Monday, June 26, 2017

Who Else, but God?!!!


We live in an age of unprecedented wealth, knowledge, scientific discovery, and technological advancements.  Our world is often one of rationalism and reason, where the mysteries of the universe are simply there for us to unravel.  We observe the seasons and the weather, and do our best to predict the patterns of nature.  It’s not only possible to circumvent the globe in less than 36 hours, we’ve even landed on the moon!  The people at the Tower of Babel would envy us – we’ve actually made it to the heavens and we’ve learned how to translate almost any language in the world.

          The fact is, we live in a world that can be broken down into countless ologies.  If we want to understand the earth, we dig into geology.  If we are interested in how our bodies function, we slice into biology.  If we have trouble understanding why people behave the way they do, we define their actions through sociology.  And people who are obsessed with the future, sadly, sometimes gaze into astrology.  But in all of our studies, if we aren’t careful, we might ignore the ultimate source behind all that we witness in our world.  To answer the truly important – the really big questions in life – we need to wade into the waters of theology.  In other words, we need to engage in the study of God.

          Sometimes, when people begin to recount the numerous ways that God has been active in their lives, I get just a little uneasy.  If someone is convinced that God led them to the perfect parking space at the store, I begin to question if they really understand God’s overarching purposes for the universe.  But I must be careful not to become too cynical or jaded when people genuinely notice God’s hand at work in their lives.  I need to make sure that I don’t become so accustomed to the rational world in which we live, that I wind up leaving very little room for the divine presence to be seen and felt.  God is at work in our world, just as he has been at work in the history of humankind from the beginning of creation.  I need my eyes to be open to what God is doing all around me. 

          It was obvious that God was at work in the lives of the people of Israel in the book of Exodus.  But though his signs and wonders were so very clear, Pharaoh consistently hardened his heart to what YHWH was doing in the plagues and through the ministries of Moses and Aaron.  In fact, it was this hardness to God’s presence that eventually led Pharaoh and his army to a premature death in the waters of chaos.

          It’s interesting to look at this story in retrospect.  If you move from the earlier parts of Exodus to the middle, you come to a transitional passage in the 18th chapter of the book.  Here, the people are finally camped at the Mountain of God, Sinai, and Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, has journeyed to this spot because he has heard about what God has done for Moses and Israel.  Though Pharaoh was blind to the maneuvers of YHWH, Jethro is not.  He sees that something special is at work, and who else could it be, but God? 

“Then Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had beset them on the way, and how the Lord had delivered them.  Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the Lord had done to Israel, in delivering them from the Egyptians.  Jethro said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh.  Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods, because he delivered the people from the Egyptians, when they dealt arrogantly with them.’  And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices to God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.” (Exodus 18:8-12, NRSV).

          Scripture doesn’t tell us very much about exactly who Moses’ father-in-law is, or when he becomes a believer in YHWH.  What we do know is that he is a priest in Midian.  Recent discoveries have shown that shepherds who lived in Midian around the time of the Exodus worshipped a God they called YHWH.  So, it could be that Jethro is already familiar with the God of Israel.  At any rate, Jethro sees that Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and their safe passage through the wilderness could not be accounted for by anything but God’s grace and providence.  Who else, but God!

          Who else but God could lead Israel to Egypt in the first place?  It was God’s divine providence that saved the sons of Jacob so many years before.  Who else but God could save the life of the baby Moses through a reed basket and eventually lead him into the wilderness of Midian where he met his destiny at the burning bush?  Who else but God could deal plague after plague on the false gods of Egypt and Pharaoh, while still protecting his own people?  Who else but God could strike the first-born sons?  Who else but God could save the people through the chaos waters of the sea?  Who else but God could provide the people with something to drink when they were thirsty, not once, but twice?  And when they were hungry and longing for the pots of meat back in Egypt, who else but God could provide manna to eat?  When the Amalekites came out to battle Israel in the desert, who else but God could deliver them to victory?  If not God, then who else? 

