Thursday, November 27, 2008

Praise giving

by John D Ramsey

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Wednesday was a relatively slow day at the office. Many people started the holiday early to care for children who were home from school. Others worked from home. About noon, everyone in the office received an email telling us to start our four-day holiday weekend at 3:00 PM with thanks for everyone’s hard work. Not every company I have worked for gives two days off for Thanksgiving. Letting everyone leave just a little early was a generous gesture from the CEO.

All day Wednesday, Lisa and the little girls were helping decorate the church for a wedding. I decided to take advantage of the early dismissal from work to rescue the girls from their day of conscripted labor. After collecting the girls, we stopped at Wal-Mart to buy some weatherproofing supplies to use at Dad’s house this weekend. When I finally pulled into my driveway at home, I noticed that someone from the office had tried to call me: twice.

As it turned out, Wednesday was a very exciting day at the office; however, the excitement had not yet spilled out from behind closed conference room doors before 3:00 PM when I left. Now, it seems that a four-day Thanksgiving holiday will have to wait until next year: business happens. For this, I am thankful. Although the economy is stressed, I am blessed to have an employer who must ask employees to sacrifice part of their paid holiday in order to take advantage of an opportunity. I suppose it would be harder for me to forgo part of the holiday if Cara and Daniel were in town. Yet, work is a blessing from God, and it is right to accept his blessings whenever he blesses. I am excited. I am hoping for the best possible outcome from our efforts.

I am not certain how it will all turn out, but I will probably work at least a few hours Thanksgiving Day to prepare for the firestorm of activity that might occur Friday.

For the past couple weeks a church sign that I drive by daily has announced, “Count your blessings” and most recently “Give thanks.” Sunday morning, we surprised Dad at the small country church at which he preaches. We all sang, “Count your blessings; name them one by one . . .” The little girls had never heard that song before. Claire was surprised when later Sunday evening we sang the same song our church’s Thanksgiving potluck. I suppose that it did not occur to her that the song is seasonally appropriate.

Is it possible that I could accurately count my blessings? I could start naming them: Lisa, Cara, Daniel, Claire, and Gabrielle. I could also list my job, my home, and a car that manages to hold together. Naming my blessings I would have to mention the rest of my family and friends; to ignore them would be ungrateful. In hindsight, I would also give thanks for the hard years though they seemed undesirable at the time.

Thinking about the blessings I have received makes me marvel at the grace that God has displayed toward me. I suppose my hardest years frame my current attitudes. I know how blessed I am because of difficult times I have endured. That is not to say that no difficult times lie ahead. Rather, I assert that God’s hand is evident through it all even when I did not enjoy it.

Today I used Bible software on my phone and laptop to search for verses containing the phrase “give thanks,” “giving thanks”, etc. In the NIV, I found approximately sixty verses matching the search criteria. In the NASB, I found over one hundred. A quick comparison shows that the NIV translators often preferred to use the word praise rather than give thanks. Consequently, praising God and giving thanks to God are equivalent even though we might consider praising God to be attributing something to God while thanking him is acknowledging something coming from him. Ultimately, any distinction blurs in the mind.

A closer look at the Old Testament reveals that the word often translated give thanks or praise is also translated glorify and confess. I am not a Hebrew scholar, but it appears that the translators’ word choices are largely dependent upon the context though the word’s fundamental meaning is unchanged. When Solomon prayed to God during the dedication of the Temple, he said,
When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain, because they have sinned against You, and they pray toward this place and confess Your name and turn from their sin when You afflict them, then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of Your servants and of Your people Israel.

1 Kings 8:32 (NASB)
The word translated confess in this context is translated give thanks or praise in other passages. Now when Israel repented from sin, they would not thank God in the sense that we might imagine, but Solomon said that they were to confess or attribute glory or praise to God’s name.

When we read, “Give thanks to the Lord of lords, For His lovingkindness is everlasting,” Psalm 136:2 (NASB) we might paraphrase saying, “Praise the Lord of lords whose mercy endures forever.” Yet we might also say, “Confess or assert that the Lord of lord’s mercy is eternal.” The underlying meaning of the word remains the same; the translated word, however, derives its English connotation from the context.

While thanksgiving is often an emotional response to God, I think God intended it to be initially an intellectual response to Him. Thanksgiving, therefore, has less to do with what I feel about what God is doing and more to do with acknowledging that God is doing something.

Often times we confuse what it means to give thanks to God, to praise God, or to glorify God. We tend to take a self-centered approach to thanksgiving, that is to say we thank God or praise God for what pleases us. Yet Paul tells us, “In everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NASB) If we only give thanks for that which pleases us, then we place ourselves in a position of judging God. Near the end of the Book of Job, God challenged Job, saying,

“Now gird up your loins like a man;
I will ask you, and you instruct Me.

