Monday, March 31, 2014

Saved Before the Beginning

Being saved is a common theme in the New Testament.  "What must I do to be saved?" is followed by "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved."  Scripture talks about salvation in past, present and future tenses.  We talk today about being saved, and about our salvation experience.  And at times the question is raised about whether or not one could lose their salvation.  And I admit to having been on both sides of this debate over the years.

But recently I have come to have an entirely different perspective on salvation, when it occurs, and if it can be lost.  And the verse below has been instrumental in this shift in perspective.
For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.
Ephesians 1:4 NIV
I am a creature who is limited by time.  I view things as having happened in the past, happening now, or something that may happen in the future.  Time is a linear progression that impacts everything I do.

But that is not the case with God.  He is outside of time.  My yesterday, today and tomorrow are his now.  Before he created this universe, before time even began, he already knew me and had chosen me.  While I believe he chose me because he knew what I would become, it really matters little for this discussion.  God chose me before creation; I was already his before he began to put this universe together.  While in my time limited perspective, that was long before I began to exist; in God's timeless perspective he has always known me.

While I have a difficult time fathoming God and his timeless existence,  there are some things that would seem to be true.  Change only occurs in time, requiring both a before and after state.  If God in outside of time, then he does not change, something that the scripture affirms.  And if he does not change, then if I am in Christ now, then it would seem that I have always been in Christ, otherwise a change has occurred.

If the preceding is true, then the question of when I was saved is only applicable to me as a time bound creature, and has no meaning to God.  While it seems funny, I'm not sure it is incorrect to claim that I was saved before the creation of the universe.  That is admittedly confusing, but it is what you get when you try to visualize timelessness as a time bound creature.

And if I was known by God before creation, if I have always been in Christ, then does it even make sense to talk about losing my salvation?  Would that not imply that God chose me, and then didn't choose me?  And wouldn't that imply a change in the unchanging and timeless God?  I think it is safe to say that the God who knew me before creation, also knew if I would endure with him, and chose accordingly.

The eternal, unchanging, transcendent God knew me, and chose me, before creating this universe.  I still have a long way to go before being able to claim I understand that.  But I do like it.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

A 2014 PCT Overview

2014 marks the 6th year in my effort to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.  In 2009 a friend and I set out to hike a section in Washington but discovered at the last minute that fire had closed the section of trail we were headed for, so we diverted to the Olympic Mountains.  In 2010 we managed to get started and hiked the short section from Rainy Pass into Manning Park, the northernmost section of the trail.  In 2011 my hiking partner was injured, and the snow was still deep in Washington, so I headed down to Oregon, starting at Cascade Locks and traveled south to McKenzie Pass.  2012 saw me completing Oregon as well as back up to Washington to travel from Stevens Pass to Snoqualmie Pass.  Last year started off with Seiad Valley to Sierra City and then Snoqualmie Pass to Chinook Pass, putting me past the half way mark.

Like the past couple of years, this season will cover multiple sections of the trail, starting in Southern California, then into the Northern Sierras and finally into the North Cascades.  The intent is to cover each of these areas in a somewhat optimal period, as well as to allow the old legs the opportunity to rest up a bit every few hundred miles.

As she has the last couple of years, Sue will travel the highways and byways, sightseeing and meeting up with me every few days to provide support; at least during the two California segments.  Love having her around, and love the support she provides.  It makes the trip so much more enjoyable.

Most of April will be spent in the Southern California desert, traveling from the Mexican border north to the region of Big Bear Lake.  While the end date is somewhat fixed because of already purchased airline tickets, the final end point is not.  How far I get depends on how well I do with the heat as well as sleeping on the ground.  I found the heat in Northern California last year to be very sapping, making big milage days very challenging.  So I am at least initially planning to lower my daily expectation.

I normally sleep in a hammock while out on the trail.  But that seems as though it is a fairly challenging feat south of the Sierra's, so I will be taking a tent and sleeping on the ground.  I have bought the lightest fully enclosed tent I can find, a ZPacks Hexamid Solo Plus, along with one of the thickest pads I can find, a Big Agnes Quad Core.  I have spent a couple of nights on the pad and found it to be tolerable.  Time will tell what multiple weeks will do to me.

