Whose Sanctuary?

I typically read through a book of the Bible at a time, a chapter or two per day, trying to go slowly enough to comprehend the meaning. Recently, while reading Ezekiel, I got stuck at chapter 40. That’s the section where the LORD gives Ezekiel very precise details about the temple, so precise that the descriptions fill chapters 40-42. I’m sure these chapters intrigue archaeology buffs, but my mind went on autopilot, as it often does when I attempt the genealogies, and I simply couldn’t see the point of the chapters. In fact, about halfway through chapter 42, I wandered away to the Psalms for a few days.ezekiels_temple

Then I remembered that all Scripture is profitable for instruction, and, rather reluctantly, I went back to Ezekiel, determined to slog through it. I’m so glad I did because Ezekiel 43 makes it plain why the previous three chapters list the exact cubits for each porch and chamber. It shows clearly why it matters that the court was a perfect square, that there were precisely five hundred measures between the “holy” and the “profane” chambers, and why the priests had to be so careful to change their garments before moving from one chamber to the next.

In Ezekiel 43:7, the LORD says, “‘Son of man, this is the place of My throne and the place of the soles of My feet, where I will dwell among the sons of Israel forever. And the house of Israel will not again defile My holy name, neither they nor their kings…And they have defiled My holy name by their abominations which they have committed. So I have consumed them in My anger.” And later in Ezekiel 43:12, God says, “Behold, this is the law of the house.”

In other words, the temple belonged to the LORD. It was His to define, and His to command. He would allow neither kings nor nations to determine what belonged in His holy place. It was His. As Master, He set the law of the house.

What does that have to do with us today? We don’t live in ancient Israel, but as Christians we do belong to God’s kingdom. As such, we recognize the church, especially the sanctuary, as a place set apart for the worship of the LORD. If God didn’t allow anyone but Him to determine what was proper in His temple in Israel, why would He allow anyone but Him determine what’s proper in His sanctuary now?

Think of it like this: when I decide to incorporate into the sanctuary a particular furnishing or decoration or employ a particular means of communication or expression that runs contrary to what God commands, I’ve set myself against God.  I’ve offered abominations in His name, simply because I like something or because it makes me feel good.

I’ve set up idols in the most holy place and demanded that the Holy One of Israel deal with it. That’s a pretty dangerous attitude.

God has made it clear throughout Scripture that He will never share His glory with another. Our idolatrous worship sets us at odds with this Holy God. If God, in His righteous anger, consumed those who defiled His holy place in Israel, how dare we think He won’t do the same to us today?

There is hope, though.

In Ezekiel 43:10, the LORD says, “If they are ashamed of all that they have done, make it known to them the design of the house, its structure, its exits, its entrances, all its designs, all its statutes…so that they may observe its whole design and all its statutes and do them.” In other words, if the people of Ezekiel’s time would repent of the way they’d mistreated God’s temple, if they would be ashamed, Ezekiel could tell them all about God’s grand design and His expectations of them. If not, God would allow them to continue on their sinful course, and they would be destroyed.

God, in His mercy, offers us the same options.

If we cling to the ways we profane God’s holy sanctuary, if we continue to worship the idols we’ve set up, if we persist in setting anything or anyone alongside Him as worthy of our worship, if we continue to use means of communication or expressions of our choosing rather than His, if we refuse to repent, He will let us continue down our path to destruction. He’ll let us reap the consequences of loving ourselves more than Him. He’ll dwell far from us.

But if we will be ashamed of the way we’ve loved a particular feeling or image or expression instead of adoring God alone, if we will repent of our idolatry, then He will forgive us. He will dwell among us. He will teach us His ways.

Let’s repent of our idolatry. Let’s recognize the sanctuary for Whose it is…God’s, not ours. Let’s worship God as He demands. Let’s love Him above all else.

Tip #4: Respect Church Property

chrchaAs pastors’ wives, our families are in a unique position in relation to the church’s property. After all, our husbands work in the church building, we spend hours volunteering there, and our children spend more time there than any other kids in the congregation. We may even live in a church parsonage. That makes it difficult at times to maintain a proper perspective on the church’s belongings. However, it’s essential that we recognize the implications of how we treat church property. Here’s what I mean:

  1. How we treat church property reveals our attitudes toward God. The church belongs to the Lord. When I pick up trash from the parking lot or scrape mud from my shoes before entering the building, I’m humbly submitting to God’s authority over me. But when I shop for toilet paper in the janitor’s closet or use the church phone to call my cousin in Germany, I am, in essence, stealing from God.
  2. How we treat church property affects our husbands’ ministries. My husband’s sermon on good stewardship is not as likely to be heeded when the parsonage grass is thigh high, and everyone knows it’s my family’s responsibility to cut it. Yet when the nursery worker hears me tell my daughter she can’t take a doll home because it belongs to the church, that worker has just seen a living illustration of my husband’s Bible study about not coveting what belongs to others.
  3. How we treat church property impacts our kids’ futures. When my son pockets a package of crayons from the church craft room, I may be tempted to excuse it as no big deal. But what about in a couple of years when he wants money for a concert ticket. Will he think it’s okay to pocket money from the offering plate to get what he wants? On the other hand, when I tell my kids not to run in the sanctuary because that room is set apart for worship, they learn respect for God and His church.crayola

Sometimes all these property-related issues can feel overwhelming, but it helps when we remember the blessings that go along with being pastors’ families…for some of us, it’s living rent-free/mortgage-free in a parsonage; for others of us, it’s taking home the leftover cake or pizza from a church fellowship; for still others, it’s our kids’ free access to the church gym on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Let’s express our appreciation for these blessings in how we care for church property.

The Magic of Music

images (3)Did you know that music has magical power? It can influence our thoughts, actions, and decisions.  A wise man once wrote that music is the gateway to the soul. Another man said that music gets past the guard of the heart easier than things like speech and writing. When I heard about these theories, I wanted to know how they worked. I came up with three observations.

First, music uses melody to influence my feelings. For example, a sad, sweet melody can make me nostalgic, and a bright, cheery one makes me feel happy or joyful. This can be good or bad. If I allow the melody to influence me, I may be unnecessarily angry or sad. However, if I need to be cheered up, then being influenced by the melody can help.

Second, words influence me. For some reason, words put to a good melody stick in my mind better. I often remember the songs we sang in worship better than the sermon. This influence can be a good thing if the songs reinforce the sermon points. Then they help me remember important truths.

Third, repetition in the lyrics drives ideas into my head. It works like a hammer in that it just keeps hitting the same spot. If all I listen to is secular music, this factor can cause a problem. However, if I listen to good Christian music as well, then it can help me learn more about my faith.

In conclusion, music influences us through melody, lyrics, and repetition. We must be careful how we allow this magic to influence us.images (2)

Clues to Conquering Loneliness

download (1)Even the strongest Christians sometimes get bogged down in feelings of isolation that make them want to hide out with a gallon of ice cream. Look at the prophet Elijah. Sure, he’s a giant of the faith, but I can almost guarantee if there’d been a Kroger within camel-riding distance of Mount Horeb, he’d have bought a couple cartons of Double Dutch Chocolate for his big pity party.download

Honestly, Elijah’s whining has never made much sense to me. He’d just staged a huge God-battle on Mount Carmel—Elijah versus 450 prophets of Baal. And Elijah won. How? Because Elijah’s God, as He proved quite definitively, was (and is) the One True God, while Baal’s just a big fat nothing. In fact, when God commanded Elijah to slaughter all those false prophets, he did. All through God’s great power.

Of course, the massacre of their prophets made Baal-worshiping Ahab and Jezebel mad enough to kill, so Elijah turned tail and ran. A day’s journey into the wilderness, Elijah curled up under a broom bush and told God he’d had enough and wanted to die. Elijah conquered 450 false prophets, but he couldn’t conquer his own feelings. From my safe, cushy chair, I think, “Come on, Elijah, did you already forget how God demolished Baal and his prophets? Do you really think he can’t protect you now?”

Not that I’ve ever had a homicidal royal couple out to get me…

Regardless of my opinion, God dealt gently with His prophet. He even sent an angel to console Elijah with a meal. Angelic comfort food. That’s gotta taste better than ice cream! You might think the heaven-sent meal would’ve reassured Elijah that the idol-whipping God of the universe was right there with him, but Elijah just dragged himself all the way to Mount Horeb and complained some more.

Again, I want to tell Elijah to suck it up. But God simply asked Elijah what he was doing there. Don’t miss how cool that is. God Himself spoke to Elijah! And all Elijah could do was cry about how everyone else was gone and nasty old Jezebel was out to get him. God still didn’t smite Elijah for his bellyaching. Instead, He revealed Himself in the form of a gentle breeze. How did Elijah respond to that? You guessed it. He whined, “I’m all alone and nobody cares. Boo hoo.”

