LOST IN THE MAZE

Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path. [Psalm 119:105 (NLT)]

scarecrowAlthough we usually visit my daughter’s family in New Mexico in October, my broken ankle canceled our plans. The only bright spot in the cancelation is that I won’t have to participate in the dreaded family tradition of navigating through the corn maze at the pumpkin farm! I say “dreaded” because I’m so directionally challenged that I’d have trouble finding my way out of a box. Actually, after our first outing, I’m surprised any of us ever again ventured into another corn maze.

For our first venture, we chose what was reported to be the best (and largest) maze in the area—a 16-acre corn field that had been transformed into an intricately designed labyrinth. Although we had a small map, we soon became convinced that it was for an entirely different maze. Between the trail’s fiendish twists and turns and its 6-foot walls of corn stalks, we soon were totally lost. We had no idea where we were, let alone where we’d been or where we were going. Hot, thirsty, and tired, the little ones started to whine and complain and we adults weren’t much better. What was supposed to be a fun family outing was turning into a miserable afternoon.

While pausing to finish the last of our water, my husband happened to glance down at the stakes placed along the pathways. Connected by twine, they kept people from taking shortcuts or straying off the convoluted trail into the corn. Seeing that some stakes had a barely noticeable tiny arrow drawn on their  ends, we tried following the markings. Finding that they never led us into dead ends or left us walking in circles, we continued following those arrows all the way to the exit. Even though the solution to our problem was right in front of us, in our frustration, we hadn’t seen it.

While wandering through that maze, we were like a flock of sheep without a shepherd—and a flock without a shepherd is just a herd of lost sheep (maybe even dead ones since they’ve been known to follow one another off cliffs or into deep water)! While we may be smarter than sheep, like them, we need guidance and our Shepherd is the Lord. While it’s easier to follow His lead when all is going well and the path seems straightforward, it grows more difficult when the path He’s laid out for us is a complicated or challenging one. In God’s world, however, there are no shortcuts and sometimes we have to navigate through what seems a hopeless maze. Think of the convoluted routes taken by the Apostle Paul on his four mission trips, the less than straightforward route to Canaan God gave Moses, and the many years and challenges encountered by David before he became king. The paths on which God placed them were filled with twists, turns, and even a few dead ends.

Although our Shepherd will never abandon us, it sometimes seems as if He has. Feeling hopelessly lost, we find ourselves unsure of where to go or what to do as we wander through a maze of difficulties or major decisions. Rather than tiny arrows drawn on wooden stakes, God guides us through our journey with His word. Without it, we can find ourselves as lost as my family was in that corn field. Whether the path God puts us on is a complex maze or a straightforward four-lane freeway, He has provided us with all the guidance we need in Scripture. Far more accurate than our useless map and easier to understand than those arrows, His word can be trusted to lead us through our troubles to hope, safety, sustenance, strength, and peace.

 All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NLT)]

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THE APOLOGY

She fell at his feet and said, “I accept all blame in this matter, my lord. Please listen to what I have to say.” [1 Samuel 25:24 (NLT)]

roseWhile visiting my son last summer, I was walking in his neighborhood when a car raced out of a blind driveway and, without even slowing to look for cars or people, sped down the street. If I hadn’t paused briefly by the gate to get a flower photo, I would have had an intimate encounter with the vehicle. After thanking God that I hadn’t become road kill, I continued down the road and turned onto the walking path. I was a little disconcerted when a car approached and stopped but, when the driver lowered his window and called out to me, I realized it was the driver of the speeding car. After offering an earnest apology, he explained he’d been late for a meeting but added that his tardiness was no excuse for his recklessness. Ashamed of his behavior, he’d returned to make sure I was OK. Assuring him I was fine, I wished him well. I was both shocked and touched by the unexpected apology. While unnecessary, it was much appreciated since I knew the driver probably lost another ten minutes by turning around to find me and apologize.

The story of David, Nabal, and Abigail highlights the importance of apologies. David and his men were hiding from King Saul in the wilderness when they came across Nabal’s shepherds and flock of sheep. Rather than stealing any animals for themselves (as might be expected by a hungry army), David’s men formed a line of protection around the flock so that no harm would come to them or the shepherds.

When sheep shearing time arrived, David sent ten men to Nabal to request provisions for David’s troops. This was not an inappropriate request. By accepting David’s protection, Nabal’s shepherds had obligated their master to make provision for the men. With 3,000 sheep and 1,000 goats, Nabal was a wealthy man and some of that wealth was because David’s men had guarded it! Moreover, Israelite law and tradition demanded that hospitality be offered to travelers. While an honorable man would have met his obligations, Nabal (whose name meant “fool”) lived up to his name and refused the request with rudeness and contempt. When the men reported Nabal’s boorish response, the angry David gathered 400 of his men and set out to kill every man in Nabal’s household.