I have real mixed emotions about this section of the trail.  I am not fond of the heat or sleeping on the ground, and have concerns about water availability, and will miss the relative solitude of what I have done so far.  But if I am going to complete the whole trail, this is a necessary section.  At the same time I am looking forward to trekking through a new type of terrain, experiencing travel with the herd, and seeing rattlesnakes.  It should be a good learning experience, and well hopefully help me to be better prepared when I tackle the northern half of the desert next year.

During the June/July timeframe I will head back into the mountains, picking up where last years trip ended at Sierra  City and heading south toward Tuolumne Meadows.  The biggest challenge in this section will be the altitude.  I have yet to hike about about 7500 feet, and expect to be considerably higher than that through a lot of this portion of the trail.  I don't anticipate any problems, but will not know until I'm there.

I will be back to being a southbounder for this segment, as well has probably going back to the hammock, assuming that I don't fall in love with sleeping on the ground (not likely).  It will be interesting to see many of the folks I encounter in April will hike past me in June/July.  I expect there will be at least a few of them.

I am really looking forward to this section.  I have heard a lot about the Sierra's and their remoteness and beauty.  I expect it to be physically pretty challenging, but that is what all the running now is ultimately for.  Running 50 miles a week should enable me to run up those mountains; yeah right :).

And finally, in early August, I will hopefully be heading to Rainy Pass, hiking the North Cascades south to Stevens Pass.  This is the third year I have had this section on the agenda and hope to actually be able to do it this year.  I expect to have one or two friends along for this segment, depending on their work and family commitments.

During the past couple of years the Washington segment followed the longer Oregon and California sections with only a short break in between.  And I found myself pretty worn out by the end.  So this year I have a 2 to 3 week break built in.  Should be able to fly up the many climbs on this section.  At least that is what I keep trying to convince myself of; time will tell.

I expect this section to be the most isolated and solitary on this years agenda.  120 miles with no roads and ahead of most of the northbound PCTers.  And the weather should be optimal in early August.  The only concern is over any lingering snow that we might encounter.  A little will be OK, but I would prefer not having long extended stretches under snow.

Hopefully, when this season comes to a close, I will have one long section left in California and a chunk of Washington left to do; one or two years to go, depending on my ambition and other obligations.  It's been fun, although also pretty physically demanding.  And then it will be time to figure out what's next.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Sardis: A Dead Church With A Reputation

In the second and third chapters of Revelation are letters from Jesus to seven of the first century churches in what is today Turkey. While I believe these letters were addressed to real churches of that day, I also believe they have great application to our churches today. The fifth of these was to the church of Sardis.
 “To the angel of the church in Sardis write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.  Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God.  Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.

Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.  Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Revelation 3:1-6 NIV
Jesus accuses the church of Sardis of being dead.  He also tells them they need to wake up, implying that they are asleep.  Sardis is a church where nothing is really happening, God is not being honored, lives are not being changed, and the good news is not being proclaimed.  They are just going through the motions.

Sardis apparently had not always been like that.  They did have a reputation for being alive.  It would appear that at one time in their short history they had been making a difference in their community and living as the body of Christ.  But that time was gone, although it is likely that they did not realize that their reputation was no longer a good representation of who they were.  That is the danger of falling asleep and dreaming of past glory; you may still think yourself to be what you were in the past.

Their deeds were unfinished in the sight of God.  Did they see them as finished?  Or were they something that they planned on getting back to 'any day now', as soon as the summer slump or economic downturn was over?  Whatever the case, they are warned that they need to wake up, repent, and get back to work.  If not, disaster is looming for them.

But in the midst of this dead church, Christ does identify a few who are still alive.  They are faithful in spite of the condition of the church they are a part of.  And they are commended and promised that their faithfulness will be rewarded.  How hard to faithfully serve, when all around you folks are sleeping.  But that faithfulness will not go unnoticed by the one whose opinion counts the most.

Does the church where you serve have a good reputation?  That's good, so long as it's based on your current condition.  Otherwise it can blind you to a less than commendable condition.  Where is your church now?  Is it alive?  Is it awake?  Is it fully engaged in serving God?  If not, then it is past time to wake up and get back on track.  Tomorrow may be too late.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Masquerading as Angels of Light

For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ.  And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.  It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.
2 Corinthians 11:13-15 NIV
I wonder sometimes about some of the preachers, speakers and ministries I hear advertising on the radio.  I can't help but wonder sometimes about their focus; is Christ at the center, or is he just an advertising bullet point.

