THE BEST TIME TO MEET HIM

I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. [John 11:25-26 (NLT)]

In commenting about the unexpected death of a young man, the pastor said, “The best time to meet God is when you’re right with God!” For a good part of his brief life, the young man about whom he was speaking had been a troubled unbeliever but, shortly before his death, he came to know Christ. While he will be missed by his grieving family and friends, they can find comfort in knowing his final destination. Since they, too, are believers, they know they will see him again in the future.

The pastor’s comment made me remember a sympathy note written by C.S. Lewis in 1944 to the wife of fellow professor at Oxford. After expressing how much he missed the man, Lewis told the new widow how deeply the professor’s funeral had affected him. Mentioning the many times he’d heard the same service read for non-believers, he admitted to a sense of relief at hearing those same words said for a true man of faith: “a man not unworthy of the service.” Lewis admitted that, “In some queer way it enormously strengthened my faith, and before we filed out of chapel I really felt…a kind of joy—a feeling that all was well, just as well as it could be.” Understanding that the best time to meet God is when you’re right with God, Lewis knew the professor had been welcomed home by his Father in Heaven.

I think of a friend, whose husband is nearing the end of his life.  As non-believers, she knows a religious service would be hypocritical and has been pondering what sort of funeral she might have for her husband when the time comes. For a non-believer, there is little comfort in hearing that Jesus is the resurrection and the life and His believers will never die or that our bodies “buried in brokenness…will be raised in glory.” Scripture’s words of assurance that Jesus has prepared a place for us in His Father’s house or that nothing can separate us from Christ’s love are meaningless to someone who doesn’t know Jesus.

Believers and non-believers alike experience grief but it was the faith C.S. Lewis shared with his fellow professor that allowed him to experience joy at his friend’s funeral. The words of a traditional Christian funeral/celebration of life service are only comforting to a believer if the dearly departed was a believer.

When my friend’s husband dies, I don’t know how she will mark his passing, but it won’t be with words of Scripture, prayers, psalms, or hymns. When that day comes, I will choose my words of sympathy carefully; they probably will be something innocuous about hoping her memories bring her comfort and solace. (Her lack of faith certainly won’t!) No matter how nice the memorial program or beautiful the music, I will not feel a kind of joy as I depart because I know that the best time to meet God is not when you deny His existence. The best time to meet God is when you’re good with Him!

Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. [1 Corinthians 15:43-44 (NLT)]

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ASK

And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. [Matthew 6:7-8 (RSV)]

Our Father, whose predominant residence pattern is widely perceived as being in an exo-atmospheric environment, your name shall be treated, as a matter of course, in a reverential demeanor appropriate to existing protocol guidelines. It is to be hoped that, as an optimal result of the ongoing situational development, your form of governmental institution may be, in accordance with the appropriate procedures, finalized within the foreseeable future, in forms applicable to both bilateral and multilateral fora. [Anonymous]

climbing asterThese are the first lines of the Lord’s Prayer as if they were written by a lawyer and, having recently met with our attorney to update some documents, I don’t think they’re much of an exaggeration. With all of their circumlocution, it’s difficult to know what lawyers actually mean. They use vague abstract nouns rather than concrete ones and seem to go around a subject rather than straight through it. Why can’t they use straightforward language and directly say what they mean?

While our prayers probably are not as convoluted as the above version of the Lord’s Prayer, they frequently are as indirect and vague. Of course, the lawyer uses all of that language out of caution. He’s writing so that his words can’t be misconstrued: so that anyone seeking another meaning to his words can’t find it. God, however, is not an adversary who is trying to trap us into saying something we don’t mean or attempting to find a loophole in our prayers. In fact, He already knows what we need before we say it. Nevertheless, He’s waiting to hear it from us.

When Jesus was leaving Jericho, two blind beggars called out to Him with a rather ambiguous request: “Have mercy on us!” Did they want forgiveness, food, clothing,  or money? Any of those would have been acts of mercy. Surely Jesus knew what they really wanted but He responded by asking them, “What do you want me to do for you?” Only then were they direct and asked for what they really wanted: to see! It was not until they clearly asked that Jesus acted and they received sight.

