Lest thou learn his ways

There’s a psychological concept called mirroring. The way it works is that as we become very close to or familiar with a person’s actions and traits we can begin to instinctively mimic what they do and how they do it. Couples who have grown close over a lengthy relationship can be seen mirroring each other’s words, gestures and expressions. Close observation for both positive and negative reasons can lead to this behavior. In Proverbs 22:24-25, Solomon warned about becoming changed by association with people who have evil attributes. He said avoid the association “lest thou learn his ways.” But we don’t have to be friends with poor examples to learn their ways. We can get sucked in by focusing on negatives in people with whom we have limited contact. Have you become so focused on the bad traits of someone in your life that you can’t wait to report his or her latest evil or stupid move? Beware: continual fixation with the other person’s issues may lead to mirroring.

I remember a song I used to hate: Goin’ Up the Country.” It was the dumbest song ever written. I’m sure that it is loaded with deep social, philosophical and every other kind of meaning. When YOU listen to it, you’ll probably fall on your knees and cry out that your life is changed. When I heard it in 1969, it was dumb. It was so dumb that I couldn’t stop imitating how dumb it sounded. Before long people thought I was dumb because here was this black, city kid singing this atonal, country twang mess, by The Canned Heat and it only had a few words to it. By focusing on what I hated I became obsessed with it and started to mirror the very thing that repulsed me. Are you doing this with anyone? The boss, the neighbor, the church member: are you so fixated on rehashing their failings that you are becoming more negative by the minute? In fact, are you becoming more like the people you hate by replaying their bad ways to the point that these bad ways become yours? It’s not the behavior that needs to stop, its the attitude! You need to confess to God that you are obsessed with the negative about people and it has reduced you to a level below the people you hate. You need to be set free and transformed before you lose your salvation to mirroring evil. There’s no 12-step plan. Go to God and lay this problem at his feet. Cry out to him because the problem is deeper than you think. He is able to change you if you will let him.

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Sleepwalking

sleepwalk copyIn Matthew 25, Jesus had some critical points he wanted to make before he ended his earthly ministry. He wanted take his disciples down the corridor of the future to help them understand a phenomenon that his people would face prior to his return. It is a story we love to share and dissect; the story of the ten virgins. The crucial element of this story develops early in the narrative. Let’s take a look:

Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept (Matthew 25:1 – 25:5 KJV)

Note that neither the wisdom of the wise nor the foolishness of the foolish affected whether the virgins slept. They all zonked out! We’re asleep. (Not bad: writing in my sleep!) We feel very much awake but when it comes to the deep implications of the eternal, we are knocked out with our eyes open. Jesus makes it clear: just before his return his people will be unconscious of the things we lose consciousness of when we sleep: time, location and danger.

Time
Though the ten realized the coming of the bridegroom was imminent and a major event which involved them in a significant and personal way, they each held varying ideas about how soon imminent was and what could be and needed to be done while they waited. In this sense they were unconscious of the reality of the promise. They acted on the apparent urgency of the moment not the sureness of the word. But here’s where the split happens. Five of the virgins decided to believe the sureness of the word and prepare. The other five got ready for what they felt was a reasonable wait based on their best time estimate for the arrival of the bridegroom and traveling with him to his place where they would no longer need their lamps. Looking at verse 5 we see that the bridegroom tarried. This is a critical point. Several of Jesus’ parables deal with delay. Have you noticed that? Usually in those stories the people waiting develop attitude issues related to the delay. They stop preparing for the return of the key figure in the story and start living as though the promised return was a fable or lie. According to these stories, the most serious manifestation of their unbelief is their unloving treatment of their fellow men. As a matter of fact, they preface their attitude shift with the words “Our Lord delayeth his coming!” Many of us today have a faulty understanding of the timing of Jesus return. Like the five foolish, we see ourselves having passed the reasonable wait time for a second coming. Many today are waiting for a second coming with no preparation for a life with Jesus. Their faith was built on the idea of a powerful cosmic event whose nearness was clearly outlined in charts and prophetic timelines. Time has become a form of anesthesia because we have been lulled to sleep while looking at our watches.