One that I have been hearing advertised quite a bit recently is an  Easter production, although I don't recall them using the word 'Easter' in any of the ads.  It is described as a production with many different forms of entertainment; dance, martial arts, aerial acrobatics, etc.  And one statement in the ads has really stood out to me as they claim to have "redefined the story of Christ for over a million people".  Now it is possible that that is a good thing, especially if it is for people with a non-Biblical view of Christ.  But it concerns me because it seems more likely that the redefinition is away from the Biblical view, and more toward an entertainment view.  I struggle with packaging Jesus for mass market appeal.

At other times I hear preachers, or should I say ministry leaders, who seem to be advertising to gain a larger following for themselves or 'their' ministry.  By no means am I charging all ministries that advertize on the radio with doing this.  But there does seem to be a few from some of the area megachurches who are guilty of this.

And even that is OK if, when a person comes, they encounter the Biblical Jesus.  But too often the ads seems to tout a more social experience than a real life changing encounter with the risen Lord.  We are social creatures and do need some social interaction as believers.  But that alone will not fix what's wrong with us.  Watering down the gospel of Jesus to become more appealing to a larger audience is something that does not come from God.

Paul warns us about false apostles, those who seem to be followers of Christ, but who are actually serving Satan.  They look good on the outside, But following them leads to destruction.  I will not be so bold as to accuse any of the folks I hear advertising as being false apostles, but some give me serious concern.  I do believe it is something we should reflect seriously on before letting ourselves get involved with any of the myriad of popular and prospering ministries of today.  Be sure that Christ is at the center rather than the ministry founder.  If Christ is not the center, then walk away quickly.

Friday, March 21, 2014

This World Is Not My Home, I'm Just Passing Through.

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
2 Corinthians 4:18 NIV
There's a lot going on in this world that attracts our attention, some of it good and some of it not so very good.  But what it all has in common is that it is temporary.  None of it will last.  No matter how much I care for my lawn, no matter how diligent I have been to ensure I can live comfortably in retirement, no matter how much I love the wilderness areas and work to protect them; it is all temporary and will come to an end.

Now I don't mean to suggest that we ignore the world around us, or that we not take care of the things of this world entrusted to us.  I do believe is is appropriate that I keep my grass cut, my finances in order, and attempt to leave a habitable planet for my children and grandchildren.  As long as I am in this world, I need to interact appropriately with it.

But there are more important things for me to focus on than the temporary things of this life.  The kingdom that my eyes cannot see, but that none-the-less I am apart of.  It is what I was made for, and I will spend the remainder of eternity as a part of it.  Paul's encouragement to me is to not wait, but rather to make that eternal realm my focus now, rather than get so wrapped up in this world that I miss out on it while here, and maybe for eternity.  Why play with an imitation when the real thing is readily available for me?  Yellow paint is no substitute for real gold.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Given for the Common Good

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
1 Corinthians 12:7 NIV (1978)
The topic of spiritual gifts is a difficult one for many believers, mostly, I suspect, because they struggle to understand their own giftedness.  It may be that they are expecting their giftedness to be something dispensed on them when they first believe.  Or it may be that they limit the possibilities of giftedness to a few of the more visible and upfront gifts: preaching, teaching, music, etc.  Or it may be that they are afraid of being gifted, along with the obligation of then having to use that gift in the Lord's service, preferring to just hang tight in the shadows.

But in the verse above Paul affirms that the manifestation of the Spirit, spiritual giftedness, is given to every believer.  None of us who are truly in the body of Christ are ungifted.  We all are equipped for service.  It may be that the God who knew you from creation has equipped you from birth for his service.  It is likely that you are not equipped in a way that puts you out in front of people; most service is behind the scenes.  But we are all equipped to serve.

Oftentimes people who fail to discover their giftedness think little of it, assuming that it hurts no one. But Paul is pretty explicit in this verse that our gifts are given to us for the common good.  I am gifted, not for my own benefit, but rather for the benefit of the body as a whole.  Think about that for a moment.  If I am gifted for your benefit, and I fail to recognize and utilize my giftedness, then am I not hurting you, hurting the body as a whole?  Am I not depriving them of something that is important to being a healthy body of Christ?