At this point if I were God (good thing I’m not, huh?), I’d probably get a little frustrated and burn Elijah to a crisp like all those offerings on Mount Carmel, yet God reassured Elijah (for the umpteenth time), in this instance by telling his discouraged prophet about the 7,000 faithful ones in Israel—a far cry from the zero Elijah thought were out there. Plus, God told Elijah where to find the helper/replacement He’d picked out especially for him, a man named Elisha.

See? No need for Elijah to break out the Double Dutch Chocolate after all. God had his back.

But what about us? We’re not Baal-defeating prophets (whiny or otherwise). We’ve never heard God speak aloud. As far as we know, He’s never sent a gentle breeze or a food-delivering angel to comfort us. How are we supposed to handle it when feelings of loneliness and rejection creep in?

A closer look into Elijah’s story offers some clues.images

  1. See that God is with us. God promised throughout the Bible—to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, etc., etc., etc.—that He would be with His people. And He is. In the God-battle on Mount Carmel, God was the absolute only reason Elijah trounced the prophets of Baal. (I mean really, does Elijah strike you as the Arnold Schwarzenegger, defeat-the-world type? Um, no.) Later, God was the One who reassured Elijah under the broom bush and on Mount Horeb. If God was with Elijah through so many ups and downs, can’t we count on Him to be with us as well? Of course we can.
  2. Take our troubles to God. Elijah moaned and groaned to the nth degree, but God didn’t smite him. Why? Because Elijah complained to God, not about Him. Unlike the Hebrews who died in the wilderness after whining about what God did for them—freed them from slavery, fed them manna, gave them a good leader—Elijah went to God with his fears. In fact, Elijah journeyed forty days to Mount Horeb, which many believe is another name for Mount Sinai. Remember Mount Sinai? That’s the Mountain of God, the place where God Himself came down and gave Moses the Ten Commandments. Hmmm…maybe Elijah wasn’t just running away from wicked Jezebel. Maybe he was running to God. Pretty smart, considering the firsthand knowledge Elijah had of God’s power. It turned out to be a good place to run, too, because God answered Elijah there. And you know what? When we run to God, He’ll answer us as well.
  3. Do what God says. When God told Elijah the way out of his loneliness, Elijah didn’t say, “Uh huh, I hear You,” and go on his not-so-merry way, all the while hoping to meet up with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s before Jezebel killed him off. Nope, Elijah went where God told him to go. And what did he find? Elisha, his helper and the cure to his loneliness.img-thing

God gave us a cure to our loneliness as well. In Matthew 18:20, God promised when two or more gather in His name, He’ll meet with us. In Hebrews 10:25, He commanded us not to give up meeting together. In other words, we’re not to skip out on church. How do these verses reveal the antidote to loneliness? First, when we gather with the church, God is with us. Obviously, God’s presence means we’re not alone. Second, when we’re feeling down, God knows we’re likely to isolate ourselves more than ever, which is not good for us. We need our brothers and sisters in Christ, and they need us. God gifted us with the church to help us keep plugging away at the Christian life when the Jezebels of this world try to kill our faith.

Next time loneliness tries to conquer us, let’s think of whiny old Elijah. Let’s remember the ways God has been with us in the past. Let’s tell Him how much we need Him in our current situations, and let’s gather with the church so we can help each other through the rough patches.

Who knows? Maybe we won’t need that gallon of Double Dutch Chocolate ice cream after all.images (1)

Driving Practice: A Short Story

Treatment_and_Control_clip_image004Nauseated by the stench of Mississippi tar, I focused on the yellow lines and tried not to let the heat shimmers blind me. Cars whizzed past, and a long line of vehicles trailed mine. I gripped the steering wheel in sweaty palms, refusing to speed up.

“Look, Julie!” my older brother John hollered from the passenger seat.

Startled, I whipped my head his direction, expecting to see a log truck coming at me from a side road. All I saw was a stand of pine trees. Perfectly normal-looking pine trees.

I frowned. “What?”

“The kudzu.”

I glanced at him. He had a dumb smirk on his face. “What about it?”

“The kudzu’s growing faster than you’re going.” He cackled.

I rolled my eyes. “Shut up.”

“Julie, I know you’re new at this and all, but, going 40 in a 55’s about dumber than dirt.”

A car packed with high school kids flew by, gunning the engine and yelling rude comments about my driving abilities. I put my hand up to hide my face and came away with a glob of melting makeup. So much for my perfect look. I’d give about anything to have air-conditioning in our beat-up Chevy. “I can’t help going slow. It’s not like driving out by the house.”

“Well, you’re gonna have to go faster. You’re fixing to get us run over.”