Will you really annul My judgment?
Will you condemn Me that you may be justified?

“Or do you have an arm like God,
And can you thunder with a voice like His?

“Adorn yourself with eminence and dignity,
And clothe yourself with honor and majesty.

“Pour out the overflowings of your anger,
And look on everyone who is proud, and make him low.

Look on everyone who is proud, and humble him,
And tread down the wicked where they stand.

Hide them in the dust together;
Bind them in the hidden place.

Then I will also confess to you,
That your own right hand can save you.

Job 40:7-14 (NASB)

God warned Job not to expect God to conform to Job's expectations. Though God had previously blessed Job with riches, God now worked in Job's life through Job's suffering. Notice in this context also that if Job could demonstrate attributes that belong only to God, then God would confess that Job was also able to save himself. Here again is the same word translated give thanks elsewhere. Again the root meaning is to attribute something. Job learned to confess God's glory regardless of circumstance. Confessing and thanksgiving are effectively the same.

God has given me many blessings that please me. Yet Paul tells me that in my thanksgiving, I should not discriminate about that which I give thanks. I am to give thanks always or for all things regardless of whether I am pleased. If I realize that thanking God for all things means confessing or asserting that everything comes from Him, then I can praise God or glorify Him even when I do not understand His purposes. Praise-giving is not about what I like, but rather about acknowledging what God does.

This Thanksgiving I praise God for his many blessings to me: I praise him for the blessings that please me, I praise him for the blessings I do not understand, and I praise him even for the blessings I fail to see.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Survival instinct

by John D Ramsey

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According to The Wall Street Journal, the US stock market has lost seven trillion dollars in value since its peak. To put that in perspective, the US public debt is somewhere around six trillion dollars according to the US Treasury. What was first described as a “mortgage crisis” became a “liquidity crisis” and is now a “global economic crisis.”

Nevertheless, it is not all bad news. I paid $1.649 per gallon of gasoline the other day. I filled the tank even though I suspected the price would drop before I needed to fill again. It did drop – three times. I filled again Friday for $1.499 per gallon. I do not remember whom I told, but I predicted that crude oil would drop to $60 per barrel. I based my estimate upon the valuation of the dollar remaining stable. Since the dollar is increasing in value, the cost of oil seems to be decreasing even below my prediction. I am not a genius; I just know that the value of oil has not changed; only the supply relative to demand has decreased in recent years. I do not know how long gasoline will be this inexpensive, but I am relieved when I spend $27 instead of $72 on a tank full.

Since the election, politicians’ panic related to the “global economic crisis” appears to be waning even as the market bounces along the floor. Thursday, the Democrat congressional leadership reneged on a promise to bailout Detroit after the CEO’s of the “big three” automakers flew in corporate jets to Washington to beg for their government handout. Apparently, beggars need to observe appropriate decorum. Groveling is still groveling whether the object of interest is twenty-five cents or twenty-five billion dollars.

Likewise, Paulson, so benevolent to bailout his Wall Street cronies, is now suddenly a tightwad. Cash is suddenly king as economists and politicians realize that we cannot beg, borrow, and bail our way back to boomtown.

Speaking of cash, Steve Ballmer must be dancing another jig celebrating Jerry Yang who gave Microsoft freely what Ballmer was willing to pay billions to buy—namely Yahoo’s demise. Why buy a company when they will dry up all by themselves?

Southwest Airlines is attempting to extend its reach to LaGuardia. Southwest recorded its first quarterly loss ever – ironically because of dropping fuel prices and their fuel hedging strategies. Nevertheless, Southwest Airlines remains a healthy company compared to other airlines. Some companies with cash are quietly thriving even as their heavily leveraged competitors spin towards bankruptcy.

If strong companies are surviving or thriving even in the midst of the current economic turmoil, then whatever the root cause, the landscape appears more natural rather than catastrophic. Nevertheless, the victims of their own excesses are screaming, “Crisis!”

This week, Rick Wagoner, CEO of General Motors, appealed to the nation saying,
Nearly a half-century ago President Kennedy declared that his generation of Americans was living in extraordinary times and facing extraordinary challenges. Our times are no less challenging.

The Wall Street Journal, “Why GM Deserves Support”, November 19, 2008
I am not certain why Wagoner would invoke the name of Kennedy in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. Assuming the Journal’s readership is history-savvy enough to remember Kennedy, they probably know about Truman, and Roosevelt, too. Perhaps they even recall Lincoln.

