Monday, May 26, 2008

When "Doing Good" Goes Awry

"Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up," -- Galations 6:9

My seven year old screamed at the top of her voice and her Dad came running. A baby bird's ill-fated first flight landed it squarely in the jaws of our dog.

"Blacky! Drop it!" Russell commanded. Surprisingly, the dog obeyed and Niki, who holds a deep love for every living thing, scrambled in to rescue the injured creature. Russell and Niki placed the tiny bird, wet from both the recent rain and canine druel, in a box to ensure its safety. And seeking an appropriate place for avian convolescence, they placed the box in the warm coziness of the laundry room. A good deed done, right?

The next morning, just before the girls left for school, Russell decided it was time to put the baby bird outside. Unfortunately, the creature had again made an ill-fated attempt at flight. This time landing behind the washing machine. Russ grabbed a broom to encourage it to scurry the correct direction, but instead it ran under the hot water heater. He swiped again, hit a pipe and hot water began spraying everywhere.

By now we had a lost bird, a burst pipe, and the girls were late for school.

Russell placed the bird in the box, on a fence post outside -- far from the reach of our carnivarous canines as we waited for the plumber to come.

That afternoon, the tiny creature made one last attempt at flight, equally ill-fated. The bird failed to master the necessary aerodynamics and crashed into a bucket of vinegar water which, I regret to announce, became its watery grave.

Our efforts at a good deed left us with two girls tardy for school, a burst pipe resulting in a sizeable plumbing bill, and in the end, the bird died anyway.

Ever feel that your attempts at doing good go awry? You try to reach out to others, only to have them pull away. You think that if you only do what is right and good, then things will eventually turn out okay. And then they don't. In fact, you find yourself penalized for the effort.

And so we cry out to God like inexperienced children, screaming, "It's not fair!"

But God's economy is not one of instant gratification. It is all about endurance and pressing on. And so He urges us not to "grow weary in doing good." It is an important exhortation in an era of microwave ovens and instant coffee. We want our just rewards NOW! We want the satisfaction of quick results.

But what if the time of reaping what we have sown does not occur in our lifetime? What if we never get to see with physical eyes the fruits of our labor? Are we still willing to press on, purely because of faith?

It is when we do not see the results of our good deeds that our motives are most poignantly tested. Why do we do what we do? To make ourselves feel good? To make ourselves look good? Or is it an act of obedience born out of love -- not primarily for others, but rather for God himself?

God has told us that obedience is better than sacrifice (1Sam 15:22). But often there is sacrifice in the obedience. Sometimes the sacrifice is in the giving up our "results orientated" natures and saying, "I will obey and do good, simply because I believe."

We have been given a promise -- that sooner or later, in this life or the next, a day of reaping will come. Let us be faithful enough to rest in that promise and not lose heart in doing good.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

What is the Point of Sacrifice?

"You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." --Psalm 51:16-17

Throughout the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy), God appeared obsessed with sacrifice -- giving explicit instructions of how and when it should be done. Season after season, year after year, the people and the priests engaged in the bloody, unpleasant practice. And yet, in Psalms we read this verse -- that God does not delight in it.

Has God changed His mind? Is He some sort of hypocrite?

The Old Testament sacrifices must have seemed so pointless. To see life ripped from the most perfect animals, time and time again. Wouldn't onlookers think it cruel and a waste?

In my last blog, I wrote of a woman who in the 1940s, after long and intensive training, set out to the mission field in China. Her colleagues testified she was the most qualified among them. But then she was killed only 12 days after arriving in country in a jeep accident.

Her sacrifice also seems pointless. What a waste!

So in this we must ask, what is the point of sacrifice -- that God could one day demand it and the next say it is not his desire?

Hebrews 10:3 may hold the key that unlocks this mystery: "those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins." (NIV)

The purpose of the Old Testament sacrifice was to remind the Hebrew people of their sins -- and that blood must be shed to atone for it -- a symbolic act designed to drive them to repentance, which after the Ultimate Sacrifice had been made, could bring them into the very presence of God. If the sacrifice fails to do this, then the suffering was truly in vain. How could that please God?

Throughout our lifetime, there arise times of sacrifice and suffering that are often forced upon us, either due to our own sin or because we live in a sin-filled world. It is ugly and seems pointless. And we anguish over what could be God's purpose in this? Is there a purpose?

Perhaps there is a more poignant question. Will we let this sacrifice drive us into His presence with a contrite heart? For only there will we find purpose.

When I think of that missionary and her sacrifice, while her friends and colleagues may have struggled with the purpose, I suspect she did not. After all, China and her tragedy represented little more than her gateway to the very presence of God. Could there be a better purpose than that?

Monday, May 19, 2008


Beryl was a missionary to China in the 1940s. She faithfully pushed through missionary training in England which was several times interrupted by the war. But God's call was on her life and she determined to follow. Finally she and several other novice missionaries set out on their first journey to the land they all longed for -- China.

