Friday, February 16, 2018

The secret to finding joy

Seeking joy, or happiness, for itself
is like spreading your fingers wide
to try to keep the sun from setting.

(You have to enjoy the sun while it is up.)

Joy is a by-product,
not a goal in itself.
Joy comes when you do other things well;
it mysteriously arises
where you may have least expected it,
often because you least expected it.

Surprise and wonder often accompany true joy
--not the kind of surprise that comes with a crowd,
blasting noise and confetti--
but the kind that creeps in quietly,
stealing your breath away as it strokes your sternum.

The secret to joy

is a thankful heart.

Not assuming,
not feeling entitled,
but receiving with gratitude.

Giving thanks always and for everything 
to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
~Ephesians 5:20

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything 
by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving 
let your requests be made known to God.
~Philippians 4:6

Giving thanks to the Father, 
who has qualified you 
to share in the the inheritance of the saints in light.
~Colossians 1:12

And whatever you do, in word or deed,
do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus
giving thanks to God the Father through Him.
~Colossians 3:17

Give thanks in all circumstances;
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
~1 Thessalonians 5:18

I am thankful for my clock that ticks,
my dog that barks,
and our refrigerator that keeps our milk cold.

I am thankful for blue skies,
and also for rain,
and even snowflakes.
I'm thankful for the sun and the moon,
for fields of corn,
for lakes,
for trees,
for roads that I can travel to see people I love.

I'm thankful for old jeans,
new shoes,
warm socks,
and an overly bright pair of pink-striped gloves
that I bought thinking they would be hard to lose
(I was right--I'm thankful for that, too).

I'm thankful for colors:
pale pink, light blue, creamy yellow,
red, violet, green,
brown and black, and even orange.

I'm thankful for flavors:
sea salt, pepper and garlic,
cinnamon, butter and brown sugar,
the delectable tang of a juicy, ripe raspberry
and the luscious sweetness of a fragrant peach;
creamy chocolate, smooth coffee.

I'm thankful for the notes of a flute drifting over from my neighbor's windows,
the softness of a fuzzy blanket,
the smell of a freshly bathed baby.

I'm thankful that I can live and breathe,
walk up and down stairs
and drink water.

I am thankful for people:
family, friends, new babies, precious elders.
I'm thankful for holidays and celebrations
and Sundays to gather with the saints.

I'm thankful for books,
for stories,
for truth.

I'm thankful for beauty,
and I am thankful for hope.

I'm thankful for Jesus,
who has given me everything
when I deserved nothing,
forgiving me
instead of condemning me,
dying in my place
so I can live eternally in paradise.

These are very inexpensive fake flowers.  I am thankful for them, too.  They brighten my front porch during the long end of winter.  I will not apologize.  I will give thanks.


Monday, February 12, 2018

Will all Israel be saved? (BSF Lesson #19)

Today someone asked me, "So, do you think all Israel will be saved?"

Without hesitation, I answered yes.  The Bible says very clearly that all Israel will be saved, in Romans 11:26.

The question is not whether all Israel will be saved.  The question is what Paul means when he says, "all Israel."

The book of Romans is all about salvation.  Paul's central teaching about salvation in Romans is this: People are saved by faith in Jesus Christ and not by keeping laws.  Specifically, Paul calls out the Jewish people again and again, warning them that they will not reach God through their obedience to the Law.

Now, this can be confusing to the casual observer, because faith in Jesus Christ is far more than mere mental assent to His existence, or even mental assent to the truth that He is God and that He died to make atonement for sin.  A person who has faith in Jesus Christ has experienced a supernatural infusion of spiritual life into his formerly spiritually dead heart.  The spiritual life that has entered his heart is none other than the divine presence of the Holy Spirit of Christ Himself (Colossians 1:27), and when the Holy Spirit lives in a person's heart, the person changes.  As the Bible says, the old has gone, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17).  A person who has the Holy Spirit living in his heart will live a life of ever-increasing obedience.  Because his new heart leads him to do things that are righteous, it may look like he is "saved by observing the Law," but he is not!  He is saved by grace, and the new heart he has received enables him to walk in the way of God (or, as Romans 8:14 says, the sons of God are led by the Spirit).

The Apostle Paul has spent chapter after chapter in Romans explaining that one's relationship with God--whether a person is counted as one of the people of God, a child of God--depends on the condition of one's heart towards God.  In other words, it depends on faith, and not on outward acts.

Here are some points Paul has made:

A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical.  No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.  Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God.  (Romans 2:29)

Therefore no one will be declared righteous in His sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.  (Romans 3:20)

[Abraham] is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them.  And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.  (Romans 4:11b-12)

For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.  (Romans 9:6b)

And Paul wrote in other letters:

Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham.  (Galatians 3:7)

If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.  (Galatians 3:29)

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast.  (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Thus, it seems quite clear that when Paul writes, "And so, all Israel will be saved" (11:26), his point is that all the elect, to whom God has granted the gift of faith, whether Jew or Gentile, will be saved.  As I wrote when I dealt with Romans 9:

1.  Jews and non-Jews who have faith in Christ have salvation.
2.  Jews and non-Jews who do not have faith in Christ do not have salvation.

