This blog focuses on the quest to know and please God in a constantly increasing way. The upward journey never ends. My prayer is that this blog will reflect a heart that seeks God and that it will encourage others who share the same heart desire.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Stains in the Christmas Story

Matthew's account of the Christmas story begins by clearly identifying who was to be born - "Jesus the Messiah" (Matthew 1:1). The detailed genealogy that follows closes with the same identification: "Jesus . . . who is called the Messiah" (1:16). God wanted to make it very evident that this was an eminently special child. Many other names and descriptions occur throughout the narratives in Matthew and Luke. I found the following:

Matthew: "the son of David" (1:1); "the son of Abraham" (1:1); "Jesus Christ" (1:18); "conceived . . . of the Holy Spirit" (1:20); "Jesus" (1:21); "He will save His people from their sins" (1:21); "Immanuel" (1:23); "God with us" (1:23); "King of the Jews" (2:2); "the Messiah" (2:4); "a ruler who will shepherd My people Israel" (2:6); "My [God's] Son" (2:15).

Luke: "will be great" (1:32); "the Son of the Most High" (1:32); "the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end" (1:32-33); "the holy Child" (1:35); "the Son of God" (1:35); "blessed is the fruit of your womb" (1:42); "my Lord" (1:43); "a horn of salvation" (1:69); "the Most High" (1:76); "the Sunrise from on high" (1:78); "a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (2:11); "the consolation of Israel" (2:25); "the Lord's Christ" (2:26); "Your [God's] salvation" (2:30); "a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel" (2:32).

This was indeed a special Child. There has never been another in the history of the world who can compare to Him. There is none other who has been given such exalted titles by God. There is none other who has been entrusted with such incredible responsibilities. There is none other who has changed the course of the entire world or who has had such an impact on mankind.

Here's something interesting. God has all power and all control. He could have brought about the birth of this Child in any way He chose. He could have made the entire process so blameless and exalted, so pure and incredible, that no aspect of Jesus' birth or preparation thereunto would contain the tiniest speck of sin or distaste. Such is not the case; God purposefully includes a list of all the people who preceded Christ, who were part of His lineage. Found in Matthew 1, the genealogy through Joseph unashamedly gives a list of forty varyingly unsavory people.

Not a single one of these men was perfect. If someone were to take the time to study the lives of these men, he would find instances of lying, faithlessness, trickery, polygamy, incest, adultery, murder, idolatry, spiritual apathy, and other forms of wickedness. Why would God choose these sinful people as precursors to the Christ? A large part of the answer is that every man is a sinner. If God had needed to choose perfect people to form the line of Christ, He would not have found anyone, nor would Christ have been needed.

What specifically caught my attention were the added explanations included in the genealogy. Most of the time God gives only the names of the father and son. On a few occasions, however, He includes something extra. Why does God give extra detail for a handful of people?

Perez was the son of Jacob, and his mother Tamar is mentioned as part of the story. Tamar presented herself as a prostitute and tempted her father-in-law Jacob into an incestuous relationship, resulting in the birth of Perez.

Boaz was the son of Salmon, and his mother was Rahab. Rahab was the prostitute who, during the time of Joshua, protected the Hebrew spies. This former prostitute trusted God and lived among the Jews, marrying Salmon. Boaz was born to this couple.

Obed was the son of Boaz, and his mother was Ruth. While Ruth is presented as noble person, she was a foreigner. God had commanded His people not to marry foreign women; in escaping a famine, however, Elimelech took his family to Moab where his sons married foreigners. After the death of one of these sons, the widow Ruth married Boaz as her second husband and gave birth to Obed.

Solomon was the son of David. Of David's many wives, Solomon was the son of Bathsheba, the one with whom David had an adulterous relationship and whose husband David ordered to be murdered.

Jeconiah was king at the time of the deportation of Israel to Babylon. God's people had become so wicked, idolatrous, and rebellious that God was compelled to send this harsh judgment. Jeconiah was one of those wicked people, whose brief reign did nothing to stem the wickedness or delay the judgment.

These five stories are not attractive. In a story so beautiful about a Savior so pure, God could have left out these sordid details, but He didn't. He purposefully included them, resulting in a remarkable Christmas story that is tainted with stains. But, oh, what a wonder! Those stains serve to highlight the necessity of a Christmas-born Savior and also to show the effectiveness of Christmas - that God can take any sinner, no matter how vile or defiled, can save him and use him to bring glory to God. Anyone who thinks his heritage or his history is so bad that God could never choose or use him can take heart from these sad stories that were incorporated into the most joyous story of all.

"Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God." I Corinthians 6:9-11 (NASB)

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Music Made Personal

I was talking one day with my church music director about an idea for incorporating hymns into my daily life. Thinking of the positive impact I expected from this, I jokingly said, "Because you know music doesn't affect me at all!" He smiled and replied, "I know. You're one of the people I can't look at," (meaning as he directs music in church). Yes, I'm one of the most likely people in our church to cry during songs.

I took my song leader's reply as an encouragement. It meant that not only do songs affect me, but that other people notice that effect. There is something special about music; it should impact the heart and cause a noticeable response. That does not have to be tears; it might be a smile, a joyful face, a thoughtful gaze, a deepening faith, a pointed encouragement, or some other tangible reaction. Without any response or appreciated value in singing, a church's song service is basically a waste of time.

I was not always so sensitive. As a child, I enjoyed hymns with catchy melodies. When requesting favorites in church, I chose the longest hymns because I wanted my choice to last a long time. As I got into college, there were a few special hymns that were meaningful to me because of their words and their challenge to my heart. I began to enjoy singing more, recognizing the joyful aspect of it.

I can't say specifically what caused me to become more aware in song services and more conscious of the message of the hymns. I don't recall any particular catalyst. I suppose it was just growing maturity. As my heart grew closer to God, it was more ready to sing to Him and about Him. I'm still not perfectly consistent at this, but I began to purposefully think about the words as I sang. I worked to eliminate the mindless parroting of words and to focus on what the songs were saying. I began to see the song service as an important part of church, valuing the songs for their message.

Singing is an important part of corporate worship. It allows a congregation to unify in its affirmation of truth. It challenges members to adjust their thoughts as they prepare for the message. It gives believers the words to say to express the longings of their heart and to proclaim their aspirations and commitments. Very often Sunday's songs continue in the heart throughout the week, reinforcing truth and convictions.

Good hymns have power to positively impact a believer's heart, both in and out of church. Because of the melody, rhyme, meter, and repetition, hymns are easier to remember than other expressions of biblical truth. This "remember-ability" makes them wonderful tools in the life of the believer - reminding him of truth about God, calling his heart to worship and submission, providing encouragement, and allowing him to talk to God.

Over the years I've had a few ideas for incorporating hymns into my daily life and therefore profiting from them on a more consistent basis. The most obvious and simple way is to listen to recorded music. There is a lot of good music available that can fill most of the day if someone chooses to do - listening at home, in the car, maybe even at work. Although the mind can easily wander due to the activities of life and the music can become background noise, even some reminders are better than none.

Something that requires a little more effort is deliberate memorization of hymns. This is a wonderful tool, enabling a believer to sing at any time, not just when he has a hymnbook in front of him. Christians who have been in church for any length of time often have many hymns memorized just from repeated singing at church. This memorization is often incomplete, however. It may be limited to the first stanza or maybe just the chorus. Song leaders often joke about the neglected third stanza, and Christians are probably not as familiar with the middle stanzas of hymns, even though they also contain great truth. The good news is that memorization isn't too difficult, due to the factors of music that are listed above, as well as the fact that partial memorization already exists.

One personal frustration with recorded music is that often a particular CD includes many songs that I know, maybe even several favorites, but also songs that I'm not as familiar with. It can be difficult to find recordings with a completely satisfying mix of songs. To address this issue, I have made several CDs of my own. I chose the songs and the stanzas I wanted, and then I sang and recorded them, using my computer to burn them onto CDs. I'm not a great singer, and I'm not super tech-savvy, but I was able to figure out how to do it. Now I have CDs of just the songs I want to hear, and since no one else will hear them, it doesn't matter that the quality isn't that great. They are just right for me to sing along with and tailor-made to remind me of pertinent truths. 

Finally, I have taught myself to play the piano - not to master it, but just enough to plunk out a simple melody. It really didn't take that long, and it has allowed me to enjoy extended seasons of playing hymn after hymn, allowing them to minister to my heart. A simple keyboard is not very expensive, and as long as the expectation is that of rudimentary piano skills, this is a great way to direct the heart through music.

Two great aspects of each of these methods, whether memorization, creating CDs, or playing the piano, is that one does not need to be a great musician to carry them out, and he can choose the songs most appropriate to him. He can concentrate on specific areas in which he needs to be challenged, he can collect songs that are specially designed to bring encouragement, or he can choose songs that will purposefully help him to concentrate on truth about God. The more a believer pursues these types of activities, the more he will find hymns to be meaningful in his life.  What a blessing it is to have songs to sing in the darkest of nights, when waking up in the morning, and while going through the routine of life! Some days are far from perfect, but I am encouraged by how often appropriate hymns come to me, keeping my mind fixed on God and my heart tender toward Him.

"Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God." Colossians 3:16 (NASB)

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Are You an Extremist?