Location
It’s a sad thing to know where you are going but not know where you are. Back in March of 1971 astronauts Alan Shepard and Ed Mitchell were on the moon hiking to the rim of Cone Crater. These highly trained astronauts made some disturbing discoveries on their trek. First, they learned that distance is difficult to gauge on the moon. On earth, atmospheric haze helps us determine relative distances. Things far away look bluer and mistier than things nearby. Whoever wrote America the Beautiful was looking at those craggy brown mountains from a distance that made them look purple and majestic. On the moon there is no haze so it is hard to tell how far something is from you. Plus, you can’t tell how far something is from the horizon. Second, the lighting on the moon makes understanding the terrain tough. So as the astronauts ascended the side of Cone Crater, the rolling terrain made it difficult to tell where they were relative to the top. After hours of traveling on foot, they had to head back to the Lunar Module. Later when scientists studied the data and looked at satellite photos showing their tracks, it was discovered that they were only 30 meters or 98 feet from the rim. Shepard and Mitchell knew where they were going; they were dedicated to their mission but they could not tell where they were and with 100 feet to go they turned back. How many of us today are turning back on our spiritual trek, not because we don’t know where we are going or because we have no sense of mission but because we can’t tell where we are anymore. The world has changed and the church has changed and the rolling terrain of the religious universe has us wondering if the foundations of our faith are still relevant.

Danger
When you are in deep sleep you are oblivious to what’s happening around you. During the REM stage of the sleep cycle, for a certain time the motor functions are inhibited and we are paralyzed. The interesting thing about REM or rapid eye movement sleep is that this is when we have those dreams that are so real. Sleep researchers report that the eye movement appears to be tracking the action and drama of the scenes in our dreams. So though we are unconscious of the happenings of the real world, we are deeply involved in the dream world. Someone could have a loaded gun at your head, but you would be showing fear of the mad pit-bull in your dream. Like the ten virgins, we are asleep but few would know it. We function in day-to-day activity but we don’t hear the danger alarms sounding from God’s word. Like sleepwalkers we walk about, send email, deal on Facebook and Twitter, go to work and church and look quite alert but we keep drifting closer and closer to the spiritual cliff with no sense of the dangers before us. Ungodly music, hurtful foods, pornography, profanity, alcohol, and questionable movies erode our spiritual alertness but we see no dangers. Satan’s gun is pressed against your temple but you are more afraid of Bible doctrine than the bullet.

Asleep: that’s where we are. Though we have trouble discerning the nearness of Christ’s return and though we find it difficult to tell where we are on the journey, and though we fail to see the dangers as we careen toward the spiritual cliff, the good news is  we will wake up soon. The hope is, that though we are all asleep, we are preparing to live with Jesus and not just waiting for his return.

A Better Country Pt. 2: People With Hope Vote

In 1983-84, I was hired to design some voter registration materials for a local NAACP chapter in Huntsville, Alabama. It was an election season and the campaign was entitled: People With Hope Vote. Many of the African Americans in that state were still paralyzed by years of hopeless oppression. But the winds of change were blowing in a place once stagnant with the hot musty atmosphere of hate and discrimination. A new breeze of participatory democracy was tickling the imagination of a new generation of black voters. That’s why the NAACP wanted to capitalize on the moment.

We designed posters and bumper stickers that drove home the message that people who have hope in their hearts take positive action. People with hope feel that something can be done and that solutions can be implemented. People with hope are not victims of the system; they can move the system and work within the system to affect change.

Ever since doing that design job, I have been positively affected by the message of the bumper sticker—People With Hope Vote! Not because of the political implications, but because of the spiritual import. What? How can a bumper sticker from nearly 30 years ago have any spiritual meaning? I’ll show you. Remember, we are talking about a better country in this series of devotions. Let’s look at how hope and faith make a difference and how these constitute our vote for God.

In Hebrews 11, the writer starts by describing what faith is. We often take a disjointed look at that information as though the apostle presented a dictionary definition of faith and ended it there—almost as though the chapter was a random collection of isolated thoughts on faith. But read that section again. The writer was building to a point.

To understand chapter 11 you have to back up into chapter 10 to see the context of the faith discussion. Listen, this is from verses 35-39: Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompence of reward. For ye have need of patience that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise. For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition: but of them that believe to the saving of the soul.

The apostle here sets the tone for the future. He is pouring on the encouragement and sharing the hard truth about how the Christian ought to think as he or she faces perilous times. He uses words like confidence, reward, promise, shall come, will come, not tarry, and faith. These words are designed to inspire hope in us to press on with zeal and a high sense of duty. Then he comes to chapter 11 where he begins to describe a faith that moves forward and does not draw back; faith that is characterized as belief that saves the soul.

He starts by noting that faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. Then in verse 6 he warns that with out it you cannot please God. Here’s where you have to connect that definition to the rest of the message. The writer was setting up a powerful image of the impact of hope and faith. In other words, I just told you how we need to think as we face the perilous days ahead; I have just told you how indispensable faith is and have given you the theory of what faith is. Now I want to show you how it looked in action and how the terms hoped for and not seen work in the real world.

