Standing Alone In A Compromised Culture

Standing up for your beliefs gets lonely when no one joins you. I worked in a skilled care facility years ago, as part of a team that did music and activity therapy with Alzheimer’s and stroke patients. One day, my team leader asked me to start “enhancing” the notes I put into patients’ charts. She wanted me to indicate that certain patients participated at higher levels than they were, to justify their stay in a rehab facility as opposed to a regular nursing home.

An awkward conversation followed. She pleaded with me, explaining that our department could experience layoffs if the patient count didn’t remain at a certain level. I knew, I couldn’t lie, regardless of what name my superior called it or the resulting consequences. Tight-lipped she listened to my explanation, and although she accepted it, after that I ate lunch and took my breaks alone. The team made it clear I’d been culled from the herd.

The prophet Micah expresses some of those lonely feelings in chapter seven. From his perspective, he’s one man standing alone for righteousness, amid people who called themselves God followers.

“How miserable I am! I feel like the fruit picker after the harvest who can find nothing to eat. Not a cluster of grapes or a single early fig can be found to satisfy my hunger. The godly people have all disappeared; not one honest person is left on the earth.  They are all murderers, setting traps even for their own brothers. Both their hands are equally skilled at doing evil. Officials and judges alike demand bribes.  The people with influence get what they want, and together they scheme to twist justice” Micah 7: 1-3 (NLT).

Micah poetically describes the corruption and lack of integrity within Israel and Judah, alluding to righteousness as a fruit that can’t be found anywhere in the culture around him. Fellow believers, all in for God, share similar feelings with me sometimes. Along with me, they’ve felt spiritually alone when they make a stand against a cultural current that contradicts God’s values. Family gatherings, workplaces and friendship circles can become cold and distant when you are the one salmon swimming upstream.

In the 6th grade, my daughter Jennifer, experienced God in a fresh way. Her heart became sensitive to behaviors that didn’t please her Heavenly Father. She realized that within her circle of school friends, conversations trended towards gossip and criticism. Since most of the girls professed faith in Christ, she tried to say sweetly (truly, she is one of the kindest people I know) that maybe they all needed to stop talking about other girls’ flaws. Sadly, they did not receive the suggestion well and shunned Jennifer the rest of the year. The loneliness she felt tore my heart, while at the same time swelling it with admiration for her courage to follow Jesus more faithfully.

How did Micah hang in there and how do we stand firm when God calls us to be a spiritual trendsetter instead of a cultural lemming?  First, I need to recognize, like Micah did, that although I might be strong in one area of righteous living, I might be weak in others. If there’s even a glimmer of pride in my stance, I’ll probably tumble hard, at some point. Standing for righteousness demands that I do it cloaked in humility, otherwise, I can come across as legalistic, judgmental and arrogant. Micah acknowledged his own sin within a wicked culture, and I need to do the same.

As for me, I look to the Lord for help. I wait confidently for God to save me, and my God will certainly hear me. For though I fall, I will rise again.  Though I sit in darkness, the Lord will be my light.  I will be patient as the Lord punishes me, for I have sinned against him. But after that, he will take up my case and give me justice for all I have suffered from my enemies” Micah 7:7-9 (NLT).

Second, only intimacy with God will show me where the narrow roads are and which broad highways I need to exit from. The Bible gives us a wealth of guidelines and laws but only the Spirit of God can help us to rightly apply them to circumstances.  Lots of complex situations created by sin, which I might encounter, are not specifically discussed in the Bible. Handling them in a Christ-like way takes finesse and wisdom from God.

Third, the only way I can endure the rejection of standing solitary without caving, is when my strength comes from God alone, not the approval of others. I don’t like it when people are ticked off at me because I won’t go with a flow, I believe to be wrong. People who are cheering for you one day may be snarling at you the next. Remember the crowd that shouted “Hosanna,” to Jesus one week then screamed for his crucifixion the days later?  Some things never change. When your behavior pricks people to consider that they might be caught in sin, they seldom thank you, initially.

David’s Psalms comfort and stabilize me in those moments. Psalms 11 and 13 are special favorites of mine. There are many others in which David cries out to God concerning his feelings of fear, isolation and loneliness, caused by opposing wicked King Saul.