Much has been said lately about extreme or radical Muslims. It is not my intent to discuss whether we should fight these people, allow them into our country, keep a registry of them, or close their mosques. Instead I would like to share a viewpoint that I have rarely heard and then apply that truth to Christianity. Regardless of the specifics of one's personal political stance, I believe anyone who thoughtfully considers this discussion will recognize truth.

I would like to start with what will seem to many to be a controversial statement: Not all Muslims are out to kill (or control) the rest of the world, in particular Jews and Christians. I recognize that there are many Muslims who do have that goal. I recognize that there are "sleeper" agents that don't currently seem to have that goal but who will reveal it in due time. I realize that, due to their Muslim identification, some who are now peaceful have the potential to become radicalized or to take the extremist side if it comes down to a choice. All of these recognitions are easily backed up by facts and historical records.

Many people, whether Christians, political conservatives, alarmists, or white supremacists, would take umbrage at my statement in the previous paragraph. They would say things like, "Read the Koran." "Look at all the instructions to kill the infidel." "There is no way to escape that this is their mission and that it is what the Koran teaches." I acknowledge those realities. I believe the mistake comes when people assume something of Islam that is not true of other religions.

Let me start with my experience in Mexico, which illustrates a truth borne out around the world. According to wikipedia, 96% of Mexicans identified as Catholic in 1970. This number was down to 83% in 2010, but that's still a pretty high percentage. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Mexico). When I, or other missionaries, talked with these people, we found that there were some who attended church weekly and who attempted to live moral lives based on the Bible. There were also many who would identify themselves as Catholic, but then readily admit that they attended church only a few times a year, if at all. Some had terrible habits or tragic lives filled with immorality or degradation - yet, without a doubt, they were born Catholic and would die Catholic.

These Mexican Catholics likely had a Bible in their home, although they were strongly discouraged from reading it. They had teaching in their Bible that instructed them on how to live. The Apocrypha notwithstanding, their Bible is very similar to the Christian Bible, so these people had instruction to love one another, to tell the truth, to keep their bodies separated to God, and so on. Did the fact that their Bible (or their church) told them to live a certain way guarantee that they would do so? Not in the least. Did the fact that they claimed Catholicism as their religion provide a reasonable expectation that they would live out that religion? Decidedly not. Was the country morally strong and were the churches filled on Sundays? No, and no.

Let's bring the discussion closer to home. According to a Gallup poll from 2012, 52% of Americans identify themselves as Christians. (An additional 23% are Catholic, and 2% are Mormon.) (http://www.gallup.com/poll/159548/identify-christian.aspx). If these percentages represented people who truly believed, understood, and lived out the religion they claim, our country would be a far different place. Like the Mexican Catholics, however, many American Christians do not read the Bible, do not know its teaching, and rarely attend church. We could look at the Bible and see its teaching about such major areas as salvation by grace alone, the exclusivity of the gospel, requirements for pastors, separation, godly lifestyle, abortion, and homosexuality. Not only do many average Christians ignore or reject the Bible's teaching, but even a lot of ministers and entire denominations reject the Bible's truth on these topics, allowing for church-sanctioned gross violation of the Bible's teaching.

Catholicism and Christianity easily illustrate that claiming a religion is not the same as living it. The adherents of these religions (usually) identify as they do because of how they were brought up. For hundreds of years everyone in their family and nearly everyone in their community claimed that religion, and the new generations claim it also. This is what is called "nominal" Christianity or Catholicism; the people are Christian in name, but not in practice. If this is true of the major world religions with which we are most familiar, why would Islam be any different? Most Muslims were born into a culture where Islam was the only religion. Everyone in their family and in their town claimed to be Muslim, and the new generations do the same. That does not mean that the average Muslim knows, believes, and lives out his faith any more than it would be true of a Christian or Catholic. Like a Christian, a Muslim may follow a few basic instructions while quietly ignoring or rejecting the parts that seem too violent, out-dated, or unappealing.

"But there are some who do follow it whole-heartedly," someone would protest. "Those are the dangerous ones." That is precisely my point. It is the radical, extreme, fundamental adherent of any faith who makes a difference. Those who are content to claim a religion without living it make little if any impact. Those who know and live their faith, however, dedicated to its teaching, can make a difference in the world. That's what makes radical Muslims so dangerous, and the same dedication would enable Christians to impact the world around them. To do so, Christians must know what the Bible teaches and must follow it to the extent that it shapes their purpose for life and drives every aspect of life, whether or not the truth is popular, comfortable, or easy. Only the extreme make much of a difference.

