A CHANGE OF HEART

beeding heartsFor you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. [Romans 2:28-29a (NLT)]

In 1962, my infant nephew was baptized after coming with his parents more than 1,300 miles to meet his grandmother. Because my mother was hospitalized (and would be dead in a few weeks), the sacrament took place at her bedside. This was the only time my nephew and his grandmother met and the last time my sister saw our mother alive.

My brother-in-law was opposed to infant baptism. Nevertheless, my father wanted my mother to see and hold her first grandchild (as much as he wanted that baby baptized). Because children were not allowed to visit hospitals at the time, Dad convinced my brother-in-law that a hospital baptism was the only way grandmother and grand could meet. The hospital was run by the Sisters of Charity so my father knew the nuns wouldn’t deny his request (especially since he neglected to mention that the priest was Episcopalian rather than Roman Catholic).

Unfortunately, other than the funerals of his grandparents, that probably was the last time my nephew came near a minister, church, Bible, prayer book, holy water, or even a nun (several joined us in my mother’s hospital room.) His parents are good people but non-believers and he had no religious education. By the time he was in his teens, my nephew was diagnosed as bipolar and, as often happens for people with his disorder, he self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. A vicious cycle began as the substance abuse exacerbated the mental illness and his disease increased the abuse. Truly a lost soul who, by now, has lost most of his mental capacity, when he’s not incarcerated or hospitalized, my nephew lives on the streets or couch surfs through the homes of other users. While I can’t know what is in anyone’s heart, I doubt that he believes in Jesus. Yet, he’s been baptized, leading me to wonder, “Does that mean he’s saved?”

As a sign of God’s covenant with Israel, all of Abraham’s descendants were to be circumcised. In Romans 2, however, Paul points out that, for the Jew, the true sign of belonging to God was not the ceremony of circumcision; it was a change of heart produced by God’s Spirit. It was God’s spiritual surgery upon the heart rather than the removal of one’s foreskin that made a Jew right with God. While there are parallels between baptism and circumcision, they symbolize two very different covenants. Nevertheless, while studying Romans and rereading today’s verse, I replaced “Jew” with “Christian” and “circumcision” with “baptism.” Indeed, Christianity has nothing to do with parentage and baptism alone does not bring salvation; salvation requires a change of heart.

My childhood prayer book calls baptism an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Without that “inward and spiritual grace,” I fear it is just a ritual. External actions like baptism, communion or church attendance are not what make us Christians. Salvation doesn’t come by works or sacraments; it comes through God’s grace through faith!

Assuming he has never come to know Jesus and be filled with His Holy Spirit, I fear that my nephew’s baptism 57 years ago didn’t make him a Christian any more than his hospital circumcision made him a Jew. While baptism is a step of obedience for every Christian, it does not save us. Our salvation is because of Jesus’s death and resurrection and is available only through faith in Jesus Christ. Let us all beware of trusting that baptism alone will bring us to heaven.

Tragically, some people believe they are going to heaven when they die just because a few drops of water were sprinkled over their heads a few weeks after their birth. They have no personal faith, have never made a personal decision, and are banking on a hollow ceremony to save them. How absurd. [Max Lucado]

If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. [Romans 10:9-10 (NLT)]

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OUR GATEKEEPER

Be careful what you think, because your thoughts run your life. [Proverbs 4:23 NCV]

Corkscrew SwampActing as gatekeepers for the temple in Jerusalem, the Levites opened and closed its doors and guarded it during the night. Among their many duties, they prohibited entry to anyone considered “unclean,” protected the temple from theft or desecration, watched the offering and tithe money, and maintained proper decorum within the temple. They also were the ones who imposed the death penalty on any who dared enter the temple illegally.

Although many churches have implemented security measures, we no longer have Levites at our church doors. Most of us, however, could use a similar gatekeeper to protect our minds (and mouths) from anything that could defile us. Like crashers at a party, negative thoughts can sneak into our heads. Once in, they tend to prop open the door so more negativity can follow. Anger often brings his pals animosity and resentment. Once fear steals in, worry slips in right behind him; doubt, regret and suspicion are sure to follow. Before we know it, bitterness and hatred have joined the party, along with envy, lust, and their old friend guilt. When our minds are filled with undesirable and unwelcome callers, there’s little room left for any positive thinking. Once those bad thoughts have gotten into our heads, they want to continue their damage by spilling out through our mouths.

The mind’s gatekeeper must be diligent, on duty 24/7, and refuse entry to any thoughts and feelings considered “unclean” or inappropriate. He’d maintain order in house and keep our thinking in line. On the lookout for hazards, he’d steer us away from situations that could bring trouble or temptation. Rather than kill temple trespassers who stepped beyond the warning stone, the gatekeeper would squash any negative words before they could escape!

Unfortunately, the books of Kings and Chronicles tell us that the Temple’s gatekeepers fell down on the job. They allowed the dwelling place of God to be defiled by idolatry and fall into disrepair. When King Hezekiah ordered the Temple’s purification, it took more than two weeks simply to clean it!

