Observations on Belonging to Another

Lately, my fiancee, Shannon, and I have been having conversations on that great, nebulous, enigmatic subject of personal expectations for each other. Exciting, eh?

We’re less than three months away from our wedding now, so we’re eagerly looking forward to starting life together as husband and wife. A part of doing life together in such a sacred marital bond is the desire to please the other person — to dress in what they like us to dress in, to fix our hair a certain way, to lose or gain weight… you know the drill. Because we love each other and want to sacrifice ourselves for one another, Shannon and I are asking each other questions to see how we can put on our best for the other person.

You see, just as in other covenants, in marriage there is obligation. The husband is obligated to his wife and the wife to her husband. There are desires and expectations (realistic, I hope!) that serve to bond each to the other, and those factors should, in a godly context, both humble and encourage each other as we give up many of our own desires and wants in order to serve another.

Obligation. That word has taken up a negative context in our present society, hasn’t it?

We are obligated to pay our bills and our taxes. If we have a job, we’re obligated to show up for certain hours and perform certain duties. We’re obligated to tell our kids to not do drugs and our spouses that we love them even if we don’t feel like it. Obligation… who wants it?

I do. And you who are called by Christ’s Name should desire it as well. Why? Because living life in this world obligated to serving God doesn’t have to be a chore but can, instead, be a great joy. After one conversation with Shannon last week I spent some time in reflection when a Scripture came to my mind.

Read and consider Paul’s words to the church in Rome. After making the point that legal marriage is only “till death,” upon which point the legal obligation of the surviving partner ends, he says,

“Therefore, my brothers, you also were put to death in relation to the law through the crucified body of the Messiah, so that you may belong to another — to Him who was raised from the dead — that we may bear fruit for God. For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions operated through the law in every part of us and bore fruit for death. But now we have been released from the law, since we have died to what held us, so that we may serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old letter of the law (Romans 7:4-6 HCSB).”

You see, when you become a Christian — when you first place your faith in Jesus and accept His sacrifice for your sin — you cease to be bound to keep a physical law of do’s and dont’s in order to be considered righteous and, thus, worthy of salvation (we all fail, btw). We also cease to be bound to a spiritual death sentence in order to pay for our sins. Instead, we inherit eternal life with God.

Basically, we are released from a negative, unwanted obligation to obey our sin nature to do bad and to perform good works in order to be good. But our obligation doesn’t end with our salvation. Paul writes that we belong to another now — to the One who saved us. It’s a part of our whole divine rescue from “the domain of darkness and …into the kingdom of the Son He loves (Col. 1:13).” Anyone who has been taken from somewhere has to be taken to somewhere.

Paul writes that we are now freely obligated to follow God so that we might bear fruit for Him. It is a new way of obligation, not like the old negative way. The old letter of the law, as Paul puts it, was to do and receive for doing. But we are obligated so that we might serve in “the new way of the Spirit.” What is the new way? Paul wrote in the chapter before, “…since you have been liberated from sin and have become enslaved to God, you have your fruit, which results in sanctification (Romans 6:22).” When we serve God while yielded to the Holy Spirit inside of us, we grow more and more like our Savior, Jesus. We are sanctified (made more holy) and we bless those around us.

What does a life of bearing fruit in obligation to God look like? If the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness… etc (Gal 6), then this is the fruit we will bear! What is so negative about peace, patience, goodness kindness, etc? Indeed, it is a much better obligation than sin and death!

Shannon and I are working on becoming better at personal obligation to each other, something we will practice in full once we are married. We recognize that once we’re married we no longer will belong only to ourselves but instead we belong to another person — a person we love and who loves us. It is both scary (I love myself far more than I should) and exciting (I want to make her happy).

But the result of serving each other and sacrificing our egos for one another should be a stronger marriage and a happier and holier home. Our obligation to each other is not unlike that which our Savior undertook for us: “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).” Salvation aside, we now serve one another because Christ served us, freed us from our obligation to sin, and gave us His grace to live a life now obligated to serving God in joy and freedom.

