ resurrection, though it should always be front and center in our minds. As incredible as His incarnation was — the infinite God taking on the likeness of sinful flesh, not just human flesh, but fallen, sinful flesh… As incredible as His willing offering on the cross for sinful man was… the resurrection is the capstone of it all. The resurrection puts the final exclamation point on the declaration that God has stepped into human history and redeemed His people. The resurrection is a total game changer. Without it, we are hopeless.  And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! (1 Cor. 15:17) In His resurrection, Jesus makes all things new. He is doing the ‘new thing’ promised in Isaiah 43. He is undoing the curse of the Fall. And the final victory on our behalf is over death itself.

Death — that terror of terrors — holds no more power over us in Christ. In a sense, death has become our friend — because it is only in dying that we truly live. Jesus tells us — unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 12:24-25) In a sense, our whole Christian life is a process of dying to self and sin and the world so that we can truly live. …always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. (2 Cor. 4: 10) Our life in this world is a constant putting to death of this old man who will not go quietly, and we feel weighted down by the body of this death that encumbers us (Rom. 7). 

For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven,  if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. (2 Cor. 5:1-4)

We do not long to be free from the body, but to be clothed in a better body, in immortality. So Death loses its terror and becomes our greatest victory — it takes us finally into the presence of God as perfect, whole people, at last free from all the struggles of this life. Our lifelong campaign to be rid of the Old Man that weighs us down is ended in an instant as we are clothed with immortality, freed at last from the ravages of sin, and ushered into a new life in the presence of God forever. The Enemy’s worst threat has become a sweet release from all our struggles. Jesus truly makes ALL things new — even death.

Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed— in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.  For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”    (1 Cor. 15:50-54)

The Bounds of Fellowship

In response to a recent discussion in our church regarding ecumenism, I have be ruminating on the bounds of our fellowship. We certainly should feel solidarity with true Christians regardless of denominational ties. There is much to be learned from dialog with those who differ with us in the doctrinal details and practical outworking of the gospel. We are together the Bride of Christ, and it is not for us to despise any part of that beautiful Body.  We should feel a fundamental unity with all who share our faith and trust in Jesus’ work of redemption. The bounds of our fellowship should be wide!

But there are bounds. There is a lot of wiggle room when it comes to defining what we can call a ‘credible confession of faith’ — but doctrinally, the deity and lordship of Christ, and practically, a life of humble repentance and obedience come to mind as pretty fundamental.

I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside?  But those who are outside God judges. Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person.” (1 Cor. 5:9-13)

We have Christian fellowship with other believers because we truly are one in Christ. This passage suggests that we are also to be friendly to those outside the church and love them as those created in God’s image and in need of God’s grace. But there is a dicey middle ground — ‘Christians’ who effectively deny the faith by their actions and beliefs. This is the place for caution and discernment. We are called to judge those in the church. While we are not always in a context where church discipline is an avenue open to us, I think we need to be cautious about relating to such people as Christians.  We may live life alongside them, work with them, buy stuff from them, go golfing with them, and treat them with respect… but participating in joint ministry and commending them to others as Christians seems unwise. Jesus was kind and inclusive to all kinds of sinners, but He was hardest on the Pharisees because they were hypocrites. We do not have Jesus perfect knowledge of hearts, but often there are elephants in the room too large to be ignored.

I love a real potluck!!

I looove a real potluck! Everyone brings whatever they have, whatever they love to cook, whatever their diet allows them to eat, whatever their kids will eat … and there are choices that usually accommodate everyone. There is always the chance that we end up with a meal of mostly desserts, but that rarely happens — and if it does, is anyone really complaining? The point is to get together and enjoy each other’s company, and part of getting to know each other is seeing what each likes and is good at. The potluck can reveal a lot about a person — that and playing volleyball, which is another post for another day!

It’s when the micromanagers get involved that the potluck goes awry. They assign categories of food to people who happen to have a name that starts with certain letters of the alphabet. They have a Sign Up Genius that only allows certain items. They limit the choices and say that everyone must bring lasagna, salad, bread, or brownies. These various levels of intrusion have a significant effect on my enjoyment of the occasion.

So what am I on about? It’s not just the food. It’s our roles in the Body of Christ that I have in mind more than anything else.

“And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16)

God has given gifts to the church as He sees fit with the goal that we all contribute what we have been given, and this is what makes us all grow together in love. God has given each of us abilities and personalities that are a gift to the whole church. Sometimes those gifts lay dormant because there is no outlet for them. We’ve all had those moments where we look at someone and say, “I didn’t know you could do that!” Maybe it is because they have never been asked. Maybe they have been trying to be something they are not to fill a pre-decided slot.

Sure, there are things that need to get done that no one considers their special ‘gift.’ Of course, we should all pull together to do the routine set-up and nursery duties. But in other areas there is a lot more leeway, and just maybe we don’t know what each other has to offer because we micromanage too much. Just maybe we would benefit from letting each bring what they have rather than prescribing exactly what the role is.

