The Bells Rang and the Fat Lady Sang

I was out for a long walk with Walter (my 110# Rottie/Shepherd) the other day and as I ascended up the hills in Palos Verdes I heard below me the bells of a distant church carillon ringing. What a sweet sound in such a perfect setting, looking out over the azure blue of the Pacific touched by a cloudless sapphire sky, it was a beautiful picture of God’s creation. 

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But then I realized what the church bells were playing, “Tomorrow” from the musical “Annie”. Yes, you know the song about how the sun will come out even … “when I’m stuck with a day that gray and lonely …”

So that phrase, “it ain’t over until the fat lady sings" came to mind because when I heard that carillon I also  heard the fat lady sing.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of Broadway Musicals and this song, in particular, is a pretty catchy tune. But what does this song have to do with the sacred purpose of the Church? There are a thousand hymns that would more exquisitely convey the message of Christ through music than that! And then I thought, who in that church would think that song is an appropriate representation of their church? How did they wander so far from the message of the gospel?

I was in a Bible study with some estranged Episcopalians where we had a disagreement as to why their church had strayed so far from the Lord. They said it was because there was an over-emphasis upon the love of God. That is because they saw all sorts of heresy justified by saying they were demonstrating, “the inclusive love of God.” But I said, it went back further than that. We cannot love as God loves if we don’t know God. And we will never know God until we are united with God, and we will only be united with God when we are redeemed by God. In other words, we need transformation in order to act in a way that is consistent with God’s heart and according to his will.

Long before good theology is abandoned there an abandonment of God in our hearts.

These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught
— Isaiah 29:13 NIV

This lack of personal connection with God is at the core of all our waywardness.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing
— John 15:5 NIV

It is a common misconception that when Christians wonder from the faith it is due to some false belief or sinful action, but in reality, it always comes back to the same core issue. We separate ourselves from the life-giving vine and cease to bear the Spirit’s fruit. It is a matter of the heart, not the head because Christ also said that he would give us the Spirit and, “he would guide us into all truth.”

So where did this church below me go so wrong that they would be playing humanistic platitudes from their spire? I need look no farther than my own heart for that answer. Every time I find myself far from the truth it is because I have in some way forsaken my first love for something else that I thought would bring me more pleasure or preserve my sense of self.

The fat lady sings when we wonder from union with God and can no longer determine his truth. This is a terrible state that has infected our church like cancer.

Prone to wander Lord I feel it, prone to leave the one I love
— Robert Robinson 

The solution? Pure and simple repentance. We need to fall on our face before our Lord every day and confess our propensity to find our life someplace other than God.

Lord, I confess that I am prone to look for life apart from you. I don’t want to admit that I am in desperate need of you, not only for my salvation but for every area of my life. Life in you defines me and being independent of you is a denial of who you are. I come to you now to be renewed and restored in every area that I have wandered from your presence. I willing die to self so that I can be raised up to be what I was created to be; to bring you glory in all that I do, say and think. I ask for your abiding Spirit to be fully at home in my life and to guide me into all truth.  Amen

WHY IS THERE SUFFERING?

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Could there be a more difficult question for those who believe in an all-powerful yet loving God? Why do babies die, the innocent suffer and injustice reigns unchecked? And while we're at it, what is up with all the natural disasters? As if we don't create enough problems on our own, why all the floods, fires, earthquakes and volcanoes erupting? It seems like the earth is trying to squish us like a blood-sucking mosquito. Where is the loving Creator God in all this – how can this be his plan?

Troubling questions indeed for those of us who call God our loving Heavenly Father and the Supreme Ruler of the universe. No wonder many atheists and agnostics scorn Christianity. They reason that even if there were a God who would want to acknowledge let alone worship such a being?

So the problem of evil seems to raise its ugly head in every debate and leaves most Christians feeling like they’re stuck in an unanswerable paradox. Either believe God loves us but sometimes can't keep really bad things from happening to us. (not Omnipotent) Or believe that God is in fully in control but not always very kind to those he has created. (in other words not good)

I don’t think I can completely resolve this debate with these few words. Nor do I think I have the intellectual capacity to answer a question that has been argued for as long as man has existed. (Read the Book of Job) I also believe I don’t know everything about everything. (Though don’t tell that to my children) If I did then I’d be God and that’s not me. (Please don’t tell that to my dog, I think I’ve got him fooled)

But lately something has occurred to me that helps me respond to all the pain and suffering I see around me.

And here it is …

Really bad stuff happens because the world is broken … and we know it is broken because really bad stuff happens.

“What?” You say, “how is that the least bit comforting?”

This is how my simple mind works. If I were to feel a sharp pain shooting up my leg I would immediately assume that something was wrong and all my attention would be focused on resolving it. I would then come to realize that my toe had just collided with the coffee table and therefore the pain would be reasonable and my throbbing toe is a warning sign that I have done damage to my foot. The pain reveals the damage I have done to my foot and impedes true purpose of my foot. When I walk with a broken toe it is unnatural and terribly frustrating. So it is with all the terrible stuff that happens around us. If suffering were natural we would have no problem with it but because it would be the way things are, as natural as walking without a limp.