When Paul says "all Israel will be saved," he means that all who believe in Jesus Christ will be saved.  "Israel" is comprised of those who believe.  I think Paul's personal astonishment was that believing Gentiles could be counted as part of Israel, and when he said, "all Israel," he used "all" to encompass the Gentiles whom he formerly never would have expected to be included as recipients of the blessings and promises of God.  The previous verse tells us, "Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in" (Romans 11:25b).  "All Israel" means the faithful, including the full number of the Gentiles who come to faith.

Now, you may be concerned about the whole idea of this hardening that Israel is experiencing.  It is somewhat troubling, on the surface.  Romans 11:8-9 is a sobering section of scripture, recalling an Old Testament theme about blind eyes and stopped ears (Deuteronomy 29:4, Isaiah 6:9-10, Isaiah 29:10, Isaiah 43:8, Psalm 69:22-26).

Remember though, we have been studying Romans:  We know that God is good, faithful, and full of mercy and love.

But God demonstrates His love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  (Romans 5:8)

He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will he not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?  (Romans 8:32)

God is not in the business of condemning.  God is in the business of saving, rescuing, and delivering.  God is not against us; He is for us!  (Romans 8:31)

I am reminded of the beautiful passage in John 3:

For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.  Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.  (John 3:16-18)

God's purpose is never to trip people up and trick them into falling into sin so they will have to go to hell.  Never!!  That is the devil's goal, not God's!  John writes, "whoever does not believe stands condemned already."  This does not mean that we were all floating on a level playing field in neutral territory, and then Jesus came, and those who accepted Jesus were saved while those who rejected Jesus were condemned.  Not at all!  Rather, it means that we were all born in unbelief, and we were all "condemned already" until we experienced the saving work of Christ.  Christ came to save all of us, because we were already condemned under the sin of Adam (Romans 3:23, Romans 5:12).  We desperately needed a Savior, and that is why God sent His Son.

Romans 10, which we studied right before we got to Romans 11, talks in detail about the process of coming to belief:

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in?  And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?  And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?  And how can they preach unless they are sent?  (Romans 10:14-15a)

It all begins with someone being sent to bring truth, light, hope and freedom to the captives (Luke 4:16-21).

This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him.  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 4:9-10)

Jesus was the the Original Sent One.  After Jesus completed His mission, He returned to the Father, and the Father sent the Holy Spirit:

But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.  (John 14:26)

True believers are filled with the Holy Spirit of Christ and carry His presence wherever they go in the world, a witness and reflection of His glory.  God's people, true Israel, the true church, are messengers of salvation throughout the whole world.  God is always seeking and saving the lost (Luke 19:10), and He completes this purpose through His people who are tabernacles for His presence (1 Corinthians 6:19).

God is faithful.  God is good.  God is perfectly wise.  God is love.  God is almighty and has sovereign authority over everything.  We do not need to worry about what He is doing.  Romans 11 indicates that the hardening of Israel may be a temporary thing (Romans 11:23-24, and notice the word "until" in Romans 11:25).

Nobody will be saved apart from faith in Jesus Christ, but we have no way of predicting or controlling God's acts of grace in bringing dead hearts to life through faith.  The thief on the cross came to faith during the very last moments of his life (Luke 23:39-43).  God is full of mercy and compassion.

What of the fate of the descendants of the patriarchs? We do not have any say over anyone's fate, but we should always hope for the salvation of everyone.  If God hardens some for a period if time, in order to save others, we know that His ultimate goal is the salvation of many.  He is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9).  He desires the salvation of all men (1 Timothy 2:3-4).

Long, long ago in the Old Testament, God promised:

I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them.  (Hosea 14:4)

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.  I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.  You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God.  (Ezekiel 36:25-28)

God heals the wayward hearts.  God Himself transforms hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.  He is the only one who can.  We can trust in God's purpose, His ways, and His timing.  Everything He does will be proven perfect and right.  Even if He hardens and blinds some people for a period of time, we can trust in His unfailing love.

Romans 11 actually tells us:

For God has bound all men over to disobedience so He may have mercy on them all.  (Romans 11:32)

I don't claim to understand exactly what that means: ". . . so He may have mercy on them all . . ."  But, you have to admit, it sounds very hopeful for us.

God's ways are not our our ways.  We should not try to figure out His psychology or predict how He will act.  We certainly have no right to judge what He does, especially since our experience is so limited, our lives only a tiny slice in the middle of the story.  We know little about the beginning of the story, and we know next to nothing about the end (except for the promise that God will one day utterly eradicate evil and bring His people home to paradise).

It was a shame that our BSF lesson stopped short of the doxology, because that really sums it all up:

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 glory forever!  Amen.   (Romans 11:33-36)
We don't know how He's going to do it all, but He is good, and it's going to be amazing.

*All quoted texts are from the NIV, and all emphases were added by me.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Power, Glory and Humility

I'm pondering my words for the year.




At first, I was thinking of them from the perspective that power and glory are God's, and humility is for me.  This is not a bad way to see it.

Yet, I was struck by how, together, these words tell the story of Jesus.

Jesus was full of power and glory.  Through Jesus, and by Jesus, and for Jesus, all things were created (Proverbs 8:23-31, John 1:3-4, Colossians 1:15-17).  He is the power behind all life and the glory of all that is good.

Yet, in humility, Jesus emptied Himself of divine glory,
became a man--the perfect God-man who never sinned--
and offered His life for the atonement of our sins (Philippians 2:6-8,  Hebrews 9:14, 1 John 2:2).