In the meantime, a servant reported his master’s rashness in offending David to Nabal’s wife Abigail. Knowing an apology can do a lot to diffuse a difficult situation, the wise woman quickly packed up an enormous quantity of food and wine and went to meet David. After humbly apologizing for her husband’s boorish behavior, she offered the provisions to David’s men. Considering Nabal’s personality, this probably was not the first time Abigail had to apologize for her husband’s foolish and offensive conduct. Her heartfelt apology averted the senseless tragedy that would have occurred had David carried through his attack. Upon learning of his wife’s generosity, Nabal suffered a stroke and died ten days later. In what could be called poetic justice, David ended up marrying the lovely and wise widow.

An apology isn’t just saying we’re sorry, especially when, as often is the case, it includes justification for our poor behavior. A true apology is like the driver’s and Abigail’s. It is offered with a humble heart, admits being in the wrong, expresses regret, and makes restitution for any offense. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” said Jesus; one of the ways we make peace is with an apology!

Never ruin an apology with an excuse. [Benjamin Franklin]

Fools make fun of guilt, but the godly acknowledge it and seek reconciliation. [Proverbs 14:9 (NLT)]

Turn away from evil and do good. Search for peace, and work to maintain it. [Psalm 34:14 (NLT)]

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THE UNFORGIVABLE SIN

So I tell you, every sin and blasphemy can be forgiven—except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which will never be forgiven. Anyone who speaks against the Son of Man can be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, either in this world or in the world to come. [Matthew 12:31-32 (NLT)]

blue jayWhen speaking to the Pharisees, Jesus delivers what could be called the ultimate good news/bad news scenario. The good news is that, no matter how evil, vicious or long-lasting the sin, any sin (even blasphemy) is forgivable. The good news, however, comes with a “but” when Jesus says blasphemy against the Spirit will never be forgiven.

Reading Jesus’ words—words said by the One whose blood was shed so our sins would be forgiven—is perplexing. If Jesus could forgive the many unnamed sins of those he healed, the soldiers who gambled for his clothing at the foot of the cross, and Peter’s three denials, what sin is so great that even His blood would not cover it? What exactly is blasphemy against the Spirit and how does it differ from speaking against the “Son of Man” (who we know to be Jesus)?

This good news/bad news scenario was delivered right after Jesus made it clear that there was no neutral ground when it came to Him—either people were with Jesus on God’s side or without Him on Satan’s side. He was directly speaking to Pharisees—people clearly not on Jesus’s side! They hated Him, were plotting His death, and just had denied proof of Christ’s divinity by attributing His healing miracles to Satan. Theirs wasn’t an act so horrendous that Jesus could not forgive them. Rather, their sin was one of attitude. What was unforgivable was their continual rejection of Jesus and their deliberate choice of Satan over Him.

As shocking as it seems, Jesus even says that blasphemy against Him can be forgiven. The Apostle Paul, for example, freely admitted to blaspheming the name of Christ while persecuting Christians. Yet, he experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness because he did so in ignorance and unbelief. If, however, after encountering the living Jesus on the road to Damascus, being supernaturally blinded, meeting Ananias, and having the scales fall from his eyes so that he knew the truth, Paul had never repented and come to believe in Christ, like the Pharisees, he would have committed the unforgivable sin. It would have become unpardonable blasphemy against the Spirit only if, after seeing the Truth incarnate, Paul continued to disparage, attack, and reject Jesus. Fortunately for us, after seeing the truth, Paul did repent and his “blasphemy” was forgiven.

Even scholars and theologians disagree on the exact meaning of this difficult text and I am neither scholar nor theologian. Nevertheless, the unpardonable sin appears to be what those Pharisees exhibited: a deliberate. obstinate, resolute, and tenacious resistance to the Spirit’s pursuit and voice. Even the demons recognized Jesus as the Son of God but the religious leaders, people who knew the prophecies and witnessed His miracles first-hand, blatantly refused to acknowledge Him. They didn’t even bother to dispute the miracles; they chose instead to dispute the source of Jesus’ power by attributing the works of God to Satan. That was unforgivable.

Some theologians think this warning applies only to those people of the 1st century who, like the Pharisees, actually witnessed the irrefutable proof that Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit and then denied the overwhelming evidence of His divinity. Only God knows for sure. The important thing for us to understand is that, like the unbelieving Pharisees, people freely choose how they will spend eternity and, like Paul, no matter how shameful the sin, when we sincerely seek God’s forgiveness through Christ, we can be certain that He will forgive us.

