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Posts Tagged ‘promises’

Why do we picture God?

Why do we picture God?

He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspringbe.”Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness. [Genesis 15:5-6]

You have an attitude about promises? I know I do. Apparently, I’m a classic case, too many promises have been broken along the way. The only good thing that came from that is I don’t make my own promises lightly. It’s serious stuff, this promise-making.

But, I am grateful that I also learned that the promises of God are outside the norm.

God cannot be anthropomorphized, giving God human characteristics. And yet, people do it all the time, as though we need a picture to grab onto God. How many pictures have we seen of God in a long white beard sitting on a throne, much like a high-end Santa in flowing robes or a collective consciousness of what Zeus might look like if he wasn’t just a myth. Ha Ha. Why is that funny? Because people are quick to call the Greeks and Romans foolish in their many gods, and yet, our imagined “God” is OK.

It’s one of the reasons the ten commandments include a warning (number four), “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” [Exodus 20:4-6] We are not supposed to make God like us. God is not “like” anything we know. “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” [John 4:24]

God promises are birthed in Spirit and manifest in our world in a way that cannot be judged by time and space.

And yet, I keep trying to put God in my time box. I keep wanting the promises to either be fulfilled (in a way I recognize) or in a time frame that suits (maybe within my lifetime might be good). And here’s the point of Abraham. He believed without being given the specifics or the time. This wholesale faith in the promises of God makes all the difference.

So, two things I want to carry with me today: One: the image of God that we have been given, one with skin and recognizable human was Jesus, the anointed Christ, the promised Messiah. How long did that take? And two, well, I’m thinking. It’s about the promises. I need to do some extra work on that idea, a series, I guess. What is my life promise, like Abraham’s? Perhaps I have been too scattered all these years. I will be asking for that revelation, that promise revealed.

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Art by Jonas Gerard

God blessed Ishmael because he was the son of Abraham. And although it may not seem like a blessing at first blush, those many tribes that descended from Ishmael only to become enemies to the progeny of Isaac: but there was still fruitfulness. And God is honored in fruitfulness.

Genesis 17:18, 20; 21:11-12a,  And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” . . .  “And as for Ishmael, I [God] have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. . . . But God said to him [Abraham], “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. . . .  I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”

But the blessing of Ishmael is not simply about childbearing and big families, it is about enlarging the place of one’s tent (e.g. one’s influence).

Enlarge the place of your tent,
stretch your tent curtains wide,
do not hold back;
lengthen your cords,
strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread out to the right and to the left;
your descendants will dispossess nations
and settle in their desolate cities.  [Isaiah 54:2-3]

Children are the hope of the future, whether we have them in our immediate family or we serve them through school, church, neighborhood, or work. It is the children who carry the message of our lives into their own. If our lives are loving and giving and caring, then they will respond to the model we provide them. But the opposite is true as well.

They say, if you want to know where a person’s priorities are, look at the list of things in which they invest their money. I say, the same is true for the way money, time, knowledge, and energy are invested in children. They cannot love if they have not been loved. They cannot give grace if they never received it. They will not show compassion if they have not seen compassionate behaviors around them. What we pass to children of all ages is only limited by our own misplaced preferences and choices.

I wish I could say that my children are bearing the fruit of the blessings of God. In some ways, they are: instead of an orphanage, they live in a family and a country of great opportunity. Instead of a proscribed future dealt to them through poor diet, alcoholism, and abandonment, they do know they are loved unconditionally. But in my enthusiasm for having children, I spoiled them too. I wanted them to have some of the things I missed and I created a distorted view of value, of appreciation for the little things, of comfort. Like most Americans, they reflect a world where “need” means another car, not another meal.

So now, I am sorry dear children, what I failed to pass along, you will have to discover on your own. Life will teach you and in that life, God will teach  you. For the blessings of God are still there, the promise of good things still available, but the road may be a little longer.

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I am not poor. Of course, I’m working on it, what with spiraling debt and fruitless planning. But, in the greater scheme of things and the world at large, I am quite flush and comfortable. So, who am I speak about the promises of God for the poor?

Psalm 69:30, 32
I will praise God’s name in song and glorify him with thanksgiving. . . . The poor will see and be glad — you who seek God, may your hearts live!

And yet, promises and precedents do exist.

In the time of Christ, the poor saw Him first and recognized God in Him. The poor followed. The poor believed. The poor sustained the faith. And the rich worried.

But God’s empowerment is not a change of social status. In all the acts that Jesus did for the poor, he never made anyone richer. He healed, he fed, he taught. He gave hope where no hope had been. He gave strength to the weak. He spoke to the wealth within each and every human being. He loved.

