Saturday, January 28, 2012

Confession of a Former "Atheist"

"...but the Lord laughs at the wicked for He knows their day is coming." Psalm 37:13

"A fool says in his heart, there is no God". Psalm 14:1

Have you ever been in this category of fools? I have. I was at one time an "atheist" (which I would spell f o o l with a capitial F). I was not a rabid, in your face, don't talk to me about God kind of unbeliever. I was more the milquetoast, limp wristed variety. I adopted this mindset not so much that I really believed God did not exist. I came face to face with an old fear that in different circumstances could have been deadly and I knew the possibility of going to Heaven was not on the table.

If you read my previous blog, you know that as a child I developed a very negative picture of God. Let me make this disclaimer. I am not casting dispersion upon any denomination or religious organizations. I am simply relating how I processed what I was taught. Please, no hate mail.

That out of the way, I was raised in a family that went to church every Sunday, every Holy Day of Obligation and other special occasions. We were not what we referred to "C&E" members, those who only darkened the doors on Christmas and Easter. I also spent the first 8 years of my education in a school run by our denomination. The good part - I received a strong foundation in the existence of God, the reality that there was a Heaven to gain and a Hell to avoid at all costs, and that our behavior determined where you wound up eternally. The bad part - the older I got the less I believed in the system. God in my mind was not "seeker friendly" at all. He was more a composite of Svengali, Scrooge and "The Great Oz" (picture the image from the movie) whose sole purpose was to scare the hell out of you. As a young child, I remember having a real desire to know Him but as time went on, He became more and more unapproachable.

So with this firm belief in God, how did I become an atheist? Now I need to share with you on of my other childhood quirks. As I write this I can hear my sisters voice in my head saying: "You always were a little weird, Mary!".

As a child, I was really afraid of volcanoes and earthquakes. I grew up in South Jersey and as far as I know that area has never had any active volcanoes. I do not remember experiencing any earthquakes either. My fear of volcanoes came from hearing a story in school about Mt. Etna in Italy. We were told that a farmer was out in his field on day and to his amazement, here was a volcano growing in the field instead of his crops. We lived in an area with large commercial farms and in my childlike rationale; if it could happen there it could happen here. My fear of earthquakes came from watching a news cast of an area that had been hit very hard. I remember watching on our television which in those days was a small screen with grainy black and white images that were adjusted by moving the "rabbit ears" on the top of the set. We were on the cutting edge of technology for our day, we had 3 remote controls and their names were Pat, John and Mary. I asked my mother what had happened to the people in the buildings that were not destroyed and she told me they all died. Again, in my childish understanding, I drew the conclusion that when an earthquake hit, everyone died. I remember sharing these fears with my father who did his best to explain to this small child that the chances of a volcano erupting in our back yard (like I had dreamed) was practically impossibility and that an earthquake while not impossible was highly unlikely. I wanted to believe him but I still had my serious doubts. As time went on my fears abated....until.

My husband Joe and I were married in 1972. One morning we were both awakened at the same time in the early morning hours. Neither of us could figure out why. There were no loud noises, no sirens going off. Our bedroom faced Spruce St. which though out the night was a popular "cruising" area and there was nothing out of the ordinary happening there. We both chalked it up to being a fluke and went back to sleep. The next morning when he woke me up he informed me that we had a minor earthquake! I emphatically informed him that this was not possible. He assured me that it had indeed occurred and may have been perplexed at the velocity of my refusal to accept the truth. He went on to work and I was left grappling with my old childhood fear.

An earthquake...unthinkable. What I had feared for so long had happened. To people who live in very active quake areas what we experienced would not even raise an eyebrow. Buildings did not shake or fall, windows did not blow out and the sidewalks and streets did not crack open. At this time, we lived in an apartment in a four story brownstone row home. Our friends Ken and Wendy Stern lived 2 floors above us and their bedroom was directly over ours. They had a waterbed. Had this been a serious quake, several thousand pounds of water and bed could have come crashing down burying us in the basement without an opportunity to make a "Perfect Act of Contrition". The my ultimate fear really could have happened and I would have been doomed. That day, on my way home from work, while riding the Mid City Loop I made my decision. I would be an atheist. I would just believe that God, Heaven and Hell did not exist. I had to talk myself into this because in my heart of hearts I really did know God was real but this was the only solution I had to quash the fear I was experiencing.