Even though I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. In my insolence, I persecuted his people. But God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief. Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was! He filled me with the faith and love that come from Christ Jesus. This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them all. But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life. [1 Timothy 1:13-16 (NLT)]

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GOD IDEAS

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take. [Proverbs 3:5-6 (NLT)]

Every Friday, I’m emailed a “weekly wisdom” consisting of two pithy sayings like, “Don’t just trust God for things; trust Him in things,” or “You can’t enjoy today if you’re worrying about the past or the future.” Last week’s wisdom really hit home with, “Not every good idea is a God idea!” More than once, I’ve looked back with regret while saying, “It seemed like such a good idea at the time!”

When she did it, eating that forbidden fruit probably seemed like a good idea to Eve just as moving to the beautiful grazing land near Sodom seemed a good idea to Lot. David’s ideas about taking a census to know the strength of his troops and transporting the Ark on a cart might have seemed good ones at the time but he lived to regret them. Fresh from his victory over Edom, King Amaziah may have thought it good strategy to challenge King Jehoash of Israel and, anxious for a child, Sarah probably thought it a good plan to give Hagar to Abraham. Saul’s idea to make sacrifices without waiting for Samuel, Rebekah’s scheme to deceive Isaac, and Hezekiah showing off his riches to envoys from Babylon may have seemed like good ideas at the time but, like those others, they weren’t! They may have looked like good ideas but none were God’s idea and all ended badly.

What those words of wisdom should have added, however, is that not every God idea seems like a good one. In fact, many make no sense to our mortal reasoning. Even though it was God’s idea to lead the people back toward Egypt and camp facing Pharaoh’s army with their backs to the Red Sea, it probably didn’t seem like a good idea to Moses and the Israelites. Joshua probably had reservations about exhausting his troops by marching them around Jericho for seven days and Gideon must have wondered at the wisdom of reducing his army of 32,000 to 300. Being told by God to deliberately marry a promiscuous woman who would betray him probably made no more sense to Hosea than buying land occupied by the Babylonians did to Jeremiah or building an enormous boat with no water nearby did to Noah. Nevertheless, as unreasonable as God’s ideas might have seemed to them, they faithfully obeyed. Regardless of appearances, they knew that God’s ideas are good ones!

We tend to think that the ideas we like are good ones (and God’s) and the ideas we don’t like couldn’t possibly come from Him which makes it difficult to discern the difference between God’s ideas and ours. The more we know of Him and His word, however, the easier it will be to determine if our good ideas and God’s ideas are the same. Even when God’s idea doesn’t seem like a good one, rest assured that, when God tells us to do (or not to do) something, we can know that His idea is far better than any we might have!

God does not exist to answer our prayers, but by our prayers we come to discern the mind of God. [Oswald Chambers]

For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” [Jeremiah 29:11 (NLT)]

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)]

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TWO KINDS OF PEOPLE (The Great Divorce – 1)

“I am the resurrection and the life,” replied Jesus. “Anyone who believes in me will live, even if they die. And anyone who lives and believes in me will never, ever die.” [John 11:25-26 (NTE)]

sandhill crane - canadian gooseI thought of that great fixed chasm between heaven and hell again after reading C.S. Lewis’ fantasy, The Great Divorce. Lewis clearly warns his readers that the book is a fantasy, what he calls “imaginative supposal,” and should be read that way. He does, however, add that it does have a moral. The book’s unnamed narrator (presumed to be Lewis) describes what seems to be hell as a grey, dingy, and utterly joyless place where quarrelsome souls continually argue with one another and move further and further apart. Finding himself there, the narrator joins others as they take a bus ride from this grey world to a vibrant, beautiful, and substantial place that appears to be heaven.

Although they aren’t ghosts, his fellow travelers appear insubstantial, almost wraithlike, in comparison to this new world—a place more real than anything he’d ever known—and the solid radiant people they see there. Full of life, love, and joy, each vivid being tries to convince one of the ghostlike travelers to stay. Those who choose to remain may do so and are reassured that they will gradually become more substantial as they drink from the fountain and journey up the mountain. Those who choose to reject the offer are free to return to the bus and their joyless lives.