I want to live dangerously, like Micah, Joshua and Caleb, Corrie Ten Boom, A. W. Tozer and so many others who stood up for God’s agenda when the Christian culture around them did not.

God, help me to steer my ship right into the wind and waves of people’s rejection and disapproval if that’s the price for obeying you.    

 

 

Qualities of Good Shepherds

What kind of leaders should I follow?

What kind of leader do I aspire to be?

These two questions plunked themselves in front of me when I read the second and third chapters of the book of Micah. The prophet’s word pictures about self-serving leaders initially left me without any personal conviction. That’s why it’s important to study the Bible, not just read it.

“…. you skin my people alive and tear the flesh from their bones” (Micah 3:2b NLT).

“You false prophets are leading my people astray! You promise peace for those who give you food, but you declare war on those who refuse to feed you” (Micah 3:5 NLT).

Once I started to dig a little, that familiar sense of “Uh, oh. I think God’s speaking to me too,” started rising. For me, digging means reading the passages in a couple of different translations and checking out a couple of my favorite commentaries. (I’ll share a list under the “Lamp and Sword” section.) That’s when the Holy Spirit started exposing some of my past mistakes.

I observed Micah’s contrast between the qualities of God as a shepherd in chapter two, with the features of leaders whose motives are self-motivated, in chapter three. Upon quiet reflection, the Spirit reminded me of past behaviors where achieving my goals became more important than feeding, nurturing and protecting those under me. The memories didn’t limit themselves to my various professional roles as a teacher and pastor but also included my life as a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, and so on.  Here’s two examples:

  • I insisted my young daughter leave the house each day with neat hair and well-coordinated outfits so she would reflect well on me. I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing until she hit junior high. I realized I’d never taken the time to teach her those skills for herself. I should have been “feeding” her that information all along and allowing her to experiment a bit. I think that’s what a good shepherd mom does. I learned that from watching how she shepherds her daughters now.  She’s willing to let them create some interesting outfits, with her guidance, rather than squeeze them into her personal style box for the sake of “what will people think?”
  • At one school in which I taught, I felt pressure from my administrator to achieve unreasonable goals with my choral groups. Instead of sitting down with him to negotiate and modify the objectives, my pride led me to become a bit of tyrant. I felt that if I said that the goals seemed beyond the current crop of students, it reflected more on my teaching abilities than anything else, so I took that challenge for a few months. Choirs stopped being fun for the students and me. Finally, in discouragement, I sat down with my principal. To my amazement, he said, “Oh, those were just some ideas I had. When you didn’t offer any others, I figured you were good with them.” A good shepherd director would have sorted this out sooner than later.

I could tell many more tales of times I put my needs, wants and fears ahead of those of the people under me. Any time any shepherd puts their own concerns above the flock’s, that flock is in danger. The shepherd’s attention is focused inward and not on that little lamb who wandered off into thorn bushes, or the sheep who’s eating the poisonous plant.  Apparently, the shepherds Micah is speaking to, developed self-preservation to an art form. God inspired the prophet with graphic, bloody language to help wayward leaders see the damage they were inflicting emotionally and spiritually on the people of Israel and Judah.

The Bible has much to say about good shepherding.  Reading some of those passages, a list of character traits emerged to me. These are qualities I look for in leaders and want to be deliberate about growing in myself. My goal is that anyone following me on any level might feel nurtured, encouraged, fed, trained and equipped to do the same for other sheep.  I know it’s a lofty goal, but I think God wants us to dream large about these things.  Here’s some of the qualities of good shepherds that I found.

  • They are willing to sacrifice themselves for the needs of the flock.  “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” John 10:11. There is a balance in the life of Christ that I want to model. The gospels frequently speak about him spending time alone with God to care for his own emotional and spiritual needs yet he ultimately sacrificed his own body so his flock could live.
  • They lead people to times and places of refreshment. “He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams” Psalm 23:2 NLT. Caring leaders take time to create environments for their flocks which encourage laughter, refreshment, celebration and rest. They don’t continuously drive the flock towards a goal, only feeding and resting enough for simple survival. They take time to meet needs along the way.
  • They care about people as people, whether they can help the leader towards their goals or not. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” Matthew 9:36 NIV. I want my compassion and care to extend consistently towards those who are in desperate need of help and possess no ability to further my personal goals, except to make me more like Jesus.
  • They are aware of what’s going on in the lives of those who serve alongside them and under them. Know well the condition of your flocks and give attention to your herds” Proverbs 27:23 NIV. I’ve served under Christian leaders who are oblivious or worse yet, uninterested in my personal struggles. By their behavior they’ve indicated to me that my value is in what I produce, not in who I am. Sadly, several non-believing employers I’ve worked under expressed more concern about my life than a couple of my brothers and sisters in Christ in authority over me.  God help me if I’ve ever made someone feel that way and strengthen me Lord, to never do it again.

