Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Father's Love

Raise your hand if you’d like to have a better memory.  Now, imagine having a brain that could remember every day of your life from the time you were around 10.  There really is such a condition.  Neurobiologists call it “Superior Autobiographical Memory,” and have only found 37 people on Earth with the condition, including the actress Marilu Henner.  These people aren’t geniuses; they make average grades in school.  They aren’t any better than the rest of us at remembering lists, numbers or trivia.  But name a date, any date, to someone with this condition, and they can tell you what day of the week it was, what the weather was like, what they wore that day and what they did.  The first person to be diagnosed with this condition was Jill Price, who wrote a memoir a few years ago.  In her book, she talks about living with a superior memory.  She can remember every episode from the TV shows she loved.  When she worked as a secretary at a law firm, her skills came in very handy.  But it turns out this condition is more of a curse than a blessing.  She writes, “Imagine being able to remember every fight you ever had with a friend, every time someone let you down, all the stupid mistakes you've ever made.”  
            I doubt anyone here has superior autobiographical memory.  But we all know what it’s like to suddenly remember a mistake we made long ago, that we thought we had forgotten.  Maybe a person we hurt brings it up; maybe lying in bed, the memory just flashes randomly through our brain.  Either way, it’s amazing the amount of shame we feel in those moments; it’s almost a physical pain.  If we could pay someone to erase those memories from our minds, wouldn’t it be worth it?  I think this is one reason many of us have a sort of uneasy relationship with God.  We know we’ve done bad things.  We’ve been able to fool most of the people around us into thinking we’re better than we actually are; they don’t know the dark things we’ve done, and they certainly don’t know the truly horrible things we think.  But we know that God knows.  He knows every single bad deed, word and thought.  And He has the ultimate Superior Memory.  He cannot forget what we’ve done.  So some of us avoid God until we have nowhere else to turn: “Lord, I promise if you’ll do this one thing for me, I’ll never ask you for anything again.”  Others of us make ourselves and everyone we know miserable, trying desperately to earn God’s love, to make up for who we are, what we’ve done.  There is no joy in the Christian faith for far too many people. We’re ruled by guilt and shame.
            The book of Malachi was written for people like us.  It’s the last book of the Old Testament, and we don’t know much about the man who wrote it.  The name “Malachi” simply means “messenger” in Hebrew, so we’re not entirely sure whether that’s the prophet’s name or just a title.  Whoever he was, he wrote to God’s people in the days after they had come back home from exile, after they had re-built the temple, and probably after Ezra and Nehemiah had helped revive them spiritually and politically.  Malachi wasn’t afraid to tell the people ways in which they needed to change: Stop giving God sacrifices that are worthless, stop divorcing your wives, and start tithing again.  But over and over again, he wants the people to know that God loves them.  They were descended from a generation of Jews who had lost their homeland because of their own sin.  They had come home to the Promised Land, and it wasn’t a land of milk and honey anymore.  They had their rebuilt temple and a rebuilt Jerusalem, but a son of David didn’t rule them anymore; they took their orders from the King of Persia now.  They kept trying to win God’s favor back, but they never felt good enough.  So keep that in mind as you read Malachi 3:17.  This Sunday, we'll look at what God was saying to His people through this obscure verse, and how it's a truth that can change your life forever. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Curse of Too Much and Not Enough

One day when I was in college, I woke up late.  I never, EVER skip breakfast, but I knew I wasn’t going to have time to go to the cafeteria.  I looked in our mini-fridge: All we had was a jar of mangoes that had been around since the Carter Administration.  There was a vending machine on the way to my class.  I checked my little change bowl, and there was about a buck-fifty, just enough for a package of donuts and a carton of milk.  Not exactly the breakfast of champions, but better than an empty stomach.  So I brushed my teeth, put some water on my bed-head, and took off.  But when I put my fifty cents into the machine (the cost of the donuts), nothing happened.  Nothing.  Not knowing what else to do, I put another two quarters in.  Again, the machine acted like I didn’t exist.  My indignation and lack of sleep then overrode any rational thought, and I put in my last two quarters.  Zip, zilch, nada.  I was crushed.  As I moped my way toward class, angry, tired and hungry, I ran into my roommate and best friend, Mike.  He asked, “How’s your day?”  “Terrible,” I said, then I proceeded to tell him my tale of woe.  After a couple of seconds, he started laughing.  He didn’t stop for a long time. Finally, wiping the tears from his eyes, he said, “So when the machine didn’t give you any donuts, your solution was to keep on feeding it quarters?”  I didn’t like Mike much at that point.  I bid him a rather unfriendly adieu and went to class.  I was very glad when lunchtime arrived, because I was truly hungry at that point.  But when I sat down at my usual table with my usual friends, they had all heard the story--and wanted to hear me tell it myself--of how I kept putting quarters into a broken vending machine.  I still didn’t see the humor in the situation. 