Of course, after He humbly finished his work for us, Jesus was raised to the right hand of the Father (Ephesians 1:19-21, Philippians 2:9, Hebrews 12:2).  Now Jesus lives in glory for all eternity, constantly interceding for us and defending us from accusations and attempted condemnation by the enemy of our souls (Romans 8:34, Hebrews 7:24-25).  Jesus has paid the price to redeem us (Titus 2:14, Revelation 5:9-10).  There is therefore now no condemnation for those who have run to the Savior (Romans 8:1).

Power and glory.  Jesus relinquished them for awhile, exchanged His heavenly robes of infinite light for a frail human body that could break and bleed.  Instead of remaining the Source, Jesus allowed Himself to become the perfect channel through which God would broadcast light and life into the world.  Through Him flowed as much power and glory as could be cloaked by the skin of one human male, which was plenty.  Jesus poured out a bounty of love, healing, wisdom and hope, all for the benefit of His beloved created ones.  In return, He endured insults, ridicule, hunger, fatigue, abandonment, betrayal and death.  Yet, by the miracle of grace, He triumphed.

Jesus' radical act of ultimate humility accomplished the purpose of God, once and for all.

How could you ever imagine that a King would conquer His enemy by walking right into enemy territory, laying down His life and dying?

Yet, this paradoxical action undid the power of sin.  We cannot totally understand it, but we can believe it.

And afterwards, Jesus returned to His glory, by the mighty power of God.  I can't understand this either; somehow the post-resurrection glory is even greater than the glory before Jesus died.

We haven't seen anything yet.

But wait, there's more.

God invites us into this glory, to share it with Him and to live with Him, in His presence, for all eternity (2 Thessalonians 2:14).

Did you get that?

He invites us into His glory.

How?  How can He even want to do this?  Why does He love us like this?  We do not deserve this.  We don't even appreciate it.  We can't comprehend the outrageousness of it.  Lots of people simply reject the truth altogether, as ridiculous.  They have a point.  It is ridiculous.  That God should love me enough to become a man and die for me is absolutely ridiculous.  But He does and He did.

Do you know what else is ridiculous?  It's ridiculous that so many believers take this all for granted.  Yes, Jesus loves me.  Yes, Jesus died for me.  Yes, I get to go to heaven.  We just assume.  We take it in stride.  Of course God loves us.  Of course Jesus died for us.  Of course we are going to go to heaven.

This is why we need humility.  Humility enables us to realize that the truth about Jesus is mind-boggling.  Humility allows the wonder of grace to wash over us like waves that take our breath away.  Humility helps us internalize some wisdom about who God is, and what He does not owe us but miraculously gives us anyway.  Humility allows us to experience gratitude and joy.  Humility results in joy.

So many things are paradoxical.

Power, glory, humility.

My verse for the year:

Yours, O Lord, 
is the greatness and the power and the glory 
and the victory and the majesty,
for all that is in the heavens 
and in the earth is Yours.
Yours is the kingdom, O Lord,
and You are exalted
as head above all.
~1 Chronicles 29:11

Monday, February 5, 2018

Lessons from sudoku

The Lord is teaching me humility, and it is hard.

It's hard for many reasons, one being because I didn't know how lacking I was in humility.  I thought I was a pretty humble person.  One thing He's showing me: thinking I was humble was a prideful attitude.

I pray that God will make me genuinely humble, and that this process will result in the beauty of Christ being magnified.  Although being humbled must by nature involve a certain amount of humiliation, I do pray that the Lord will humble me without shaming me.  Psalm 34:5 says, "Those who look to Him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame."  May it be to me, O Lord, because of Your mercy, faithfulness and goodness.

During this challenging journey toward humility, I hit a rough patch awhile back.  There was a week when I struggled in ways that are difficult for me to understand.  One day, I literally spent all day in bed doing sudoku.  I got up at one point, showered, put on clean pajamas, and went back to bed.  I was not sick, but I was mildly dizzy, had no appetite, and had no energy.  I kept doing sudoku puzzle after sudoku puzzle, sort of desperately clinging to the idea that if I could solve sudoku, my mind must still be functioning.

If you are not familiar with sudoku, I will describe it.  A standard sudoku puzzle is a grid of 81 squares, 9 x 9.  Thus, it is also a grid of nine 3 x 3 boxes of squares.  The trick is that each horizontal row of nine, each vertical column of nine, and each cubed box of nine must contain the digits 1-9.  They provide a grid with a few digits in place, and your job is to fill in the missing numbers.

These puzzles range from "easy" to "very difficult," depending on how many numbers are provided for you to start, and which numbers.

I generally start by examining each box of nine, going left to right, top to bottom, and figuring out if there are any numbers I can fill in, based on what information is available.  After a first pass through this way, it is sometimes worth making another pass through, if I picked up a number of digits the first time.  Sometimes in a cube, I can ascertain that a particular digit must be in one of two boxes in that cube.  If I can get that possibility down to 2, I mark the digit in the lower left corner of the boxes (moving to the right, if the box is one of two for various digits).  Then, if a different digit winds up belonging in one of those 2 boxes, I can know for sure that the other one is the box for the digit I've marked.  This works best at the beginning of the process and becomes confusing and easy to mess up as the process continues.

