Monday, February 19, 2018

Knowing (and being known by) God

If I had to guess, I'd say my cat (Carmen) thinks she knows me. And in a sense, she does. She's figured that if she stands in front of the sink and meows early in the morning, I will most likely turn the tap on so she can jump up and get a drink. If she leads me to a certain rug downstairs, she knows I will stop and admire her as she writhes and scratches her back. (She makes quite a display of it.) And she knows that when I put a soft blanket on my lap and pat it, she is being invited to jump up and make herself comfortable.

She more or less has me all figured out.

Not! Naturally there is so much about me that my cat does not know, and never could know. My likes and dislikes, what makes me happy or sad, my memories of my family growing up, and of my own family when our kids were young, all the places we've lived before this one, how I spend my time when I leave our driveway in our car (or even the purpose of the car and how to drive it).

She has no idea that I can have a philosophy of life, and a faith that is very important to me; or that I studied journalism and literature (and why); or the things that I've gone about writing (what would a cat think of romantic poetry, anyway?), and why. She may be vaguely aware (from past experience) that if she bites me while I'm sleeping, or pees on my pillow, I will get upset and chase her out of the room, or possibly throw something. But the things that really make me angry (man's inhumanity to man, children who are abused, lying and cheating, etc.) she could in no way comprehend.

There is a whole world of stuff my cat does not (or cannot) know about me. And the truth is, I know my cat a lot better than she knows me. True, I haven't figured out everything about my cat, but I'm fairly close.

And if an alleycat appears on our back porch, I know quite a bit more about it (I know it's likely to have flees, for instance; and it's probably hungry; and it's likely afraid of me) than it knows about me (which is virtually nothing, except that I am to be feared, which may or may not actually even be true).

Do I know God?

I think in truth, my relationship with God is a lot like my cat's relationship with me. She knows me well enough to trust me, at least to a certain extent. When I turn on the faucet or dish her kitty food, she doesn't worry that I'm trying to poison her. She knows the sound of my voice and can easily distinguish me from other humans. She knows how to ask for food, or water, or other things she wants.

These are all, fundamentally, things I know about God. His character: He's trustworthy, and I don't have to fear that he's trying to harm me. I have a general idea of what upsets or offends Him, the things that break His heart. I know how to ask for things I need.

And God also knows me — no doubt in a much more intimate and accurate sense than I know my cat!

But there are humans Scripture says God "doesn't know." In Matthew 7:23, 25:12, and Luke 13:27, Jesus reiterates a frightening situation in which God tells humans under judgment, "Depart from Me, for I never knew you."

As Christians, we often think that us knowing God is really what it's all about. But Scripture reiterates that it's a two-way street. God must also know us. And if He doesn't? He'll say, "Depart from me!" That's the truly terrifying part.

The really interesting thing is who He says this to. Not rapists and murderers, not tyrannical despots, and not even people who drive slow in the fast lane. No! The people He's talking about, in these passages, are all people who are doing amazing works "in His name!" And He says to them: "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!"

So it seems to me it almost goes without saying: Scripture places a HUGE amount of importance on God "knowing us."

So, how does God come to "know us?"

When I was a kid, I was eager to "receive Christ" because my Sunday school teachers told me I had to do this in order to avoid Hell! Of course (as a kid) I believed these authoritative adults and fearfully tried to figure out exactly how I would do what they said I needed to do in order to avoid an eternity of torment in flames. I listened carefully as they taught: "Okay, here's how to receive Christ. Pray this prayer: 'God I know I'm a sinner. Thank you that you sent your son Jesus to die for my sins. I receive Him as my Savior.'" I memorized the words.

While I now know better, it struck me at the time that the exact words were very important. So I tried (multiple times) to "get it right" and pray exactly as they had shared. And in hindsight, I know God saw the intent of my heart and heard this prayer, but each time I prayed it I was left feeling "empty," like somehow I didn't do it right and it didn't "take." And I think God allowed me to feel this way, partly to drive home the point that "getting saved" really isn't about what I do, it's about what He has already done. And it's about a relationship, not about some words that you memorize.

And I think this is key: I was simply trying to invoke some sort of "magic" formula. I wasn't really listening to God. I wasn't really opening my heart up so that He might know me!

Now God of course already knows our hearts, better than we do. But there are some interesting passages of Scripture that refocus this sort of "knowing" on a different kind of knowledge, the kind that comes through relational fellowship. Toward the end of the third chapter of the Revelation, the risen Christ delivers a very important message through the Apostle John to the lukewarm church at Laodicea:
19"Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. 20Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

21To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
It's interesting that Christ chooses the language of fellowship: "If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me." Some friends at our church recently invited us over for dinner. Bryan has been in our young adults ministry and we have really come to love and appreciate him. His mom, Carolyn, is incredibly gracious. She cooked an amazing ham dinner and served a bottle of nice red wine to go with it. We spent quite a bit of time sitting around the table and just trading stories. We got to know each other so much better as a result of that time around the fellowship table. Now we can truly say that we are good friends, and in a deeper sense, we "know" each other better.

I think this is what Jesus is getting at. He comes to "know" us when we open the door of our hearts to him, hear and respond to His "knock" (His approach in our lives, even if that approach brings with it rebuke and discipline, which is all based in His amazing love for us), and spend time with him around His table, listening to Him share His truth into our lives, and sharing our story with Him as well.