"For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain." Philippians 1:21 (NASB)

A note regarding Muslims: Without Christ they have no hope of salvation, but they do have that opportunity open to them. Over the past weeks, my heart has been touched with stories of Muslims who have come to Christ and of Christians in the Muslim world who have taken a (dangerous) stand for their faith. God is saving people out of that false religion. Our church has a missionary in Lebanon, and he has said that some view Lebanon (or the Middle East) as an oil field or as a terrorist training field, but it is, in fact, a mission field. While we may be concerned about the danger of attacks and may hate their false religion, we must love these lost people and pray for God to do His work in them. That is the best answer for America, for the rest of the world, for the Muslims themselves, and for the exaltation of Christ, our great Savior. "Not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance" (II Peter 3:9b). We must also pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are living in dangerous places. "Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves are also in the body" (Hebrews 13:3).

Saturday, December 5, 2015


Whom does God choose to use to do His work? There is no exclusive answer; however, it is surprising how often God chooses people that men would never choose. In many cultures the eldest son is the one who is most expected to be strong. He typically is groomed to take over the family business. He might be the spokesman for the family and the one who makes decisions. Often he inherits the father's land and holdings. America was built by many second (or third) sons who had nothing in England but who could make their own opportunities in the New World.

The same was true in the Jewish culture, only more so. The eldest son got everything - birthright, blessing, status, wealth, etc. While those first-born sons may have been preferred by culture and by people, God often chose someone further down the line - a nobody. The reason is that God sees the heart rather than a person's position, and God is far more interested in the heart. Even a brief examination of Scripture reveals that God makes some unusual choices.

David is perhaps the person who most readily comes to mind regarding this topic, because his life very clearly teaches that the heart is more important than position. When Samuel was sent to anoint a new king for Israel from among the sons of Jesse, he watched as seven sons passed before him. Three of these were soldiers in Saul's army. God did not chose any of the seven. Instead, David, the eighth son, was sent for and then anointed.

David's father said of David: "There remains yet the youngest, and behold, he is tending the sheep" (I Samuel 16:11). He had not even been considered at first, yet when David arrived, God chose Him. God had said of the firstborn son Eliab, "Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart" (I Samuel 16:7). When God looked at David's heart, He found the quality of servant that He was seeking, saying, "I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after My heart, who will do all My will" (Acts 13:22).

It is unclear how many older brothers Gideon had, but this unlikely leader told the angel who came to him, "My family is the least in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my father's house" (Judges 6:15). That did not matter to God. It is not stated what God saw in the hearts of the brothers, but He saw in the heart of Gideon a man who would obey Him. Gideon had some doubts and needed some reassurances, but he did not flinch in carrying out the commands that God gave to him. Gideon had the kind of heart that God could use.

Although Samuel was Hannah's long-awaited firstborn son, he was not his father's oldest child. At a young age he left his family and went to serve in the temple, where the priest with whom he worked already had sons. It would seem incredible for Samuel to be the one to "take over" and even rise to a higher level of leadership than Eli, but Samuel is the one God chose. Even as a child, "Samuel was growing . . . in favor . . . with the LORD" (I Samuel 2:26). God saw in Samuel a heart that was quick to obey, and God chose Samuel over the "worthless" sons of Eli, who "did not know the LORD," even though they had already moved into positions of leadership (I Samuel 2:12).

Joseph was the eleventh of twelve sons and was hated by most of the others. While the brothers engaged in hatred, malice, deceit, and dark secret-keeping, God saw in Joseph a sensitive heart. Even before he was sold as a slave, he had a heart to receive God's messages to him, and he was obedient to his father. During his long years of trial, Joseph continued to faithfully serve God, without harboring resentment or bitterness. His heart pleased God because he was willing to believe in God's plan for his life even when he could not see anything good working out for him. Joseph is the one God chose to save his family and nation - "to preserve many people alive" (Genesis 50:20).

Jacob's story is most amazing, because for many years he lived up to his name - a supplanter, trickster, and deceiver. Amid his struggles, though, there was some desire in his heart to serve and please God (Genesis 28:18-22). Therefore, God chose Jacob, the younger brother, rather than Esau, the older brother, who seemed at every turn to belittle God's ways. God saw the imperfectly-devoted heart of Jacob and was patient for him to mature in godliness; in the meanwhile, God still chose, protected, and blessed Jacob.

These stories of God choosing the younger sons should not be surprising - not when one realizes what God is looking for. "Now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require from you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the LORD's commandments and His statutes which I am commanding you today for your good?" (Deuteronomy 10:12-13).

God doesn't look at size, age, status, might, wisdom, and so forth. He looks at the heart. Many Christians might look at themselves and think, "I am nothing. God wouldn't use me to do His work. He'll use someone important and someone with potential like the pastor's kids or the missionary's kids." Oh, friend, God sees the most potential in a heart that is willing to submit to Him and to obey Him. God is looking to use people who love Him, regardless of how anyone else estimates their value. With a willing heart, any Christian can be useful to God.

"For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God." I Corinthians 1:26-29 (NASB)