Monday, August 27, 2007

Mother Teresa is Still a Saint

The news this week was full of breathless reports of Mother Teresa’s years-long doubt about the existence of God revealed in her recently published private letters. Questions abound about whether this revelation disqualifies her for canonization. However, it is doubtful that anyone who has experienced a genuine relationship with God could even ask that question. There is probably not a believer who has ever lived who has not wrestled with severe doubt in some “dark night of the soul.” In fact, such struggles may even be a prerequisite for genuine faith.

Glib faith has not been tested, and untested faith is rarely strong faith. This kind of faith gives mental assent to the teachings of childhood or comforting euphemisms spoken at funerals, but has never engaged in hand-to-hand combat for its very survival with the harshest realities of life, which are being cheered on and empowered against it by the demons of doubt and unbelief. Only in such a life-and-death struggle can faith really be proven. The Bible bears this out when it says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4, NIV) Like muscles, faith is strengthened by resistance, and, as the coaches say, “No pain, no gain.”

But isn’t doubt a sin? It’s important to make a distinction between doubt and unbelief. Everyone has doubts from time to time. Doubts bombard us from without, and it’s what we do with them that makes or breaks our faith. If we reject them, our faith grows stronger. If we embrace these doubts, they become internalized in unbelief—a choice NOT to believe, or put another way, a refusal to believe, and this is sin. It is this unbelief that Jesus and the writers of the Bible spoke against that destroys our faith and threatens our souls.

God is never threatened or offended by our doubts, nor should the Church be. He knows that faith must be challenged to become real. He designed it that way. However, when we are confronted by doubts, may God help us to have the same response as the man in the Gospel of Mark who wanted Jesus to deliver his son from a dumb spirit. When Jesus asked the man if he believed, the man exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)

I suspect that this was Mother Teresa’s cry in her dark seasons. I believe that because she persevered in the emotionally, spiritually and physically wracking work God had called her to, laying down her life for others until the very end. What greater proof of faith could she have offered? Knowing of her crisis of faith only increases her spiritual stature in my eyes and encourages my faith. Isn’t that the point of sainthood?

Friday, August 17, 2007

Lessons from a Window Box

I’m not much of a gardener, but I do have a few potted flowers and window boxes on the railing of my little front porch. I love seeing the beautiful colors every time I go in or out of my house, and take a lot of joy in fussing over those few plants. My favorites are my moss roses that grow in a small pot on the top step. For the non-gardeners reading this, the moss rose is a very small, succulent plant that produces a profusion of ruffled flowers that look similar to antique roses. Each bloom only lasts one day, but what’s cool about them is that they bloom in different colors, so you never know what you’re going to get—pink, white, yellow, orange, fuscia, peach, or variegated.

While “deadheading” (removing spent blooms from) my little moss roses recently, I accidentally broke off a small part of a couple of the stems along with the spent flowers. I absentmindedly threw them into my window box with the passing thought that they would quickly rot in the heat there and perhaps fertilize the other plants. Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when I noticed yesterday that they had not only taken root, but the smallest of them was sporting a big yellow flower!

This little guy is no bigger than your thumbnail. It hadn’t been carefully rooted and planted, but simply tossed on top of the dry, hard soil. The sun blazes mercilessly in that spot all day, and only the hardiest plants can survive there. With the current heat wave, I’d guess the temperatures around that window box exceed 115 degrees. Yet this tiny bit of green plant defied the odds and lived to bear the cheeriest yellow flower you’ve ever seen, at least twice its own size.