When that technique has been exhausted, I move on to examining individual squares, to figure out what they might be, based on what is already present in the row, column and box that contain the square.  At this point, I "mark up" the boxes by writing all the digits that could possibly be in the box in a very tiny row across the top.  In "easy" puzzles, I find that usually I can limit myself to marking up only boxes with 2, or maybe 3, possible digits, but in "very difficult" puzzles, I wind up with lots of marks in lots of boxes.  Sudoku requires a hearty eraser.

At the beginning of a puzzle, you can usually fill in a few boxes without too much trouble.  As you go along, it gets harder and harder, and you almost always hit a point where you feel stuck, and nothing is happening.  At this point, I find that the best thing to do is be patient, and just plug away, marking up boxes and looking up and down rows, across columns, and through cubes for anything you can eliminate as a possibility.  There is almost always a point at which you have thoroughly marked a puzzle, when you see something that makes the whole thing break loose: because this particular square is this number and not that number, then a long chain reaction ensues, resulting in the ultimate solution of the puzzle.  Thus, the final solution of the puzzle is almost always immensely satisfying as a rush of pieces fall into place.  No matter how long I may have agonized over a puzzle, once the solution breaks loose, I get a thrill that makes me want to dive right into another one.

Shawn mentioned that he thought I liked doing sudoku because I can solve a puzzle, reach a solution, tie everything up all neat and tidy.  Life isn't like that.  Life is out of control.  But, if I am patient, I can control and solve a sudoku puzzle.

Sudoku has encouraged me in patience and perseverance.  Once I did a Very Difficult one.  It took me three days (I'm not very smart-- but, of course, at that point I wasn't spending all day in bed with it; I was doing laundry, shopping for groceries, cooking and walking with my friends, so we are not talking about three solid days).  It took me three days, because once I got it marked up, I poked and checked and cross-checked and looked and thought, but I couldn't get to the place where a discovery broke loose the chain reaction.  I was simply stuck. Finally, on the third day, I decided that the only remaining tactic was to start trying options and see what happened.  I printed out some blank grids, and copied over what I had already solved.  Then, I started with the upper right cube, which was missing three numbers.  Based on what else was missing from the puzzle, the three missing numbers could be arranged three different ways.  I filled in one possibility and worked through the chain reaction that ensued.  It was not the right solution.  I started over with a fresh grid and a new combination.  That one didn't work either.  The third (and last possible) combination worked.  I solved the puzzle.  It wasn't beautiful.  It was a messy and painstaking solution.  But I figured it out.  Patience and perseverance got the job done.

Sudoku books have an answer key in the back.  I'm not going to lie.  Sometimes when I'm working a really hard puzzle, I'll run a check halfway through, to make sure the numbers I've already figured out are right.  I hate to invest hours of time into a puzzle with faulty data.  I make rules for myself, about how much I can look at the back.  My main rule is that I cannot place any number in the puzzle unless I myself can work out why it belongs in the box.  I also have a rule that I have to work forward.  I can figure out a number and then check it, but I can't look up a number and then work backwards to justify it.  Nevertheless, I think the answer key is a good resource, and in a way it is like having God's Word.  It's different, of course, because we should never restrict ourselves from reading and applying God's Word.  Yet, I think there is a valuable concept here, that God's Word is most valuable to us when we have experienced it, worked it out in real life, in practical ways.  Just reading the Bible academically and gaining head knowledge is sort of like looking up answers in advance for a sudoku puzzle.  On the other hand, taking the Word into our hearts and living by what we have learned is like working through a puzzle and then checking how it matches the answer key at the end.  Problem solving resources help us most when we are fully invested in working through the problem on a deep level.

When I first discovered my affection for sudoku, I thought it was because a solved puzzle contrasted so clearly against the messiness of real life.  However, as I pondered it, I realized that in the end, all the plans and purposes of the Lord will be revealed to be perfect.  I have faith that the answer key for my sudoku puzzle will reveal a valid solution, and I have a much greater faith and hope in Christ, that by His design and power, everything will be made right at the end of this age.  The time-space continuum of the universe is like a vast, multi-dimensional sudoku puzzle.  It's not a flat, 81-square grid on a piece of paper.  It's a living, moving puzzle of nearly infinite numbers and dimensions, contained in the Mind of God.  God has authority and dominion over every part of it, and He is patiently working out the kinks, fixing every defect caused by sin, always creating more beauty and grace.  His loving attention is perfectly effective.  He has a purpose and a plan for everything.  When the final chain-reaction of order unzips under the care of His fingertips, we will be delighted and astounded, overwhelmed by His glory.

It will be okay.  Everything is going to be okay.

Psalm 145:17
The Lord is righteous in all His ways
and loving toward all He has made.

Revelation 22:3-5
No longer will there be any curse.
The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city,
and His servants will serve Him.
They will see His face,
and His name will be on their foreheads.
There will be no more night.
They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun,
for the Lord God will give them light.
And they will reign for ever and ever.

Friday, January 26, 2018

An amazing gift

After the holidays, when the kids had left and the house was forlorn, Shawn and I rattled around in a mild depression for awhile.

Then I had an idea.

I cut up about 50 little slips of paper, almost one per week of the year, and divided them between us.  We sat across from each other at the kitchen table and wrote out things to do on the slips.  It could be anything: "Invite somebody over for dinner in a week; plan the menu and start preparing today."  Or:  "Go down to the basement and empty two packing boxes."  Or:  "Go shopping and buy each other a gift."

