Debt Free

I recently paid off my student loans. With submission of that last payment, I was – for the first time in (too many) years – debt free. You might think this would result in feelings of relief, elation, excitement, happiness…

You’d be wrong.

Instead I was plagued by sporadic moments of irrational panic. The moments were brought on by thoughts like these:

What if it’s not really paid off? What if I made the final check out for the wrong amount? What if, when I consolidated 8 years ago, they missed one of my loans and that loan has been sitting out there accruing interest for all these years? What if there is some other debt I forgot about?

These thoughts were quickly followed by others.

What if I suddenly have a major medical expense that plunges me into debt again? What if something catastrophic happens that forces me into a loan I can never repay? What if, just when I reach this major milestone, something happens and I am never debt free again?

And then it dawned on me.

In this life we have debts we can never repay. They may be financial. They may be physical or emotional. They may be spiritual. I am in debt to friends. I am in debt to strangers. I am debt to the gentleman who stepped out of his way last week to hold the door for me.

But most of all, I am in debt to God.

God has loaned me this life. All of it. The good, the bad, the everything in between. He has rained down blessings. He has walked with me through struggles. He has pushed me to grow. My life is a loan I can never repay. At some point, because I have no choice, this loan will run out. I cannot buy it. I cannot extend it. I cannot even ask to have the terms and conditions adjusted. When the loan is up, I will leave this life behind.

That’s a pretty big debt. But it’s not even the biggest one. Because in addition to this loan, God also has offered me a gift. He has invited me, when I leave this life behind, to go instead and stay with Him. He has offered to pay off the debts of this life. The emotional debts, the physical debts, and most of all, the spiritual debts.

If we compiled all the money in the world, it would not be enough to purchase passage for even one person into God’s house. Or, if we all worked our entire lives, trying to pay off such a debt, it would still not be enough. And yet, God has invited each one of us to join Him, free of charge. It is not a loan. It is a gift.

God sent His Son Jesus to show us our way home. God sent His Son Jesus to remove the great burden of debt under which each one of us would otherwise live. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith (Romans 3:23-25).

I thank God for the reminders in this life of what it means to carry a debt. I pray that He guides me toward good stewardship of all that He has given me. And then I thank God that even when I am under the burdens of this world, it is through His gift that I come to understand what it truly means to be living debt free.

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:13-14).

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Cooking Tip #6: The Secret Ingredient

I recently discovered a secret ingredient even more important than cheese.

I know, I didn’t think this was possible either. But it’s true. And this secret ingredient is so unique, it is added not by the chef during cooking, but by the consumer right before eating. Here is the story of how I discovered it.

During Lent, my church hosts Lenten soup and sandwich suppers on Wednesday evenings before service. Each week, two people bring soup and the fellowship committee provides sandwiches. Last week, I volunteered to bring soup. I was determined to improve on my previous year’s contribution that tasted like soggy vegetables in water. This year, I had a plan.

That morning I swung by the church on my way to work. I dumped some rice in my crockpot along with cooked and seasoned chicken, vegetables, diced tomatoes, and chicken broth. It smelled amazing. I was so excited. For once, I was going to make something good. I fired up the crockpot and went to work.

That evening I bounced into the fellowship hall carrying visions of simmering soup. One of the other ladies was bringing my crockpot out of the kitchen, and the sight stopped me dead in my tracks.

There, in her hands, was an erupting mound of primordial goo. It was expanding even as I watched, bubbling and clawing as though trying to escape from the pot.

“I wasn’t… sure what to do…” she began, pot held at armslength. And then seeing the look on my face, “But it will be okay. Here.” She added the tiny can of leftover broth I had left on the counter and tried unsuccessfully to stir it. “There. See. That’s better…”

I stared at my masterpiece in horror. “I must have put in too much rice,” I said. And worse – the rice had cooked down to the consistency of paste.

Enter the rest of the evenings attendees.

“What kind of soup do we have tonight?” Pastor asked

“Um,” I said. “I was going to call it Italian Chicken, but it’s really more like a casserole.”

“Let’s pray,” Pastor said.