One person may be great with kids’ activities. The children are laughing, jumping for joy, and filled with enthusiasm. They go running to their parents gushing about how much fun they had. This can make us think that every children’s activity should be like this. BUT pass this same lesson plan on to a person who is not of that bent, and the result is frustration all around. Maybe for some, telling a story, teaching a new song, or doing something artsy is the gift they have to offer, and we will never enjoy the true gifting God has given them. And this variety may be just what is needed to reach children who in turn have their own bents and respond better to different approaches.

This is not a plea for everyone to find his/her ‘gift’ and refuse to do anything that doesn’t fit what they consider to be their ‘ministry.’ (That is a kind of individualism that ‘seeks its own’ and does not seek the good of the whole church. This is a corporate venture we are involved in, and we must work together.) But it is a plea for appreciation of the great variety God has blessed the church with. God gives the gifts that are needed in His church, and maybe we need to accept the gifts He offers rather than being so intent on carrying out a particular program. We should learn to give up our micromanaging and trust God to orchestrate everything to accomplish His purpose in His Church as each is freed to make a unique contribution. And if we do end up with all ‘desserts,’ it is not a failure. It is exactly what our Father knows we need!

The Air I Breathe

After a long winter of closed windows and recycled air blowing through the vents, a breath of fresh air is … well … a breath of fresh air! I feel this way when I read John Frame’s Doctrine of the Word of God. I feel that I am doing more than studying one very important doctrine. More than anything, I feel that I am breathing the air of faith, and it carries life into every cell of my body. Implicit faith is inspiring — I feel alive. Frame trusts implicitly in God’s ability to communicate. He trusts the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth of God’s word to us. He trusts God to preserve his word in tact to each new generation of believers. He trusts the truth of God’s word against any opposition because it is just that — God’s word. And nothing else can be trusted more than God’s word. Here are just a few snippets of what I’m talking about:

“When God speaks, our role is to believe, obey, delight, repent, mourn — whatever he wants us to do. Our response should be without reservation, from the heart.” (p. 4)

“So our response to God’s personal words is nothing less than our response to Christ himself.” (p. 43)

“The power of the word brings wonderful blessings to those who hear in faith… It is so important that they hear in faith, lest the Word actually harden their  hearts and become a fire of judgment to them. God’s Word never leaves us the same.” (p. 52)

“When God shares his love with us, we have the obligation to treasure it. When he questions us, we should answer. When he expresses his grace, we are obligated to trust it. When he tells us his desires, we should conform our lives to them. When he shares with us his knowledge and intentions, we ought to believe that they are true.” (p. 56)

“Everyone who hears the authentic word of God knows that God has spoken to him.” (p. 85)

“The elect will not ultimately be deceived. How can that be? Evidently because assurance is supernatural. We know that the false revelation is false, just as we know that the true revelation is true — by God’s sovereign self-testimony.” (p. 86)

about the certainty of the Canon of Scripture: “we must approach our present problem with a presupposition: that God will not let his people walk in darkness, that he will provide for us the words we need to have, within our reach.” (p. 136)

“We are to be satisfied with what God has given us, and not long for more. In every age, God has given his people all the written words we need to live faithfully before him.” (p. 138)

I could go on and on, but I recommend that you read the book yourself. Breathe the air of faith as Frame exudes confidence in God’s word and God’s ability to communicate clearly with us. To all the nay-sayers and curmudgeons, he bids a hearty farewell like Jesus did in Mark 5. When Jesus raised the little girl from the dead, he first sent away the people that were ridiculing him and did not believe that he had power to heal. The unbelieving have no place along side of the faithful. It’s time to banish the noxious effect of unbelief and breathe the pure air of faith. Aaahhhh….

My Credo of Salvation

Credo

Our election is rooted in the counsel of God from eternity

     Our Salvation is by Grace alone      (not of works!)

          through Faith in Christ’s finished work

                 As the Holy Spirit produces in us a new heart

out of which flows  > > > >

> > Obedience

> > Repentance

> > Good works

> > Love for others

> > Love of God

> > Fruit of the Spirit

> > Perseverance to the end.

Because of our union with Christ,

Whose work is perfect,

all the works we do,  however incomplete or faulty,

are graciously accepted by God,

Who welcomes us into His everlasting Kingdom saying,

“Well done, good and faithful servant!

Enter into the joy of your Lord!”

Not knowing where he was going…

GPS has changed the way we navigate. The destination is all we think we need to know. The GPS will do the rest. But our God is not a heavenly GPS that simply leads us to the destination. Each twist and turn of the journey is significant, and what we travel through is just as significant as where we end up. In Hebrews 11, the famous faith chapter, we hear that Abraham “went out, not knowing where he was going.” This is the essence of faith — acting when we don’t know the result of those actions. I’ve been listening to a series of lectures on the Reformation in general and Luther in particular by Dr. Carl Trueman here. I highly recommend it — fascinating. A smaller point stuck out to me as I listened today. In talking about Luther’s theology at an early point in his recovery of the doctrine of justification by faith, Dr. Trueman points out that, of course, Luther did not grasp at that point in time just where this theological journey would take him. Luther was setting out like Abraham, not knowing where he was going, but knowing that God was leading him inexorably.

