09BengaliDhaka lone treeIt is one of the most powerful negative forces in the universe.  It is the primary motivator in the 2000 or more suicides that occur every day around the world.  In China someone takes his/her own life every two minutes and in America every 17 minutes, making suicide the 8th leading cause of death here.  In fact, suicide deaths in the USA outnumber the homicide deaths three to two; that is, annually for every two murders there are three suicides.

Such deaths occur across the spectrum of socio-economic success.  Think of the Robin Williams or Marilyn Monroes that have more money, fame or power than most of us ever dream of having.  While more suicides occur in lower socio-economic strata, could it be only because there are more of us living here?  There has been very little examination of rates of suicide compared to wealth, most studies focusing on mental health and familial support systems.  The fact remains that material success bears almost no relation to the sense of loneliness that eats away the feelings of living.

It is that sense of loneliness that precedes almost every suicide (exceptions made for altruistic suicide, i.e. suicide for a “cause”).  “No one ever has suffered as much as I am suffering, no one understands my losses, my stress, my problems.”  This is the common thinking just prior to a suicide.  “No one  .  .  .”   I am all alone.

DisappointmentLoneliness has a way of sapping the life out of your innermost being.  It leaves you exhausted after a full night’s sleep; it haunts you in a crowd of laughing friendly faces; it shuts out the light that should brighten a day; it deflates you like a balloon with a tiny pin-hole, slowly but certainly exhuming any breath of life.

But the truth is that no one is really alone.  The Bible tells a different story: No temptation* has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted* beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted*, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13;  *The word translated most commonly as a negative “temptation,” also carries the positive concept of “test” or “trial run.”  As a wise friend says, Don’t be impressed; you can look it up. 😉 )

From the very beginning of earth history, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18)  But because of our willful sinfulness we became separated from That Source of Life and loving fellowship, and now we often find ourselves feeling very much alone.  Job felt it deeply when he was under oppression by the enemy of men’s souls:

Job without comforters11 “Therefore I will not keep silent;
    I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.
12 Am I the sea, or the monster of the deep, that You put me under guard?
13 When I think my bed will comfort me and my couch will ease my complaint,
14 even then You frighten me with dreams and terrify me with visions,
15 so that I prefer strangling and death, rather than this body of mine.
16 I despise my life; I would not live forever. Let me alone; my days have no meaning.

17 What is mankind that You make so much of them, that You give them so much attention,
18 that You examine them every morning and test them every moment?
19 Will You never look away from me, or let me alone even for an instant?
20 If I have sinned, what have I done to You, You who see everything we do?
    Why have You made me Your target? Have I become a burden to You?
21 Why do You not pardon my offenses and forgive my sins?
    For I will soon lie down in the dust; men will search for me, but I will be no more.” (Job 7:11-21)

“If any man besides the Lord Jesus was ever alone, Job was it!  Feelings of bitterness, abandonment, worthlessness, and hopelessness filled his days.  His highest reach was to die and escape the misery of this life, though he refused to sin against God and take his own life.  But his emptiness of purpose, of meaning, and of real companionship, not to mention his physical ills and all the misfortune that had fallen on him, were draining his very life away.

“However, God’s plan for us, for you, is to not merely survive, but thrive.  Many times that I have been asked the polite question, “C.A., how are you doing?”  I have responded, “Surviving; it beats the alternative. 😉 ”  But there is actually a better alternative: to thrive!  The dictionary defines thriving as blossoming, developing, flourishing, successfully growing, to shine!

Another Bible author who experienced intense feelings of despair penned an entire Lamentation of his pain.  Jeremiah, often called The Weeping Prophet, summed it up in Lamentations 3:19-20:I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.”  However, instead of wallowing in the despair and humiliation that had been heaped on him, he went to God’s words revealed in previous prophecies and most of all to his own relationship with The God Who Is There.

Then he proceeded to write:
Lonely No More.png21″ Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:
22 Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for Him.”
25 The LORD is good to those whose hope is in Him, to the one who seeks Him;
26 it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.
27 It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young.
28 Let him sit alone in silence, for the LORD has laid it on him.
29 Let him bury his face in the dust — there may yet be hope.
30 Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him, and let him be filled with disgrace.
31 For no one is cast off by the LORD forever.
32 Though He brings grief, He will show compassion, so great is His unfailing love.
33 For He does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.”  (Lamentations 3:21-33)
(Note: the LORD in all caps is the translators’ replacement of the personal name of God, Yahweh, or the I AM, sometimes anglicized to Jehovah.)