We filled out our slips, folded them in two, and put them into a container.  Every Friday, we draw one.  If we are too busy, we do not have to draw a slip, but that has not happened yet.

Last Friday, this is what we drew:

(Shawn wrote it, and it says, "Sit, Relax & enjoy a complete Beethoven Sonata or Symphony")

I knew immediately which Beethoven Symphony I wanted to listen to.  The Beautiful One, of course, that draws you in and takes your breath away.  The one with the melodies that intertwine and swirl around each other, stroking your heart and making you hope it will never end.  The one with the second movement I call, "The Broomstick Dance."

I'd borrowed it on a CD from the Liverpool Public Library many long years ago, when Shannon, David and Lu were very small and Jonathan not yet even born.  We lived in a little white cape in North Syracuse, and I would play that CD and dance around the small living room with the babies, pretending to sweep like a dreamy Cinderella during the second movement, and galloping madly in circles through the last movement, until we fell in an exhausted heap at the end.

When the CD was due at the library, I returned it without noting which number the Symphony was.  Thus began a search over many years to learn what it had been and recover it.

All I knew was that it wasn't the 5th Symphony.  So it was a long search.  Finally, one day I bought a CD through a classical music club we'd been sucked into.  It was Leonard Bernstein's final concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra: Four Sea Interludes by Britten, and a Beethoven Symphony.  I put it into the CD player and it was the one!

Last weekend, we couldn't find Leonard's final concert CD.  We went through all our other Beethoven recordings, hoping to find our beloved symphony on another one, and ended up listening to the 6th Symphony, I believe, which--although a very good symphony--was not the one I was hungry for.  Unsatisfied, we continued our search for Leonard, and finally found him buried deep in a compartment in Shawn's car.

We listened.   We loved it.  I said, "I don't have a bucket list.  But if I did, I would put on it that I would like to hear this symphony live!  Someday, will you take me to hear this live, Shawn?"

I was thinking it was Symphony 2, so I Google searched it, and found that the LA Symphony Orchestra is performing it in March at Disneyland.  Shawn said we probably wouldn't be able to make that performance.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday I went to a brunch with some Bible study friends, and one of my friends invited me to a Mozart Birthday Bash at the University of Illinois this weekend.  At home later that afternoon, I went online to peruse tickets for Mozart, and happened to see that the Minnesota Orchestra was going to be here at the University on Thursday, performing Beethoven's 7th.  I'm not sure how it happened, but somehow I thought to go downstairs and check the Leonard CD, and sure enough, it was not the 2nd Symphony.  It was the 7th Symphony.  Here.  In town.  The very next day.  And two perfect seats remained in the second row of the balcony, left of center.

Since Shawn and I hadn't given each other Christmas gifts, he was more than happy to purchase these two tickets.

So last night we went to this concert at the Krannert Center, and it was so good.  So good.  It was so good, I could not believe it.  Usually with a classical concert, they do something unfamiliar or obsolete first, and then finish with the familiar thing that people really want to hear.  But last night's concert was amazing from start to finish.

It began with Sibelius, En Saga, Opus 9.  While not as renowned as Finlandia, it was completely lovely.

Then, oh then.  The second number was Tchaikovsky, Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor for Piano and Orchestra Op. 23.  Inon Barnatan played the piano solo.  This was absolutely amazing, and would have made for an ultimately satisfying evening even if it had been the end.

However, it was not the end.  After intermission, the orchestra came back and played Beethoven's 7th.  I was so excited, I thought I'd burst.  It was absolutely thrilling.  I cannot imagine a better concert.  The only bad part was that it ended.  I wanted them to play it all over again.

It is astounding to me how this all came together.  How did it happen that the symphony I have always loved best would surface in our minds just in time for us to discover (randomly!) that it was in town, and buy tickets to see it?  It was very well attended.  Why were our perfect seats available?  The seats were perfect right down to our view of the solo pianist, which I had not even thought to consider.

God does the most outrageously amazing things sometimes--before we even ask.  I wouldn't even have thought to ask for something like this.  Oh, He is such a good planner.  He even took care of logistic details.  It was a twenty minute drive, in light traffic, with free parking beneath the center.  The parking spot right next to the elevator was open and waiting for us.  Can you believe it?  Why do I ever doubt Him?  If He can plan something like this, pure beauty and joy simply to thrill my heart, how could He not work out the salvation of souls who need Him?

Psalm 4:6
Many are asking, "Who can show us any good?"  
Let the light of Your face shine on us, O Lord.

Amen.  Thank you, Lord Jesus.  Thank you.

Monday, January 22, 2018

BSF -- Lesson 16, Romans 9

Romans 9 is a troubling chapter.  It is not my favorite chapter in scripture, that's for sure.

We had to face it this week in BSF.

It often seems that when a particularly difficult portion of scripture comes up, study resources dodge the stickiest issues.

I will say this though:

Although I do not affectionately embrace much of Romans 9,
one of my favorite verses is in Romans 9.