I would encourage all who are a part of the body of Christ to consider how they can help the body to grow, to be healthy.  I'm not sure that it is really important to think specifically about giftedness.  Rather think about what you can do that will benefit the body as a whole.  That may be taking care of children, being friendly, being hospitable, doing some cleanup or weeding, being an encourager, being diligent to pray.  What do you enjoy doing that can be used to advance the kingdom of God.  Do that to the best of your ability.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Mountain Education: Snow Basics Course

I have been backpacking for quite a few years now, but primarily as a 3 season trekker.  I get cold easily, so winter has been a time for indoor activities, and dreaming of warmer days out in the backcountry.  But the hiking season for the high country tends toward being pretty short if one allows snow to be a deterrent.  So I was intrigued when Mountain Education offered a Snow Basics Course course at Stevens Pass.

This course was advertised as a "3-day, non-technical, extended weekend, basecamp oriented outings introduce you to the general knowledge, awareness, and skills needed to safely camp in and travel over snow with confidence and peace of mind."  Since it is not uncommon to encounter at least some snow along the PCT and in the Olympic Mountains even into late spring and early summer, this seemed like a good opportunity to become better equipped for the snow travel I currently do, as well as potentially becoming comfortable enough with the snow to be able to extend the hiking season at least a little bit.  So I signed up for the course this past weekend and was not disappointed.

We actually met at the Dinsmore's Hiker Haven the evening prior to heading up into the pass for a presentation by a couple of the local SAR folks.  This was a good addition to the course, with the added benefit of having some time to get to know Ned, our instructor, and the rest of the students before heading out.  Most of us  spent the night in the Dinsmore's bunkhouse, and then headed up to the pass Friday morning, in a pretty steady rain.  But by the time we hit the pass, the rain had turned to snow.

We started Friday off by getting some pointers on wearing and using snowshoes, and then loaded up and headed up a snow covered road about 1.5 miles to Grace Lakes.  The trip was pretty mellow with lots of breaks for instructional talks, as well as to prevent the more aggressive of us from working up a sweat.  One thing that Ned continuously emphasized was the need to stay warm and dry; dry both from the external environment as well as the environment inside your rain gear.  While I did know this, it was not generally something I heeded, so the constant reminder was good.

When we got to the lakes, buried under several feet of snow, we learned how to prepare a location for pitching a tent, how to safely cook in a tent, how to detect and prevent snow accumulations on the tent, and then hunkered down out of the snow for a while.  Eventually we came back out into the snow and down to the lake to get water.  This involved digging a hole through the snow and then punching through the ice with an ice ax or tip of a pole before filtering or dipping out water.

Base camp for the trip.  There are 4 more tents out of the frame, so we were quite a little village out in the snow.

Pumping water out of a hole in the lake.

Since some of the folks had gotten cold and wet during the day, mostly from insufficient shells, boots and gloves, we mostly hung out in our tents the rest of the day, had dinner when ready, shoveled newly fallen snow away from our tents, and then turned in for the night to the sound of freshly falling snow landing above our heads.  That and the sound of tent walls being whacked from within to knock off the snow.  The night was long, but I was warm and reasonably comfortable and I felt really good about that.  All in all a good first day and night.

I discovered that nothing happens very early in one of these classes. I finally rolled out at about 8 and discovered that only 2 of my classmates were up yet.  Since the snow had stopped I fixed breakfast outside and enjoyed the scenery while the rest of the camp slowly came awake.

Needed to do some digging out after the first night.  Kitchen setup to the right with a view out over the lake.  

Looking out over our lake.  A real winter wonderland.

About 10 we loaded day-packs, donned snowshoes, and headed out for a cross country jaunt.  Along the way we received instruction about watching and evaluating the weather, how to build emergency shelters, how to evaluate a slope for avalanche danger, and map reading.  Several times along the trip we took out maps and found our location based on what we could see around us, and then tried to identify the direction to the next targeted location.  It was a wonderful day to wander around the Grace Lakes basin and it was early afternoon before we made it back to camp for lunch.

View of the North Cascades from atop one of the Stevens Pass ski lifts.

Saturday afternoon was spent in a pair of activities.  First we all dug into the snow on a hillside to look at the layers of snow and ice and evaluate the potential for slippage between layers.  The intent of this is to be able to assess the danger of avalanche.  Looking back, I am somewhat unclear as to when I would actually do this, but it was interesting to actually see the layering and to get a better idea of what causes avalanches.

The second activity of the afternoon involved building snow caves. This activity was optional and part of the class quickly opted out, but I found the process to be a blast, at least for a couple of hours.  I managed to tunnel back around 7-8 feet and had a chamber large enough to sit up in by the time I grew weary of the exercise.  Ned and a couple of the other students actually finished their cave and the two students spent that night in it, reporting the next morning that it was dry and had been warmer than their tents the previous night.