The lesson here needs no explanation. I just want to be more like that little moss rose! Instead of just plowing through difficult circumstances and finding a way to “bloom”, I so often wait for perfect conditions before even attempting it. This is a sure recipe for accomplishing nothing in life. When are conditions ever perfect? In any worthy venture, the enemy of our souls will always make sure they are not. And why should I be deterred by difficulty anyway, when my help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth?” (Psalm 121:2)

Whether the goal is as mundane as getting my grass cut or as lofty as achieving my God-ordained destiny, I, you--all of us--need to follow the Apostle Paul’s example, who said:

“But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14)

If we’re to achieve what God calls us to achieve, to be what God calls us to be, we can’t dwell on past failures or we’ll be immobilized. We can’t even dwell on past successes, other than as an example of God’s faithfulness, or we may become cocky. We can’t look at the difficulties, or we’ll become discouraged. We have only to look forward, toward the prize, who is Christ and whose glory makes every looming obstacle seem puny. Then we can move ahead in confidence to overcome, and like my little moss rose, we will amaze the world.

By the way, if you find yourself needing a little encouragement along these lines, download the song “Press On”, written by Dan Burgess and recorded by the group Selah. It could draw the dead out of the grave! In fact, download the whole CD by that title. It's excellent.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Reading Between the Lines of Moses' Story

I am still grazing in Exodus 14 and finding rich fare there. This time, I am looking at verses 10 to 15 and what they reveal about Moses’ faith and leadership in the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt during their crisis moment before the Red Sea. We can see a lot of ourselves here and draw much encouragement from what happens in these verses, particularly what happens between the lines.

In the story, Pharaoh has finally let the Israelites go, and God has led them to a place at the edge of the Red Sea where they are essentially trapped. Then Pharaoh changes his mind about releasing them, and he and his entire army set out after them. When the Israelites see them coming, the Bible reports that they were terrified. First they responded with a good thing: they “cried out to the Lord.” Then they did what most of us red-blooded Christians do in a crisis, which is 1) panic, and 2) accuse the leadership. Here’s what they said to Moses:

“Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” (Exodus 14:11-12, NIV)

Moses is in a real pickle. Not only is the whole Egyptian army bearing down on them hard and fast, but all his people are furious with him as well. He must think fast and lead well, or they are going down. But it’s hard to lead a panicky, angry crowd of millions.

The most important action in this chapter is what happens between the lines of verses 12 and 13 in Moses’ mind and heart, which is left to our imaginations, after the Israelites’ outcry but before Moses’ response to them. Considering their situation, it probably didn’t take long for Moses to decide. We can be fairly sure, though, that in those brief moments a million anxious thoughts and prayers raced through Moses’ mind as he teetered on that razor’s edge of decision. Although he was God’s anointed leader and trusted the Lord, he was also human and as tempted to panic as the people were. Under intense pressure, feeling the full crush of a desperate situation, he had to choose: would he trust God or would he cave in to fear and resort to human reasoning and fleshly action?

His words indicate his choice:

“Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. They Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Exodus 14:13-14, NIV)
Whether he felt as bold and confident as his prophetic words sound we will never know (although if we can do such things, I’m going to ask him when we get to heaven), nor does it matter. The important thing is that he chose to trust God. As a result, Israel was saved, history was changed and God got the glory.

It is easy for us to read these consecutive verses and think that Moses just showed this courage under fire without hesitation or doubt. However, the very next verse provides evidence that he did struggle with doubt or panic or just knowing what to do next. It says, “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.’” (Exodus 14:15) I can just hear him yelling, “GOD! HEEEELLLLLLP!” It seems that the Lord was a bit miffed with him for whining instead of acting. Nevertheless, He instructed and helped Moses, and Moses went on the lead the Israelites to a miraculous deliverance.

Although most of our own life situations are less dramatic, the history of our lives is also written in those moments of decision in the clouded and pressurized environment of difficult circumstances. Although our situation may be foggy and confusing, God always gives us a very clear choice between faith and unbelief, trust and fear.

Several years ago, the Lord informed me that the faith challenges of my own life would only get bigger and the stakes higher. I balked and asked, “Won’t I ever get a break?” His blunt answer was, “No.” He has lived up to His word in that.