Were the 60’s more extraordinary than both world wars and the Great Depression? Were the 1960’s more extraordinary than the 1860’s. Even if the challenges our country faces today are equivalent to the challenges of the 1960’s, Wagoner, betrays his own argument when he says today’s challenges are extraordinary. Perhaps today’s challenges are ordinary, but beyond Wagoner’s capacity to manage. Perhaps GM’s challenges are beyond any man’s capacity to manage. Firms confronted with this reality ordinarily seek bankruptcy protection, as GM’s board is considering.

While people scream “helter skelter” and lurch to and fro to the alarms of network news, we should pause to look with an objective eye. The truth transcends any “global economic crisis.”

Thousands of years ago, King Solomon wrote,

The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.

The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.

All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.

To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.

All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.

The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.

There is no remembrance of men of old,
and even those who are yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow.

Ecclesiastes 1:5-11 (NIV)

Solomon wrote from his own historical perspective, but we would be wise to take notice of his words. Throughout history, there have been trying times. However, current challenges pale in comparison to the World Wars, the Great Depression, or the Civil War, for instance. These events are relatively recent history.

Moreover, the way of all men remains the same – at the end of our life, we die. Yes, that statement is tautological, but claiming that current challenges are extraordinary is myopic. Billions have lived, and billions have died. Some have lived long lives luxuriously, and some have lived short lives in poverty. Some have died peacefully; others have died violent or excruciating deaths. Some have journeyed from poverty to riches; others have retraced the path from riches to poverty. Whatever our challenges, our circumstances are only extraordinary relative to our own experience.

Still as challenges confront us, we should also pause to evaluate our priorities. While the world panics, we consider, how should we live in these times of difficulty?

Recently, Retired Marine Col. John Ripley passed away. In 1972, Ripley and 600 South Vietnamese soldiers under his command were ordered to “hold and die” in the face of an overwhelming force. Ripley survived despite orders and later said, “When you know you're not going to make it, a wonderful thing happens: You stop being cluttered by the feeling that you're going to save your butt.”

That is the point: “You’re not going to make it.” There is nothing extraordinary or even morose about this fact. Whether the world economy is boom or bust, our lives produce no long-term benefits. The writer of Hebrews states, and no one yet has successfully refuted, “It is appointed for men to die once.” Because we know the certainty of our own mortality, we should set aside our survival instinct and focus upon the breaths we have remaining.

I cannot save my life. Rather, I must spend my life on something. I can squander it, or I can invest it. Either way I cannot keep it. What are my options? Jesus said,
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.

What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?

For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.

Matthew 16:24-27 (NIV)
Investing my life is to lose my life for Jesus’ sake. Squandering it is to do anything else. Financial investors use hedging strategies to mitigate risk. Likewise, many Christians use faith as a hedging strategy while they pursue saving their mortal life. Yet faith in Jesus Christ is not a hedging strategy, it is total commitment. We should approach our faith in Christ with abandonment, not as an insurance policy or plan B. We cannot save our lives; consequently, we should choose to lose our lives for the sake of Jesus Christ. The Gospel does not make us better citizens of this world; it makes us sons of God and citizens of a greater country.

Daniel Henninger, deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, believes that the decline of religion in American society has caused, in part, the current global economic crisis. He writes,
Northerners and atheists who vilify Southern evangelicals are throwing out nurturers of useful virtue with the bathwater of obnoxious political opinions.

The point for a healthy society of commerce and politics is not that religion saves, but that it keeps most of the players inside the chalk lines. We are erasing the chalk lines.

The Wall Street Journal, “Mad Max and the Meltdown”, November 20, 2008
Of course, Henninger’s perspective is strictly business and his editorial bemoans the lack of conscience within the culture. While Henninger’s appreciation of Judeo-Christian ethics is magnanimous, Jesus did not command his disciples to live their lives “inside the chalk lines,” nor do followers of Christ exhibit obnoxious political opinions – at least not if they are obeying John 18:36, 1 Peter 2:13-17, Romans 13:1-6, and Titus 3:1-2.

Because we are followers of Jesus Christ, he calls us to be different from the world, and different in ways that Daniel Henninger may not realize. Jesus told his disciples to deny self, take up crosses, and follow him. Taking up a cross has become a euphemism for enduring anything difficult, but that was not Jesus’ intent. While Jesus spoke figuratively, his meaning was not far from the literal. Taking up a cross means to become obedient unto death! The Apostle Paul says,
. . . don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

Romans 6:3-4 (NIV)

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Galatians 2:20 (NIV)
We have died with Christ, our new life exists in him. This changes our perspective on the world: its glories and its troubles. The Apostle John writes,
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world — the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does — comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.