The narrator’s travelling companions are people like us. Some are self-absorbed or greedy while others are embittered or selfish. One traveler is sure he’s better than the “riff-raff” around him and another, sure that he’s earned his way there, demands his rights. One wants to be assured of his position before staying, another remains skeptical of its promise, and still another person refuses to stay because of shame. One refuses to forgive, one wishes to live in the past, and one prefers wallowing in misery and self-pity. When none of these choose to stay, the narrator’s guide explains that the choice of those “lost souls” is best expressed in the phrase, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” He adds, “there is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of misery…always something they prefer to joy.” Only one traveler chooses to give up the lust that controlled his life and stay. When he does so, the narrator watches as he solidifies into a new-made man.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote: “The more we get what we now call “ourselves” out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. … It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.” The contrast between the ghostlike non-believing souls with the vibrant solid people they meet is a perfect illustration of Lewis’ point. Indeed, it is only when we die to ourselves that we truly become alive and complete. Giving up oneself to follow Jesus is a real choice each person must make!

Even though the narrator takes a bus ride from hell to heaven, this fantasy really isn’t about heaven or hell. It merely answers the question so many people ask: how can a loving God send someone to Hell? The simple answer is that He doesn’t! Rather than being condemned to hell as punishment, each person freely chooses how they will spend both life in the here-and now and in eternity. The narrator is told by his guide, “All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.”

When the narrator wonders if he’d actually witnessed choices made long before death, his guide doesn’t answer. Instead, he explains it was just a dream and cautions the man to make that clear should he ever write of it. As Lewis said in the book’s preface, the story is just a fantasy but, as he promised in the preface, it does have a moral: our loving God never sends people to hell—they do that of their own free will!

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened. [C.S. Lewis]

He then spoke to them all. “If any of you want to come after me,” he said, “you must say No to yourselves, and pick up your cross every day, and follow me. If you want to save your life, you’ll lose it; but if you lose your life because of me, you’ll save it. What good will it do you if you win the entire world, but lose or forfeit your own self?” [Luke 9:23-25 (NTE)]

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INCOMPREHENSIBLE BUT REAL

moebius band - moebius stripAnd I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth. The world cannot receive him, because it isn’t looking for him and doesn’t recognize him. But you will know him, because he lives with you now and later will be in you. [John 14:16-17 (NLT)]

 I tell you the solemn truth, that the doctrine of the Trinity is not so difficult to accept for a working proposition as any one of the axioms of physics. [Henry Brooks Adams]

Writing about our Trinitarian God yesterday, reminded me of the Möebius strip (or band). Ever since my college roommate showed me one, I’ve been fascinated by it. To make one, take a paper strip, give it a single twist and tape the ends together to form a loop. If you draw a line from the seam down the middle of this strip, the line will meet itself back at the same seam but on the other side of the paper. If you continue drawing the line, it then meets at the starting point (and will be twice the length of the strip of paper) without ever needing to lift your pen. This single continuous line shows that the Möebius strip has only one boundary or surface. Imagine an ant crawling in a straight line along the length of that twisted and taped strip. It would return to its starting point having traversed every part of the strip without ever crossing an edge. Basically, something that looks as if it has two sides (and was made by a piece of paper that did), actually has only one surface or side.

If you cut this once-twisted piece of paper down the center line, you’ll end up with one long strip that now has two twists and two surfaces. If you cut that strip again, you end up with two intertwined strips and it just gets more confusing after that! German mathematician August Möbius’ discovery of the oddity in 1858 resulted in the development of a new field of mathematics called topology. While there are all sorts of algebraic and geometric explanations for this simple but remarkable piece of paper, I understand none of them.

Although I see how the Möebius strip could be applied to conveyor belts, continuous-loop recording tapes, and typewriter ribbons, I don’t understand its application in physics, music, engineering, chemistry, or topology. Understanding how it happens, however, isn’t necessary for me to know what happens when I take a strip of paper, give it a single twist, and tape it together!

For me, comprehending the Holy Trinity is a bit like my fuzzy understanding of the Möebius strip. I know it exists but I’m not quite sure how it works. I’ve experienced it but I can’t explain it. That the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God while, at the same time, the Father is neither Holy Spirit nor Son, the Son is neither Holy Spirit nor Father, and the Holy Spirit is neither Father nor Son is beyond human understanding!

Even without understanding how God is one in essence but has three united persons in that essence, I know our Triune God exists. Scripture tells us there is only one God and yet it also tells us that God exists in three persons. All three were present at Jesus’ baptism and He spoke of them. Moreover, just as I’ve witnessed the reality of a Möebius strip, I’ve witnessed the reality of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as they work in my life. That the concept of one in three and three in one is complex and puzzling doesn’t mean it isn’t real! Even though it’s beyond our understanding, like the Möebius strip, all we have to know is that it’s true!

Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, and then I will show you a man that can comprehend the Triune God. [John Wesley]

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:18-20 (NLT)]

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