In Proverbs it says that God laughs at His enemies, and why not! He is God. What can anyone do to Him. He is all powerful. At Gethsemane, Jesus spoke two words and the Roman cohort, the Temple Guard and all the other officials were knocked to the ground when He spoke two words. What could God do if He lifted His little finger? He is omniscient, He know everything. Planning a sneak attack against Him; He knows all about it before you do. He owns everything so what is left for someone to use against Him. Of course He laughs; He doesn't need to do anything else. But then, the thought occurred to me....what if God is like a parent. What if "Little Mary" has money burning a hole in her pocket and wants to go to the mall to spend it. The only way she has of doing this is to have her parents take her. In her sweetest voice she approaches her parents with her request, confident they will be in complete compliance. Unbeknownst to her, they have different plans to surprise her with something special. She is shocked at their refusal to accommodate her and decides to pull out all the stops to get her point across. She throws a fit. She accuses them of not caring. They do not love her and for their information she lets them know that she not only does not love them, she even hates them and wishes she lived somewhere else. She storms off to her room and slams the door. What do her parents do? They look at each other and laugh. They worked hard to keep a straight face and not lose their composure during her rant. They know something she does not. They don't take seriously her words because they realize, she is only a child and acting childishly. This is something that they will eventually address to help her learn how to handle disappointment. They know the surprise they have planned for her will reverse her ideas about them.

As I sat on the bus that day and made my decision, I would not be surprised to learn that God fell off the throne rolled around the floor laughing. Why? He knew as Paul Harvey would say "the rest of the story". He knew that in less than 2 years I would make a complete 180 degree change of heart and give my life to Him. He knew that 30 some odd years later I would be passionately pursuing Him as opposed to running from Him. Maybe the reason that He laughs at His enemies is that in many cases He knows the end of the story, and He knows we are in for a big surprise. Perhaps He is laughing so hard right at something right now, His sides hurt. Perhaps that something is me.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

God is watching…does that give you the creeps.

The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and on the good. Proverbs 15:3

I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and His angels.  Rev. 3:5

Has the thought of God watching your every move ever given you the creeps?
I has me. Growing up I lived with the proverbial Sword (in my case lightening bolts) of Damocles hanging over my head. God was portrayed as One who was watching for the purpose of finding fault and inflicting punishment. The concept of a loving God who was looking out for my good was completely foreign to me. God look out for my good! Didn’t he have more important things to do, like punishing sinners?

When I read this verse in Proverbs the other day I did a double take and I wondered why the wicked listed before the good? If God had me author this portion of scripture (and we can all be thankful He did not) I probably would have said something like: “God is always watching out for the good to protect, bless and keep them and the rest of you wicked heathens watch out, He doesn’t miss a thing and you are gonna get yours!!!!”

Then the thought just occurred to me….what if God is like a parent who is outside with his children and watching them play. Dad wants them to have a great time so he tells them to stay in the yard and out of the street. One child is busy chasing bugs, picking flowers and overall having a wonderful time within the safety of the yard. The other, who I will refer to as “Little Mary” is slowly making her way toward the road, the very place she has been explicitly instructed to avoid.

Which child do you think has the father’s focus, the one who is in a safe position or the one who is approaching danger? Does this mean that the father loves one more than the other – no. It does mean, that at this moment in time one child needs the father’s attention in order to prevent a potentially tragic outcome.

Little Mary was instructed to not go near the street. In real life, Little Mary heard something like this: “Mary, stay away from the road”. Next, “Mary, don’t go near the road it’s not a playground”. Finally, MARY!!!!!! You go in that road and I’ll make you wish you had been hit by a car!”  You may be chuckling because growing up you may have heard something similar to this, and if you are a parent, you may have said something similar to your little darling. By the way, that third statement is not the way God talks to His kids.

Little Mary has no concept that the laws of physics teach us that a several thousand pound vehicle moving at a given rate of speed cannot stop on a dime. She does not know and really does not care. All she sees is another playground. Her father, being a loving responsible parent, will take swift action and if necessary physically move her away from the road.

Rev. 3:5 states that a person’s name is already in the book of life (God’s Brag Book, so to speak) and will stay there unless at some point (possibly at death) the name is blotted or erased out. That being the case, God has good reason to be watching over all of us. Until, by our own choice, our name is removed, we are recipients of His loving concern. Each one has divine destiny and heavenly potential. Will we see this destiny and fulfill this potential – that is up to us.