At the moment of Jesus’s death, the Temple was no longer the place of God’s presence. Because of Christ, God dwells within each one of us. Having provided each of us with a far better Gatekeeper in the Holy Spirit, Levites are no longer needed at our doors. We, however, must cede control to the Spirit so that He can do His job!

You should know that your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit who is in you. You have received the Holy Spirit from God. So you do not belong to yourselves. [1 Corinthians 6:19 (NCV)]

Those who live following their sinful selves think only about things that their sinful selves want. But those who live following the Spirit are thinking about the things the Spirit wants them to do. If people’s thinking is controlled by the sinful self, there is death. But if their thinking is controlled by the Spirit, there is life and peace.  …The true children of God are those who let God’s Spirit lead them. [Romans 8:5-6,14 (NLT)]

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FINDING SOMETHING NEW

“But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the LORD. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” [Jeremiah 31:33 (NLT)]

pikaSpencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? is an uncomplicated parable about two mice and two “little people” (Hem and Haw) who are looking for the “cheese” that will bring them happiness. When the cheese disappears, the mice quickly scurry off in search of more. Hem and Haw, however, have built their life around that cheese. Arrogantly thinking their brains are superior to those of their four-legged friends, they are unwilling to change and search for different cheese. Eventually, hunger drives Haw to leave his comfort zone and go in search of new cheese. When he finds it, he also finds those simple creatures, the mice, who’d been there for quite a while and enjoying the delicious new cheese.

The cheese is a metaphor for what we desire in life, whether a relationship, job, money, or peace of mind, and the book is about dealing with change, keeping things simple, and not confusing ourselves with fearful beliefs. Hem and Haw always thought that change would lead only to something worse. It is not until Haw understands that change also can lead to something better that he starts looking for new cheese. Sadly, left behind in the maze is Hem. Paralyzed with fear, in spite of his hunger, he stays in his comfort zone where the old cheese had been.

Throughout the story, Haw writes messages on the wall. When he writes, “The more important your cheese is to you, the more you want to hold on to it,” I couldn’t help but think of the Pharisees in Jesus’s time. The law was their cheese; they held tight to it and then over-complicated it. The simple law of keeping the Sabbath day became burdensome with its thirty-nine categories (and hundreds of subcategories) of prohibited work and exceptions to the rules. While tying knots was prohibited, if the knot could be untied with just one hand, it was allowed! People couldn’t carry their clothes out of a burning house on the Sabbath but they could put on several layers of clothing and wear them out! As happened with Hem, the Pharisees became over-confident and arrogant; for them, their complicated set of rules was the only cheese, even when it ceased making sense!

Jesus, however, introduced a new kind of cheese: a new covenant of salvation through faith, not works. Rather than the law being written with ink on paper it was written with the blood of Jesus upon men’s hearts. Although God’s promise of a new covenant came true in Jesus, the Pharisees refused to change and stayed hungry in their corner of the maze.

A great many of us in the 21st century are little different from those who resisted Jesus in the 1st. We may not cling to a long list of prohibitions and rules as did the Pharisees but, out of fear of change, we cling to a way of life that isn’t working. We’re like the rich man who asked Jesus what he needed to do for eternal life. When told that he must give up the old cheese (his riches), he walked away rather than accept Jesus’s offer of salvation. Like Hem, could we be going hungry when all we need to do is step out of our comfort zone and seek the Bread of Life? Or, like, Haw, will we seek and find?

His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and exist. [Acts 17:27-28a (NLT)]

Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” [John 6:35 (NLT)]

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FOR ALL THE SAINTS

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…[1 Corinthians 1:2a (ESV)]

The early Christians often marked anniversaries of the martyrdom of Christ’s followers. By the fourth century, however, there’d been so many martyrs that there weren’t enough days to honor them all and the idea of one feast day honoring all the martyrs began. In 609, Pope Boniface IV established an All Saints Day in May. After Christianity came to Ireland, the Roman church attached the Feast of All Saints to the already established pagan holiday of Samhain (a celebration of the end of the harvest) and, in 847, Pope Gregory IV formally rebranded this Celtic festival as All Saints Day. Today is All Saints’ Day: a day to commemorate all of the saints, not as determined by a Pope, but as defined in the Bible.

Biblically speaking, what is a saint? The word “saint” comes from the Greek word hagios meaning “consecrated to God, holy, scared, pious.” Sainthood isn’t conferred by people; it is granted by God to all who trust in Christ. When Paul addressed his letter to the Corinthians, it was to “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…” Even though they were struggling with issues like immorality, jealousy, and divisiveness, those early Christians were saints because they’d been made holy when they united with Jesus.