 

 

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In Search of Escape: A Lesson from The Piano Man

Sing us a song, you’re the piano man
Sing us a song tonight
Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody
And you’ve got us feelin’ alright

“The Piano Man,” lyric by Billy Joel, 1973

On Saturday evening Shannon and I attended a unique night of music and elegance at the Monroe Symphony Orchestra. The symphony and its special guests were performing selections from the musical catalog of two music icons: Billy Joel and Elton John. I had never been to a concert like this before but Shannon loves Billy Joel’s music, so we dressed to the nines and hob-nobbed with the rich and famous for Valentine’s weekend. I was slightly aware of Joel’s music, though not really a fan, but since orchestras delight me endlessly I hoped for the best.

It was, for the most part, really good. Three vocalists sang the songs while the symphony played accompaniment. I had to wear plugs because of my ears, which dampened things a good bit, but I took them out when one of the performers, Josh Madden, stepped behind the orchestra’s piano and started to play an iconic melody.

“La la la, di da da, 
La la, di da da da dum,”I saw people in the crowd mouth those notes as if they had memorized them long ago. Which I supposed they had!

The song was “The Piano Man,” a famous ballad written and performed by Billy Joel back in 1973. Being a story song, I was captivated by the lyrics and it made my heart and mind stir with a mix of emotion and thought. The song starts,

“It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday
The regular crowd shuffles in
There’s an old man sitting next to me
Makin’ love to his tonic and gin

He says, “Son, can you play me a memory
I’m not really sure how it goes
But it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete
When I wore a younger man’s clothes.”

The scene is established. It’s a bar in the late evening. A man asks the author to play an old song as he drinks. His is a pity case — he has grown older and now finds release in a drink, longing for old memories.

As the song progresses we meet other down-on-their-luck characters at this bar. The barkeeper who longs for better things, the single man, the career soldier, the waitress engrossed in politics, and the businessmen who are high. They’ve gathered at this bar to drown out their loneliness and, well, to be broken people together. Their chorus rings out:

Sing us a song you’re the piano man
Sing us a song tonight
Well we’re all in the mood for a melody
And you got us feeling alright

The piano player’s job is important. He’s there to cheer them up through his art — through his music. The broken patrons want to find some form of mental and emotional escape from their circumstances and they are relying on this one person — this bar musician — to help them find their escape.

But the story’s kicker comes from the final verse:

It’s a pretty good crowd for a Saturday
And the manager gives me a smile
‘Cause he knows that it’s me they’ve been comin’ to see
To forget about life for a while

And the piano, it sounds like a carnival
And the microphone smells like a beer
And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar
And say, “Man, what are you doin’ here?”

The piano man is just as broken and messed up as the people he plays for. He is the main attraction at the bar, a bar at which he chooses to play despite his talent. “Why are you here?” they ask him. The answer is that he is messed up, too, and in need of escape. Beer and music are his escape. He makes a living on tips (“put bread in my jar”) while drinking for free.

I love story songs that don’t sugar-coat the truth of the world around us. I think I enjoy those lyrics because they almost always point to some element of truth that surrounds us. People are broken in a broken world. We have troubles in this life and almost every person has wished for escape at some point. Some people turn to addiction and some turn to outside hobbies and fascinations (“the waitress practicing politics” in this song). Still others turn to art for escape. A lot of musicians began and sustained careers as escape from broken or stressed-out circumstances.

Perhaps “The Piano Man” also has some nugget of truth that followers of Jesus Christ can take to mind and heart. The piano man had a ministry, though no one considered it such. He served as a beacon of light in the midst of darkness, playing melodies and singing words that cheered up the weary and downtrodden. I think art can be a great tool for pointing hurting people towards the healing that can be found in Jesus Christ. A song, a play, a movie, a painting… all can be used like the Piano Man used his talent.

Any light has its greatest impact when it shines in the darkest times. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows Me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life (John 8:12; see also John 9:5 & 12:46). One other truth of light is that it has little impact when it is not around any darkness. In order for someone to be illuminated by it, there must be darkness all around. Like at that bar, or any place where broken people routinely gather. Those places are ripe for the ministry of brothers and sisters in Christ, shining the light of Christ’s love, His healing, and His grace.

It is this divine escape — finding eternal freedom in the person and work of Jesus — that is the escape from brokenness that people need. It is the only escape that will satisfy the spirit and the soul! Will you be a “piano man” to those people and share the light of the gospel of grace? They desperately need to hear it.

Many thanks to Billy Joel for unintentionally reminding me of that truth.

If you want to see the original music video, here is a YouTube link.