          Jethro has heard of all that God has done for Moses and for Israel.  He has seen the Almighty at work.  He cannot help but proclaim that God is both sovereign and gracious!

          Jethro doesn’t seek a naturalistic explanation for the miracle of the sea.  And according to Jethro, it’s not just by coincidence that YHWH has led his people to the Mountain of God.  There is a deeper, far reaching, theological purpose for God’s actions on behalf Israel.  (This is another step in God’s eventual reclamation of the entire universe.)  God’s wonders are plain to see, and Jethro is willing to gaze in astonishment upon them.  And with his mouth, and with his life, he offers up praises to this God!  His God!

          God’s wonders in our world are also plain to see, but are we willing to see them?  If we’re not careful, we might find ourselves more in tune with the surrounding culture, than with what God is doing around us.  Through the good and the bad, God is at work, and yet, we might sometimes fail to give him thanks for what he is doing.  When we narrowly escape an accident on the highway, do we think, “Weren’t we lucky!”?  Or, when God uses one of our friends to encourage us and to give us advice, we might be quick to thank our friend, but slow to remember the God who gave that friend to us.  When we pray to God to deliver us from some difficult circumstance, and he does deliver us, do we chalk it up to our faithfulness in prayer, or do we give glory to the God who faithfully answers our prayers?  God is working wonders all around us, but we must have eyes that are open to see all that God is doing. 

          A Scottish man named Billy Wilson penned a song in 2000 which really resonates in our age of human self-sufficiency.  The song is titled, Father I Believe and the words make a powerful point.

Who says miracles don’t happen anymore?

And who says God can only do what we afford?

Why so many spend so long trying to ignore,

Every sign of life, every sign of hope, everything before.

Such a sad affair when living to deny.

Where every work of wonderful is written off in time.

The God of old responds to faith, but now he doesn’t try.

Isn’t that absurd?  Isn’t that a joke?  Isn’t that a crime?

Father, I believe!  Help my unbelief!

And if you tell me mountains will move, then I will walk as I believe.

A Syro-Phoenician lady, wasn’t due a thing.

She came for the crumbs from the table, but she left with everything.

Lowered into Jesus’ presence, lifted out of sin.

The hearts around him needed proof, so he left with everything.

Father, I believe!  Help my unbelief!

And if you tell me mountains will move, then I will walk as I believe.

I will walk as I believe.

          Wilson’s words especially hit home with the line, “Father, I believe, help my unbelief!”  Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation?  You have a little bit of faith, but you long to believe more.  We see God’s work all around us and we want to be like Jethro and let everyone know what God is doing in our lives and in the church, but we sometimes falter in our boldness.  Or, sometimes, when things don’t go as we would like them to go, we may find it hard to believe that God is still active and working.  But we need to trust that he is still working – even when we don’t see it, or when we don’t understand what he’s up to.  In these moments, we would do well to pray, “Father, I believe, help my unbelief!”

          And there are some things by God’s grace that we can do to more clearly see God’s work in our lives.  We must acknowledge that God is both sovereign and gracious.  First, by acknowledging God’s sovereignty we will be more open to let his kingdom reign into every facet of our existence.  There should be no areas of our lives that are not touched by God’s presence.  From the moment we rise in the morning, until the moment we drop our heads on our pillows, Christ’s presence should be evident in all that we say and in all that we do.  Secondly, by acknowledging God’s graciousness through our thankfulness to him and in our worship of him, we become more aware of what God is doing around us.  We should not relegate these times of thanksgiving and praise only to prayers before meals, devotionals, Bible classes, or church services.  They should be a part of every daily activity in which we participate.  Through this and the encouragement we receive from one another, we will be better able to see God and his actions in our lives and in this world.  Someone is at work in us – someone is at work in you – someone is at work in me.  And who else could that be, but God?!!! - Shay

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A Musical Journey

We were on our way back from a High School mission trip to Montana when I bought my first U2 album.  The year was 1992 and I was 15 years old.  The record was Achtung Baby (actually it was a cassette tape).  Our youth group had stopped in Colorado Springs for the night, and to kill a little time before bed, our sponsors dropped us off at one of the local malls.  Most shops in malls don't interest me much, but record stores always have grabbed my attention.  I remember looking in the rock section and narrowing down my focus to one band, U2.  Having never listened to much of their music, I had become intrigued by this foreign group when some of my friends at Camp Blue Haven had played some of their songs that summer.  When I was younger, I remember seeing older teens wearing Rattle & Hum t-shirts at camp.  I had also heard people say that U2 was a Christian band. 