My list is not the definitive one concerning good shepherds, but it’s the one God brought to my attention. Maybe Micah can speak to you too.

Lamp and Sword

****Further resources for study and reflection****

“Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path.” Psalm 119:105

“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword.” Hebrew 4:12

 

 

 

Here’s a list of my favorite go-to commentaries.  They are all available online.

  1. Matthew Henry’s Bible Commentary (Concise) This version uses more precise, updated language than the original.   https://www.christianity.com/bible/commentary.php?com=mhc
  2. Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible by Jamieson, Faussett and Brown. These guys focus on the original languages and what words meant at the time they were written. This adds a lot of understanding to texts particularly where we might be interpreting meaning based on our own cultural biases. https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/jamieson-fausset-brown/
  3. Bible Hub is an online collection of over fifty different commentaries.  I’ve used Guzik’s Bible Commentary, Barnes Notes, Scofield Reference Notes and Gills Bible Exposition. https://biblehub.com/commentaries/

 

 

 

Living With a Heavenly Viewpoint

“Only one life, ‘twil soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.” My grandparents posted this saying in their home and conducted their lives by it. Yesterday, reading the fourth chapter of Micah, I realized I hadn’t thought about such things deliberately, thoughtfully, for a while. The truth about the brevity of here and now often takes a back seat to the earthly things that drive my days. I recall repeated conversations with high school English students in a similar vein, like this sample.

Student:  Gonna have my own auto body shop. Won’t be writin’ any papers there.

Me: Body shop?  Need customers to come to your place instead of others, right?

Student: Yeah…….

Me: How?

Student: (Pauses) Facebook!  Maybe some flyers?

Me: Great ideas! Who’s writing your copy?

Student: My what?

Me:  All the writing you want to put on social media and flyers. Needs to be error-free, eye-catching. Not too wordy. You can’t use dull words cause then people might stop reading after the first line.

Student: Well, I guess I’ll find a wife by then and make her do it.  (Laughter from all)

Many times, I dealt with myopic students who couldn’t envision the use of language skills in real life. Some focused on being the next great sports legend in need of two skills, throwing balls and granting interviews. The college bound students going into the sciences, couldn’t see the relevance of composition and speech. Others aimed towards technology or trade, couldn’t understand how strong writing and speaking skills could help them achieve their goals.

Although these students knew that high school only lasted four years, they didn’t live that way. They created an existence that made high school their world, instead of the short journey of education and experience it’s intended to be. I’m not throwing stones, because I believe I’ve lived the same mistake on a grander scale.

Theologian Dwight Pentecost stated that there are more verses in scripture about the time period we call the millennium than any other time period discussed in the Bible. I didn’t know that and maybe you didn’t either. Why? Most verses about the thousand-year reign are found in the Old Testament prophets. These books don’t often turn up in Bible studies and sermons. I wonder if that’s partly why God spoke to me about pedaling my way through the minor prophets in my blog this year?

When I consider my earthly life as only a launch pad, my perspective about my resources shifts. My concern about lost souls sliding towards a God-less eternity, becomes motivating to engage with them authentically so I earn the right to share the truth about Jesus. Every time I am confronted in some way with the mortality of this body and the eternity of my soul, my “whys” restore their focus back to heaven’s priorities.

Why write my blog?  To inspire and encourage other believers in their faith and motivate them to also engage with the unsaved.  Building a platform so that a publisher will pick up my book becomes a secondary goal, instead of primary.

Why labor to landscape around my house?  To create places of refreshment for people to relax in and reflect on the wonder of God’s designs. Wanting the beauty of gardens for myself and a supply of cut flowers simply for my own enjoyment isn’t as motivating.