Our awareness of the pain and suffering we experience is shouting to us that we were meant for something far different. Now I’m not going to get into why pain is the preferred course of action God uses to reveal this truth but there are good reasons to trust in both his sovereignty and his goodness.  We need to stop and recognize that the pain is one enormous sign pointing to the reality that this is not our ultimate home and that we are destined to live in a place free from suffering and death.

You may ask; “What kind of answer is that? How does that help when I’m in the midst of pain?”

To that I say, it brings comfort, hope, perspective and revelation. When facing a particularly difficult event.

Comfort: Knowing that my suffering is understood and shared by my Creator. Look at the life of Jesus. God didn’t sit up in heaven and offer platitudes and advise. He participated in our suffering by becoming a man and experiencing the pain that we experience. (Philippians 2)

Hope: That our suffering is not forever and that there is something better ahead. When we realize that our true citizenship is not here but in a place where there will be no suffering, no evil and no death we can find the courage to persevere through whatever comes. (Romans 8:18)

Perspective: Seeing what I am going through in light of the big picture and that it is not everything. The hardest thing about going through difficult times is not knowing why. We are given a view into the eternal purposes of God when he says that he not only has a better place for us but he is working in us to become better people. God’s purposes are far greater than providing us a comfortable existence – his plans are for us to become fully and completely glorious. That means a transformation of our character not just our circumstances. (James 1:2-4)

Revelation: When we come to realize that we are missing something - when we finally come to the place where we question our existence and wonder why death has such a sting. We reach out for answers that only God can provide.  Jesus said, "seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened" Matthew 7:7 Pain and suffering make us seek - it drives us to a place of honest questioning and ultimately into the waiting nail-pierced hands of Jesus. 

I know this is pretty heavy and if you read this whole blog then you’re seeking truth and honest answers.

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The One Absolute Necessity for Success

I know that my title seems a bit over the top, but I am tired of talking about creating successful strategies to people who have absolutely no capacity to put them to action. So, I’m going to get really basic and real simple.

What you believe about yourself and the universe are the most crucial pieces of knowledge you will ever possess. They are the common denominators in all events, relationships, and goals in your life.

  • Overcoming failures is completely dependent on your view of yourself
  • Pushing through trials and enduring through prolonged times of frustration is a factor of how you see yourself.
  • Your level of satisfaction with living is dependant upon understanding yourself in context to the universe

Yet, I find so few of us really comprehend this fact. Instead, we are continually looking to other people or circumstances as the arbitrator for our lives.

When something bad happens. (and it happens to everyone)

  • Some resign themselves to their fate and give up
  • Some see it as an insurmountable obstacle and choose a lesser path
  • Some see it as a temporary setback and press on

The only difference in these responses in how one sees themselves and what they believe about the universe.

Your view of yourself is a consequence of how you view the universe.

I have had the privilege of traveling the world and in some places, I have seen unimaginable suffering. When asked why this is so the answer I receive is something like this, “it is their fate”.

  • Karma
  • God
  • The random nature of the universe

It all comes down to whether the universe is cooperating with or in opposition to our success. This will determine whether we have the internal resources to achieve the life we desire to live. If that answer is our lives are under the control of some external force then the next logical step is to forfeit our dreams and abandon our hopes because we are powerless to achieve them.

Some would challenge me on this and say, “You’re a Christian – aren’t you a fatalist?

I say no. In fact, it is entirely the contrary. Since I believe in a supreme being who has demonstrated his great love and compassion through the life of Jesus Christ I am convinced that the universe is not an obstacle to my happiness - that I have the ultimate victory no matter what circumstance or peril I find myself in. In fact, the present obstacles serve as a tutor to mold my character and deepen my faith. Therefore no person, no event and nothing else in this world can thwart my inevitable triumph as promised by God.

So you see – my self-confidence is derived from my view of a good and loving God and anything and everything must yield to this truth. Therefore ...

  • When I become discouraged I return to the belief that God is my helper and he has and will provide all that I need.
  • When I am doubting my own wisdom he has said that I can come to him with any question and he will give me understanding.
  • When I am feeling alone and rejected he has said that I am unconditionally loved
  • When I am disbelieving my own value he reminds me that he died for me and I have infinite worth.

What other religion, philosophy, or world view can offer this confidence?

So the bottom line is this.

As goes your view of the universe so goes your view of yourself.

As goes your view of yourself so goes your life.

Next time you feel stymied by a situation in your life or paralyzed by debilitating emotions look to where your confidence lies. Look at your view of God and integrate that view into your identity. 

If I can be of any help you to you don't hesitate to reach out

James

Meaning – The First Condition to Finding our Identity

I attended a workshop that was designed to help the participants become more self-motived with limitless possibilities. One of the mantras of this workshop was:

We are meaning making machines

The goal seemed to be that we were to create our own meaning that best suited us and assisted in achieving our goals. But first they wanted to strip us from any “meaning” that may be encumbering our ability to truly live life. So they taught:

Life is meaningless and it is meaningless to state life is meaningless

So what does that mean? Ugh! Guess I’m not supposed to ask that question since it is a meaningless question.