For the great patriarchs and matriarchs, for that matter, the thing hoped for was the promise of redemption through the promised savior, the destruction of sin, the establishment of the ruler-ship of God and the restoration of the perfect order of creation. In other words, God’s Kingdom restored. After seeing things from God’s perspective, or having the kingdom in their hearts, it was clear that none of these things would come about in this world. So they looked through renewed eyes to a better country. The fire of hope drove these people to do exploits for God and kept them faithful even when their beliefs inspired hatred and brought on death. Hebrews says that these died not having received the promise but they had hope.

Do you see what it means in verse 1: Substance of things hoped for means that that better country and the God who ruled there were so real in their minds that they had that vision plastered all over their thoughts. The hope was potent because it was so real. The evidence of things not seen was shown by the fact that the promise to them was like cash. They acted on the promise as though they could see the better country. In their minds they lived in the better country. They walked by its principles and they moved to its rhythms.  It was real.

As I mentioned before, people with hope feel that something can be done; that solutions can be implemented, People with hope are not victims of the system; they can move the system and work within the system to affect change. God said this very thing in Hebrews 4:16. He said come boldly to the throne of grace to receive help in time of need. Jesus said ask, seek and knock. God is inviting us to move the throne with reverent, fervent hope and faith. We are not victims of the system; we are parts of the system of salvation. We are heirs of the kingdom—priests and rulers by the mercy and grace of God.

Today, nearly 30 years later, that black bumper sticker with the white lettering reminds me that when you have hope, you vote with your voice through praise and witness. When you have hope, you vote with your actions through obedience and service. And when you have hope, you vote with your courage by standing tall for the Lord even when all is bleak. People with hope live in the reality of that better world they seek. People with hope know that some day soon, he that shall come will come and will not tarry. Let’s all be ready.

A Better Country Pt. 1: Understanding & Hope

Understanding and hope are powerful things. Have you ever been in a bad situation then found the solution and suddenly realized that even though circumstances didn’t change much after finding the solution, you, somehow, didn’t feel the hurt as much? Let me give you a personal example: I have been having some serious bouts with sciatica. It is difficult to describe the pain of this condition. Some of you know it well.

For the longest time I had no idea what was causing these periodic battles with pain, tingling and incapacitation. All I knew was that at some point I would begin feeling a tingling pain radiating down my right leg from my hip to the back of my knee. The sensation had nothing to do with muscles or joints, and my pain wasn’t associated with my movements. The feeling was constant—like a stuck circuit. The sensation became so intense that I could not stand up and I was taking ibuprofen as though they were Skittles.   To say the least, I was frightened and confused.

Finally, I had an MRI of my lower back and discovered that I had a large, protruding disk that was pressing the sciatic nerve. A specialist showed me a course of treatment and though nothing had changed at that moment, I felt different. Why? I had understanding and I had hope. I no longer expended mental energy trying to figure out why I was hurting and why I couldn’t walk. For the first time, I knew it wasn’t just mental. I had understanding and I had hope because I had a range of solutions—it was now a matter of choice. Was I still hurting? Oh Yes! But was I in despair? Not any more.

We live in a world that is in pain. Economically, environmentally, morally, and spiritually, the world is a mess. People are beginning to lose hope that governments and leaders can do anything about the mounting and interconnected problems society faces. The pain is like a stuck circuit. The world can barely stand. Despair is everywhere—from war-torn countries to divorce-ravaged suburbs. Heart disease, cancer, STDs, HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer’s—stalk people of every class. Money, education, and social class can’t solve many of these crises and they leave people in all sectors of society confused, without understanding and without hope.

In Hebrews 11, we find the real answer to the confusing hopelessness of our world.The apostle is sharing the historical pathway of the patriarchs showing clearly how they exercised faith to obey God’s will. In verses 13-16 the writer sums up a narrative of the sacrifice and boldness of these people of faith who left all to pursue the path paved with the promises of the invisible God. In this section is revealed the secret of their endurance and the power that drove them through hardship. It was the power of seeking a better country.

Seeking the better country elevated their thinking and lifted their spirits. But more than seeking a better country, they began living in that better country in their hearts. The government of that country ruled their souls and actions. They could endure the hardships of this life because the new government helped them understand that the things of this world had no power over them because they were already connected to a wisdom and power far above those of this world. Beyond this, they had absolute assurance that the promises of the living God were sure and as real as the mountains of Ararat, Arabia and Canaan that surrounded them. This was hope. It was hope not tied to the faltering whims of man, but hope rooted in the eternal power and wisdom of God.