One of the essentials to surviving and perhaps overcoming one’s circumstances is trusting God’s providence in the midst of difficulty. It’s living through this day because the next day is in God’s hands and anything can happen. This is the significance of praise: it’s trust.

Back in 1970, Merlin R. Carothers wrote a book, From Prison to Praise, that is still in print today and continues to change lives. A lot of us tried his formula but it always felt a little forced to me. I felt like I had to manipulate my circumstances to find something I could praise God for in the midst of them, like having a flat tire on the freeway, but “praise God,” a policeman stopped. And so forth. I’m not saying this way of looking for the silver lining in life events doesn’t have value, it does, but today, I’m thinking differently.

Instead, as in the case of the poor whose circumstances may not be dramatically changed from day to day, it’s trusting God in the midst of the worst. God is sovereign whether I can see it, feel it, or touch it.

Perhaps it’s too hard to say, I praise God in this nightmare, then say instead, “I trust God.” They are the same.

It’s not up to me to figure out which part of this crisis can be turned for good or how God will manifest nor do I need to be a Pollyanna . Instead, it is the simplicity of “I am here, God is here, I am here with God” [Brian McLaren, Naked Spirituality: a life with God in 12 simple words].

If it is hard for me to maintain a place of trust in God, how much more for those in crisis every day?

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What is a promise? I know what it should be. I know that it should be binding and carries with it an expectation. If I promise to do something, the person expects me to follow through. A covenant is the next step up and just below law. Our culture has never mastered covenant.

II Chronicles 15:12
They [Asa and the people of Judah] entered into a covenant to seek the LORD, the God of their ancestors, with all their heart and soul.

Covenant is harder. Despite the promises and the expectations and outward signs of agreeing to a covenant, it can be broken with no apparent ill effects. At least that’s what people seem to think. The most controversial covenant is the marriage. Couples stand before witnesses and make vows, they agree, they promise, they share ritual, and yet, divorce statistics range near 50% for first time marriages and higher for second and third marriages.

I am one of those statistics. I married for the first time at eighteen. And although I was “in love,” I also had this reasoning in the back of my mind: if it doesn’t work out, I’ll just get a divorce. It’s not a good start to a promise.

As a parent, I have tried to avoid the “I promise” phrase because I know how easy it is for things to go awry, for circumstances to change, for promises to be broken.

But today, as I traverse then Lenten time, I feel compelled to make and hold to some promises. I have committed time to God in prayer, meditation, and writing. I have promised to seek God throughout this journey. And I feel the weightiness of this agreement in a way I never have before.

When I was twelve, my mother had tried to find a new spouse by answering personal ads in the Latvian newspaper. One of those men invited us to visit him in Niagara Falls, Canada. I didn’t like this man at all and one night, when the two of them had gone out on a date and stayed out very late, I prayed fervently and made many deals with God if would break up this couple. I believe this was a girl’s version of a foxhole conversion. My mother never remarried, but I didn’t follow through either. Or did I? Was my rediscovered faith at 28, a consequence after all? Did my promise bear fruit?

Sometimes, I think it does work out that way.

The things we say, the words we speak, have power, particularly if they are heartfelt. In that other world, inhabited by spirits and angels and so forth, what happens to the promises we make?

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From this point in the book of Revelation and forward, there is a flurry of activity, none of it good. But the “white robed ones” are the survivors. Like most God events, I believe this tribulation multitude stands outside of time.

Revelation 7:14
And he said to me, These are they who have come out of the great tribulation (persecution), and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
[Amplified]

My slow walk through the book of Revelation is becoming more and more difficult. Yes, this book is rich with symbolism but it is also filled with confusing texts and “timelines” that have been peeled apart by the most studious of scholars. As noted before, I am totally out of my element. And yet, I want to get something from the book that I can use and apply to my life, that I can engage in my heart and embrace. I am not interested in the controversies of pre-millennial or post-millennial; pre-tribulation or post-tribulation. I just want a nugget of understanding, a glimpse of truth.

The multitude referenced in verse 14 is huge, uncountable. This is no special group of 144,000, but another collection that represents the peoples of the earth. These are people who have known deep affliction, persecution, and sorrow. Are the tribulations or grievous trials referenced here, are they the ones to be described next (linearly). Or, are we simply seeing the “survivor benefits” on the front end, or, is this some huge group of people that has already had enough pain and are being given a reprieve? I don’t know. Does it matter?

In my “earthly time,” I’m not in this group on either score.

But there is an inherent promise to the verses, 15-17. Extrapolating from the description, I see these promises:

  • to experience close proximity to God;
  • to have opportunity to serve and interact with God;
  • to be protected from any subsequent dangers;
  • to be satisfied and all needs met;
  • to be comfortable;
  • to be guided and have clear direction;
  • to be filled; and,
  • to be happy.