I’d like to borrow an analogy that I heard from Graham Cooke about God’s plan of salvation which is the key for us fulfilling our destiny and reaching the potential He planned for our lives. When my credit card is about to expire, I receive a replacement in the mail. As far as the company is concerned, I am pre approved to receive credit through their organization. If I take the card straight from the envelope and try to use it, nothing happens! Why? I am already pre-approved. What is the problem? In order for me to access my privileges as a card holder, I need to activate the card according to the company’s pre-determined procedure.

It’s the same way with God. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection  we all have the right to a relationship with God reestablished and our names are in the Lamb’s Book of Life. In order to take advantage of the benefits of His salvation, we have to do something. This is not earning salvation, it is activating it. The credit card company has specific criteria that we have to meet in order to get access to their credit. I can cry, beg, whine, pout, even hold my breath until my face turns blue, all to no avail. If I want the credit I have to follow their instructions. It is the same thing with God and His salvation. Just like the card companies, God has specific action anyone must take in order to receive the salvation He already has made available to them. We can try other methods that are more palatable to US, but it is a waste of time. He has an activation policy and either we follow it and receive, or miss out on the best deal of our lives.

Until we accept what He has provided for us, God keeps watching. Unlike the father in the above illustration who has the ability and the responsibility to over ride Little Mary’s free will and restrain her for her own safety, God cannot over ride our decisions. He will attempt to move us away from harm into safety but He will not violate our free will. The choice is always ours.

Just like the shepherds in Luke 2 who were “keeping watch”, God is keeping watch over us all. His heart and desire is to do us good, keep us from harm and most importantly, keep us from choosing to have our name blotted our from His Book of Life.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Home Improvement

The Lord abhors dishonest scales but accurate weights are His delight. Prov 11:1

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? Matthew 7: 1-3

What does having an honest scale and making judgments have to do with home improvement? Read on and find out.

Proverbs 11 talks about having honest scales, being accurate when it comes to weighing something out. When this was written, one did not go to the store and purchased pre-packaged items, what you bought was weighed out and paid for on a pre-determined weight basis. Having accurate scales meant the purchaser got what they paid for, may be more if the merchant was generous, but certainly not less. If you purchased a five pound bag of flour, you got 5 lbs, not 4.95. What is the .5 you were shorted worth? Over multiple sales a nice profit for the seller and many potential repeat sales when customers ran short, which meant….more profit. Nice for an unjust merchant, not so nice for his ripped off customers.

This verse goes will beyond having an accurate scale for weighing natural items. It is about our own internal justice system. How easy is it and how often do we excuse behavior in ourselves, only to condemn others for the same thing?

Jesus addressed this very situation very sternly in Matthew 7. Being completely human as we are, Jesus was tempted to do the same things we do. Perhaps, the temptation was even greater for Him because He didn’t have “sawdust” in His eyes but He was surrounded by plenty of people with 2x4’s in theirs. If anyone could have been the poster child for self righteousness and gone about tooting His own horn and patting Him self on the back for a job well done, it was Jesus. He did not do that and He doesn’t want us to do it either.

Why? Jesus was subject to the Word of God the same way we are. Being God in human form did not exempt Him from the consequences of the Word of God, whether good or bad. Jesus knew all about Romans 2:1 before Paul ever wrote it. Jesus knew that in judging others, the door was opened to becoming just like them and that was a price He was not willing to pay. He did take on all of our sin, and it’s penalty, in order to free us, but he did not participate in it.

God wants us to be ruthlessly honest about ourselves while extending gracious and liberal mercy to other. This doesn’t seem “fair” but then, God does not “play fair” He “plays just”. We know all the circumstances and details in our lives and we are capable of judging ourselves and our actions. We do not have this information about others and so we are not equipped to render judgment on them. John 5:20 states that even the Father does not judge anyone, He gave that responsibility to Jesus. When was the last time you read about a judge who passed sentence and then took the punishment and let the accused go? That’s what Jesus did for us.
Jesus is very capable of helping us get the 2x4’s out of our eyes and even better, He will show us how to keep them out permanently. 

How about you, time for some home improvement?