Sainthood wasn’t reserved for the Corinthians; Paul also referred to the believers in Rome, Ephesus, Philippi, Colosse, and Thessalonica as saints. Simply put, saints were and still are the Christian church—the body of Christ. All Christians (as flawed as we are) are called to be saints—not just in heaven but right here on earth. No martyrdom, miracles, heroic virtue, or canonization is required. Simply by being followers of Christ, you and I—everyday garden-variety believers—are saints! As His saints, like the Corinthians, we are called to grow more and more like Christ every day. Scripture, however, never tells us to revere, worship or pray to saints. Rather, it tells us that the saints (meaning us) are to revere, worship, and pray to God alone.

For Roman Catholics, the focus of All Saints’ Day tends to be on the “official” saints (those people canonized by the Pope). Nevertheless, regardless of denomination, this is a day for all of the living saints (that’s us) to remember the saints who went before us. We have never been alone in our journey of faith; along with the Holy Spirit, we encountered believers (saints) who demonstrated their faith, pointed the way, urged us on, answered our questions, and corrected us when we strayed.

If we were to make a list of those who influenced our Christian walk, there might be some big name champion saints like the Gospels’ writers and Paul, the Wesleys, Martin Luther, Augustine, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, Corrie ten Boom, or Billy Graham. There are, however, many ordinary run-of-the-mill Christians who guided us on our journey: saints like our parents, grandparents, neighbors, schoolmates, teachers, friends, co-workers, pastors, or even strangers, whose faithfulness encouraged us on our journey. Today, in honor of all the saints of God, let’s remember the life and witness of those people, both known and unknown, who were a part of our personal salvation stories—the people who strengthened our faith by their words and actions and led us to where we are today.

Who are the heroes in your individual Christian history? Who would you acknowledge in your spiritual memoir? Let their examples of faith spur you onward.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. [Ephesians 2:17-22 (ESV)]

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TRANSFORMING PUMPKINS

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (NLT)]

The Food Network’s “Outrageous Pumpkins” features remarkable pumpkin artistry as it pits four pumpkin carvers against one another in a three-round competition. Competitors create traditional Jack O’Lanterns, 3-D pumpkin carvings, and then their own free-style pumpkin masterpieces. Using everything from melon ballers to huge saws, they make intricate designs and sculpt extraordinary and intricate works of art. As someone who is severely pumpkin-challenged (and eventually purchased a permanent Jack O-Lantern that came with an electric light), I am impressed by the skill of these pumpkin artists.

Watching those carvers transform what is nothing more than a large gourd into a work of art, I couldn’t help but think of another artist who is in the business of transformation: God. There are both similarities and differences between transforming pumpkins into Halloween décor and transforming people into Christians. In both cases, the finished product bears little resemblance to what it once was (but, instead of becoming something frightening and macabre, the Christian becomes more beautiful)!

Both carvers and God start by making a selection but, unlike the pumpkin artists, God isn’t looking for perfection. He’ll take any color, size, condition or age. Scratches, bruises, blemishes, a dried up stem, and even a little mold or rot won’t keep anyone from His workshop. Just as the carvers cut into the pumpkins and scrape out all of the slimy stuff inside, God opens us up but, rather than scooping out our guts, He scrapes away things like fear, anger, despair, doubt, hate, pride and greed. Instead of an X-Acto knife, vegetable peeler, saw, or drill, God’s tools consist of His word, the church, and both blessings and challenges. Just as those artists’ imaginative creations surpass the toothy smile and triangle eyes of the typical Jack O’Lantern, each one of God’s creations is a one-of-a-kind custom design. The pumpkin carvers, preferring something frightening or creepy, usually give their creations a menacing face. Although the Christian’s outward appearance may not change, God wants His handiwork to spread faith, hope and love rather than terror or dread so He gives us a far nicer demeanor. Occasionally, the carvers make small mistakes; when that happens, they either alter their designs or use a toothpick to reattach a piece. Unlike the carvers, God never makes a mistake; every one of His creations is a masterpiece.

Although the carvers leave their pumpkins hollow, God fills His people with the Holy Spirit and His gifts. Wanting their creations to glow from the inside out, both the carver and God insert lights. While the carver uses either a candle, light bulb or flashlight, the Christian’s light comes from the Holy Spirit. Eventually, the pumpkin’s light will cease shining; God’s light, however, lasts a lifetime. While the “Outrageous Pumpkins” competitors perform their artistry in hope of winning $10,000 and a gold medal (along with bragging rights), God transforms His children out of love. Unlike carvers in the competition, God has no time limit and continues tweaking us until our dying day.

The “Outrageous Pumpkins” competition is held for a few weeks around Halloween, but God transforms people all year long. Although the pumpkins have no choice about being chosen, washed, and carved, we are free to reject God’s hand in transforming our lives. It’s wise to remember, however, that any pumpkins remaining in the patch after harvest eventually rot and decompose; the same goes for us. Alas, in spite of all their artistry, those fantastic pumpkin creations are temporary. Even when dipped in a mild bleach mixture, they soon will turn moldy and soft; eventually, they’ll end up in the trash. Not so with God’s handiwork! Unlike carved pumpkins, Christians tend to improve over time; in fact, they last forever.

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)]

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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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