By this point it was early evening and the weather was starting to turn on us, so we mostly hunkered down in our tents, fixed dinner, and dropped off to sleep.  After a pretty dry day, it rained most of the night before turning back to snow early Sunday morning.

Sunday was another slow starting day, but by 10:30 we were all up, had breakfast and had broken camp and started down the road for the parking lot.  Near the parking lot we came to a steep side road and stopped there for the last training exercise.

Preparing to play in the snow one last time.

We spent several hours here practicing ascent and descent techniques, followed by glissading, and learning self arrest techniques.  This was easily the most important segment of the class for me.  I have been on some dicey slopes on the snow where I really would have liked to have known how to self arrest. After several hours rolling around in the snow I feel much better about my chances of stopping an uncontrolled slide.

While I had some serious misgivings about this course upfront, primarily because of the weather forecast, the weather was much better than anticipated, and the course was low key, very informative, and has left me feeling much better about being able to travel and camp on the snow.  It may have even extended the hiking season for me a bit.  And, to top it all off, I managed to stay warm and dry the whole time, except for my hands.  This was a profitable way to spend the weekend.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Christianity and Science: Enemies or Allies?

One of the biggest hot button topics that you are likely to find in discussions between skeptics and believers concerns the relationship between science and Christianity.  To many, these are on opposite sides of the boxing ring, mortal enemies with no room for co-existence.  But I do not believe that needs to be the case.  I believe that the two can exist in harmony and can lead to a more comprehensive understanding of God and his creation.  But to do so, it is important to distinguish between science, “the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena”, and scientism, “the collection of attitudes and practices considered typical of scientists”.  Scientism is really a type of philosophy that is oftentimes at odds with faith and Christianity.  But science is a tool that can help us to understand the creation better, and thus to understand our creator better.

The challenge that we often face is when a claim of science is at odds with one of our beliefs, beliefs that we find support for in the Bible.  Past examples of this conflict includes the shape of the earth, flat verses spherical, and the centrality of the earth to the universe.  At one time it was thought that the earth was flat, and that the sun, as well as the rest of the universe, revolved around the earth.  And the church looked to the Bible to support these beliefs.  It took some time for the church to accept that the earth was actually spherical and, later, that the earth revolved around the sun, and was actually a rather insignificant piece of the universe.

Today, there are two other controversial subjects that seem to define the divide between science and Christianity; the Theory of Evolution and the Big Bang theory.

The Big Bang

This name is somewhat misleading because it would lead one to believe it was a noisy explosive event.  What this theory does is provide an explanation, based on the best physical evidence available, for the early moments of the life of the universe; a universe that began as an infinitely small, infinitely dense and extremely hot point, a singularity, that began to rapidly expand, and has continued expanding up to the present moment.

The Big Bang theory itself makes no attempt to explain how this singularity came to be or how the expansion was triggered; although many scientists have offered explanations that remove the need for a creator (remember the definition of scientism?).

Probably the biggest sticking point for many Christians here has to do with the time frame.  The Big Bang posits a universe that is about 13.9 billion years old with an earth that is 4.5 billion years old, as opposed to the 6-10,000 year old estimate that comes from the Old Testament genealogies.  Genesis 1:1 says: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”.  Other than ‘and God said’, there is no indication in Genesis as to just how God accomplished this feat.  The Big Bang theory does provide a possible scenario.

Evolution

The Theory of Evolution provides an explanation for how life, once it started, diversified across the face of the earth.  Many people try and place the origin of life as a part of this theory, but do so incorrectly.  The Theory of Evolution assumes life had already started.  The data for this theory comes from many sources including: similarities between species, observation of evolution in action, the fossil record and genetics.  The Theory of Evolution is a challenge to Christians because it seems to take the creation of the different species of life present today, especially humanity, out of the hands of the creator, placing it into the blind hands of an evolutionary process.  But, who is the creator of that supposedly blind process?

The other issue that many Christians have with evolution is best exemplified by a statement from Richard Dawkins, a militant atheist scientist: “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist”.  But that is just scientism rearing its ugly head again.  The Theory of Evolution, like the Big Bang, only describes a mechanism, not the source of the mechanism.