Be God’s.

 

 

 

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Running & Walking While Waiting

Those who know me well know that my favorite chapter of the entire amazing Bible is Isaiah 40. In these 31 verses, we go from prophetic time travel to a moment of intimate tenderness, from the overwhelming view from outer space to the super-personal love of God, and we end up rising on wings like eagles.

Amazing right?

But what has me “chewing the mental cud” today is a little observation from the end of Isaiah’s prophecy. It’s funny — I’ve preached on Isaiah 40:27-31 before, taught it in bible studies, and dwelt upon it in devotions but I never noticed this one thing.

Isaiah is talking about waiting on the LORD and how God will give you the strength you need to wait. But it wasn’t until this week that I realized something else from this passage (and about half a dozen other sections I’ve studied int he past two weeks). It is very important to keep moving about our daily lives while we wait on God — while we wait for unanswered prayers, His direction, or rescue from a circumstance. Whenever we stop and focus on ourselves and our problems, we lose sight of who God is and what He has done for us in the past. And we cannot pay attention to His promises for the future because we are stuck in the present, focused on ourselves, and lost in a sea of thought, emotions and upsets.

Here’s how Isaiah puts it:

27. Why do you say, Jacob,
Why do you say, Israel,
“The Lord is not aware of what is happening to me, (my way is hidden from the Lord)
My God is not concerned with my vindication”? (and from my God my justice passes away) (NET Bible translation)

Why has God ignored me? Am I so small and insignificant that God cannot see me? Does my life mean nothing to God??? The heart’s reactions during times of stress and “silence” can be so powerful, can’t they? When we pray for things and nothing seems to happen right away — or for some time — it is easy to think that God is simply ignoring us or, even worse, that we have somehow fallen between the cosmic cracks of life and He cannot see us!

Or we might think that, maybe, God has too much on His plate and my troubles aren’t worth His time! Maybe He’s too tired with dealing with people that He has taken a cat nap! Is God asleep? Oh, NO!

28 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is an eternal God,
the creator of the whole earth. (“from the ends of the earth,” meaning the extremity or entire)
He does not get tired or weary;
there is no limit to his wisdom.

My dear restless heart… remembering the big picture is essential when you turn inward on yourself, mentally and emotionally. Who is God? Who am I in relation to Him? What can He do? Focus on these questions and do not let them go until you have answers to each! Here, Isaiah reminds the people of Israel that God is eternal. He doesn’t die. He hasn’t died! We humans cannot kill Him! He is always present.

Isaiah also reminds his readers that God created everything (and, thus, has more power than anything), and he doesn’t wear out and get tired. Oh, and as for His ability to answer our issues? His wisdom is adequate for every situation of our lives. “There is no limit to His wisdom,” Isaiah says. No limit! There is no situation for which God cannot present the right answer.

The availability of God’s wisdom is even more present in this day and age after the Cross of Jesus. Paul writes, “For the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the things of a man except the manʼs spirit within him? So too, no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things that are freely given to us by God (1 Cor. 2:10-12).” God has revealed His wisdom to us through His Spirit within us, an open channel for every situation of our lives. Cool, right?

Isaiah 40 is great because it zooms in and out of the celestial scene several times — from the maxi to the mini. It goes from God’s eternal nature, His role as the Creator, and His ever-sufficient wisdom to the personal love of God for His human creation.

29 He gives strength to those who are tired;
to the ones who lack power, he gives renewed energy.

Here is a real kicker: the same Big God, with eternal existence, unlimited power, no fatigue and all-sufficient wisdom — this amazing deity — is benevolent, kind, loving and full of grace towards humans. He gives His strength to the weary and powerless. To restless hearts. To ragamuffins. To those who want to give up.

30 Even youths get tired and weary;
even strong young men clumsily stumble. (literally: stumbling they stumble; added emphasis on their absolute failure)

Even those who seem like they are in their prime of life — the young and strong, the “bulletproof” — even they have to take a nap. They have to sleep. They get groggy and heavy-eyed. They cannot always lift that 60-pound bag of garden soil. They who should have full control of their hand-eye coordination and peak muscle control trip over rocks and stub their toes. They will stumble. It is a guarantee! Can you count on them? Nope.