We have been told to ask before we receive. Could it be that God answers our prayers based on our requests? Jesus promised that, if we ask for bread, we won’t get a stone and, if we ask for a fish, we won’t get a serpent. Unsaid, but certainly implied, is that, if we fail to ask for that bread or fish, we won’t get either one! Could receiving depend upon asking? Could there be blessings He has for us that we haven’t received simply because we never asked?

Like lawyers, perhaps we err on the side of caution: the less specific our prayers, the less likely it is that we’ll be disappointed. Vague prayers, however, don’t exhibit faith. If someone listened to our prayers, would they know what we mean or are our prayers filled with cautious language and ambiguous requests? I think of a child’s prayers and the long list of “God blesses” usually found at their end. Are our prayers as vague? How do we want God to bless those on our prayer list? What are their specific needs? What are ours? We don’t need a lot of words to be direct and specific with God. If Jesus were passing by right now, what would we call out to Him? What would we ask?

And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith. [Matthew 21:22 (RSV)]

Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? [Matthew 7:7-9 (RSV)]

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COINCIDENCE OR PRAYER?

We are confident that God listens to us if we ask for anything that has his approval. We know that he listens to our requests. So we know that we already have what we ask him for. [1 John 5:14-15 (GW)]

great egretRecently, the Sinner’s Shack Gentlemen’s Club wanted to open an establishment in our small Midwest community. It’s a rather conservative town and, since there’s nothing gentlemanly about the goings on in such an establishment, everyone was up in arms about it. When the Holier Than Thou Evangelical Church started a campaign to halt the tawdry business from locating in town, prayer sessions were held three times a day and the City Council was inundated with letters and calls of protests. Unfortunately, in spite of the prayers and complaints, proper zoning was attained and construction on the Sinner’s Shack began. Just a day before its grand opening, however, lightning struck the new building and it burned completely to the ground!

The Holier Than Thous were rather smug and self-righteous about the fire until Honey Bunn, the owner of the strip club, filed suit again the church, its pastor, and the entire congregation on the grounds that they were “ultimately responsible for the demise of the building and business, either through direct or indirect divine actions or means.” The Holier Than Thous replied to the court by vociferously denying any and all responsibility for the lightning and the building’s loss.

As the judge read through the plaintiff’s complaint and the church’s reply, he commented, “I have no idea how I will be able to decide this case. I have a staunch sinner who appears to believe in the power of prayer and an entire congregation of Christians who don’t!”

Of course, this is just a bit silly fiction, but it poses some interesting questions about our belief in the power of prayer. Would we have joined in those prayer sessions or would we have considered the issue a lost cause? If we’d attended those prayer sessions, would we have gone out of a sense of duty or because we truly believed our prayers could make a difference? Do we ever pray without the confidence that our prayers are heard? Do we pray without believing in the power of our prayers? When our prayers are answered, as they were in the story, are we surprised? Instead of crediting it to prayer, do we chalk it up to coincidence or good luck?

When we pray; we’d better believe that prayer works, or it won’t. Effective prayers require trusting in a God who is faithful in His promises to us. We need confidence that God is both willing and able to act on our behalf to advance His kingdom. I know it’s difficult at times not to attribute God’s answers to coincidence but, as for me, I’m going to chalk one up for God!

Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous. [Albert Einstein]

When you ask for something, don’t have any doubts. A person who has doubts is like a wave that is blown by the wind and tossed by the sea. A person who has doubts shouldn’t expect to receive anything from the Lord. A person who has doubts is thinking about two different things at the same time and can’t make up his mind about anything. [James 1:6-8 (GW)]

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PERMANENT RECORDS

He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west. [Psalm 103:12 (NLT)]