Conclusion

In my opinion, science is not a threat to Christianity or to our faith.  Seeking to better understand the creation, and how it works, actually increases my awe of the creator.  This universe, and the life it contains, is truly marvelous, regardless of just how God went about making it the way it is.

Regardless your stand on the Big Bang theory and the Theory of Evolution, you should recognize that these are not central to our faith and should not be issues that divide believers, or cause believers to fight with non-believers.  It is unfortunate that the focus of our debate so often is side tracked by these issues and never gets to the important issues, like faith in God and his purpose for us.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Be Transformed, Not Conformed

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Romans 12:2 NIV
Conforming is so easy to do.  It requires little effort or thought.  Just do what everyone around you does.  And if there is any question, just follow the advice given by advertisers and you can't go wrong.  And in following the well traveled road, there is safely and comfort, a sense of belonging in being a part of the herd.

But it is not what we are called to do.  Do not conform to the pattern of this world.  Don't want what the rest of the world wants, whether than be a bigger and better house or car, whiter teeth, better tasting beer, or to be lusted over by the opposite sex.  While there can be a real appeal to those things, they are temporary, and only lead down the path to destruction.

Instead we are called to be transformed.  Extreme makeovers are popular today, whether it be a house, a business, or a wardrobe.  But Paul's call for transformation is a call to experience an extreme makeover in who you are, your desires, priorities and commitments.  Dare to break free of the herd and instead follow the Good Shepherd to a more abundant life.

Key to this process is the renewing of your mind.  The way I think needs to change.  Rather than being focused on the physical, but temporary, world around me, I need to set my thoughts and heart on things above, where Christ is.  I need to prepare my mind for action, and serve God with all my mind.

Conformity is easy, and requires little effort; which may be why we are so inclined to follow that path.  Transformation is difficult and requires much effort; and a constant guard against falling back into the life of conformity.  Choose to see the world through God's eyes, and you will find yourself being changed by it.

And the best thing is that as that transformation occurs, you will discover that God's will for you really is the best.  You can try to discere it from afar.  But it is only when you are immersed in it that you will discover that it is a perfect fit for you.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Prayer, A Wonderful Privilege

Prayer!  What a wonderful, and often underutilized, privilege we have.  The creator and ruler of the universe essentially has an open door policy for his children.  We can come before our Abba (daddy) anytime we want, talking, listening and just spending time with him.  Good luck trying that with any human ruler that you might be under.

So why don't we take better advantage of this privilege he has given us?  I suspect fear is a part of it; it is God we are trying to talk to after all; and he seems distant and remote.  But feelings of inadequacy also get in the way; we don't know how to pray, or what to pray about. "I don't know how" is the most common excuse I hear for not praying.

In the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew, we find Jesus most extensive teachings on how to pray.
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.  And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“This, then, is how you should pray:

       “‘Our Father in heaven,
       hallowed be your name,
       your kingdom come,
       your will be done,
              on earth as it is in heaven.
       Give us today our daily bread.
       And forgive us our debts,
              as we also have forgiven our debtors.
       And lead us not into temptation,
              but deliver us from the evil one.’

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Matthew 6:5-15 NIV
The first thing Jesus tells us is that prayer is something personal between me and my Father.  In Jesus day it was common for some to look for public occasions to pray.  The more people who heard you the better.  I do believe there is a time and place for public prayer.  But these people were praying to draw attention to themselves.  Prayer should be directed to God, not to those who are listening, and not to get others to think more highly of you.

Jesus tells us instead, to find a private place where you can commune with God.  Get away from any distractions.  And be where you can be yourself without worrying about how others might be looking at you.  Falling on your face in front of a crowd is something that most of us will avoid, but may feel led to when it is just me and God.  Speaking aloud can also enhance intimate prayer, so long as there is no one else around to hear you.

Jesus also counsels us about our language.  When you listen to some pray in public, do you ever notice that they sound totally different than when they are just talking to you?  Sometimes it is in the vocabulary they use, and sometimes the whole tone changes.  And that would make sense if God cared about all that; but why would he?  He knows us better than we know ourselves.  I doubt that he will be impressed when we try and use our churchy words and voice when we talk with him.  Just be yourself instead.  He already knows what you need, and just wants to hear from you as his beloved child, not as a supplicant before his king.