It was an arduous journey on a cargo ship through the Mediterranean, through the Suez canal into Red Sea and later the Arabian Sea. Eventually they arrived in India and finally went on to China. Conditions were bleak, but good practice for what they would soon face for years to come in China.

Less than two weeks after arriving in country, Beryl was traveling by Jeep up a treacherous road when the vehicle began to slide. It rolled down the hill mangling Beryl's body as it tumbled. When it came to a stop, her body lie lifeless beneath its wheels. After all her training, despite her hopes and dreams, she was ripped so abruptly from life. She never even arrived at her mission outpost. She was gone.

It's an ugly story.

But it is not so unique, is it?

We have all faced ugly stories in our life experiences. Those experiences where, as much as we struggle to make sense of them, sense cannot be made. They are simply ugly.

I have been studying Hebrews 9 lately which talks a lot about the Old Testament tabernacle. On-line I found a picture of a replica and I was surprised to learn it was ugly. I had always focused on the gold lavished Ark of the Covenant, and the gilded lampstand. But from the outside looking in, that place was not attractive. What happened there was also not attractive -- bloody sacrifice. How pointless it must've seemed from the outside looking in.

Students of the bible may gasp at this opinion. After all, isn't the tablernacle a symbolic image of Christ himself? But before you write me off too soon, consider the famous Isaiah 53 prophecy of Christ, "He had not beauty or majesty to attract us to Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire him..." (vs.2 NIV).

Sacrifice is ugly. It is bloody and gorey. If it were not so, I would have no trouble letting my seven-year-olds watch the movie, "The Passion."

But if we look through the ugliness, not with eyes of our flesh, but through the vision of the innermost soul, we find something more.

Although the sacrifice is ugly, the love that motivates it contains an unspeakable beauty that radiates and permeates even to the heavenly realm. It is as powerful as it is incomprehensible to the frail human mind.

We cannot understand God's ways. I do not know why we waste so much time trying. What kind of God would He be if finite, weak creatures as we could really comprehend his dealings?

So let's take a new look at the ugly things we face -- those things that make no sense and realize that God does not owe us an explanation, and even if he chose to give one, we'd likely not be able to grasp it, anyway.

Let's instead focus our efforts on the Love and Presence of God to motivate us through any and all sacrifices he calls us through. For in His Presence, all the ugliness we do not understand is burned away by His incomprehensible beauty.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Write on ME!

"...I will imprint My laws upon their minds, even upon their innermost thoughts and understanding, and engrave them upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people." --Hebrews 8:10 (Amplified)

It's a standard scripture, full of trite religious lingo, and words I've heard in utter repetition since childhood. So much so, that if I had read this a month ago, I would have quickly breezed over it. "Yeah, yeah. I know that stuff," I'd have said to myself and moved on.

But in this last month God has awakened me to something new -- new to me, at least. It is something that perhaps I knew in theory before, but now grasp in experience. It has to do with holiness, the filling of the Holy Spirit, "resting" in Him (Heb.4) and it is as difficult to describe as what goes on in your heart when you see your newborn child for the first time. It is strange and mysterious -- as the ways of the Lord tend to be.

I hesitate to write about it as I am likely to be misunderstood, and am ill equipped to describe it in something as frail and human language. But I shall try.

To put it in a nutshell of theological terms, I am discovering that not only does Justification come by grace through faith. But the process of sanctification works in similar measure.

We have all heard the testimonies of those brought to the end of themselves and in utter desperation, surrender to Christ and his Salvation by faith. It is all about Him and not about me. Is it such a far leap to think sanctification could happen the same way?

I recently read a book: They Found the Secret by V.Raymond Edman which chronicles twenty people's experience with God -- post salvation -- where they came to end of themselves and simply had to cease striving in their own sanctification and KNOW that He is God. And in the midst of their weakness, a passion for the mere presence of God was born and they found completion in Him, despite their incompletion in themselves. Still they did all the "good" deeds that they engaged in before, but now the power of God stood squarely behind them. They learned how sanctification came not in their striving to follow models of Christian behavior, but in their resting and surrender.

This is not to say they were suddenly perfect, but rather they experienced God's spirit completing them in the myriad of ways they fell short.

And strange as it seemed, in the midst of that surrender and rest, Christian behavior became increasingly natural, not due to self motivation, but simply out of an ongoing experience of the presence of God in their lives.

And from this perspective I discovered the above verse in Hebrews 8. Imagine it for a moment --God inscribing his law on our very thoughts and motivations. This is not something we can do for ourselves. Sure, we can memorize and should, but to actually have it inscribed on our very souls, that comes only through the work of the Spirit. It is a work that forces us the face our own shortcomings instead of always pointing a finger at others. It is a work that awakens us to our weakness and drives us to continually surrender to Him for strength.