I—yes, I alone—will blot out your sins for my own sake and will never think of them again. [Isaiah 43:25 (NLT)]

great southern white butterfly

When I was a girl in elementary school, the teachers would speak ominously of our permanent records. While the threat that Santa knowing if we’re good or bad only worked during December, a teacher’s threat of, “This is going on your permanent record!” scared us into obedience the entire year! Perhaps elementary schoolers in the 1950s were more naïve than today’s youngsters, but my friends and I were convinced that each of us had a permanent record that logged test scores, grades, and attendance records along with every infraction or disciplinary action. Every time we used our outside voices inside, chewed gum in class, forgot the hall pass, passed notes, got in a spat, lost our lunch money, or were sent to the office, the transgression was documented for posterity. Passed from teacher to teacher and school to school, that record might even follow us from job to job.

Nowadays, the dreaded permanent record no longer may be a threat and yet, with social media postings, today’s youngsters are far more likely to have a real permanent record of their assorted transgressions than I ever was!

Fortunately, God doesn’t keep a permanent record of our transgressions. When Jesus died on the cross, He paid for our sins (past, present and future) once and for all. Once we repent and accept Jesus, our sins are both forgiven and removed. Erasing them from our permanent record, God chooses not to remember them. His forgiveness, however, doesn’t mean we’ll never sin; just as we didn’t get 100% on every test in school, we won’t do life perfectly. But, because of Christ’s sacrifice and our faith, our sins no longer have any bearing on our salvation. When we repent and ask forgiveness, God’s loving grace forgives us and yesterday’s mistakes have no bearing on today. God gets out his holy eraser again and again and wipes them away. Along with the Apostle Paul, we can forget what is behind us and look forward to what lies ahead.

If seven times a day we offend him and repent, does he forgive? Ay, that he does. This is to be unfeignedly believed, and I do believe it: I believe that, often as I transgress, God is more ready to forgive me than I am ready to offend, though, alas, I am all too ready to transgress. Hast thou right thoughts of God, dear hearer? If so, then thou knowest that he is a tender father, willing to wipe the tear of penitence away, and press his offending child to his bosom, and kiss him with the kisses of his forgiving love. [Charles Spurgeon]

No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. [Philippians 3:13-14 (NLT)]

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. [2 Corinthians 5:21 (NLT)]

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PUTTING IT IN PERSPECTIVE

I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn over what is going to happen to me, but the world will rejoice. You will grieve, but your grief will suddenly turn to wonderful joy. It will be like a woman suffering the pains of labor. When her child is born, her anguish gives way to joy because she has brought a new baby into the world. [John 16:20-21 (NLT)]

baby boyOn the night He was betrayed, Jesus forewarned the disciples of the grief and fear they’d encounter in the days ahead. In his short parable about labor and delivery, Jesus prepared the remaining eleven disciples for the emotions they would encounter over the next three days: their anguish and despair as He hung upon the cross, died, and was buried. For His followers, those three days would feel like an eternity of hopelessness. But, as happens when a woman beholds her newborn baby after hours of painful labor, their despair would turn to joy when they saw the resurrected Christ!

At the time, no one could have convinced me that I would forget the pain of my long labor and medication-free delivery but, when I held my first-born, I did. All women do (or every baby would be an only child)! Those first six months of sleepless nights spent comforting that colicky boy seemed endless; I didn’t know how I’d endure them but I did. Yesterday, he celebrated his 50th birthday and the 24-hours he spent making his way into this world make up only 1/18,251th of his life and just 1/26,406th of mine! Even the six exhausting months he spent crying in my arms every night are only 1% of his life and less than .7% of mine! While putting my labor and sleepless nights into perspective, I realized my fractions are wrong because I can’t determine the true length of my life; rather than ending here on earth, it will continue forever in God’s heavenly Kingdom.