1 John 2:15-17 (NIV)
The media tells us we live in troubling or even extraordinary times. History and Scripture present a different story. History tells us that every generation faces its own challenges. Whether men struggle for glory or survival, they arrive at the same place – the grave.

Scripture enlightens history explaining that mankind lives under the curse of sin. Because Adam rebelled against God, his descendants are born into hopelessness. The end of man is death because the wages of sin is death. Between birth and death, men experience the same choices as those who came before them. Some men behave according to their innate knowledge of a God who will judge unrighteousness. However, before God’s righteous judgment no man will stand. The cycle of grief begins with birth and ends in judgment. The world will see troubling times; the world will recognize trouble because it has also seen peaceful and prosperous times. Neither is extraordinary; they are just divergent paths to the same end.

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Yet in the midst of human frailty, God offers man one extraordinary opportunity: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” Acts 16:31 (NIV)

Accepting Christ means that we die to ourselves, to our sin, and to the world system. Earthly interests pale in comparison to possessing new life in Jesus Christ. The eternal exceeds the temporal.

When we as believers in Jesus Christ see our world in turmoil, for what do we hope? Do we hope for the day when God will alleviate the trouble so that our lives can continue in comfort? Do we love the world so much that we want to fix or have God fix what we think is broken? Do we just want to survive in peace?

Or do we hope for the day of Jesus’ appearing?
For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.
Have we denied ourselves, taken up our crosses, and followed him? Are we obedient unto death? Or have we squandered our lives?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The last shall be first

by John D Ramsey

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I love my job. I like the people with whom I work; I like helping other people be productive; I like the intellectual challenge my job provides – I swim in a sea of SQL. Most of the time, I like the laughter at work. I do not, however, like the intellectual challenge of trying to work productively when there is excessive laughter. Until the end of the year, I am trying to focus on a project, so today I donned the headphones and chose Bob Dylan to mask the noise surrounding me.

As The Times They Are A-Changin’ droned in my ears, I wondered how many people hear these lyrics and miss the Biblical allusion in the last stanza, “. . . the first one now will later be last, for the times they are a changing’.” I do not pretend to have specific insights into what Bob Dylan intended by this song, nor do I ask. A couple years ago, I listened to Sean Penn’s recording of Bob Dylan’s Chronicle’s: Volume One, and I concluded that Bob Dylan prefers to be misunderstood regardless. Still, Bob Dylan was not the first to say that the first will be last. A relevant question, therefore, might be whether Dylan understood whom he was quoting.

Four times in the Gospels Jesus says that the last will be first and the first will be last. One other time, Jesus deals with just one side of the equation. Mark, in his Gospel, writes,
They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

Mark 9:33-35 (NIV)
Jesus’ disciples argued among themselves about who would be greatest in the kingdom. They apparently acted like bickering children who imagine that Mom and Dad cannot overhear their quarrelling. When Jesus confronted them, they were silent. No one wanted to confess. It is not as if they could decide among themselves who would be first and who would be last in the kingdom. The kingdom of God is not a democracy; nor is it a competition. The kingdom of God exists to glorify God above everyone else.

Jesus tells his disciples that he who would be first must be the servant of all. We often read this to be a reminder that we are supposed to serve one another, and this is true. However, one of the beauties of Scripture is that it can be true on multiple levels. When Jesus said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all,” he alluded to himself. Although we should strive to emulate Jesus’ humility, we cannot approach it. Paul explains,

[Jesus] being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

Philippians 2:6-7 (NIV)

In our home in the evening, we have begun reading with the little girls the story of Jesus’ nativity. I want them to become familiar enough with Luke 2 that they can read it aloud themselves without stumbling over words and phrases. I want to impress on them that the nativity is not merely a story about a baby’s birth, but rather encapsulated within the infant in the manger is the Creator himself. Jesus humbled himself to become a man. Once he became a human, he never ceased to be human. Jesus is forever both Son of God and Son of Man. Moreover, Jesus’ birth portends his death.

And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death
even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:8 (NIV)

Jesus embraced his death with humility and obedience. Why does Jesus’ nativity necessitate his obedience to death? The writer of Hebrews explains,

Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.

Hebrews 9:27-28 (NIV)
Man is condemned to die, and Jesus, fulfilling all obedience, endured this judgment. However, Jesus did not carry the penalty for his own sin upon the cross; rather, he carried the sins of the whole world. Jesus became the servant of all.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:9-11 (NIV)

Jesus Christ made himself the servant of all men. He voluntarily became the last, or the least, and thereby carried our sins into judgment by his death on the cross. Dying, resurrecting from the dead, and coming again, he brings salvation to those who are waiting for his return.