It’s the same in all of our lives, just in different ways. But the reward for choosing faith and trust in each growing challenge is ever increasing supernatural blessing and growth that not only affects our own lives, but ripples out to those whose lives we influence. Moses’ decision to trust God wrote the history of Israel and impacted our own history. The consequences of our choosing faith over unbelief may not have such dramatic consequences. Or it may. A lot hangs on our choices.

Thank God, as with Moses, He is patient and will overlook our temporary struggling and wavering. He only counts our ultimate decision and will always bless a choice for faith. May God grant us courage and faith, and may He get all the glory.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Moses and Our Burning Bush

I’ve started a study of the Exodus, which is providing a revealing look at Moses as a leader and at the interplay of the leader Moses and his followers, the Israelites. In Exodus, I really see one of the things I love most about the Bible, which is the warts-and-all picture it gives us of its lead characters. There are no perfect, larger-than-life heroes here, only regular people who are often extraordinary only in their shortcomings, who are used in amazing ways by an extraordinary God. Moses is exactly such an unlikely hero, and his people are equally unpromising followers. In this, there are some lessons and parallels we can draw between them and us as Americans and our current leader, George W. Bush.

To summarize the story so far, God has appeared to Moses in the burning bush and told him to return to Egypt and liberate the Israelites from their slavery. He balks at this idea because of insecurity and unbelief, but agrees when God tells him his brother Aaron will help him as spokesman. They tell the Israelite elders and people that God is about to deliver them, and Exodus 4:31 says that the people believed. The Lord had already told Moses and Aaron that Pharaoh would not comply when they first asked him to let the Israelites go, but nothing in these verses indicates that they shared that information with the people.

So, Moses and Aaron ask Pharaoh to let their people go. Not only does he refuse, but he now adds to their burden by forcing them to gather their own straw for brick making without reducing their quota of bricks. This was not in the plan. Not only has Pharaoh denied the people’s great deliverance, but he has made their situation even worse. With dashed hopes, the Israelites lash out at Moses. Then Moses, ever God’s man of faith and power, lashes out at God:

“O Lord, why have you brought trouble upon this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble upon this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.” (Exodus 5:22-23, NIV)

Who can blame him for griping (although he could have been more respectful)? He didn’t want the job of deliverer anyway. Still, didn’t God tell Moses that Pharaoh would reject their first entreaty? Then why is he surprised? Why didn’t he warn the people that this would happen and avoid losing credibility with them? Where did his faith go? Why did he panic at his first encounter with unintended consequences?

I don’t know. I do know, however, that Moses went on from this inauspicious beginning to deliver the Israelites from Egypt with incredible courage and faith. The point is that God uses extremely flawed human beings to accomplish His purposes, and success depends upon HIS greatness, not ours. This is why Paul could say, speaking of Jesus, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9, NIV)

What does this have to do with President George W. Bush in the U.S. in 2007? He is in a place similar to that of Moses at this point. He has undertaken a big action in Afghanistan and Iraq that his people, supporters and critics alike, largely believed in at the beginning. When that action didn’t end in instant success, many Americans, a lot of Republicans along with Democrats, condemned him as the Israelites did Moses, shouting, “May the Lord look upon you and judge you!” (Exodus 5:21) Like Moses, he is an imperfect man and an imperfect leader. But when we are ready to burn our Bush, we’d do well to remember that like Moses, it is God who has made Bush our leader (see Romans 13:1-7).

If you’ve read the rest of the book, you know that Israel did escape Egypt and reach the Promised Land and Moses went on to become one of the greatest leaders in history, despite his shortcomings. Throughout the Bible, we are told that it is God who sets up kings and deposes kings and who controls the destiny of nations. For our own nation, whether or not we personally feel that we can trust President Bush, we can surely trust in God who placed him in the presidency. Like the Israelites in Exodus 5, we have not read the end of our story yet. If we put our faith in God and pray for our president, who knows but that our outcome may be as good as theirs.