What's more: It is a spectacular transformation that step by step changes the way we see the world and how we operate in it. Spurgeon said it best, regarding this scripture:

"Oh brothers, is it not a wonderful thing that God should ever make it as natural for us to be holy as it once was to be unholy, and that we shall find it as much a joy to serve Him as we once thought it a pleasure not to serve Him, when indeed to deny ourselves shall cease to be self-denial? It shall be enjoyment to us to be nothing. It shall be delight to renounce everything of self and to cling close to God and to walk in His ways."

It is not our striving that brings about our sanctification any more than our striving wins us justification. Rather, it is surrender -- totally giving up all that we are (including our pursuit of our own happiness) and allowing Him to complete us with all that He is.

The description in this verse should excite us and drive us to surrender to His presence and the work of His Spirit in our lives.

"God, Make My Heart Engravable. Because I want you to write on me!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

No Place Like Home

Today's blog post is my tribute to Mikepercs, the village in which I live, the town that I love...

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Perilous Prayer

Prayer can be a dangerous thing. If prayer is as powerful as we suppose it to be, how could it be otherwise?

I met a woman about a month ago who told me of her perilous prayers. She prayed that her children would not have easy lives, but rather lives that reflected rock-solid faith -- no matter what it cost them. In essence she asked God to give them hardships if that would develop truly genuine faith.

It is not a prayer to enter into lightly.

The result: her husband died suddenly, leaving her to raise her children alone. Then as a teenager her daughter became pregnant. And in the face of these crises, her young son experimented with all kinds of acts of rebellion as he entered his early teen years.

Dangerous prayers, indeed.

But she smiles with an inexplicable peace as she tells the story today. "My kids are so solid and secure in their faith now, because of what they went through then," she explains. "It was hard -- very hard. But my prayers were answered so completely!"

Have you ever prayed a dangerous prayer?

It is a real paradigm shift for most of us. To be honest, it is something I've tried to avoid. And yet, now more and more, I sense God calling me to it. To pray such a prayer, understanding its ramifications, we must be willing to give up all things we value most, for the sake of Him.

And I guess in doing so, we actively choose to elevate Him to that which we value most.

I spent last month in the states and while there I came across a truly tragic situation. Someone I knew years ago fell into adultery and now stands on the brink of losing all that he once held dear. Of course, these situations are always as complicated as they are tragic. But a pastor gave my friend some sound advice:

"You need to give up 'the other woman', sacrifice all your expectations and rights regarding what you believed your marriage should be, and dedicate the rest of your life to restoring your marriage. You may have to give up all pursuit of your own happiness, for the sake of holiness."

It is good advice for all of us. While there may be no 'other woman' in our lives, there is certainly plenty of 'things' that we pursue for our own happiness at the cost of holiness.

We talk a lot about our lives being all about God -- but how much time do we spend pursuing holiness compared the to time we spend seeking happiness? We act as if happiness is our right as Christians, and holiness is something we will save for the hereafter.

Are we ready to get our perspective right? Are we willing risk it all for the sake of holiness? Our answer reflects how deeply we really believe that his grace is sufficient for whatever he asks us to walk through.

Take a deep breath and consider it soberly:

Has the time come to embark upon dangerous supplication?

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Village Idiot

After a month in America, returning to Hungarian village life can be ... abrupt.

Gone are the days of high-speed vans with automatic doors that open like magic. Gone are the days of being taken out to restaurant meals every night, and clear communication with folks who actually believe (however deceived they might be) that I am an intelligent human being.

Today, I awakened to the reality that I am the village idiot.

Since I speak Hungarian on roughly a four year old level, the villagers have come to accept me as a mental four year old. And today I lived up to their expectations. It began when I dropped the girls off at Ovoda (Hungarian Kindergarten) and found the entire class, including the teacher, decked out in fine white shirts and black pants -- the traditional special event attire.

They had to tell me three times before I figured out they wanted me to go home and get appropriate attire for my girls. Thankfully, they are patient and generous toward the village idiot, and one of the teachers let me borrow her bike so I could make the trip across the village and back before they departed for the event.

Following this scramble, I proceeded into the day's tasks, stopping off at the village "Gummi Szerviz," or "Tire Service" shop. The adorable little old man, clad in blue work overalls, listened patiently as I slowly, painstakingly explained I would be buying summer tires in the city today and I wanted him to put them on this afternoon. His gray eyes began to glaze over as I struggled to construct the sentence. It was as if he were thinking, "By the time you get this horrendously constructed sentence out, you won't need summer tires, because it will be winter again!"

It can be humbling to be the village idiot. It can be frustrating when no one understands your words, and everyone doubts your mental capabilities.

But I would not trade it for a dozen Americas. For all the enticing things America has, for me there is something grander and more alluring in the simplicity of Hungarian village life, and serving God in its midst -- even as the village idiot.

So, it is good to be home in Hungary again, or as I would say it in what I suspect is very poor Hungarian, "Nagyon jó van lenni otthon Mikepércsen!"