If Haggai heard my story, he might say that God’s people in his day were making the same mistake I made.  They kept sticking their quarters into a machine that didn’t work.  Only he wouldn’t have found it as funny as my friends did.  If Haggai spent some time here with you and me, he might say we’re making the same mistake.  Think about it for a moment: Imagine that life is a vending machine.  You’re putting everything you have into that machine; not quarters, but time, sweat, hopes, dreams, resources…and you’re not getting anything back.  If the machine was broken, wouldn’t you want to know it?  If there was a better way, wouldn’t you want someone to tell you about it?  Sunday, we’re going to look at what Haggai said to God’s people long ago (Haggai 1:1-11).  We’ll see how His words apply to us today.  And we’ll look at the solution Jesus offers to our problem.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Grace Under Pressure

Years ago, I took Carrie to see Bruce Almighty, starring Jim Carrey as a self-centered TV reporter who meets God, and for a brief time is given the powers of God so that he can see that he’s not as smart as he thinks he is.  At the time, there was a lot of disagreement among Christians about this movie.  Some thought it was blasphemous.  Others saw it as a modern-day story of Job.  I thought it was very funny; Carrie was pregnant with Will at the time, and we both worried that she was laughing so hard the lack of oxygen would hurt the baby. I also thought it was a little over-the-top crude—as you would expect from the guy who starred in Dumb and Dumber.  I saw some profound theological moments, such as the point when Bruce asks God, “How can you make someone love you without violating free will?”  And God says, “Welcome to my world.”  I thought Morgan Freeman played the Lord about as well as any human actor could.  And it was pretty obvious to me that at least someone who was a believer was heavily involved in this film. As it turns out, I was right—the director, Tom Shadyac, is a Christian.  Ultimately, though, I was disappointed in the ending.  Bruce comes to God, having made a total mess of things, and God essentially tells Bruce to go do something about it.  He says, “That’s the problem with you people.  You’re always looking up.”  Bruce goes back to his TV job, this time committed to making a positive difference in the world.  His new motto is, “Be the miracle.”

At the time, I thought that was pretty weak.  After all, when there is a problem in the world, God works a miracle; He doesn’t ask us to be one.  He is a sovereign, omniscient, omnipotent God.  So, for instance, if two people I love won’t talk to each other, I pray for reconciliation.  If my best friend is diagnosed with cancer, I should pray for a miracle of healing.  If I am concerned about issues like violent crime, the decline of the family, and the increasing gap between the rich and poor, I should pray for the hand of God to produce revival in our country.  That’s admitting I need God, and that’s what produces His power.  That is how I access the God who walked on water and parted the Red Sea, who made the lame walk, the blind see and the dead breathe again.  Am I right?  This is more than a movie review.  This is a critical question.  This goes to how we respond to virtually every crisis in our lives and in the larger world around us.  Do we simply pray about it?
Yes, absolutely.  And no, definitively.  Yes, because we should absolutely pray for situations like ruptured relationships, a friend with cancer, and a culture going to Hell in a hand basket.  We should pray for those things fervently, knowing that God hears our prayer and acts in response.  But no, that’s not all we should do.  Certainly we shouldn’t pray and then just sit back and wait for the Red Sea to part.  Notice that even in the Bible, events like the sun standing still in the sky for 24 hours, or a donkey talking, or a paralytic regaining his mobility are so rare, they are surprising to everyone who witnesses them.  There is a reason we call them miracles, not “ordinaries.”  Don’t get me wrong, God is still working.  He just doesn’t often choose to disrupt the laws of nature.  Most of the time, instead, He does His work through people.  Most of the time, it’s not the impressive sort of people you and I might expect, but feeble, fallible, feckless people.  People like Rahab the prostitute; Moses the fugitive murderer; Gideon the coward; Samson the dumb jock; Jonah the hard-headed prophet; Peter the impulsive, clueless blowhard, and Paul the one-time persecutor of the church.  People like you and me.

When God's people were in a time of unprecedented crisis, He chose to use a young man named Daniel.  This Sunday, we'll take an overview of Daniel's life and character, and see what it was about this guy that enabled him to display such grace under pressure--and to change the world forever.