SOAP: 28 February 2014

And he said to them, “Do not delay me, since the LORD has prospered my way. Send me away that I may go to my master.”

Genesis 24:56

These words are spoken by Abraham’s servant after the servant met Rebekah. Met might be too weak a word, since Rebekah had revealed something of her character in their first meeting — she had watered the ten camels he had with him and I hear that camels drink a lot, so one may rationally conclude that this woman was hard-working and kind to strangers. Regardless of the word, the servant knows what he needs to know and is ready to be on the road home. This dude is a man on a mission.

God will sometimes give me a “mission”. He gives a very particular vision for one thing that wants doing and sets me on the track of doing it. For the record, He does this for all of His servants.

There’s something to be learned from this servant and how he accomplished his task, though. See, he took what he figured he would need to get the job done. He took some of Abraham’s wealth with him and had it ready to provide as proof of his claims regarding Abraham’s riches. He came with a clear notion of what he was on about. There is no record of him bothering God with regard to this task until he was in position to accomplish it and when God gives him success this servant gives credit where credit is due and worships God on the spot. Finally, this dude is “on a mission” in the sense that he is not prepared to waste any time. When Rebekah’s mother and brother start trying to extend the servant’s visit, he shoots those ideas down with a quickness.

What lessons do I take from all of that? Quite a few, actually.

First, each and every Christian alive is on some mission or another. Jesus commissioned all of us to go and preach the gospel. Abraham’s servant took proof with him, have we? What I mean is, does my life include the fruit of God’s Spirit? If I do not have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control then it is debatable whether or not anyone will believe that the God I claim to represent is real. If God has no real benefits to confer on His followers then there is nothing to prove that He is any different from all the non-gods out there.

Second, I need a clear notion of what exactly God has me doing. If my only specific mission from Him at the moment is to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with my God then I need to be all over that mission. If I have a different and oddly precise mission from God then I need to be busy about that. Jesus said, while He was on Earth, that He had to be busy about His Father’s business. We, likewise, need to be busy about our master’s business.

Third, I need to get my marching orders from God and then work to get myself ready for what He wants me to do. That may mean preparing my mind by studying — Paul spent years doing just this before he was sent out. It may mean something else. But I need to be getting myself ready for whatever God has instructed me to do so that I am positioned to do it. If I think God has told me to buy a new car (strange example, but go with it) then I should be reading reviews and checking test ratings and weighing the pros and cons of each vehicle that could be considered so that when I pray to God about which car to buy, I have already done my due diligence. There is no record of this servant setting the conditions of how he would know which woman was right for Isaac until he was actually in a place to meet the women of the town and potentially find the woman he had been sent to find. If I feel like God is calling me to go plant a church (He’s not, but if He were) then I need to be getting myself and my family in a position where we are ready to go where God sends us when God is ready to send us. If I’m not ready for action when the time for action comes then I’m going to miss my opportunity. Also, when the work is done (including in the process of being done, since the servant worships God for the success of the mission before he’s on the road home), I need to praise God for what He has done, is doing, and will do. If God sent me on a mission then He will ensure the success of that mission.

Last, I need to not waste time. If God says, “Go.” then I need to be ready to go with a quickness. If God says, “Stay here.” then I need to be ready and content to just chill until God tells me otherwise. These things become more difficult when a person marries and when a married couple begins having children, but more difficult is not impossible and even the impossible is doable for God. When Jesus called His disciples, they immediately left what they were doing and followed Jesus.

So, whether on a specific mission or on the more general mission of preaching the gospel to everyone, every Christian is on a mission. Are we; am I taking on that mission like Abraham’s servant: with proof of the Master’s attributes, with a clear idea of what the mission is, with all readiness to perform the task, and with all due diligence and quickness to obey?

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SOAP: 27 February 2014

Then Abraham said to him, “Beware lest you take my son back there!”

Genesis 24:6

There is always the danger, in walking with God, of people taking us backward. And, in fairness to those folks, there is not always malicious intent or even full understanding of what that backwards movement really means.