Though times are a-changin’ in ways that even Bob Dylan probably could not anticipate, the outcome of all things is sure. He who made himself last, he who served all men by carrying their sin upon the cross, will be first. Before him, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess him Lord.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Called, chosen, and faithful

by John D Ramsey

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During Tuesday morning Bible study earlier this week, I said something about the sovereignty of God. A friend asked me, “How do you explain free will?” Apparently, asking me that question is akin to throwing red meat to a hungry dog. I responded energetically, even to the point of surprising myself.

I believe that men experience free will. However, I am not convinced that men possess free will. Rather I believe that our choices are consistent with our nature.

For instance, one day this week I met a friend for lunch. Before arranging the meeting, I scoped out the nearby restaurants. A Korean restaurant sat right around the corner from my friend’s office. I remembered steaming-hot rice bowls from Shilla, a Korean restaurant in St. Paul, Minnesota. I would recommend Shilla to anyone. However, I know nothing about this local restaurant. I wish I were adventurous enough to try new restaurants, but my nature is more conservative. I will follow a friend’s recommendation, but I will not gamble on the unknown. Even though I wanted to try the Korean restaurant, I knew that I would instead recommend José Pepper’s.

More information might have persuaded me otherwise, but José Pepper’s was a safe choice. It is not the best Mexican restaurant in Kansas City, but it is familiar. Ultimately, my purpose was to spend a little time with a friend, and as much as I would like to be adventuresome – it is not in my nature.

Did I experience free will? Yes, of course, I did. I chose to recommend José Pepper’s although I was aware of many alternatives. Did I act consistent to my nature? Absolutely. Not only did I recommend José Pepper’s to my friend, after thoroughly reading the menu, I ordered the shredded beef chimichanga. I recall now that I have ordered the shredded beef chimichanga in two previous visits to José Pepper’s. Lisa explains my behavior this way: after studying the menu, I choose the item that I feel gives me “the most beef for the buck.” My decision making process is not rote, rather my nature constrains my free will. I freely choose that which I am predisposed to choose. My predictability does not preclude my experiencing free will.

Man, by his own free will, does not seek God. Paul wrote to the Romans, saying,

As it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”

Romans 3:10 (NIV)

Paul goes on to explain to the Romans, that God has said, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” Romans 9:15 (NIV) Paul concludes, “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” Romans 9:18 (NIV)

Election is a difficult topic to understand; however, man’s nature has been in rebellion against God since Adam sinned in the garden. Our free will, such as it is, chooses consistently with our nature so that we are unable to seek God. For anyone to be saved, God must act. The Apostle John writes, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” 1 John 4:10 (NIV) Paul says, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8 (NIV)

For me to come to faith in Jesus Christ, God had to overpower my nature. In other words, God changed the complexion of my free will; otherwise, I could never be saved. According to Ephesians 2, the faith by which I am saved, does not originate with me, it is a gift from God.

Upon realizing that man’s salvation depends entirely upon God, some Christians exhibit a fatalistic attitude. They think that because God’s will cannot be altered, evangelism is unnecessary. They suppose that God will do what God will do regardless of what they do or do not do; consequently, they need to do nothing. This argument is a logical death spiral wherein they experience free will while acting according to their disobedient nature.

Is such behavior and attitudes truly disobedient to God? Yes, Paul was not trying to cultivate this attitude when he wrote the book of Romans. In fact, Paul gave up trying to explain the complexity of election and instead cried out,

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay him?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.

Romans 11:33-36 (NIV)

Paul essentially says we cannot understand the mind of God; nevertheless, we must respond to him one way or another. In Romans 12, Paul implores us, in light of God’s sovereignty, to offer our lives as a living sacrifice to God. God’s glory should compel us to spiritual fervor rather than lull us into apathy.

Yet, if salvation must originate with God, if he must call before we can answer, then we ask, who receives this call from God? Jesus concludes the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22, saying, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” In the parable, the king sends his servants to invite guests to the wedding of his son. Some people ignore the invitation; others murder the king’s messengers. The king ultimately opens the feast to anyone. Yet, when a guest arrives without appropriate attire, that is, not clothed in righteousness, “the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are invited, but few are chosen.” Matthew 22:13, 14 (NIV)

Who then are the many who are called of whom Jesus spoke? When Paul preached to the Athenians at the Areopagus, saying,
Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone — an image made by man's design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.

Acts 17:29, 30 (NIV)
Who are the many who are called? God “commands all people everywhere to repent.” Let there be no doubt, if you are reading this, God is calling you. To Titus, Paul writes, “The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.” Titus 2:11 (NIV) There is no one from whom God’s call to repentance is withheld.

Many are called! Who then are the chosen?