The apostle Paul several centuries later declared, “None of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that He might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.” (Romans 14:7-9)

So if you are feeling lonely, rest in the assurance of the prophets and apostles, and rejoice before Him — His name is the LORD. A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, He leads out the prisoners with singing.” (Psalm 68:4-6)

Trust Him to set you in a family of His choosing, and rejoice in the LORD, Yahweh, and say goodbye to loneliness.

Living In The Shadowlands

Shadowland CCRecently a new church was planted in the city just to the south of Lexington.  Shadowland Community Church was established as “a safe place to find Hope.”  The name probably comes from C.S.Lewis, who called these lands we live in, The Shadowlands.  His understanding seemed to be that there is a “real” world at which we shall all arrive someday, either an eternal place of  comfort, peace and joy, or an eternal place of loneliness, noise and misery.  This world is only a “shadow” of the world to come, one that we begin making by our choices.  The real world will be an enlargement and expansion of all the beauty, wonder, and marvels of this “shadowland” for the redeemed.  It will be a shrunken and shriveled up tiny sphere of all the misery, defeats and horrors of this “shadowland” for those who are perishing without Hope. (See June 8, 2015.)

This fits with Hebrews 10 description of the way man used to come to God before Jesus came on the scene.  The only way to get close to God before the Christ came was to obey God’s law given through Moses, and we know how poorly the Jews followed through on that!  Thus the writer of Hebrews says, The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.” (10:2)

Every day a priest was to stand in a specific place and offer sacrifices for sins, the same sacrifices over and over.  But the sin, which was in the heart, was never removed.  The guilt for what was past was cleansed for the moment, but the natural inclination to repeat the action of sins resulted in each sinner coming back again and again to the place where a priest could offer another sacrifice for the “same-old same-old.”  And as for following all the details of the Jewish Torah or Law, who could even keep track of all the orders of when to bring a lamb, bird or a grain offering, or of the lists of sins, both unintentional and intentional, that had requirements for sacrifices for each one?

Lamb of GodHowever, when Jesus offered Himself as the perfect Lamb of God, He was the spotless sacrifice for sin that could do so much more than merely remove the guilt of what had been done; He could remove the very heart of the sin, the sin-nature that causes the continuous actions of sin.  So He offered for all time one sacrifice for sins .” (Hebrews 10:12)

I do not mean that when you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior that you will never do anything wrong again.  The difference is that now when we stumble, we fall forward instead of backward.  So Hebrews 10:14 clarifies the effect of His one sacrifice, For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”  In other words, we are in process of being made fully holy, but we are now and immediately blameless in the eyes of God.  He now writes His laws in our hearts and minds and forgets the sins of the past, even the immediate past.

We must be careful, however, not to abuse this grace of His forgiveness.  Paul asked the Romans a rhetorical, Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” to which he replied,  By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1-2)  John echoed this in his first letter: “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:7-9)

So though we may at times discover areas in which we have not grown spiritually as we should, or places in our hearts that are still not under the control of the Holy Spirit, or when we find ourselves giving up to temptations of one of the seven deadly sins, we must always come back to Jesus’ once-and-for-all-time sacrifice for our sins and for our sin, and we must turn away from the sin that so easily trips us.

I distinguish “our sins” and “our sin” as noting the difference between our actions that result from our nature.  We are being changed in our hearts, minds, and in our very nature to be like Jesus who was perfect in every way (Hebrews 4:15).  The result of this should be that we act out of His holy nature, that we listen more closely to the whispers of the Holy Spirit of God, and that we act less in sinful behavior than we did before, continually finding that, though we are not yet the man or woman He intends us to be, we can be thankful to Him that we are not the man or woman that we were before!

Hebrews 10:22-23 calls us todraw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.”  In other words, this stands as a warning that we can swerve away from the Hope we profess if we so choose.  And this warning is clearly and firmly stated in Hebrews 10:26-31!