In context, Abraham is setting things up so the servant he’s talking to will go back to Abraham’s kinsmen and find a wife for Isaac there. People give lots of reasons and theories about why, but the most obvious is this: God told Abraham that he would be a stranger in the land that God was giving him and you can’t be a stranger if you marry into the family. I mean, we can spiritualize this thing and try to make more out of it and The Bible supports some of those interpretations. But the really obvious one is that we can’t stay different if we’re married into the family. My wife and I have been married for over three and a half years now and I’ve noticed that certain behaviors are starting to take shape that allow me to better get along with my in-laws. I don’t want to give the impression that I have difficult in-laws, I think I’ve got things pretty easy and that I’m blessed in that respect, but there are things my in-laws do that were strange to me when I joined the family which have changed as time has passed (meaning those things are no longer quite as strange to me). What is more, I’ve changed a bit—and will probably continue to change—to accommodate harmony with that part of our family. And, in fairness, I’m sure they’ve made changes to accommodate me and my oddities. But that’s how family works. If Isaac had married a Canaanite woman then Isaac would have made changes in his life to accommodate her and her family and—this is the key part—their beliefs. My in-laws are Catholic, so some of how they worship God seemed odd to me, since I was not raised Catholic or any stripe of Protestant that resembled Catholic. This was—and still is—generally a simple matter to adjust for mentally, but what if my in-laws had been a religion further removed from my experience and understanding? How much alteration to my mental framework would be necessary to maintain peace at family gatherings? Would I and my wife be willing to pay the price of peace or would we rather remain true to our beliefs? See, I can make the changes needed to see things from my in-laws’ POV because they’re still worshiping the same God, just in a different way. And that’s cool. But what would have happened to my beliefs if my in-laws had been, say, Hare Krishna? or Hindu? or Wiccan? What sorts of change would have been necessary to keep peace in the family?

All of that, I think, is a part of where Abraham is coming from. Abraham is a monotheist. The Canaanites are polytheists. Abraham has made covenant with God. The Canaanites made various sacrifice to various gods for various reasons — not so much with the covenant. Abraham had seen Sarah’s influence in his life, both for good and ill. He wanted his son to have a wife who would, in her good and bad influence, encourage him to pursue the promises of God. And, writing as a man who has married a Godly lady, I can state authoritatively that a Godly wife is beyond precious to a man who wants to live Godly.

How to apply this? Well, there is the encouragement that my wife and I have done the right thing in marrying fellow Christians. But I’m going to extend this outward just a bit. Every intimate relationship, including close friendships, has the potential to impact my behavior and beliefs for good or ill. I need to be wise in my choice of who I allow myself to be close to.

SOAP: 26 February 2014

“And in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.”

Genesis 22:18

 

There is a causal relationship between my actions toward God and what follows. Throughout scripture, the pattern is put on display: Abraham believed God (cause) and God counted it to him as righteousness (effect); If my people will … (cause) …then I will … (effect); because you have obeyed (cause), all the nations of the earth shall be blessed (effect). I’ve used positive cause and effect pairings for these illustrations, but negatives are also present.

But there is more. Abraham’s obedience did not just affect him. The result mentioned in the verse; the promise of God is that all the nations of the earth will be blessed because of one man’s obedience. I know that I don’t stop to consider my actions; my choices as having that kind of impact, but they might. I do not know when a single kind word might tip the balances for someone and they become a blessing to many, many others. I likewise do not know which cruel word might set someone off on a terrible course of action. It’s not that I’m to blame, it’s just that I’m at fault. What?

To be “to blame” implies guilt and condemnation. Romans tells me that there is no condemnation for those in Christ. I am not guilty of; not to blame for another person’s actions. I can, however, be at fault. Think of automotive accidents. I can be at fault without being to blame. To be “at fault” simply means I’ve done something wrong that has contributed to something undesirable — in this example, the accident. I did not cause the accident, but I might not have struck the car ahead of me if I had obeyed traffic laws and followed at a safe distance. I can likewise be “at fault” for what a person does as a result of my action or inaction. I did not cause it, but I contributed to the result. And this is true for both positive and negative outcomes. Who would’ve thought that I could be “at fault” for good things? But that’s just it, my action or inaction can contribute to both good and bad things. Abraham’s action (obedience) added good things into the life of his son, Isaac. Isaac saw obedience and faith modeled. Someone reading that claim would probably question the idea of faith being modeled, but it was. See, Abraham told the servants who traveled with him and Isaac that both of them would go to the mountain to worship and both of them would come back down. It might not have clicked in Isaac’s mind while Abraham had him bound and the knife was about to fall, but the deeper truths in life always take time to sink in. Isaac heard his father say that both of them were coming back then saw the knife poised to fall and had to reconcile those two things in his mind. Had his father lied or had something deeper; something else entirely been going on? But Isaac caught on, because we later see him just chilling and praying while waiting for Rebekah. Abraham’s obedience established a legacy of obedience. No one in that legacy would obey perfectly until a descendant of Abraham from a little town called Nazareth came on the scene. That descendant, one Jesus by name, would obey God perfectly and fulfill everything promised to Abraham and every faithful man to follow after him.