Somehow the question of meaning arises from every part of our existence. From the smallest child who hounds his parents with the around-the-clock question; Why?  To the astrophysicist who looks out into the universe and utters a silent plea; Why? We can’t escape it. We can suffer any trail or go through any adversity if only we know the answer to this fundamental question.

Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.
— Viktor E. Frankl

Meaning is the first and last question that brackets our existence. We search for the reason we were born and we are obsessed with it at the time of our deaths. What was our legacy, what did we truly accomplish?

At the time of this writing the President has given his farewell address after being in office for eight years. He enumerated his accomplishments and gave examples of what he believed to be his true legacy - the meaning of his presidency. But many if not all of these accomplishments can be overturned by future administrations and his legacy will have no more staying power than a bouquet of flowers or summer grass.

All people are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of the Lord endures forever.
— I Peter 1:24,25 NIV

As followers of Jesus Christ we are obliged to listen to his words on this subject and not follow the whims and dictates of our culture, family or any other source. Our meaning is ultimately derived from our Creator who formed us for a specific purpose. Until this is our mindset we will not find our true purpose and live irrelevant and futile lives no matter how “successful” we are in the eyes of the world. We will also find no true peace in our spirits because deep and abiding peace comes when we have a right relationship with our Creator with whom we will ultimately be accountable for the life he has given us.

But how is this practical for living our daily lives? That’s just the point – there is no “just daily lives”, there is only living in a right relationship with truth or living outside of truth. We are not here for a brief amount of time and then gone to some other existence to live eternally. We are here and our present lives affect are a part of that eternity. Ever thought about the part of the famous John 3: 16 verse that says, “…should not die but have eternal life” What is that about not dying, don’t we all die? And when does that eternal life start? Tomorrow … the next day? No, eternal life has no beginning and no end because it is – eternal. And there is no real death for those who “believe in him”. So whatever meaning our lives have in a billion years from now is the same meaning we have in this moment.

As spiritual leaders we need to help our people ask the question; why? It is the right answer to that question which will bring purpose to every other part of our lives. It will give us a reason to get up in the morning and empower us in all we do every day. And if we ever become stuck for an answer here’s a verse to ponder.

As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.
— John 20:21 NIV

If we want to find our true meaning and purpose we need to look deeply into the life of Jesus Christ because that’s where we will find it. If we lose our way the only path back is to road that Christ lays out before us through his own obedient path to the Cross.

Next week we will look at the next significant element of our identity – Significance.

Show Your Work!

There is a tingle - an inexpressible energy that comes upon us when we’re in the pulpit or in front of a group that is hanging on our every word. We feel a “rightness” about doing what we are gifted to do - weaving a phrase, making a point and putting an emphasis upon something we believe is vital for our listeners to know.

But there is also another feeling that we know all too well. It is sense that we have a unique ability to pronounce truth because of our special gift. And all too often our audiences walk away with the same feeling; and that’s a problem. 

When those whom we are teaching begin to believe that the teacher has a unique ability to interpret the Word of God then our teaching has become a performance and our insights do not move them forward on their own journey toward spiritual maturity.

I remember a math homework assignment in High School where I answered all the questions right but when I got my paper it came back marked up with red ink. At the top of the page, in bold print was this message. SHOW YOUR WORK! I remember thinking to myself, “how unfair! I got all the answers right, what more does he want?” What I have learned was it was not enough to have the right answers; I needed to know how I got the right answer so I could use that skill to answer other more difficult questions. (It might also be because he was afraid I was cheating, but that’s another story)

This is what I believe Paul was saying to his young disciple Timothy in his second letter.  

And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.
— 2 Timothy 2:2 NIV

The point is we are called not only to communicate truth but we are called to teach the skill so that truth can be passed on again, and again and again. The only way this is going to happen is if we are willing to “show our work”. In other words, we must not only uncover beautiful truths and articulate powerful insights from God’s Word but we need to do it in such a way that those listening can say; “I see how he got that!” We do this with the hope that the next time they pick up their Bible they will follow the same process and feed themselves directly from the Bread of Life. Here are some questions to ask ourselves next time we prepare a talk or a sermon.

  • Will those listening be able to see how I came to this truth and do it on their own?
  • Will my listeners learn to “rightly handle the Word of Life” through my example?
  • Am I using the Word as a vehicle for supporting my point or is my point derived from the Word?

A Preachers Prayer

O Lord I pray that I would approach your Word with fresh eyes and an unpretentious spirit. Teach me O Spirit to preach only what is true and to teach it in a way that inspires those listening to love and learn from your Word on their own. Keep me humble in my delivery but inspire me with a deep passion for your truth that is infectious. Let the truths you speak through me be not for these alone but be passed on to future generations so that your Church grows and you are greatly glorified. 

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