It’s like that sometimes. We’re not all Abrahams or Luthers, who are the father of a nation or start a Reformation with ramifications that extend to future generations, but we all find ourselves nudged in certain directions. It’s how we respond to those nudges that is the test of our faith. Do we follow even when we don’t know the destination? Or do we try to conjecture where this will lead and what results it will yield — and then decide if we’ll follow through? God is looking for those who can take one bit at a time and act on it in faith. This may seem like God favors those with a high risk-tolerance — of which I am definitely not one — but think about that. What is riskier than NOT following God when He points us in a direction? Those who walked by faith before us were seeking a goal, but a goal they could not begin to comprehend — and so are we.

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland.  And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13-16)

 

Say Anything!

In the iconic 80’s movie Say Anything, the teenage Diane Court and her single parent father have the kind of relationship that many of us wish we could have with our own parents or children — the kind of relationship where we can both ‘say anything.’ Of course, in the movie, we find out that this openness was pretty one-sided when Diane learns that her father has not been as forthright as she has been about the important stuff. And that is how it is with our fallen relationships — we cover ourselves, we leave things out and ‘yada yada’ over the embarrassing bits, and we often just can’t handle the truth when it comes our way. And then I think — how do I respond when God says stuff? Can He ‘say anything,’ or does He have to pull punches with me? Am I the kind of person that needs to be handled? Do I need a buffer like Israel in Deuteronomy 5 when they pleaded with Moses to hear from God for them so that they would not have to risk hearing from God themselves? Are the communication lines open between me and God, or are certain channels blocked?

I think about some amazing things God said to some of our brothers and sisters in the Bible and wonder if I would have believed that this was in fact God speaking to me in those strange circumstances. I wonder how Abraham knew that it was God speaking to him when God told him to sacrifice Isaac on the mountain. This does not sound like a thing God would require, especially since Isaac was a miracle baby, and God had promised to fulfill His promise to Abraham through this miraculous, chosen child. When I have read this story in the past, I have tended to focus on Abraham’s willingness to obey the command when it cost him so much. But lately, I’ve been more struck by just how Abraham knew that this was God speaking. The voice of God was clear to him even if the content was inscrutable.

Sometimes God tells people to do very odd things. In Ezekiel 4, He told Ezekiel to do a visual prophecy of the siege of Jerusalem by playing with pots and pans and heaping up dirt. And he is supposed to lie there for 430 days in the middle of this diorama. This is not something you take lightly — I start thinking of bed sores and how uncomfortable this would become for a whole year. And then God tells him to eat food that is cooked over a fire that is fueled by human dung. Ezekiel is game up till now, but this is just too much for him. Could an idea like this really come from God? I’m not really faulting him for questioning because it turns out God was okay with it and granted him his request for animal instead of human dung. There was a limit to what even Ezekiel could wrap his head around. The prophets had it rough. God tells Jonah to go to their worst enemy and preach judgment, but Jonah resists because he knows how merciful God is, and it was hard to want mercy for his enemies. But in the end Jonah does as God asked. Some were more willing than others, but all of the prophets heard things from God that were hard to accept at first blush. Am I willing to hear such things from God?

In my church, our pastor is in the middle of a series preaching through 1 Corinthians. This week, we got to probably the most uncomfortable part of the whole book, chapter 11. You’ve got to deal with gender roles, headship, angels, hair length, and head coverings — all of which pose unique challenges in our context. Modern commentaries tend to glide over this section lightly, and I know that other pastors have simply skipped this section, probably thinking that ‘discretion is the better part  of valor’ (a coward’s excuse spoken by Falstaff, Shakespeare’s notorious coward). But I am thankful to be in a church where our pastor takes scripture seriously, and in spite of all the difficulties associated with the passage, he will cover the text. We approach the text believing that there is something there for us — now — or it wouldn’t be in the Bible. He didn’t answer every question, and maybe more questions were raised than answered, but we are taking the text seriously and listening.

So how truly open-minded are we when we hear God’s word? I remember fondly a family we knew  10-15 years ago. The teenage daughter was a committed Christian with an obedient heart that looked at scripture and wanted to obey everything God said. When she came to this sticky passage, it seemed clear to her that God intended the head covering as a command for all time — and she started to wear a scarf. Her mother then looked at the passage, came to the same conclusion, and started to cover her head too in support of her daughter’s obedience. Are our hearts this open — that we would change our lifestyle and habits in response to God’s word? In time, both mom and daughter came to a different understanding of the passage and have left the scarves behind, but I still admire so much their willingness to listen to whatever God was saying and act on it. Yes, we may misunderstand, but God will keep speaking and move us in the right path if we are willing to listen.

So, let’s keep an open mind and not be like the rich young ruler. For him, all the other commandments were no problem, but Jesus knew what he was holding out on. When Jesus told him to sell all his stuff and give it to the poor, he couldn’t take it. He shook his head sadly and walked away. Jesus couldn’t ‘say anything’ to him.

Let’s be faithful to God’s word like Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice the thing he held most dear. And the boy Samuel. At first he didn’t even recognize the voice of God, but when God continued to speak to him, he learned to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears” (1 Samuel 3:10).