For man to respond to God’s call, that is, for man to be included among the chosen, God must first overcome man’s nature. How does God overcome man’s nature to reprogram man’s free will so he can respond in faith? Paul writes, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ?” Romans 10:17 (NIV)

God has done many amazing things to alter the direction of my free will!
Knowing that God has accomplished all this for me alters the nature of my free will. Whereas I once was incapable of choosing God, now because of what God has done, I am instead compelled to repent and to trust Jesus Christ for my salvation. When I could not pursue God, God in his mercy pursued me. When I lacked righteousness, he supplied his own righteousness to me as a free gift. I clothe myself with his righteousness, not because it occurs to me to do so, but because his grace compels me.

Salvation comes to me, not because of what I do, but because of what God has done. Because no part of my salvation comes from within me, but rather all flows from God’s grace, I cannot describe it as my choosing God, rather because my salvation originates with God, I confess that he has somehow chosen me. God overpowered my predilection, and saved me. I wonder at the mystery, that I would be among the few whom he has chosen.

In the course of my salvation, do I experience free will? Yes, I do. However, the seed of faith sown in my heart by the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, transforms my nature, liberating me from my rebellion against God. Knowing what Jesus Christ has done for me, I cannot imagine choosing otherwise than repentance before God. Yet salvation is more than a momentary experience. When God transforms our nature, then we should begin to reflect his nature. Paul tells us,
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:5-11 (NIV)
God will eventually overcome the stubborn will of all men. Everyone will eventually acknowledge Jesus Christ, but not all will be saved. Many are called, but few are chosen. At the end of the age, when Jesus Christ returns to earth in glory, the rulers of the world will gather to war against him. John says, “They will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings – and with him will be his called, chosen, and faithful followers.” Revelation 17:14 (NIV)

If God calls me and chooses me, then he calls me not only to believe, he chooses me to be faithful. Just as he compelled me against my original nature to trust him, so his grace compels me to remain faithful. I died with Christ to my old nature, so my new life encapsulates Christ: His righteousness becomes my righteousness, his life becomes my life; his humility becomes my humility; his faithfulness becomes my faithfulness. Likewise, his ultimate victory becomes the victory of his called, chosen, and faithful.

Throughout all this, I experience free will; nevertheless, I marvel that God accomplishes it all for his pleasure and for his glory. I cannot begin to understand God's purposes; however, I am eternally grateful that God intervened in my life altering my nature and granting me faith unto repentance and salvation.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Cyrus' anointing

by John D Ramsey

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The election is over and American sentiment ranges between elation and deflation. Neither presidential candidate appealed to me, frankly. Neither man exhibited a right-versus-wrong morality, but rather both men promised a make-it-right perversion of justice.

The recent financial crisis proved that neither major presidential candidate had the mettle of a statesman. When Secretary Paulson asked Congress to preserve the wealth and status of his Wall-Street cronies at the forever-expense of the American taxpayer, both presidential candidates raced to become the first to capitulate. Governmental amelioration of bad choices appears to set some things right; however, without the conviction of true right versus wrong, government only perverts justice. A bailout only spawns additionally moral hazards and perverse incentives. Now everybody wants a bailout, but who will ultimately pay?

Anna Schwartz co-wrote with Milton Friedman, A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960 and The Great Contraction, 1929-1933. In her nineties, Ms. Schwartz has been an economics expert for a relatively long time. Brian M. Carney interviewed Anna Schwartz for the Wall Street Journal,
. . . "firms that made wrong decisions should fail," she says bluntly. "You shouldn't rescue them. And once that's established as a principle, I think the market recognizes that it makes sense. Everything works much better when wrong decisions are punished and good decisions make you rich."
I agree with Anna Schwartz, but herein resides the difficulty with experts. Someone wishing to refute my position need only bludgeon me with his bigger, badder, expert. While we may never agree, we can part ways feeling either superior or moralistic.

What is lost in our culture, and to what Anna Schwartz alludes, is a fundamental sense of right versus wrong. We have substituted expedience and nuance for truth, and we are a weaker people for it. We have sacrificed our integrity upon the altar of political and social idolatry.

The beauty of principle—the conviction of right versus wrong—is that you do not have to be an expert to understand it.

The other day, Claire came home from 4-H with four dollars that was awarded her for public speaking. She ran into the room excited to show me her envelope, but then she scampered off quickly. I called after her, “Claire! Did you pay taxes on your four dollars?” I asked.

“No,” she replied.

I asked Gabby, “How much tax should Claire pay on her four dollars?”

Gabby answered without even looking up, “Ten thousand dollars.”

Claire yelped, ran upstairs, and hid her money.