Understanding and hope: When you are connected, you withstand the pain today because the solution is already in place. Your head is already governed by another world, another ruler. He is a ruler who cannot fail and in that understanding we have peace. We are not at the mercy of this life’s trials.

Are you already living in the better country? Do you have the peace that rules there? You can have that hope and understanding that can only be found there simply by asking, seeking and knocking. Let the government of that better country set up its headquarters in your mind, today. Then let God’s word and his Spirit impart to your life the wisdom and peace from over there. Now I know, to a small degree, what Martin Luther meant when he wrote: The body they may kill. God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever.

A Better Country Pt. 3: City Slickers

Some of you may identify with me. I’m a city slicker (really more of a suburbanite).  Trucks, tractors, huntin’ and fishin’ are not my idea of things to die for. No one has ever accused me of being a country boy. (sorry all you outdoor folk I’m the great indoorsman). Even though I once lived in Southwest Virginia, and felt the peace and joy of the mountains and rivers, I have always felt the pull of the city. The skylines, the lights, the billboards, the noise; they all feel familiar and comfortable to me. You know how it is. When you find yourself in the place where you are from, you just feel natural there. You speak the language and you know your way around. You find it easy to slide into the rhythm of the traffic and you still have the radio stations preset in your car.  It’s how the country folk feel about getting back to the land—it’s a natural feeling.

God understands the urban mind and He had a message for us in Hebrews 11. In verse 16 the Bible says: But now they desire a better country, that is an Heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.

You see, the beautiful thing about this city is that it is a city nothing like the graffiti covered, polluted ones we see, generally. It is a perfect city.

Now before you go saying that I’m stretching this a bit, consider this: Abraham was an urban guy. He lived near the New York of his day—Ur. Archeologists have found that this ancient city was ancient only in age. It was a fairly sophisticated town complete with libraries and other urban amenities. It was in Greater Ur and vicinity that we see the beginnings of written language. The Sumerians developed the Cuneiform writing system somewhere near Abraham’s era. Apparently, Abe was a “somebody” in that region. He was wealthy and he had it going on before he suddenly “skipped town.” Though he may have lived in the suburbs or in the country outside of Ur, It is often hard and sometimes impossible for people to leave the environs of places that are important and exciting. A part of your identity and your sense of significance is bound up in where you’re from. So to “up-and-go” to the middle of nowhere (even when your “somewhere” is an evil place full of crime and vice) is hard. For the Abraham family it was made doubly hard by the fact that they had no idea where they’d land, ultimately.

But for such struggling urbanites as Abraham and his crew, God had a special promise in verses 9 and 10. Listen: By faith he (Abraham) sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles (tents) with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: for he looked for a city which hath foundations whose builder and maker is God.

Now, let’s dwell on this for a second. When Abraham moved out of Ur, he had made a faith decision to leave an impressive and important place—the root of his culture and breeding—to go to a place that was to be the promised inheritance of a multitude of his descendents. But Abraham saw that the country life was no holier than the urban life. Besides this, he was a wanderer in the land. Don’t you hate having to pack and move? Stability was hard to come by for that family. But Abraham found his stability in trusting God’s promises. The better country was a solid place by faith.

Additionally, since he was already living in the better country in his mind and soul, he could not settle into the life and ways of even this land of promise. If it were not for the power of the kingdom—the better country in his heart, Abraham would have been rootless and in despair or would have fallen into the practices of the Canaanites.  But here’s the great part: Abraham had hope; that hope kept him and it’s the same hope we modern city slickers can have.

God made it clear that in his kingdom the wandering would end. He has prepared a city—an important place the root of our Christian culture and breeding. Stability would be a given in that place. The Bible says that this city has foundations (12, according to Revelation)—it’s strong and immovable. And, the greatest, high-end, luxury-home builder in the universe has built this city.

So cheer up ye city lovers! God has a place where you will be satisfied. John 14: 1-3 is Jesus direct guarantee that there is a place for you. It’s a place He will be pleased to call home. And, best of all, you can start living there now. Ask him for the keys.

Complications: Follow the Lamb

thCAW2LVO3Driving in Washington, DC is a testing experience on many levels when you know where you are going, but it is a harrowing nightmare if you are lost. Back in 2003, (back before every 4 year old had a GPS) I was using the then cutting edge technology of printouts from Mapquest to find my way to a hotel in a part of town I rarely visited. Though I was born in DC, I had become a Maryland guy. I had no use for DC or Virginia. So when I had to travel into enemy territory, it was never an enjoyable experience. On this occasion, I was chauffering my wife to a banquet where she was to receive an award.