What about me? This morning, I need to start weighing my decisions more carefully. Not every decision is life or death—I don’t think that where I have lunch, for example, will change the course of history—but my obedience to God or lack thereof may very well contribute to another person’s choice to accept or reject Christ. My action or inaction is not the determining factor—we all, ultimately, make our own choice—but it contributes to the sum total of the evidence weighed for and against the veracity of Christ’s claims. Will I, like Abraham, receive a promise that my obedience will be a blessing to others or will I disobey and receive no such promise. The choice is mine.

But God

But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the lad and your maid; whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her, for through Isaac your descendants shall be named.”

Genesis 21:12

At a glance, this might feel like a repeat of what happened earlier in Genesis. Sarah tells Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael and off they go. The difference is God’s presence. The first time, Sarah was angry at the consequences of her actions. This time, she is righteously indignant at the thought that a child not of God’s promising would inherit God’s promises to Abraham. I conclude this based on God’s input: “Listen to Sarah.” Last time, there was no mention of God in connection with what Sarah was saying or doing. This time, God endorses it. The first time, Abraham dismissed the whole thing and told Sarah to do whatever she felt like doing. He had no compunctions about the vindictiveness about to be unleashed on Hagar. This time around, Abraham is grieved by what is going on and troubled on behalf of both Hagar and Ishmael. Again, it is because God tells Abraham not to be distressed about Hagar and Ishmael that I conclude that Abraham was distressed. There’s no sense telling someone to stop being something they aren’t. The difference in all of this is God. God is consulted. God is involved. God is listened to. Which leads nicely into my next thought on this verse.

“But God” can be the most beautiful words in scripture. When Joseph’s brothers stand before him, he tells them that they meant to do evil things to him but God used it to save. Paul, I think, talks about who and what he was and transitions with but God. Those two words so often signal the transition from what mankind was trying to do into what God was doing; the transition from something that seemed irreparable and beyond saving into something that is glorious and saves many. Those words are a pivot on which turn the whole of reality. Man does what he wants, but God makes it fit into His plans just as He intended for it to do.

Those words can, however, be the fulcrum of judgment. Mankind mocks God, but God will not be mocked and what follows after those two words is a terrible thing to consider, let alone experience.

This round of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar interacting might have gone very differently, but God was involved; was consulted; gave instruction; comforted the distressed; provided for the needs of those who could not provide for themselves.

 

What about my life? When I look back and see the times these words can be applied, do I see beauty for ashes or ashes for palaces made of paper? Daniel was in a car accident that, by all accounts, should have killed him and possibly his two passengers as well, but God spared all of their lives and even went so far as to provide nurses to check them out after they had hiked through the mountains. The vast majority of times I can see those words applied to the narrative of my life, it is God giving beauty for ashes; life for death. There are times when I planned something and God checked. There are times when I rebelled and God caused my house of cards to come tumbling down. I can, without any hesitation, admit that I am faithless, but God is faithful. My track record is speckled and inconsistent, but God is consistent in His dedication to conforming me to the image of His Son.

Today’s application is this: There are two ways these words can appear in the narrative in my life. The first is the one I want, where something goes sideways through no fault of my own—or, at the very least, without me willfully rebelling—and bad things are about to happen, but God intervenes and switches the bad that was going to happen for something good. I might always recognize it as good at the time, but it is. The second is the one I prefer not to have, where I am willfully disobedient or make big plans without consulting God (I think He’s cool with me planning lunch or an outfit without a consultation, ’cause there are bigger things in life to deal with than food and clothing), but God flips everything around to make sure I am aware that He is still in complete control of everything. It should be the goal of my life to give God the opportunity to do as much of the first and as little of the second as possible. I want my life to be marked by the words but God in the best way possible

Reality v. Perception

I’ve been house hunting.

For two years.

Know what? I’ve realized something about Southern California that may not be true anywhere else in the world: we’re delusional about everything here. This includes the price of housing.