Jesus’s parable applies to more than those three days the disciples hid in a room following his crucifixion. It applies to the suffering and pain endured by all of His children (which often lasts far longer than 24 hours, 3 days, or even six months). Anguish of any kind seems interminable and unbearable but, when put in perspective, it is but a blip on our eternal lifeline. For now, we live in a world of tears, weariness, frustration, anxiety, confusion, disappointment, loss, fear, and affliction but, on the other side of this earthly life, there is a place without pain, sorrow, grief or tragedy! Although it’s of little comfort to those hurting, our present suffering must be viewed in the light of eternity. As heavy as the weight of our present pain may be, when put on a scale and weighed against the eternal joys of heaven, it is no more than a feather. That doesn’t mean anyone’s pain is small; it simply means that eternity is absolutely enormous! Let us remember—all that’s wrong in this fallen world is temporary and will be forgotten when we joyfully behold His face in eternity!

The best we can hope for in this life is a knothole peek at the shining realities ahead. Yet a glimpse is enough. It’s enough to convince our hearts that whatever sufferings and sorrows currently assail us aren’t worthy of comparison to that which waits over the horizon. [Joni Eareckson Tada]

For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. [1 Corinthians 4:17-18 (NLT)]

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NEITHER OBSESS NOR IGNORE

Now concerning how and when all this will happen, dear brothers and sisters, we don’t really need to write you. For you know quite well that the day of the Lord’s return will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. When people are saying, “Everything is peaceful and secure,” then disaster will fall on them as suddenly as a pregnant woman’s labor pains begin. And there will be no escape. [1 Thessalonians 5:1-3 (NLT)]

Martin Luther once compared human nature to a drunkard who, after falling off the left side of his horse, resolves not to make same mistake again. He remounts and then, overreacting, leans to the right side of his saddle only to fall off again. His point is that just because one side is wrong, the opposite extreme isn’t necessarily correct!

In Jesus’s time, the strict adherence of the Pharisees to the law was an overreaction to Judah’s exile and captivity in Babylon. Knowing that Jerusalem’s destruction and their deportation was God’s punishment for the neglect of His law, no one wanted to endure God’s wrath again. Hoping to safeguard the Torah, the Pharisees went to the opposite extreme by augmenting it with oral explanations and traditions in an effort to guard against any possible breach of law. Shifting from ignoring the law to obsessing over it, they went from disregarding both the Lord and His law to loving the law instead of the Lord.

Sometimes Christians go to extremes. Although both Biblical prophecy and Jesus’s own words tells us that He will return at an undisclosed time in the future, some churches and theologians are obsessed with the End Times and Christ’s Second Coming. They point to every earthquake, political upheaval, famine, natural disaster, or plague as signs of the Apocalypse and often seem more interested in looking for apocalyptic signs than looking to Jesus’s teachings. There even is a “Rapture Index” (a sort of Dow Jones average of End Times activity). As of mid September, the score was 184; according to the site, any score over 160 means “Fasten Your Seatbelts” because the end of the world is at hand.

Since the 1st Century, there have been various end-of-the-world prophecies based on everything from the dimensions of Noah’s ark, the millennium, planetary alignments, mathematical calculations, and secret numerical codes. With an error rate of 100%, those predictions haven’t been rooted in Biblical theology; nevertheless, many have come from Christians and are an embarrassment to the Church.

As a result, many churches and theologians have fallen off the other side of the horse by completely ignoring the issue of the End Times and Christ’s return. Some openly scoff at the prophetic words while others quietly ignore them. Let’s not forget that Christian doctrine is grounded in Scripture and it tells us that Jesus will return. The Athanasius, Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds (the summaries of our Christian beliefs) clearly state that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. Nevertheless, afraid of sounding like quacks or fanatics, many churches and pastors choose to ignore the Second Coming entirely.

End time prophecy is confusing but not completely understanding something, comprehending how it will happen, or knowing when it will occur doesn’t mean that it won’t take place. Although Jesus said He would return, He also made it clear that we are not to know the date. Whether or not we choose to believe or consider it; at an undisclosed and unknown time in the future, He will return. Rather than obsess or ignore, it’s time to get back in the saddle, sit squarely, and find the proper Biblical balance.

Then everyone will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds with great power and glory. And he will send out his angels to gather his chosen ones from all over the world—from the farthest ends of the earth and heaven. … However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows. [Mark 13:26-27,32 (NLT)]

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