Following the printed directions I came to a listed intersection that was no longer an intersection. A building now occupied what used to be a street. In DC, when you try to go in another direction, the whole city changes and you find yourself in some country like Mongolia. I was LOST. Miracle of miracles, I found a parking space and sat trying to plan the next move when I saw a man come out of a building and get in a car near me. I called out to him and asked if he knew how to get to the hotel. He stopped and gave me a puzzled look: “I’m headed there now; follow me, its a bit tricky. I knew this was divine intervntion. C’mon! how often does this happen? Well I followed him and got there with no problem! Well, not exactly. I followed him and as we went I looked ahead and saw the street I was looking for–so I thought. I turned on my signal and prepared to turn as I saw the car I followed sail on past the street where I turned. As we parted ways, our cars were in a position where I saw the driver’s face and gestures: What are you doing, idiot???? Although the street had the right name, it did not connect to the part of the street where the hotel was. I don’t even remember how we finally got there, but we were late.

Simple but not easy
Here’s a piece of advice about following people: When you are lost, and you find an experienced traveler who knows the way, follow him or her all the way to the end. The last condition Jesus set in Luke 9 was “Follow Me.” The Master knew that we have a tendency to use Him as far as we feel we need Him then, when we think we have it down, we take off on our own. Oh how much pain we bear because we keep taking those unfortunate sidetrips on the road to heaven. Following Jesus is not easy. It is simple but it is not easy. Here’s why: Simple–All we have to do is do whatever he says and avoid what he commands us to avoid and we’re in! BUT, when you don’t understand or agree with Him about the path being taken and when you see Satan’s decoy road signs glowing in front of you saying “this is the way,” off you go into the wilderness of foolishness–Not easy. Most of our spriritual lives are spent learning how to follow Him, faithfully. More accurately, most of our spiritual lives are spent recovering from our knuckleheaded excursions. The Bible offers help in getting on track and staying there, but following Jesus is the most important command of the three because it encompasses all three in one.

Look at what Revelation 14:1-4 says: Then I looked, and behold, a[a] Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having[b] His Father’s name written on their foreheads.  2 And I heard a voice from heaven, like the voice of many waters, and like the voice of loud thunder. And I heard the sound of harpists playing their harps. 3 They sang as it were a new song before the throne, before the four living creatures, and the elders; and no one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who were redeemed from the earth. 4 These are the ones who were not defiled with women, for they are virgins. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes.

Spring lamb 1Now before you get thrown off by the symbols and creatures and the 144,000 stuff, think about it this way. This group being described is a group that makes it all the way to the place of victory. Mt. Zion is depicted as a winner’s circle of sorts. Whether we are in this select group or in the innumerable company on the sea of glass pictured elsewhere in Revelation, anyone who makes it to Mt. Zion will have that package of characteristics stated in the passage. The critical descriptor of this group, when all is said and done, is that they follow the Lamb wherever he goes. Note that it is present tense continuing action. They read the instructions and watch his movements and do whatever it takes to stay on track. Following the Lamb is not a mechanical process; no, it is a set of life-habits and a way of living. Another way of saying it is these people habitually and intentionally follow the Lamb even when they don’t see through life’s fog. They follow the word when they can’t see the way. They have been conditioned through experience with the Holy Spirit and the word to trust the word above their desires or feelings. This takes a miracle of transformation that is emcompassed in the three elements Jesus presented in Luke 9.

Deuteronomy 5:32-33 had this description of how following the Lamb looks:
32 Ye shall observe to do therefore as the Lord your God hath commanded you: ye shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. 33 Ye shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God hath commanded you, that ye may live, and that it may be well with you, and that ye may prolong your days in the land which ye shall possess.

Then in Deuteronomy 6:5-9, Moses shares this guide for how to make following the Lamb a habit:
5 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. 6 And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:
7 And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. 8 And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes.9 And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.

Because we talk about and deal with mundane, worldly things far more that we talk about and deal with the things of God, our thinking and identity are bound up in the earthly. We have to make our minds turn to Jesus because we have no real frame of reference with Him. So God has instituted a process that will cause us to develop the habit of thinking about, talking about and living for Him.

This passage above is the process of denying self, picking up the cross and following Jesus. It is keeping Him always in front of your mind. By denying our connection to the life of sin, through taking up the the cross by acknowledging the true depth of our sinful mindset, seeing the horror of evil and slaying the old man through identification with the transformative power of Christ, we construct the pathway to follow Jesus to eternal life. In following our King, we learn that obediece and devotion to Him is not legalism it is the new life of a transformed soul. May God thrill your heart as you deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Him.