In the rearview mirror, I saw a convertible full of bikini-clad girls about to pass us. John shrank low in the seat.

I scowled at him. “Mama shouldn’t have sent you with me to the store.”

“Hey, y’all,” he called out to the girls, obviously deciding he couldn’t ride low enough to hide. He smiled big at them while hissing at me, “Mama doesn’t really need milk. She wanted you out of the house. You’re too big a baby to hear her and Daddy arguing over the bills.”

“Liar. Mama’s watching her stories.”

“Not lying.” John looked so sanctimonious I wanted to smack him upside the head. “Bet they can’t afford for you to get your license. Insurance is too high for little girls like you.”

My eyes widened. Stinging sweat trickled into the left one. A word I shouldn’t even know rose to the tip of my tongue. “It’s your fault if they can’t. You keep wrecking our cars!”

“Probably won’t have money for church camp neither.”

Church camp. I’d been planning for months to go to church camp.

Of course, I’d been planning for weeks to get along with my brother this summer. So far it didn’t look like either one was happening.

Mama had talked to me about this summer. Said she hoped John and I could get along better now that he was at Delta State most of the time. Said it was time to stop fighting like two crawdads over a scrap of baloney. Said to give a soft answer instead of a harsh word, quoting the Proverb she’d used on us since we were little. Daddy never bothered much with Scripture, just threatened to whip our tails if we didn’t quit bickering.

I rounded a curve and spotted the run-down convenience store where Mama said to buy milk. I clenched my teeth, watching car after car come at me. How was I supposed to make a left turn in this traffic? My heart pounded. “There’s no room to turn!”

“Calm down, stupid. Wait for a break in traffic then turn.” John snorted. “Didn’t you learn anything in drivers’ ed?”

I gulped air, slowed, saw an opening, and started my turn.

A horn blasted.

I jerked the wheel left and jammed down my foot. I shut my eyes. “Oh, God, please let me make this turn, amen.”

The car slammed into the ditch. I opened my eyes. Strands of brown hair dangled from a crack in the windshield. My forehead stung. “John? You okay?”

He lit into me good. “You’re not supposed to turn into the ditch! What’d you do, hit the gas instead of the brake?”

Tears blurred my vision. “I didn’t mean to! Some idiot was laying on the horn.”

John got out, stomped around to my side, and hauled me out.

I stared at the smashed car.

images (5)“Stupid girl driver, you totaled it!”

“Pig!” I stomped my foot and instantly regretted it when my head throbbed. “You’ve totaled three cars in three years.”

John’s eyes blazed blacker than the tar on the highway, but he shut up.

A man in a Mississippi State T-shirt ambled over from the store. He stared at the car and shook his head. “It’s hotter than heckfire out here, folks. Come on in and call your daddy to carry y’all home.” He returned to the store.

John tugged my arm. Heartsick, I followed him through the dingy store to a back room.

“You can sit here, girl.” The man pointed at a filthy chair beside a littered desk. “Y’all can use that phone.” He indicated a telephone in desperate need of Lysol spray. “Ain’t long-distance?”

John shook his head.

The man left, muttering, “Girl plowed straight into the ditch. Don’t make no sense.”

Mortified, I plopped down and wept, not even worried about my mascara. God, how’d I get myself into this mess?

Pride goeth before a fall, Mama’d tell me. Daddy’d just say, that’s what you get for making fun of your brother’s wrecks, thinking it ain’t gonna happen to you.

I knew it was true.

But why didn’t you stop me from wrecking, God? I asked for help.

A rough hand patted my arm. I looked up.

“You alright?” The almost-gentle expression in John’s eyes shocked me speechless.

“You broke the windshield with your head. Might have a concussion.” He sounded like he actually cared. Was this my brother?

I sniffled. “Why are you being nice now? You were hollering something awful before.”

His ears pink, John turned away and picked up the telephone.

“What’re you doing?”

“Calling Daddy.”

“So you can tell him what a stupid girl driver I am?”

He sighed. “Look, I’m sorry I said that.”

“Yeah, right.” I hiccupped.

“I know how you feel, okay?”

“Uh-huh.”

He grunted. “You said it yourself. I wrecked three cars in three years. It’s humiliating.”

Thinking of all the times I’d been mean to him about those wrecks, I cringed. “I’m sorry, John.”

He shrugged. “It’s okay.”

He dialed our number and spoke into the receiver, “Daddy, don’t worry now. We had a little accident, but we’re okay.” He offered me a reassuring half-smile.

I smiled back at him. We really were okay. Thanks, God.