So we prayed, and then I bravely dug into my crock pot. If I was going to make these people eat my soup, then I was going to eat it too. I pried a spoonful from the pot with an audible “thwuck.”

And this, my friends, is where the secret ingredient gets added.

Glob of soup on a spoon.

My “Soup”

 

The first bite almost made me gag, and I’ve had years of practice with my cooking. But those people ate my soup without wincing, and even made nice comments.

“We appreciate you bringing the soup tonight,” they said.

“Your soup has a nice flavor,” they said.

“My father always said soup was good if you could stand your spoon up in it,” they said.

And I sat there thinking: Only the power of God could equip someone to say nice things about this soup.

I could learn a thing or two from these people. About humility. About gratefulness. About kindness. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23a).

“Be kinder than you have to be,” I read once. “Because you never know what the other person is facing.” I saw this demonstrated first-hand that night. They didn’t have to eat my soup. There were sandwiches; there was another pot of soup that someone else had brought. They could have ignored mine entirely. But they did not. They added a secret ingredient that made even my soup palatable.

Kindness.

Be kind to one another, Paul admonished (Ephesians 4:32).

We all have opportunities a dozen times a day where we could choose to be kind. It’s far easier to be busy, harsh, self-centered, negative, stressed… But whatever we’re facing right now, we are called to make a conscience effort toward kindness.

Take time today to be kind. And when your initial reaction is something other than kindness, please pause and remember that your situation could be worse.

You could be sitting down to a bowl of my soup.

Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another (Zechariah 7:9).

Cooking Tip #5: How to Crack an Egg

Cooking for Geeks coverNot so very long ago, a friend lent me a book called Cooking for Geeks.  This book was intended to explain, in precise and empirical language that a scientist like me could appreciate, exactly how to do amazing things in the kitchen.  Like fry an egg without causing an explosion.

I’m not sure it achieved its intended effect, but one message of this book has in fact stuck with me.  In one memorable section, this book called on all the laws of physics (i.e., it showed a picture) to compare the effects of cracking an egg on the side of a bowl versus cracking an egg on a flat surface like the countertop.  One of these methods is more likely than the other to result in egg shell in the resulting product.  Do you know which one?

Let me give you a hint.  Before I read this book, I always cracked my eggs on the side of the bowl.  (Now that I have read the book, I still crack my eggs on the side of the bowl.  Then, as I am picking out egg shells, I am reminded that I should have used the countertop.)

The other day as I was once again picking shell out of my egg (it takes a while, so I had plenty of time to think), I was pondering Martin Luther’s exposition on God’s Law.  (This is actually a more logical connection than you might think.  Really.)  Martin Luther said the 3-fold purpose of the Law was to act as a curb (to prevent us from going too far astray), a mirror (to allow us to recognize when we have done something wrong), and a guide (to show us what we should be doing instead).  There are times when we may not even realize we’re sinning until we bump up against that curb… until we’re wiping egg off our face or picking shell out of our omelet.  Maybe we said something we shouldn’t have said; maybe we did something we shouldn’t have done; but sooner or later we get a twinge of conscience.  We bump that curb, and we begin (step two) to reflect upon what we did.  (“Oh, I should not have done that!”)  That’s when the third purpose of the Law becomes manifest.  It’s not enough for us to know what not to do.  We also need to know what to do.  My cookbook tells me how to crack an egg.  God’s cookbook tells us how to live: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27).

None of us can do this perfectly.  We mess up – just like every time I forget and crack an egg on the side of the bowl.  But each time we do, God’s law curbs, reflects, and guides us back to Him.

No matter how hard we try, we will never be able to follow God’s Law perfectly.  We will always forget.  We will always crack the egg on the side of the bowl.  The truth is, when it comes to this analogy, we’re not the Master Chef.  We’re not even the sous chef.

We’re the egg.

The Fall in the Garden of Eden was far worse than anything Humpty Dumpty ever dreamed up, and we’re never going to be able to put ourselves back together again.  That could be the end of the story, but thank God it’s not!  God’s cookbook doesn’t end with the Law.  It ends with the fulfillment of the Law: Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ is the Master Chef.  He picks the pieces out of our lives.  He wipes the egg from our face.  He presents us as blameless before the Father.