When I first began writing, I started a novel which may still be completed someday. The story idea comes from my grandparents’ experiences in full-time ministry. I dreamed of a series of novels, beloved in the same way as Jan Karon’s “Mitford” series, filled with quirky, endearing characters.

There’s a place for well-written Christian fiction which brings laughter to the heart and causes us to reflect on our relationships. That’s an eternity-minded why, but it wasn’t mine. Mine was far more narrow and self-oriented.  Last Spring, at a writer’s conference, God challenged me with the question, “What if I helped you write a different book for now?” He gently reminded me that heaven’s agenda is greater than my small goals.

The book he re-directed me towards will be a collection of true stories from seasoned pastors and leaders about ministry’s unique challenges faced and navigated successfully. The heart of this book originates back to when my husband, Ken, and I first started full time service.  Lots of goofy, painful things happened, which no one talked about in seminary or Bible school. Our inexperience, and lack of mentors, left Ken and I feeling lonely, constantly questioning our calling and gifts and attempting to leave ministry many times.

The goal is to make a dent in the number of pastors leaving ministry each year and to encourage those in the trenches through the wisdom and counsel of experienced leaders. I become excited when I think about how many ministries and churches could be impacted positively, if their leaders didn’t feel so discouraged and lonely. See how God shifted my focus from dreams of my beloved books on library shelves to building up weary leaders?

God interrupted Micah’s crucial message about impending judgement, to write about the millennium. As high a priority as repentance is to God, he instructed his prophet to interject a sidebar about the life yet to come. God wanted the Israelites to consider the life he started preparing for them as soon as he shut the gates to Eden. He still wants his children to think about his long-term plans for us as we dream, plan and live.

The thought occurs to me that if our minds remained focused on heaven’s priorities and eternity’s viewpoint, we’d most likely find ourselves with a lot less repenting to do overall.  What do you think?

Lamp and Sword

****Further resources for study and reflection****

“Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path.” Psalm 119:105

“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword.” Hebrew 4:12

 

Here’s a link to an interesting article by Dr. David Jeremiah, well-known Bible teacher, about what he believes concerning the millenium.

https://davidjeremiah.blog/the-millennium/

You may come from a denomination that does not accept the millennium as a literal thousand-year reign. There are different theological points of view on this. That’s okay.  The fact that there will be a new heaven and a new earth where we will rule with Christ eternally, is indisputable and should motivate us to live accordingly regardless of how or if you believe the thousand-year reign fits into that timeline.  I’ve recommended this book before and will do so again.  “Heaven” by Randy Alcorn, is a wonderfully written, theologically sound volume on all that Scripture teaches about our future lives with God.  Understanding heaven better changed the way I view my current life and priorities.

 

 

 

Trusting Our Righteous Judge

Receiving a summons to appear in court, is a knee-quaking moment. The sheriff at my door seemed jaded and looked at me as if he believed me to be guilty of the crime represented in the envelope. I felt like a criminal.

Years ago, we unknowingly hired an unscrupulous lawyer to take care of some legal business for us. He handled the business satisfactorily, but his disorganization concerning billing and contracts led him to believe that we signed a contract for him to do further work for us. When he tried to bill us for work, we didn’t agree to, and he hadn’t done, we called repeatedly and explained to his part-time secretary that he was mistaken, and no such contract existed.

The foolish man insisted on suing us, and we appeared in court. As defendants. Suspected criminals.  Our assigned judge asked if we minded him handling a couple bail cases before he proceeded with ours. Like we would say no? This provided more time to try to stop our hands from shaking.

Beefy sheriff’s deputies escorted two ridiculously large prisoners into the courtroom, both in hand and leg shackles, and seated them five feet away from us. All the movies and stories I knew about jailbreaks, prison shanks and such ran through my mind. I silently prayed while trying to appear unfazed by this terrifying development. We didn’t find this turn of events calming.

At that time, we felt no peace to spend more money on lawyers and Ken represented us himself before the judge. The smug look across the aisle, on the face of the lawyer representing our dishonest lawyer, made us question that decision. Truth isn’t always enough to prove innocence.

Quickly, it became clear how disorganized and mistaken our lawyer proved to be.  No documents could be produced proving his case and we possessed many that proved ours. The judge scolded the representing lawyer and we enjoyed a David beats Goliath moment, as the judge ordered us to pay only our agreed-upon fee.