This illustration was playful and teasing, yet illuminating. Gabby had no claim to Claire’s money; yet, if she must impose an arbitrary and unjust tax, why stop with the whole amount? Children understand that changing the rules mid-game is unfair. When they do it, they do it not to be fair but to gain advantage. Likewise, modern politicians seek to change the rules upon whim. The electorate ignores right versus wrong, and rather chooses a desired outcome without regard to truth or justice.

Right versus wrong is no longer principle; it is a notion. Unsophisticated right-versus-wrong, has become a target of derision. What is right has been replaced by whatever gratifies me, and whatever gratifies me I can justify by whatever tortured ethical contortions I can conjure. Yet the culture mistakes this sophistication for wisdom. A rejection of right-versus-wrong is not merely a competing ideology. Rejecting right versus wrong is a rejection of God.

The Apostle Paul commented upon the perversion of the culture of the first century, saying,
Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.

Romans 1:21-23 (KJV)
We might demur at the thought of our sophisticated society groveling before graven images, yet we do, if only metaphorically. The late Michael Crichton, as published in the Wall Street Journal, remarks,
Nobody believes weather predictions twelve hours ahead. Now we’re asked to believe a prediction that goes out 100 years into the future? And make financial investments based on that prediction? Has everybody lost their [sic] minds?
Yes, Michael, nearly everyone has lost his mind. Such is an unfortunate, albeit necessary, consequence of rejecting God. Our culture has replaced the knowledge of God with the ruminations of lunatics who in turn make merchandise of the masses.

Just because the world’s so-call scientists or even economists agree among themselves to believe something, it does not follow that it must be true. For instance, sacrificing taxpayers on the altar of the Wall Street technocracy did not alleviate the financial crisis. Investors are still wondering, where is the bottom? And, now, what are the rules?

Eventually, the economy will recover, and the architects of the crime, like witchdoctors, will take credit for staving off a worse disaster. Meanwhile, the powerful investment bankers are grateful for your sacrifice. Likewise, selling global warming might make the world a cool place to live, but only for those who manage to grab a spot near the top of the Ponzi. Global warming doctrine and financial bailouts redistribute wealth and consolidate political power, but they accomplish little real benefit.

When we as believers in Jesus Christ realize that all the sophisticated ideologies fluttering about in the culture are merely godless religions and not truth or science, then we are better equipped to respond to them. By respond, I do not mean that we entrench for 2010 or 2012. I mean that we should obey the truth we have held all along.

For instance, our responsibility to governmental authority has not changed. Nor would it be different had the election turned out otherwise. Peter tells us,
Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.

1 Peter 2:13-17 (NIV)
Peter does not tell his flock, to agree with the king, but he does insist that they honor him with integrity worthy of the Lord.

Saul, the first king of Israel, rejected the Lord, and the Lord rejected Saul from being king. Yet, even in the midst of his rebellion, Scripture refers to Saul as “the LORD’s anointed.” It refers to him as such more often than it refers to any other king of Israel as “the LORD’s anointed.” Saul’s wickedness did not nullify God’s choice. Nor did it thwart God’s purpose.

The term, “the LORD’s anointed” was normally reserved for the leaders and kings of Israel. However, Isaiah speaks for the Lord to Cyrus, king of Persia, saying,

This is what the LORD says to his anointed,
to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of
to subdue nations before him
and to strip kings of their armor,
to open doors before him
so that gates will not be shut:
I will go before you
and will level the mountains;
I will break down gates of bronze
and cut through bars of iron.

I will give you the treasures of darkness,
riches stored in secret places,
so that you may know that I am the LORD,
the God of Israel, who summons you by name.

For the sake of Jacob my servant,
of Israel my chosen,
I summon you by name
and bestow on you a title of honor,
though you do not acknowledge me.

I am the LORD, and there is no other;
apart from me there is no God.

I will strengthen you,
though you have not acknowledged me,
so that from the rising of the sun
to the place of its setting
men may know there is none besides me.

I am the LORD, and there is no other.

I form the light and create darkness,
I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, the LORD, do all these things.

“You heavens above, rain down righteousness;
let the clouds shower it down.

Let the earth open wide,
let salvation spring up,
let righteousness grow with it;
I, the LORD, have created it.

Isaiah 45:1-8 (NIV)

God raises up world leaders to make his glory known and to accomplish the salvation of his chosen. He uses men whether or not they acknowledge him as God. Isaiah goes on to warn those who despise God’s choices. He says, “Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker, to him who is but a potsherd among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’?” Isaiah 45:9 (NIV)

Consequently, we accept the outcome of any election as the expressed will of God. We realize also that God seeks to accomplish something much different from our personal comfort and financial prosperity. God seeks to make himself known and to bring about the salvation of his chosen ones. God’s salvation does not come by the consensus of men. Rather it comes by God’s own power and by his judgment.