See, I’ve had this conversation with others a time or two and those who own homes have a tendency to shake their head and give me that look that is equivalent to patting me on the head condescendingly and say, “Perceived value is what the house is worth.” I disagree. While I cannot disabuse my fellow SoCalians (It’s a new word. Deal with it), I’d like to state my case.

There is what I think of as “Real Value”. “Real Value” is the sum total of the integral parts of what makes a house a house. First, there is the land. Since commodities are priced based on scarcity and there is not a whole lot of undeveloped land in So Cal, I expect that the price of land is going to be higher than elsewhere. Close to $100,000 for a moderately-sized parcel in the San Gabriel Valley? Sure, sounds about right. Second, we have the costs of building: permits, materials, labor, design … all that jazz. But a problem arises here: most of the houses available for purchase were built before my grandparents were born. This means that the materials and associated costs of building the house are long since paid for. In fact, the place might require further investment in order to make it comfortably livable. Maybe even bring some things up to code for the 21st Century. Bearing that in mind, the associated costs should be significantly lower. Especially since we’re talking about things that are bought and paid for AND may need to be replaced anyway. Real estate folks say that location is the biggest factor and I can see where that plays into things, but this idea of location is a double-edged sword. On the one edge, we have the proximity to available jobs. If that were really the criteria then all those homes for sale up in the San Fernando Valley would be way more expensive and the homes down here in the San Gabriel Valley would be much less expensive because the San Fernando Valley has all sorts of employers around. The San Gabriel Valley is fairly convenient for commuting purposes, but the commute can be painful. Neighborhoods can be great when a person moves in, but deteriorate as undesirable elements move in. What is undesirable varies from person-to-person, but anything that makes a neighborhood less safe stands a good chance of being considered undesirable … unless you’re a thug, in which case you probably want your neighborhood to be all busted and scary. I’ve done crime mapping in the areas my wife and I have considered moving and the places that are generally thought of as “less safe” or have earned some derogatory nickname are often safer, statistically speaking, than the allegedly “safe” neighborhood our apartment is in. It blows my mind. Also, newness of the home should factor into its “Real Value” since newer homes are built with more safety features (like paint that doesn’t poison us) and can handle modern technology (like being able to use a toaster and coffee maker at the same time without tripping a breaker).

So, let’s calculate what I’m calling the “Real Value” of a house in the San Gabriel Valley. Most homes are on lots so small there’s no reason the land should be valued over $100,000 (except lots that can actually be measured in significant fractions of acres, meaning 1/4 acre or above … most places around here don’t get anywhere near 10,000 square feet of land). Every single family home we’ve looked at is (a) smaller than our apartment and (b) built around the turn of the 20th Century. This lack of space and potential need for upgrade means I cannot rationally value a house at more than $100,000 (most assessor records value the “upgrades”, e.g. house, at far less). So far, we’re at $200,000. The neighborhoods we’ve looked at are okay, but they won’t be winning any awards. Also, the 210-134 interchange is nightmarish during almost all commuting hours, so only homes that give direct access to I-210 north of that interchange have any real “location” value. Let’s estimate a house with some real “location” value and tack on another $75,000. We still only have a house priced at $275,000. This would be a house below 1,000 square feet on a lot smaller than 5,000 square feet (less than 1/8 acre). And these houses are generally at an asking price of $325,000 +. I hear the voice of Mandy Patinkin, in the character of Inigo Montoya, saying, “You keep asking that price. I do no think it’s worth what you think it’s worth.”

But then, in come those folks who have succumbed to the SoCalian delusion that “Perceived Value” (aka, what the market will bear or what some deluded person will overpay for that house) is “Real Value” and I wonder if I’m just too rational to live in Southern California. I must be too rational to be able to buy a home here, because those numbers are outlandishly large, to my mind. Worse, to purchase a house my family could grow into would cost at least $500,000. For that price, I think my house better come with a view of the beach. But others disagree and others will pay those absurd prices and others keeping taking the prices higher and higher and higher until, eventually, I will either resign myself to renting until I can manage something that allows escape from this over-sized insane asylum called Southern California or I will have out-waited the market and the people who overextended themselves on those houses that might have been affordable for me will have to sell at bargain prices so they can recup their losses. Neither one sounds terribly attractive and both come with lots of waiting.

In the mean time, I’m going to bash my head against something harder than it is and see if I can’t delude myself into thinking that $325,000 for something not much bigger than a shoe box is reasonable.