Christians don't get to ponder this verse very much, because it is in the middle of Romans 9, and we are usually trying to squint and get around Romans 9 without looking too carefully at it.  But nevertheless, there in Romans 9, we have one of my favorite Bible verses:

[Paul is referring to his brother Israelites] 
Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, 
who is God over all, forever praised!  Amen.
Romans 9:5

This is an incredibly important verse, the central key to interpreting all of the Bible.

First, and most simple and obvious: This verse clearly states in no uncertain terms that Jesus Christ is God.  This is the most important truth in all of scripture.  Everything else hinges on this.

Everything hinges on Jesus.

God's entire plan for history centers on Jesus.

The whole Bible is about Jesus.

This verse, Romans 9:5, explains how the whole Bible is about Jesus and how the Old Testament and the New Testament work together.

The Old Testament is the history of the ancestry of Christ.  Everything in the Old Testament points to the coming Christ, the promised Messiah.  The Old Testament traces Christ's lineage, records the prophecies and promises of His coming, and includes many multifaceted symbols and types to illustrate what He would be like and what He would do.  The Chosen People of God, in the Old Testament, were chosen to be the ancestors of Messiah for the salvation of the world.  They were chosen to give birth to Messiah.

This is why the Israelites were special to God: not because they were in some way intrinsically better than other people, but because they were His chosen means for providing grace to all humanity.  God knew He would take on flesh and complete His mission at just the right time (Galatians 4:4, Romans 5:6).  From the beginning, God was working out His plan, choosing and preserving a line of people through whose genetics He Himself would enter creation.  He even took care that the appropriate history and prophecies would be recorded long in advance, to document His plan.  This is why the Bible is one story of redemption that comes to us through a collection of literary documents spanning a period of approximately 2000 years, catalogued by 40 or more different writers.  There is no other religious book anything like this, because the Bible is the only book that comes from God, and only God could orchestrate a book like this.

It's easy to see that the New Testament is all about Jesus, because it just is.  The New Testament includes four different accounts of Jesus' life.  The book of Acts explains how Jesus left earth and sent His Spirit to empower the church to spread the Kingdom of God and finish the ministry.  The epistles, or letters, describe what Jesus has accomplished and what this great salvation means, and how we should live as redeemed believers.  Revelation describes the glory that is our ultimate hope, and encourages us to persevere through trials until we arrive at the unveiled presence of Jesus in the New Heaven and the New Earth.

The New Testament is obviously all about Jesus.

But the Old Testament is all about Jesus, too.  Luke alludes to this when he writes about how the risen Christ appeared to some disciples on the road to Emmaus: "And beginning with Moses and the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself," (Luke 24:27).

Paul, who wrote Romans (and many other epistles), was a trained Pharisee, educated under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3, Philippians 3:4-6).  Prior to his conversion by the bright light on the road to Damascus, Paul was a very active Jewish official, zealously persecuting Christians, whom he saw as a threat to the beliefs that were most precious to him.  Paul knew the Old Testament inside out and forwards and backwards.  He knew the Law, the prophets, and the history of his people.

These days, we are used to the idea that salvation is by faith, and that non-Jewish people can have access to salvation.  However, we need to understand, as we read Romans, that these ideas were new and groundbreaking for Paul.  He had always believed that the Jews were more special and more precious to God than any other people.  He had always believed that Jewishness was first a matter of birth, and second a matter of keeping the Law, and--in any case--absolutely necessary for finding favor with God.  Jewish tradition taught that Jewish people, and Jewish people alone, were God's people.  A non-genetically Jewish person could maybe become a Jew by being circumcised and meticulously keeping the Law, but Jewishness was huge, and the Law was absolutely imperative.

This is why, in Romans, Paul spends so much time explaining that the Law is an impossible standard which no man could ever meet by the strength of his will.  It is also why Paul goes on to say things like:

For God does not show favoritism.  (Romans 2:11)

A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical.  No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly, and circumcision is circumcision of the heart by the Spirit, not by the written code.  (Romans 2:28-29a)

And then there's all of Chapter 4.  I'll highlight a couple points here:

[Abraham] is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them.  And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.  (Romans 4:11b-12)

Therefore the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring--not only to those of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham.  He is the father of us all.  (Romans 4:16)

Paul has spent eight chapters developing the idea that salvation, life and righteousness are available:

  • Only through the atoning death of Christ.
  • Only to those who believe in Christ.
  • To all people who believe in Christ, regardless of their background.  

He crescendoed to a magnificent peak in Chapter 8, describing all the hope, glory and victory that belong to those who put their faith in Christ Jesus.

Now, in Chapter 9, Paul turns to face the destiny of the Jews.  Are they God's special, treasured possession?  Or aren't they?  Apparently not exactly, Paul laments in Romans 9:1-3.  He grieves for his people, to the point of wishing he himself could be cursed in order to change their outcome.  I do not think this is in the Bible to tell us that we should rather go to hell than see our loved ones perish apart from the Lord.  I think it is here to show that the fate of those without faith is a very serious problem.  Paul has been grappling with this, and it is a bitter pill for him, with his background and all its assumptions of favor for the Jewish nation.  Yet, Paul has come to the realization that people's eternal destiny depends solely on whether they put their faith in Jesus, not on whether they are Jewish.

I've been doing sudoku, so I'm thinking in grids.

Here you go:
This grid shows two ways you can divide humans up, and how the divisions intersect.