31 But those who wait for the Lordʼs help find renewed strength;

The Hebrew word for “wait” here is qawah, the word for “to hope in” or “wait for” or “look for.” It is a word for faithful anticipation, or a faith that waits. Faith is never meant to be passive. It is always an action.

they rise up as if they had eaglesʼ wings, (literally: they rise up on wings like eagles)

This is a flowery description of emotional bliss; to be lifted on the wings of such majestic birds is an emotional feeling of strength. God cares about our emotions! He will gladly give us emotional satisfaction when we need a pick-me-up.

they run without growing weary,
they walk without getting tired.

Here is something new I noticed in this Hebrew poetic parallelism — Run and walk are the two main means of moving forward. The idea of waiting in faithful hope is not one of sitting on the sidelines or stopping all activity. Instead, it is a conscious, mental, emotional and willful choice to hope in God while going about everyday life, or moving forward in your life. Don’t stop to read the tea leaves or set out your fleece. Keep going! Do life! Live! And God will provide you the emotional and physical strength to keep on living.

I think it might be possible — if a stretch — to compare “run” to a busy life and “walk” to a normal or mundane life. I like this comparison because it would show that God’s strength is good enough for the busiest person as well as the steady person. You can be busy and not wear out. You can do the routine things of your life as well!

My dear restless heart, God hasn’t ignored you. He sees you. He wants you to trust Him and hopefully wait in His action while you live your normal life. And while you look for His answer, He promises that you will be given His emotional and physical strength in order to overcome your weariness and heartache. But you need to trust Him.

Be God’s!

 

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Headlines: The Bible & Our World Today

Over the past few days, several headlines have come across the news wire that seemed to be perfect blog fodder. As each showed up on Yahoo, Google, newspapers, etc. I said to myself, “I need to write on that.” But every time I disciplined myself to pen a word or two, another headline came to my attention!

Each thing that grabbed my attention reflects how our society is either moving away from or, surprisingly, towards biblical commands and principles. So I’m going to comment on each, but only briefly. Consider this a “ripped from the headlines” kind of segment.

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Stephen Curry’s wife sparks Twitter debate with comments about modesty

In case you don’t follow professional basketball (I don’t regularly), Steph Curry is the best player in the game right now. League MVP and all-everything, his wife, Ayesha Curry, caused a firestorm on Twitter Saturday night after posting two comments about the lack of modesty in women’s fashion. Here were her comments:

“Everyone’s into barely wearing clothes these days huh? Not my style. I like to keep the good stuff covered up for the one who matters.”

And,

“Just looking at the latest fashion trends. I’ll take classy over trendy any day of the week.”

A number of women on Twitter immediately jumped all over her comments. “Who’s everyone? What’s wrong with not being covered up? Are you saying you’re better than women who show off their figures?” one woman posted.

Curry stuck to her position on modesty. Other women came to her defense.

The Bible defends modest apparel for women. In 1 Timothy, Paul writes, “women are to dress themselves in modest clothing, with decency and good sense, not with elaborate hairstyles, gold, pearls, or expensive apparel, but with good works, as is proper for women who affirm that they worship God.” (1 Tim. 2:9-10)  The same sentiment is reflected in 1 Peter 3:3-4.

Remarkably, our society wants both gender neutrality and gender sexualization. Often, women of celebrity choose to wear less while the world applauds, while on other hand some women want to dress like men and men want to dress like women! We want to destroy gender and exploit it at the same time.

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Headline #2

AP Poll: Ecology, religion a natural mix for some Americans

The story here is one I’ve been following for some time. Younger Americans care about environmental issues more than their parents and grandparents. Even more, younger Christians are speaking out on environmental issues in vastly increasing numbers compared to older generations.

“The AP-NORC and Yale analysis of Americans’ environmental attitudes identified nine distinct segments of the U.S. population, each with a different relationship with the environment. Members of one group, called the “Religious Greens,” are among those most likely to attend church at least once a week. A majority of this group trusts their religious beliefs over scientific explanations when the two conflict.

At the same time, 9 in 10 of them believe global warming is happening, and 7 in 10 believe the environmental crisis is more serious than most people think.

They are among the most likely of the nine groups to support environmentally friendly policies, too.

Despite their views, just 2 in 10 of this highly spiritual group call themselves environmentalists.