I recalled those feelings of terror in the courtroom, when I read through the book of Micah.  A prophet to both Judah and Israel, Micah carried the message of God’s anger and impending judgement to sinful Jews.  Chapter two reminded me of our plight as defendants along with all the stories I’ve encountered about people who’ve lost homes, businesses and savings through fraud.

Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds! At morning’s light they carry it out because it is in their power to do it. They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them.  They defraud a man of his home, a fellowman of his inheritance” (Micah 2:1-2)

Our dishonest lawyer caused us weeks of stress and many hours of time as Ken organized our case. God observed similar scenes in Judah and Israel, and his rage boiled. Wicked Hebrews stole houses, lands and fortunes from their own people, apparently with forethought and glee.

Just as in ancient Israel, fraudulent behavior is not limited to the world but sometimes crops up amongst believers also. Churches and relationships are fractured as a result. This type of behavior is contemptible to God. He expects better of his children.  To the evildoers of Judah and Israel he said,

I am planning disaster against this people, from which you cannot save yourselves” (Micah 2:3).

God’s nature and character are unchanging.  What angered him three thousand years ago still lights him up today. Delayed judgement sometimes leads people to think it will never come. God’s laws of sowing and reaping will always apply however, and as Hosea said, “They that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7).

If you are a victim of fraud, cheating, being lied to, etc., God sees it all.  He’s recorded every penny, relationship, possession and job taken from you. You may be living in reduced circumstances due to the sin of others.  Although our case with the disorganized lawyer ended well, at another time, a large corporation our business affiliated with, cheated us and other agents, out of significant sums of money through illegal business practices. The loss of revenue forced us to reduce our staff and move to smaller offices.  Years later, when a case came before a judge, on behalf of agents, he ruled for the corporation, unjustly.

Remember, your heavenly Father, who sees the fall of every sparrow, cares deeply. Confronted with the choice between forgiveness and bitterness, with God’s grace, Ken and I chose the process of forgiveness. Please note I said process. As a result, we maintained our peace and intimacy with God and made room for him to work restoration in our lives.  You can choose the same.  Pray for those who wronged you. They are walking in unawareness of impending judgement, which never turns out well.  Read any of the minor prophets for confirmation of that.

When my heart is right and clean before God, it’s easy to hear his voice. He shares wisdom and insight with me concerning instances where I’ve been wronged.  Sometimes he tells me to let it go and assures me that he will deal with those individuals. The other agents, in the situation above, paid big dollars to take their case to court. God did not give Ken and I a green light on that because he knew the outcome and didn’t want us to waste our money. Bitterness might have led us into a case God didn’t want us involved in.

Other times, God directs me to confront people and hold them accountable for wrongdoing, like the unscrupulous lawyer. We could have paid his dishonest fee, and he would have dropped the court case. In that instance God told us to stand and fight.

I’ve discovered there are no simple formulas for responding to those who sin against me. Only intimacy with God empowers me to forgive and go forward in knowledge and discernment concerning those who wrong me.  I encourage you to start every day with God speaking to you through His word and prayer. I trust my Righteous Judge to empower me to deal with every complex, unfair circumstance that intersects with my life, and you can too.

Lamp and Sword

****Further resources for study and reflection****

“Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path.” Psalm 119:105

“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword.” Hebrew 4:12

If you are currently dealing with or trying to recover from circumstances in which you were wronged, I encourage you to read the following Bible accounts. Understanding how God directed these folks to behave towards their enemies helps me understand His ways and methods in these types of situations.

  • David, God’s chosen king for Israel, runs from King Saul’s murderous rage for many years. Check out his attitude in these portions of his story found in I Samuel, chapters 24 and 26.
  • Joseph’s journey to ruler of Egypt involved treachery and deceit from those closest around him. Read Genesis 37 and then 39-41 and observe Joseph’s demeanor and behavior.
  • Caleb and Joshua were ready to take the promised land as soon as they spied on it. Instead they were defrauded of living there for forty long years because the other ten, cowardly spies spread evil reports amongst the Israelites. Read Joshua 14:6 to the end concerning Caleb’s reward.  Joshua was not only given the honor of replacing Moses, read Joshua 19:49-50 to learn about his reward. Why did God bless them so generously?

What kind of attitude do you think they both maintained during those endless years in the desert?