All of that combined to make me curious.  I really liked the sound of a couple of the songs I had heard earlier in the summer from Achtung Baby, namely The Fly and Mysterious Ways.  But having also seen the Rattle & Hum t-shirts a few years back, I was torn.  Should it be Rattle & Hum or Achtung Baby?  Going for the more recent release, I grabbed the Achtung Baby cassette and bought the first of many U2 albums.

The rest of that summer and into the autumn, Achtung Baby was on heavy rotation in my Walkman.  And over the next couple of years, I began to expand my U2 collection.  I worked my way backwards, skipping Rattle & Hum and going straight to The Joshua Tree (I bought Rattle & Hum a few months later).  As much as I loved Achtung Baby, the songs on The Joshua Tree were what I would describe as epic and cinematic.  They were the kinds of songs that could transport you to another time and place.  One of the first few times I listened to The Joshua Tree, I was riding in a car amongst the mountainous landscapes of northern New Mexico.  Later on, I remember how well the songs fit with the desert topography of my grandparents' place out in Far West Texas.  Achtung Baby introduced me to U2, but The Joshua Tree sold me on them.  It wasn't long until I had a copy of every U2 record and a couple VHS concert tapes to go with them. 

I'm not exactly sure why I grew to love U2 so much.  I've had various musical phases that have come and gone, but I've always stuck with U2.  I think it's partly down to the fact that they've always been about so much more than simply making music.  They're activists as well as artists.  And they are a Christian band, though they can't be put in a box like much contemporary Christian music.  In other words, they are a rock 'n roll band who happen to have a committed Christian faith, but they aren't what most people would call a "Christian band".  They're comfortable exploring some of the darker subjects, as well as the loftier and more uplifting motifs.  Faith must always be lived out in the real world and the vibe I get from Bono is that his faith is genuine and real.  So, I connect to U2 on multiple levels and I just really love the music they play and the songs they write.  So once I became a fan, I became a fan for life.

But it wasn't until the spring of 1997, after the release of the Pop album that I finally had the chance to see U2 live.  A friend and I travelled to Dallas, TX and caught the Popmart show at the Cotton Bowl.  I saw another show (with 3 of my cousins) on that tour in San Antonio later that year.  And then, in 2001, my cousin Brent and I drove down to Houston and saw Bono and the boys play on the Elevation tour in what used to be called the Compaq Center (this is now the home of Joel Osteen and his megachurch - Bono broke it in for Joel!).  A few months later, I introduced Juli to the U2 live experience at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin.  She was impressed.

We had tickets to the Houston show in 2005, but I sold them and made a handsome profit in the process.  I still kind of regret doing that, but it was probably the smart thing to do at the time.  I was already in trouble for buying Longhorn season tickets that year!  Then on October 12, 2009, my cousin Brent and I had got right up close to the stage for the 360 show in what is now called AT & T Stadium in Arlington.  Juli would have joined us that evening, but she was only 8 days away from giving birth to Ashlyn! 

So I've had the privilege of attending 5 U2 concerts on 3 different tours over the past 20 years.  This Friday, Lord willing, I'll attend my 6th.  And with this being the 30 year anniversary tour of The Joshua Tree, I'm especially excited to see and hear the sights and sounds as U2 play their most ambitious record live in its entirety.  The show will be in Louisville, KY, so it will also afford me the chance to go on a road trip, or one might say, a pilgrimage of sorts.  As Larry Mullen Jr. remarked in the film, Rattle & Hum, "It's a musical journey."  So it is! - Shay