When we try to live out God’s Law on our own power, we will always fail.  But when we place our lives entirely into the hands of Jesus, we are the most beautiful cracked egg of all. 

Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this Man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by Him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses (Acts 13:38-39).

Thought of the Day

Paraphrase from Professor Timothy B. Shutt:

If we aren’t careful, we can make a god out of our idea of God.

Certainly made me stop and think.  Perhaps all those times God is not acting how we expect, He is simply smashing idols.

I am who I am… You shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 3:14, 20:3)

Obedience

I recently volunteered at a canine obedience trial.  Some dogs and handlers make it look so easy!  They move around the ring at the judge’s command, the dog’s head never moving more than an inch from the handler’s side.  And yet, the biggest test of obedience often comes not during the intricate heelwork, but during a seemingly simple part of the trial.  For three minutes, all the dog has to do is sit… while the handlers walk out of the ring and out of sight. 

As the handlers leave the ring, some dogs sit stoically without a glance to the left or right (impressive!).  But, there are always those dogs whose expressions grow concerned.  You can almost see the little thought bubbles forming above their heads.  “Did she tell me to stay?  I wonder if she really meant that?  She’s not even looking!  Surely it’s okay if I just lie down?”  They shift, they crane their heads around to see the point where their handler went out of sight, and sometimes, they slide down into a more comfortable position…and are disqualified.

How like these dogs we are when it comes to doing our Handler’s bidding!  Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), we listen to that little voice that begins to question.  “He didn’t really say that, did He?” Did God really say you must not eat fruit from any tree in the garden?

The question is followed shortly by reassessment.  Just like the thought bubble forming above those canine’s heads, we begin to think that what God said doesn’t really jive with what we’re seeing.  And based on what we’re seeing, we begin to put words in God’s mouth.  What He probably really meant was…  When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye… 

Which leads us to the action.  We decide to test it ourselves, just like those pups going from a sit into a down. That isn’t being willfully disobedient, is it?  She took some and ate it.  She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 

But no matter how we reason, no matter how much we think God may not be watching, disobedience has a consequence: “Disqualified!”  So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.

It is disappointing for handlers to return to the ring and see their dogs in the wrong position.  No matter how perfectly they had executed all the other exercises, this one test of obedience and endurance is enough to send them out of the ring empty handed.  How much greater disappointment must our God feel in us!  Dog and handler lose a ribbon and points toward a title, but we lose fellowship with our God.  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever (1 Corinthians 9:25).

God calls us to obedience to his Word and to his command.  The more we question and the more we begin to rely on our own judgment to make a decision, the more we will slide down into a more comfortable position…and be disqualified. Thanks be to God we have a Savior who has invited us back into the ring!  It is through our faith in Christ that God looks not upon our disqualifications, but upon Christ’s qualifications.  We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), but by staying an inch away from His side, we can execute even the most intricate patterns of obedience.  And during those times when we look but cannot seem to see Him, it is through adherence to His commands that we will remain in the exact right place.

Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize (1 Corinthians 9:26-27).

Speeding

I have received two speeding tickets in my life.  (According to Murphy’s Law, I suppose I should add the caveat “so far.”)  The first one was well deserved.  I was driving back from a conference in Connecticut to my apartment in western New York.  I’d stopped to visit my parents and left way too late.  It was getting close to midnight, I still had two hours to go, and I was flying low along the New York thruway.  When those blue lights pulled up behind me, no amount of tears was going to get me out of that ticket.

The second one was more recent.  I was driving to the Indianapolis airport through that never ending construction on 465.  As I merged onto the highway, I dutifully slowed down.  A little.  It was one of those stretches they had actually completed.  All the lanes were open, traffic around me was still moving close to 65, and slowing down to 45 would have been suicide with traffic barreling down behind me.  Then, as we came around the corner, there was a whole string of special patrols.  I watched as an officer released the car he was done with and aimed his radar gun right at me.  Here I was, trying to go slow, traffic passing all around me, and yet I was the one getting a ticket.  (I was just a tiny bit upset.)  But here’s the kicker.  As unfair as this scenario seemed, the fact is: I was speeding.  It didn’t matter that those around me were going even faster.  It didn’t matter that slowing down would have gotten me run over.  When it was me and the officer face to face, the only thing that mattered was how fast I was driving.  The posted speed limit was 45; I was going faster than 45; I deserved a ticket.