However, I want to call your attention to the encouragement of how we do not need to fall into fear of judgment, but rather how we can strengthen each other to live for God as He intends us to.  “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)  Hmmm, maybe you could do a blog? 😉

We are not meant to live this life alone, but are called into community and family (Psalm 68:6).  Under the Mosaic Law, God realized His decrees were complicated and confusing so He called not just Moses, but the whole nation of Israel, to be His people, to live in a community of obedient learners of the shadows He was showing them (just do a BibleGateway.com search on “community” and see how often it shows up in the Law of Moses!)   After Jesus’ resurrection, the newly formed group of believers in Jerusalem were noted for their fellowship and care for each other (Acts 2:42-47).

Let me challenge you that you can not successfully live for God alone.  You will constantly be stumbling, discouraged, disheartened, feeling weak and ineffective, if you try to live the Spirit-filled life by yourself.  He existed from all eternity as a triune God, three persons in one being; and intends for us to share in His nature as one in a community, carrying each other when we are weak, being encouraged by each other to live for Him, and all the moreso as we see the day of His return approaching.

Live for God with others, sharing the Word, praying together, counseling each other, bearing each other when one is weak, forgiving each other when one stumbles, challenging each other to better obedience, living for the “real world” in these Shadowlands.

“Am I going to trust God and ‘do the truth,’ or follow my own impulses and indulge the shadow side of my nature?”  Steve ElliottShadowlands




Life In a Culture of Death or Death in a Culture of Life?

Kabul BombingA friend of mine lives in a culture of death.  That is, death for one’s religion is often celebrated, encouraged, and rewarded.  If someone chooses to kill others because they disbelieve the cultural standard, his family may receive a reward, especially if he chooses to kill himself in order to kill others.  Mothers may even brag about sons who kill themselves in order to kill “unbelievers.”

This friend recently shared with me his concern with telling even family members about his faith in God.  His fear is understandable in that he believes Jesus is the Son of God, and therefore God.  You see, some of his extended family might mention it to someone else who might mention it to someone else . . . and eventually he would be labeled as an infidel and could be killed if certain people heard that he is a Christian.

It is difficult for those of us in the US, where religious freedom was guaranteed in our constitution (note the past tense), to understand this type of fear.  Our nation was founded on freedom to believe whatever religion you felt in your heart was true, and in fact, to not believe in any religion if that was your choice.  One’s political aspirations, business associations, financial obligations, and property rights and responsibilities are not supposed to be affected by what type of church, synagogue, temple or mosque you may visit or attend regularly.  This separation of religion and the rest of life has served our nation very well for almost 200 years, but mostly because the dominant religion has been Christianity.

Life after deathWe live in a culture of life.  Most of us believe matters of the heart will be settled by God when we die.  If you believe the wrong things, He will set you straight in the end.  If you believe the right things, you will do good works and care for others, even your enemies.  Jesus, after all, is alone in calling on His followers to love their enemies, not just those who agree with Him.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You will love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good.”  (Matthew 5:43)

Later the Apostle Paul echoed a similar instruction to the church in Rome: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. . . . Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary, ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 12:14-21)*

In Matthew, Jesus words were recorded: “Whoever wants to be my disciple 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.” (Matthew 16:24-25)  We would do well to keep these words in mind when we see someone who dresses or behaves in a way that shows that he or she is not a Christian.

You see, we are to die to our selfish nature and love unconditionally as Jesus loved us!  Jesus loved us when we were enemies of goodness, when we were opposed to holiness, when we preferred He did not know what we were thinking or loving.  He loved us when we were very unlovable.  So we should love those who would in the natural be repulsive to us!  We are to love those who are different from us.

This does not mean we lie down like door mats and let others rule over us.  We should do everything we can, within the constraints of loving them, to show them how our way of life is better, how it is better to die in a culture of life than to live in a culture of death.  We must die to ourselves in order to really live to God.

Crucified“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)  This kind of dying to self is real and may cost us our lives someday, even here in America.  Do you think it is impossible that our government could make speaking about Jesus a hate crime?   Are we not narrow-minded to think that Jesus is the only way for salvation?

But the Truth is narrow-minded.  If you wanted directions from Lexington to Cincinnati the “best route” would be to go I-75 North.  I could send you by I-75 South to Chattanooga,  Tennessee, west to Nashville and St. Louis, Missouri, northeast to Indianapolis and finally to I-74 East to Cincinnati, but 16 and 1/2 hours and 1,088 miles later (1750km), you might wonder why I would direct you to a route that would take more than the one and 1/2 hour and only 85 miles (136km) that I-75 North offered.