And then Jesus gives us a sample, or model, prayer.  And that sample can be a good guide when you are alone in your private place communing with your maker.
  • Offer up praise to God, worship him, honor him as Lord and God.
  • Seek his will for yourself, your family, the church you are a part of, the world around you.  
  • Let him know what needs you have, as well as of others you are aware of.
  • Seek forgiveness for your wrongs.
  • Express forgiveness for those who have wronged you, even if they are not interested in it.
  • Seek help in your daily life, desiring to please God in what you do.

There is little in this world more rewarding than spending quality time with Abba.  That is how you will develop an intimate relationship with him.  Be like Enoch, and commune so closely with God that the transition into eternity will be seamless.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Foreknown, Predestined, Called, Justified & Glorified

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.  And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
Romans 8:28-30 NIV
This is a very interesting passage that has long intrigued me.  And the first verse of it is one that I have oftentimes heard quoted by many, including myself, as encouragement to believers facing, or potentially facing, challenging times.  But taken as a whole, this passage has a lot to say about what God is doing in his creation.

For those God foreknew:  God knows me.  He knew me before I was even born.  And, as hard as it is to wrap my head around, he knew me even before he created the universe.  All that I have done, all that I am, and all that I will be, God has always known.  And that is true of everyone who will ever inhabit this planet.

But this passage is not addressed to everyone.  Rather Paul is referring to those to are also predestined, called, justified and glorified; to those who are God's people; his chosen ones.  Before God created me, he knew that I would be his, and has acted to prepare me to live with Him through eternity.

He also predestined:  God has predestined me, as well as all those he foreknew.  Predestination is almost a bad word because he conjures up images of being a puppet in the hands of the puppeteer; with everything I do being at the direction of the puppet master.  But that is not what Paul is referring to here.

Here predestination refers to the end result.  We are being conformed to the image of Christ, God's Son.  This seems to allude back to the Genesis 1 creation account, where men are created in God's image.  While you might argue that sin has spoiled that image of God in us, God is working to restore it in his chosen ones.

In all things God works for our good; God is conforming us to the image of Christ.  No matter what might happen to me in this life, I can be assured that God will use that to conform me more closely to his image.  I am not promised that life will be enjoyable during my time here.  But I am promised that God is using it to prepare me for something much better.

He also called:  The ones whom God has foreknown and predestined, have also been called by God; invited into his family.  Is God's call resistable; can I choose not to respond?  I am not a Calvinist, but this verse seems not to allow for any option other than to respond, because all who are called are also justified.

But could it be that God only calls those that he knows will respond?  If God knew me before the creation, then he knew how I would respond to him if called.  God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called.  Is the order of these terms significant; love and then called?  I do believe so; God calls all of those he knows will respond in faith and love.  And thus the question about resisting his call is meaningless.

He also justified:  God has done for me what I was incapable of doing myself.  As the judge, he has declared me to be in right standing before him.  Left to myself, there is no way I could ever have achieved that state.

God does not offer justification to me only after I have done my part, satisfying him that I have put forth the appropriate effort.  Actually, he does not offer justification to me at all.  He just does it.  If God has called, he has also justified.  It is part of a package deal.

He also glorified: We often times consider glorification to be something that occurs to the believer at the end of this life.  But I find it interesting here that Paul expresses it more in a past tense; it is a transition that has already occurred.  But how can this be?

An expression that Paul used repeatedly is "in Christ"; I am in Christ.  If Christ has been glorified, and I believe he has, then I also have been, since I am in him.  I do not experience it in my earth suit, but do eagerly look forward to that time when I leave this flesh behind and experience the fullness of what has been given to me.

Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! - 2 Corinthians 9:15 NIV

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Miracles: Impossible, or to be Expected?

So what about miracles?  Are miracles only currently unexplained natural phenomenon, or hoaxes?  Or can it be that there really is such a thing as a miracle?  And what does their reality, or lack thereof, say about the existence of God.

First of all, just what is a miracle?  The dictionary defines the term in multiple ways, from “an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause” to “a wonder; marvel”.  For the purposes of this blog, it is safe to ignore the second dictionary definition and focus in on some variation of the first.  A miracle is the result of an action of God affecting the natural realm.  Given that definition, a miracle may not even be noticed by us, especially if it has the appearances of a natural event, like rainfall, or the absence of some event, like an accident that was prevented.  Those kinds of miracles are impossible for us to pick out with any certainty, and are generally not identified as miracles by most.  More generally we limit miracles to those things for which we have no explanation, apart from God's action, and which are highly uncommon.  The signs and wonders performed by Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament are examples of what many will identify as miracles.