Regardless of whether we are invigorated or vexed by the outcome of the recent election, we must align our hearts with the purposes of our Maker. The insanity and injustice of modern culture is not our battle to fight. Even as the electoral fever breaks into the wet chills of political reality, we should not entangle ourselves in a lost battle for the culture.

Rather we should equip ourselves as effective evangelists in the battle for the lost within the culture. Cultural morass is merely a symptom of the disease. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes. This is our message regardless of what God is doing among the nations.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Brown darkness

by John D Ramsey

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Dad came down Sunday afternoon. It was a short visit. He drove home Monday morning. He might have stayed longer, but later this week he has another little trip planned. I think Dad’s objective was not a prolonged visit, but rather simply a break in his routine as he becomes accustomed to living alone.

Sunday night Lisa and I slept in the guest bedroom so that Dad would not have to navigate stairs. I like the guest bedroom in our house, and sleeping there is not the slightest inconvenience. The guest room is almost a secret room. At least I forget that we have it. I seldom have an occasion to go upstairs in the house, and when I do, it is to change a light bulb in one of the girls’ rooms or something similar. The guest room is behind a closed door that I do not open: out of sight – out of mind.

Occasionally, Lisa swaps furniture from the guest room into other rooms in the house. I see the piece and I wonder, where has that been? Likewise, when I do enter the guest room and see a familiar piece of furniture, I think, when did this move here? Whenever I enter the guest room, it is always both new and familiar to me.

Last year, Lisa painted the guest room a rich chocolate brown with cream trim. At night with the lights out, it is very dark — not unlike the master bedroom. Last night, I commented to Lisa about how dark the room was. She asked if it was too dark and I said, “No, it’s just different. This is brown darkness.” Lisa laughed. I told her that our room had a blue darkness, but that the guest room had a brown darkness. She laughed again; then she asked if brown darkness was bad. I told her that I did not know, but that it was definitely different. She laughed once more.

She reminded me that when Daniel was a teenager he insisted that he slept best in a purple room. We said, “Purple darkness,” in unison and chuckled. I am certain that Lisa was laughing at me, too. For years, when we lived in Minnesota, I insisted that I slept best with my head pointing north.

I lay awake for a while looking at where the walls should have been but all I saw was a deep brown darkness. I silently wondered to myself how much of my perception was imagined and how much was real.

I slept just fine in the brown darkness of the guest room. In the morning, Lisa awakened me from a far away land where all the geography and architecture dwarfed the inhabitants. My dream was as a movie set built to a disproportionate scale and softly lit to obscure perception. It seemed simultaneously familiar and mysterious.

Since Mom passed, life is concurrently familiar and mysterious. Mom has been gone for a month, and life is disrupted in almost imperceptible ways – like the difference between a brown and blue darkness, or sleeping east to west rather than north to south, or familiar scenery apparently out of proportion. Many routines remain the same, yet I am feeling disoriented.

Perhaps I should cry just one more time, but I pause after the first tear wondering whether the time for appropriate crying has already passed.

Cara called tonight, and I walked outside to get better reception. While we talked, I stared at the sky without my glasses. I see what I think is the Pleiades, but I am not sure; the sky is hazy and my eyes are naked. Is that Betelgeuse? Maybe so, but where is Orion? Suddenly nothing in the sky looks familiar, I turn to the west, but even Vega seems misplaced. It cannot be Vega; it is another star – nameless to me. On another night, this sky would look familiar, but tonight my expectations are misaligned with the heavens.

I realize that I have been seeking to understand what God is not yet inclined to explain. My expectations are misaligned with my Father’s plan for me. Without my expectations, no mystery would bewilder me. I need to set aside my expectations, understanding that what bewilders me today, I will someday fully understand.

For now we see through a glass, darkly;
but then face to face:
now I know in part;
but then shall I know even as also I am known.

1 Corinthians 13:12 (KJV)

Why would I value my understanding over faithfulness?

He hath made every thing beautiful in his time:
also he hath set the world in their heart,
so that no man can find out the work
that God maketh from the beginning to the end

Ecclesiastes 3:11 (KJV)

Only faith can bridge the distance between what I can barely see today and what I will someday see clearly. I pray for understanding but more so for faith, knowing that faith fosters hope and hope expresses itself in love.

And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three;
but the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:13

Trusting God to fulfill his word, what have I to question?

Tonight in the darkness, I am seeing a glimmer of light. I resolve to cling less to that which I understand so as to embrace that which is new and mysterious. Without harboring my expectations, I move closer to the purpose for which I am called.