As you see, all people can be described as either Jewish, or not Jewish (non-Jew).
All people can also be described as people with faith, or people without faith.
When you chart out these divisions, you get four types of people:
1.  Jewish people with faith in Christ.
2.  Jewish people without faith in Christ.
3.  Non-Jewish people with faith in Christ.
4.  Non-Jewish people without faith in Christ.

This grid has been marked to show which of the four types of people 
from the above divisions have salvation.

1.  Jews and non-Jews who have faith in Christ have salvation.
2.  Jews and non-Jews who do not have faith in Christ do not have salvation.

It can get a little bit confusing as you read Romans, because Paul sometimes calls those who have faith a Jew or Israel.  When he does this, he means God's people are the ones who are saved through faith, and those who are saved through faith are God's people.  Paul is so programmed to think of Jewish people as God's people, that he still calls God's people Jews, or Israel, even though that means redefining "Israel" to mean those who put their faith in Christ.  Paul explains what he means by his term Israel in Romans 9:6, when he says, "For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel."

Paul summarizes the point in Romans 9:8--

In other words, it is not the natural children [those born genetically of Jewish descent] who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise [those who walk in the faith of Abraham] who are regarded as Abraham's offspring.

Through the rest of the chapter, Paul struggles with the idea that Jewish people who do not put their faith in Christ are not the people of God.  I don't think he likes it any more than anybody else, probably less.  I get the feeling that Paul is preaching to himself through these verses, reminding himself--and us--that God has mercy on whom He will have mercy (Romans 9:10-18).  God is our Creator; we are created beings, in no way qualified to judge God's actions or second guess His choices (Romans 9:19-21).

There is a very troubling section in Romans 9:22-23, where Paul asks (and I paraphrase), "What if God created certain people only to be objects of wrath?  What if the sole purpose for some people's lives is to be destroyed, doomed pawns in God's process of bringing His rich glory to those He lovingly created to save?"  I am not convinced that Paul is saying God actually works this way.  I think Paul may be postulating that even if God did do this, we wouldn't have any right to criticize Him, because He is God, and we are not.  There are many other places where scripture reveals God's heart full of love (John 3:16-17, 1 Timothy 2:3-4, 2 Peter 3:9).  These are clear teachings about God's character and His desire to bless humanity, save us, and help us flourish.  Paul might not be saying that God pragmatically designates certain people to perdition for the sake of His elect.*  Maybe Paul is only reminding us that we need to humble ourselves before God and accept what is difficult and confusing as well as what is clear and comforting.  (See the book of Job, especially chapters 38-42 where God asks, "Who is this that darkens my counsel without knowledge?" and, "Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him?"  Clearly, the answer is that we are unworthy, as Job readily admits.)

Paul reminds himself--and us--that the prophet Hosea prophesied long ago how God would call into His kingdom those who had not been His people, in other words, Gentiles (Romans 9:23-26).  Of course, today when the church is so heavily populated by believing Gentiles, this seems like a no-brainer.  However, in Paul's day it was a new, liberal thought.  God lovingly welcomes Gentile believers into His Kingdom.

Paul finishes Chapter 9 with a quote from Isaiah, referencing "the remnant."  This idea will be explored further in chapters 10-11.  The remnant is those Israelites who will surely be saved, because they walk by faith.  Paul deeply longs for all his people to put their faith in Christ and be saved.  Romans 10:1 says, "Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they might be saved."

Romans 9 takes the centrality and paramount importance of Christ's function in salvation--the theme of Romans up to this point--and examines the Jewish condition in light of this truth.

This section of Romans, chapters 9-11, is Paul's anguished discussion of the fate of the Jews in light of the truth that salvation comes by faith in Christ, and only by faith in Christ.  Jews can be saved, but they must put their faith in Christ.

When we get to Chapter 11, we will see that Paul has great hope for Jews, that their background, knowledge of scripture and previous exposure to the Father will have trained and formed many of them to be receptive to the gospel.  I am especially interested in Romans 11:26 and Romans 11:32, but if I write about those verses, I will do it in a couple of weeks, when we get there.

In the meantime, how do we apply what we learn in Romans 9?

I think I would divide Romans 9 into two sections,
the function of Israel (verses 1-5),
and the fate of Israel (verses 6-33).

The function of Israel is easy to understand:  Israel was God's chosen instrument, the nation through which He chose to take on flesh and blood and enter into the world.  "...[F]rom them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised!  Amen" (from Romans 9:5).

Applications we can take from this truth include:

1.  The more we understand about the divinity and supremacy of Christ, the deeper and more heartfelt our worship will be.

2.  The more we understand about the eternal nature and scope of God's plan of redemption, the more awed we will be by the miracle of the Bible, which is the collected record of all He has done, and the more confident we will be in its truth.

3.  Natural Israel's function was to bring Messiah to earth as a baby who would grow up and be crucified for the sins of the world.  We are the new Israel, the spiritual Israel, the children of the promise.  Natural Israel gave birth to Christ.  The Spirit of Christ gave birth to us.  Now our job is to carry the Spirit of Christ throughout the world, bearing witness to what Jesus has done and what His Spirit is doing even today.  So, as Israel, we still have the job of bringing Messiah to the world, albeit in a slightly different way.