Demographically, the Religious Greens tend to be young — a majority of them are under age 45 — and 6 in 10 of them are female, more than in any other group. Seventeen percent are black and 22 percent are Hispanic, making them among the most diverse groups identified in the analysis.”

The bottom line is that younger Christians are awake to the need to care for the amazing creation that God entrusted to mankind. As one Christian said in the article, the environment is not a political issue, it is a moral issue.

I grew up in a land between the “slash and burn ’cause its all going to burn anyway” and the “save the rainforest” nations. My folks recycled cans and newspaper when it became available in their neighborhood but, the best I can tell, don’t consider the environment to be a pressing issue in our country today.

The Bible makes three things very clear.

  1. God created all things and, after He created them, deemed them “good.” (Genesis 1)
  2. God gave Adam the responsibility to “rule over” creation as, essentially, His vice-regent. President of the planet, so to speak. (Genesis 2)
  3. God continually renews, refreshes, provides for, and otherwise cares for His Creation, bearing the ultimate responsibility for it. (Psalm 104 is my favorite passage on this.)

God will make all things new one day. A new earth (Isa 65:17, Rev 21:1). Will this be a new face to Planet Earth or a whole new planet? No idea. But Adam and his descendants never had their responsibility to rule this current earth revoked. Mankind isn’t off the hook! And even today the human race has the greatest effect on our planet’s appearance and function. So why shouldn’t those who claim to follow the Creator care for His Creation? Just wondering…

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Headline #3

The New York Daily News ran this headline, “God Isn’t Fixing This” on its front page in response to last week’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, CA. The sub-headline was: “As latest batch of innocent Americans are left lying in pools of blood, cowards who could truly end gun scourge continue to hide behind meaningless platitudes.”

On the front page, the Daily News also posted the “prayerful” responses of four Republican leaders to the shooting as proof that the GOP is sheltering serial killers, or something. Actually, the activist newspaper has been calling for stricter gun control for years and this latest shooting brought out a wave of editing emotion. Its point is: Prayer doesn’t stop gun violence. Do something!

You may wonder, Where does the Bible fit into all of this? There were no guns in Jesus’ day, nor were crossbows outlawed by the apostles. So does God want us to take people’s guns away or what?

At the heart of the whole issue, I think, is another, more important issue. S-I-N. God fixes hearts. If every heart is fixed, there would be no more violence. No more guns, grenades, crossbows or fouls in basketball. But mankind, as a whole, is in revolt against God. This is step one in the Gospel message. We need a Savior!

King David looked at the world around him in 1000 B.C. and wrote:

“There is no one who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on the human race to see if there is one who is wise, one who seeks God.
All have turned away; all alike have become corrupt.
There is no one who does good, not even one.” (Psalm 14:1-3)

Saint Paul looked at the world around him in 55 A.D. and wrote,

“both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin, as it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one.
There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away; all alike have become useless.”

I’d personally love to see all weapons off the streets. That would satisfy a part of my desire to see a safer world. And politicians are obligated by civic duty to try and protect the people the best they can.

But even if all pea shooters, poison dart guns and gunpowder instruments were removed, man would still carve sticks into spears and throw rocks at people tied up next to a wall. We’d still seek to kill because sin is constantly calling us to seek one’s self at the expense of others. It is calling us to give in to our anger at our fellow man and to strike before we’re struck.

God calls for the opposite. Seek others before yourself. Deny anger that is ungodly and seek peace with all men. Let yourself be struck for righteousness sake. Look at Jesus Christ and follow Him.

The heart of the issue is the heart. Until that changes, nothing will change — guns, politics or crossbows.

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So there it is — straight from the headlines. When you look at the news do you see the “big picture” of God, the wayward world, and sin? Or are you fixated on the “smaller picture” of emotions and reactions? Whenever I get caught up in the emotion of the here and now (which is powerful) I often forget about the bigger picture. I forget that there is a sinful world rebelling against a good and holy God. I forget that sin and evil may have been judged but we have to wait for their final demise. I also forget that God will give evildoers what they deserve and they will meet a most ungodly fate in this life.

It is my prayer that you and I will both start seeing the world through some slight shadow of God’s eyes, and that we will turn our hope of salvation to Him, not just eternal salvation but a betterment of things in the here and now. And that we will both do whatever is possible to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who has come to fix broken and wayward hearts so that they may be right, just and holy.

Be God’s!

 

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