So are miracles possible?  I believe the answer to this question is largely the same as your answer to the question of God’s existence.  If you doubt the existence of God, then it is doubtful you would believe miracles are possible, since there is no God to perform them.  On the other hand, if you believe there is a God, who created the universe, then the thought of his interacting with his creation should not be that surprising; although there are some who do accept the existence of a god who created the universe but is not involved with it, and thus do not accept the possibility of miracles.

On the surface then, it would appear that miracles could be used as a proof for the existence of God.  And indeed, one of the terms used in the New Testament for miracles is signs.  John 20:30-31 in particular demonstrate the use of that term and its purpose.
“Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
According to John, the purpose for the signs that he recorded was to point a person into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, the son of God.   In fact, I believe that most miracles have a similar purpose; to point people to their creator.  I don't see God intervening in the world solely for my physical benefit.  God is not like a vending machine where I can drop in a pray and out pops a miracle.  Finding a front row parking spot in a crowded lot is not a miracle; it is a fortuitous circumstance.

I cannot recall seeing a miracle similar to what the gospel writers record God doing through Jesus.  And so it is tempting to say I have never seen a miracle.  But is that really the case?  I am instructed to pray to God.  A certain portion of that prayer is concerned with thanksgiving and praise.  But prayer also includes asking for direction, for provision, for forgiveness.  And when I pray, at least when I pray appropriately, I am promised that God will respond.  If God responds by helping me to understand his word, by bringing comfort to one in distress, or by healing one that the doctors have given up on; is that not a miracle as well?

Too often today, skeptics respond to talk of miracles in one of two ways.  Either they will accept that something unusual has indeed occurred, but it only appears to be a miracle because we have not discovered the scientific explanation for it.  Or that the miracle did not actually occur and is a hoax, a misunderstanding, or a coincidence.  And they will usually follow that up with a demand to see a miracle performed in a setting where it can be independently verified and validated; similar to the Pharisees of Jesus day (Matthew 12:38).  Those men would not have been convinced if Jesus had levitated them 6 feet off the ground and then flew them over the Jordan river and dropped them on the other side.  And the skeptics of today would be just as unconvinced.

For those who already believe in God, or who are receptive to that belief; miracles indeed are a sign pointing to God.  But to those who have chosen not to believe, no miracle will likely be sufficient to convince them.  I am convinced that much of what are called miracles today are not really miracles.  But I am also convinced that God will intervene in this world, when appropriate, to point people towards him, and to respond to the prayer of his people.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Without Excuse

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
Romans 1:18-20 NIV
The more I study the cosmos the more in awe I am of the Creator.  I cannot peer into a single living cell and not be impressed with its complexity, and then give glory to its Creator.  Standing atop a mountain and surveying the grandeur around me invariably causes my spirit to soar in thankfulness to the one who is responsible for it.

I do understand that all of this has taken form over millions and billions of years.  And I do understand, at least to some extent, the natural laws that are responsible for that shaping.  But that only deepens my awe and appreciation for the one who was able to produce those laws and processes that have served him in bringing the universe, this planet, and the life on it to where it is today.

I have tried hard to imagine all of this coming to be apart from a creator; but have failed miserably.  It all screams 'creator' to me.  And, according to Paul, the creation delivers that same message to all people.  In the passage above Paul claims that God's power and divine nature are clearly seen in the creation itself.  And history seems to verify that.  Few cultures in the known history of humanity have failed to look into the heavens, or to the world around them, and failed to see someone(s) being responsible for it all.

At least until relatively recent times that is.  Now, more and more people have come to be able to imagine all of this coming to be apart from a creator; that it just a fortuitous happenstance.  And the signature of the creator in his creation is ignored or ridiculed as something seen only by the weak or fools.  But Paul gives us a different reason; that it is because they have chosen to suppress the truth that is so clearly made known by the creator, because of their own condition.

I don't believe that most atheists are any more wicked than many who claim the name of Christ.  But admitting there is a creator makes one answerable to that creator.  The easiest way to not be answerable to him is to deny his existence.  If there is no creator, then I am ultimately not answerable to anyone.

But someday we all will stand before our creator to give answer to him.  And responding to him with "I never heard of you" will not be acceptable.  The creator has clearly revealed himself to humanity, and so we are without excuse when we come before him.