4.  Although Paul clearly explains that Jewish people are not automatically set up for salvation, he explains here (and also in Romans 3:1-2) that Jewish people have been especially blessed by God.  God gave them a very important role to fulfill, and He protected, preserved and provided for them so they would be able to fulfill it.  We should never be anti-Semitic.  We should respect and esteem Jewish people and Jewish culture, and join Paul in praying that Jewish people will find Christ and come to a saving faith.

Application #4 bleeds into applications we can take from looking at what Paul writes about the fate of Israel.  The fate of Israel depends on whether individual Israelites come to faith in Christ.  The same is true for all humanity.  Those who believe in Jesus will be saved, and those who reject Him will not.  How do we apply this?

1.  We pray for mercy.  God says that He has mercy on whom He will have mercy.  This is His decision and not ours.  It is absolutely imperative that we never make our own determination that God has decided against showing mercy to someone.  As long as there is life, there is hope.  As long as a person lives, we pray for God's mercy, for the dawning of saving faith.  We should pray this for Jews and Gentiles alike.  God is mighty to save.  Jesus died so that men could be saved.  Our job is to hope and pray and demonstrate the joy of the Spirit and (when the opportunity arises) share the gospel for the salvation of many souls.

2.  We humble ourselves before God and remember who He is.  God is worthy of praise regardless of who believes in Jesus and who rejects Jesus.  We must not accuse God of being unfair.  We must not demand that God do things our way instead of His way.  We must never, never presume to correct God.  We must admit that our knowledge and understanding are limited and flawed, while God's knowledge and understanding are infinite and perfect (Isaiah 55:9-11).  We must humble ourselves before the Lord and surrender in trust to whatever He brings into our lives.

3.  We maintain a spirit of joyful wonder and gratitude that, however it came to be, we have been granted faith unto salvation.  God has given us righteousness through faith; this is glorious and we celebrate it!  As we hope and pray for others to come to faith, we rejoice in the faith that we ourselves have.  As we grieve for those whose lives are passing by in a state of separation from Christ, we appreciate every single moment God gives us to worship Him.

* We know that God is omniscient (all knowing).  His knowledge and wisdom are perfect.  He exists outside of time and space and knows all things simultaneously.  Therefore, God definitely must know the outcome of every person's life from before the beginning.  How this all works out in terms of the doctrine of election (and particularly objects of wrath prepared for destruction) is beyond my understanding.  I know that God is love.  God rescues.  God saves.  God delivers.  God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23, 33:11).  God loves the world so much that He was willing to incarnate and die a tortuous death to redeem people from the penalty of sin.  1 John 2:2 says that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world.  God is good, and He demonstrated His goodness by dying for us while we were lost in sin.  I know all these things about God, so I am going to trust Him, and be thankful for my own election, and not worry about anybody else's election, and pray for the salvation of the souls He lays on my heart.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Trying to get back on the bike

This is a picture of my legs, wearing my new pajama pants, at my computer.

I've been away from the computer for a long time, and even today it was a great struggle to sit down here.  All I want to do is wear my pale gray plaid flannel pants and do sudoku.

Shawn says I like sudoku because, unlike life, it always comes out nice and neatly solved in the end.  The solutions are so tidy that I find myself marveling at how these puzzles are made.  They must be even more complex to design than they are to solve.

I've been having trouble writing, talking and eating.  Like I said, all I want to do is wear these pants and do sudoku, preferably in bed, because it is warm there.  It's been bitter cold, although today was warmer and I took Schubert for a walk in the neighborhood.

Shawn has been amazingly patient with me, and I do not know why.  I secretly wonder if I am crazy and he's not telling me.  On Wednesday, I literally did nothing except shower and go back to bed with a sudoku book.  Shawn got takeout from Texas Roadhouse and fed me steak, salad and a baked potato for dinner.  On Thursday, I got up and walked for an hour with a friend, then grocery shopped, did laundry and changed the sheets on my bed (I'd been in it so much, it really needed to be freshened).  I meant to make fish and kale for dinner, but we had leftover chili instead.

When I think about things, I get worried, so I think about sudoku.  I can solve sudoku.  It feels so good every time I get to the last phase of a puzzle where all the missing numbers unzip to the solution.  There's a small thrill of euphoric satisfaction at how everything lines up correctly, and then I want nothing else than to do another one.

I don't have much appetite.  I'm tired, quiet and a bit nauseated.  Did I mention that we got a new furnace?  That was a very cold day.  The day before was minus 15 degrees, and so was the day after, but the day they installed the furnace was 15 degrees (positive 15), so I should be thankful, and I am.  Nonetheless, it was cold.  You can't run an old furnace while it is being taken out, and you can't run a new furnace while it is being put it, so I wore my coat and huddled with a small space heater, a dog and a comforter.  The house dipped to 49 degrees before it began to heat up again.  My peace lily isn't looking so good anymore.  I don't remember which day this was.  The bill has not yet arrived.  I'm trying not to think about it.

On another note:

There isn't any conflict of interest between my words for the year:  Power, Glory and Humility.  The power and the glory belong to God ("for Thine is the ... power and the glory forever...").  The more aware I am of God's power and glory, the more humble I will be.  Even when God's power works inside of me, it is no cause for pride, because it's all Him and not me.

Andrew Murray, in his book, Humility: the Beauty of Holiness, says it this way:  "Just as water always seeks and fills the lowest place, so the moment God finds the creature humble and empty, His glory and power flow in to raise up and bless."

That's all I've got.