The "evildoers" in Matthew 7 were all about putting up a front to make God think that He was lucky to have them on His team. But when he knocked, they didn't hear and open the door. They neglected to do that most crucial thing that friends do: spend time sitting around the table and getting to know each other.

Knocking on my door

I love the way that God finally "tied the knot" on our friend relationship. I have vivid memories of the very moment He knocked on my door, 52 years ago. As an 8 year old I was playing with my sister Sandy in the back yard of our home in Sylmar, California. For a reason I don't recall, I hauled off and popped her one, hit her good. She burst into tears, and of course did what I should have known she would do, went running into the house to tell mom.

The red pin on this Google map marks the spot
where God first knocked on my door.
But, I had a plan. There was a bush on the northeast side of our house on the corner of Buckeye and Envoy in Sylmar, California. (That bush was approximately in the spot I dropped the pin on the above Google map. It's no longer there, of course, after 52 years, they've paved a little walkway along the side of the house, instead. But it used to be a great place to hide from the wrath of Mom! And, by the way, that pool is also new.)

I hid under that bush, listening carefully to hear if Mom approached. And that is when I heard, instead, God's knock.

It came in the form of a discreet thought God planted in my heart: This sin problem that you have ... it's only going to get worse, you know.

That thought just hung there, terrifyingly. What do I do? I asked in wonder.

Give it to Me, came God's ready answered. I already paid for that. Let Me in to your life. Let me take control.

So, this time I prayed, and in earnest, not something scripted, but a prayer of desperation: God, I don't want to be like this! I want to be someone you can be proud of. I want to be your friend. Thank you for dying for me! Help me to be different.

And at that point came a very distinct sense which I can only describe as "the smile of God." Okay. Now it begins, that inner voice said into my heart.

I didn't really know it at the time, but we were fellowshipping together. Exchanging comments. For the first time, I was being honest with God, and sharing my life and my need. And He was sharing Himself with me.

I ran out from behind that bush, and almost collided with Mom, coming to look for the scoundrel who popped her daughter, justifiably angry. But I was so excited I didn't care. "Mom!" I cried, forgetting for the moment all about the injustice I had done Sandy. "Guess what? I just met Jesus!"

You can imagine the look on my mom's face, I suppose. Sandy was there hiding behind her, sniffling and rolling her eyes like, Oh yeah, of course now he gets religion!

But, I was being honest. And I think my mom knew that. She scooped me up in her arms, and instead of spanking me, gave me a huge hug. That's just one of many things I loved about my mom.

Oh, and Sandy, in case I've never told you this before: I'm sorry I hit you! And I know, it probably happened more than once. But I know you will be glad that God used that particular time to knock on my door!


How about you? How did God first knock on your door?

Friday, February 16, 2018

Chaos in America: Have We Prayed for Justice Like our Lives Depend on It?

Note: I've submitted this post to our church leadership blog, The Last Word. But I'd love your feedback on it.

I was watching the news this morning as Melissa Falkowski, an English and journalism teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, was being interviewed about her experience protecting her students in the midst of the horrific school shooting yesterday morning. At one point in the interview, as I recall, she said something that reached down deep inside of me:
“I’ve seen this on TV, we all have, shooting after shooting, and there’s always the same thing that is said, you know: ‘It’s not the time to talk about gun control ... it’s time to pray for the families.’ And I just think that that hasn’t gotten us anywhere. And now here we are. We’re the latest statistic on school violence. And as a society, as Americans, we’re failing our children. We’re not keeping them safe. Congress is failing us. The government is failing us. And something has to be done.”

Obviously, it’s been a depressing 24 hours, and we can (and probably will) debate the role that guns, or the media, or school policies, or whatever have played in these national tragedies. But what struck me, of course, is the comment that “We’ve prayed, and it obviously hasn’t gotten us anywhere.” And she’s right about the fact that school violence is getting worse and worse.

I ask myself, Is she right when she asserts that we’ve prayed? I’m not so sure.

And I’m speaking for myself here. Have I prayed when I’ve heard about school shootings? Did I pray for myself and my students when I was a tutor last year at Emerald Ridge High School and Glacier View Junior High? Do I pray each morning when I send my wife off to her job as a school nurse at elementary schools in downtown Puyallup? Do I pray for my precious granddaughter as she spends her days in her first-grade class in Pennsylvania?

The answer is yes, I’ve prayed. Some. But have I really gotten down on my knees, consistently, persistently, and begged the One I call Lord and King to do something to stop the downward slide of our country into moral oblivion and suicidal hopelessness that I think each of us truly believes (guns or no) is really at the root of all this chaos and violence?

Have I wrestled with Him on this issue, and listened for His voice? If He were to say, “What if I wanted YOU to be a part of the solution?” have I responded like the prophet of old: “Here I am, Lord. Send me!”

I confess that I haven’t done THAT. Have you?

In Luke 18, Jesus shares a profound parable about a widow who seeks justice with an all-powerful but “unjust” judge who could grant it, but isn’t inclined to. After much persistence, he finally relents. And Jesus concludes, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Some parables are a little difficult to figure out. But the meaning of this one is crystal clear, and it is a huge indictment on my heart and may be on yours as well. He assures us that His Father is wholly unlike that unjust judge. Instead, He is EAGER to grant justice, and quickly! But the question is, Are we serious about asking Him for it? Have we persisted “day and night”? Have we prayed like our lives depend on it?

I’m starting to believe that my life depends on it. How about you?