So when I say that Jesus is the only way to find peace with God, I am not merely being narrow-minded; I am only stating the fact.  You are free to try other ways, but you will not get there nearly as smoothly nor as fast.  And the corollaries of how to live for Him will eventually put you at odds with popular culture, even here in the US.

As a Christ-follower I have no desire to die young nor to kill anyone.  Jesus calls us to LIFE, and that abundantly (John 10:10), but the way to that life is to die to self.  That means being willing to die for what I believe about Jesus.  It is easy to tell someone who lives in a culture of death, “Oh, just trust God to save you from your enemies.”  That is easy language coming from one who lives in a culture of life.  So I cannot judge my friend for his fear; I do not want to die, and I am becoming an old man!  But neither do I want to live too long in a world that is increasing in hatred for Christ-followers.

So I cried for my friend living in a culture of death.  It breaks my heart that he must be careful, even among family, with whom he may share the joy that is living for Jesus.  It is tragic that he cannot freely tell all his friends about forgiveness from Jesus and peace that passes understanding; that he cannot openly declare his faith without risking death.

But eventually, we must all face the fact that we must die to ourselves as Jesus said, or we will lose our lives, never to find them again.  So even though we live in this world, we must choose what culture in which we will live and die.  Marilyn Elliott once said, “In the 21st century, what will make Christians distinct from the rest of the culture is not what they do or don’t do or shouldn’t do. What will make them distinct, make them stand out, is that they won’t be afraid.”

You can live in a culture of death or die in a culture of life.  Which will you choose?

* I intentionally left out the phrase about “heaping coals of fire on their heads” as this is often misunderstood.  Heaping coals of fire was a good thing in that day when fire was not as easily producible as in our times.  More on this in a later blog.

His Hands

HandHe came into the room rough-cut.  His face had the worn look of too many sleepless nights and bitter disappointments.  His hands, though now clean, were calloused and showed the toil they had labored.  A scar on one hand and on his right cheek suggested injury from years ago that had healed as much as it was going to.   His balding head betrayed his age of only 42 making him look older.  And given that this was a man who had grown up in Mongolia it was very possible some of the wear on his face and hands was from a hard-scrabble life.

IMG_0346IMG_0368Then his little girl came up to him while he was praying in the church worship time.  From this rough exterior a gentle love came shining through tender eyes; eyes that somehow did not match the brusque and hard and strong man I saw.  But the shining love in his little girl’s face melted all that hardness and I saw a much different man from the one that had entered the room unprayed and looking for the love of God.  She obviously adored him and I knew that he had found God’s love in his little girl’s heart.  And all that strength I could see in a new light: it was strength that would protect her; hands that would do impossible things to please her;  there was nothing he would not do for this precious little girl that he had fathered into the world.  She knew she was safe in his hands.

And I thought of Another’s hands, One who would have looked rough-cut to the world.  A carpenter whose hands would have been calloused, that would have had the scars of a missed nail or slipped saw.  Calloused, but clean; hard enough to defend against any who would kill, steal or destroy, but gentle enough to tenderly take His child’s hand in His and let His love shine out of His eyes into the grateful and loving eyes of one who adored Him., one whom He had brought into the world to experience His love.

He did not have any form or attractiveness that would make people desire Him.  In fact, in the end even His closest friends counted Him stricken and avoided association with Him.  He was marred more than any man, and why?  Because He would protect His children; He would do impossible things to please them; there was nothing He would not do for the precious ones He loved.

Hand 2So He holds our hands.  When the darkness closes in, He keeps on holding.  When confusion leaves us wondering, He keeps on holding.  Rough and sometimes feeling His callouses, He keeps on holding.  Though dangers surround, He keeps on holding.  We do not serve a god who does not understand the hard-scrabble life that we sometimes encounter; He knows what it is to be a minority; to be under a government that abuses its subjects; to be an outsider from the power circles and earth-shakers that make the headlines and attract all the attention; He knows what it is like in your life, to be misunderstood, unappreciated, rumored, unacceptable, mistrusted.  Yet He keeps on holding.

We can rest because we can know that we are safe in His hands.

Not sure why this is so heavy on my heart today, but maybe it is for you.  Maybe He wants to remind you that He is willing to hold your hand and keep you safe from life’s troubles.  Having your hand in His will not stop the pain; it will not make problems go away.  But there is tremendous comfort in knowing you are safe in His hands.  Do not let go.