It’s very easy when we are cruising along a highway to ignore the posted speed limit and go with the flow of traffic.  It’s equally easy to cruise through life ignoring God’s commands and following the actions of those around us.  But just as that officer did not care how my speed compared to everyone else, so God is not impressed with our relative position among humanity.  When you are face to face with a speeding ticket, the only question is, “Did you break the law – yes or no?”  And when you are face to face with God, the only question will be, “Did you break my law – yes or no?”

The Bible is very clear that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  None of us, by our own power, can perfectly obey the laws which God has set for us.  But the law serves an important function.  It is through God’s law that we become conscious of sin (Romans 3:20), and this awareness of sin shows us our need for Jesus. 

When we use other people as our speed limit, we will always find those more sinful than us, and we will fail to see the depths of our own sins and our desperate need for a savior.  But when we look to God’s speed limit, we can find both our weakness and our salvation.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16). 

Belief in Christ begins with a daily acknowledgement that we cannot obey God’s speed limit alone.  We need to invite Jesus to become not just an occasional passenger, but the main driver of our life.  It is only through belief in Jesus that on the day when our car is pulled over, God will shine His light in the window and instead of our sins, He will see the perfect life of Jesus. God will say, “The speed limit I set for you was to live as perfectly as my Son Jesus Christ.”  Make sure He can continue: “I do indeed see Jesus Christ in you.” 

Today, take your eyes off the people around you, and look instead at the example of Jesus.  Invite Him to be your driver.  There is no other way to obey God’s speed limit.

For all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:23-24)

Leave It

One of the first commands I ever taught my puppy was “Leave it!”  Like a toddler’s newfound use of the word “no,” “Leave it!” quickly became an echoing refrain.  Leave the garbage, leave my shoes, leave the cord to my cell phone…  It wasn’t long before she knew what it meant.  Acting accordingly, however, was a different matter. 

She’s well through the puppy stage these days, and I stack my shoes by the door without worrying that they will be shredded.  The garbage, on the other hand, is still kept securely in the cupboard under the sink.  And there are plenty of times when we are out hiking that she comes across some unmentionable delicacy along the trail.  Sometimes she eats it before I even realize she has found something.  Sometimes she pauses and gives me “the look.”  Have you ever seen that look cross the face of a toddler when they know they are going to get in trouble for doing something but are about to do it anyway?  Have you ever felt that look cross your own face?

“Leave it!” was also the first command that God gave to the human race.  The Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17).

In other words, leave it!

The echoing refrain of this command is seen throughout the Bible.  The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) are filled with the order to “leave it.”  Turn away from that idol.  Stop using profanity.  Do not murder, commit adultery, steal, or lie.  Do not be envious or desire anything that belongs to someone else.  Leave it! 

Jesus took these commands one step further.  Anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment…anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:22, 28).  We are called not just to leave sin in the physical sense – I didn’t actually do anything wrong – but to leave sin in the intentional sense as well.  We are to leave it completely, with both our bodies and our minds.  

This isn’t just to make our lives difficult.  God knows, as anyone who has ever watched a toddler knows, if we sit and think about breaking a rule, it won’t be long before we glare defiantly over our shoulder and cross the line.  Paul addressed this same principle when he wrote to the church at Corinth, I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your pure devotion to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:3).

Sin begins in the mind.  We are presented first with a small desire, and it is at that point that we are faced with the uphill climb of resistance or the slippery slope to sin.  It is at that point that Jesus is warning us that letting our emotions go unchecked or letting ourselves consider something sinful is the same as actually committing the sin.  Each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.  Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death (James 1:14).

Temptation is all around us in this world.  It is not a question of if we will be tempted, but when. And, more importantly, how we will respond when we are enticed by the desires we find along life’s trail.  We have the choice to defy God’s word and allow our desire to conceive sin, or we have the choice to obey God’s command to leave it.

See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God (Hebrews 3:12).