Some people have taken these promises as the state we will enter in “heaven.” And perhaps that’s true. These are the goals that most humans seek in their corporeal lives, aren’t they? Isn’t everything we do, particularly as believers, built on these long-term objectives?

Life is hard. Whether people are rich or poor, healthy or sick, there are challenges and tragedies which cross most human lives. Why do we bother to keep living? Because we believe in life. We believe in the evolution of the soul; we believe in the presence of the Holy Spirit; we believe in a purpose.

Or, we die. Those who have lost sight of the “golden ring,” no longer believe in human, in God, in a future, often give up and choose death over suffering.

People who dissect the book of Revelation believe the worst is yet to come. And that may true, but that should not discount the sorrows, the wars, the persecutions, the deaths, the miseries, the tortures that have already happened to many parts of the world, to many people through human history.

In or out of time, there is still the promise of the divine.

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Nowadays, swearing and oath-making are not very common. Of course, I’m not talking about profanity, there’s plenty of that. Funny, the same word, swear, has such opposing uses: one as a debasement while the other is a promise that is binding because of the witness of someone “higher” in power, class, or position.

Hebrews 6:16-17
Men swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument. Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath.

There are only a few places where the full intent of swearing is still recognized: a wedding where vows are made between two people; a swearing in to public office; and a swearing to tell the truth in a court of law. In all three of these cases, people are asked to “swear” over a Bible with the implication that they are “swearing by” God. Supposedly, they are saying the words that can be and should be witnessed by God who will/can affirm their truth. Hmmmm.

Sorry, but I don’t think people take these oaths very seriously anymore. Marriage oaths are broken every day. In fact, there are great numbers of people who consider divorce their first option if “things aren’t working out.” I know this attitude well, I had it myself when I married the first time. I had all kinds of provisos: If he does this or if he does that, or doesn’t do this or doesn’t do that, I’ll just get a divorce. Big deal, in other words. I’ll do what I want to do.

I certainly don’t feel so cavalier today. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if there aren’t some serious repercussions for swearing or making an oath with little intent to keep it. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus discouraged his followers from making oaths, “. . . I tell you, do not bind yourselves by an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is the throne of God; Or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you are not able to make a single hair white or black.Let your Yes be simply Yes, and your No be simply No; anything more than that comes from the evil one.” [Matthew 5:34-37, Amplified]

Throughout this morning, a partner verse keeps coming to my mind about the sowing and reaping principle: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” [Galatians 6:7, NIV 2010] A vow or oath is a type of sowing, it’s a promise, and it’s the beginning of a process; when that promise is broken, the process is aborted and something else will happen instead. There has to be a reaping.

For this reason, I think, Jesus advises us to avoid these situations.

And, as an afterthought, perhaps the profane kind of swearing also bears some unpleasant fruit (or reaping) for the speaker. Wikipedia states that the original meaning of “profane” was “outside or in front of the church.” It is something that does not belong to the church. Interesting tidbit.

Before my Christ-centered days, I could swear up a blue streak and probably “out-swear” a truck driver if need be (not that truck drivers necessarily swear). I could also drink just about anyone under the table. I was proud of my ability to appear really “bad.” Inside, I don’t think I was much different than anyone else. I just covered up a great deal of my insecurities with behavior.

So, my take away for today is two-fold: I should be much more circumspect about the promises I make as well as more prudent in my words. I don’t profanely swear on a regular basis but I do find myself lapsing into some old bad habits. It’s unproductive, or worse, when directed at someone else, it’s “outside the Spirit.”

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Artwork by Jo Smith

My mother used to tell me that my name, Irmgarde, meant “guardian of the hearth,” which didn’t do much for me as I didn’t imagine myself a homemaker. In later years, I discovered, my name actually means “guardian of a small enclosure.” This is what God does for my heart too.

II Timothy 1:12b
. . . because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.

Truthfully, I always think of that small enclosure around my set of close friends and family. I imagine a corral and I am standing at the gate, protecting them from harm, from predators. I am grateful that the Holy Spirit is standing just so at the entrance to my deepest places. This is my warrior King.

It’s part of our agreement. As I turn over my stuff and give God access to my closed places within, I am promised Presence.

We have a triune God (at minimum) to help us get a handle on the work that each entity might play: God, omnipotent and sovereign, manages the big picture (the life maps) while Jesus, the Redeemer, became human to empathize and experience life within the context of time and space and to create a Way to unite us with God by endowing us with the Holy Spirit who indwells any who will accept this arrangement, this gift, this promise, this mystery.

We are understood in all those arenas. . . . and probably more.

God embraces the surrendered soul. Jesus modeled surrender.

My challenge? To accept the paradox that surrender is security; surrender is strength; surrender is safety.

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