October 24, 2012

Together Perfect

I always wanted to sing and dress like Whitney Houston. Maybe I can dress like her, but I certainly have never been able to sing like her. After her death British-born TV talk show host Piers Morgan discussed with Jermaine Jackson, brother of late music entertainer Michael Jackson, the pressure of the media on pop stars. Jermaine explained that professional success builds a wall around celebrities that shuts out their family. The more successful they become, the more the family gets pushed out. If pop stars stay close to their family members, Jermaine said, they can have long and successful careers.

Same With Christians
God wants His family to stay close together. As Christians we know what it is like to have that burning passion of belonging to Christ and His family. We also know how over time that fervency seems to diminish. As it does, connections to our spiritual family weaken. Two central cords connect all God’s family members. They are powerful antidotes to diminished fervency for God and withdrawal from His family. They are the cross, at the beginning, and the reward, at the end.

In our lives we know how much we each deserve death for all of the things we constantly do wrong. If we had been around when bears ate people for being disobedient or disrespectful, many of us would not be here. But in spite of our self-destructive behaviors God still bears with us. First John 2:1 says: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.”

Consider the Hebrews 11 list of faithful family members. There were dozens of Bible characters whose faith in God was manifested in many ways. The author of Hebrews wrote about Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Isaac. The writer also wrote about Jacob, who is one of my favorites, because although he knew he deserved to be killed by Esau, he hung on to the Angel and refused to surrender without a blessing (Gen. 32:26).

2012 1530 page24Including Jacob in this list highlights a very important point about those who were recorded in this gallery of faith. This is a gallery, not primarily of geniuses, but of repentant sinners who believed Jesus saves.  Jacob realized that it was God he had let down when he stole Esau’s birthright. His struggle with the Angel was more about his own need to get right with God.  He desperately needed redemption, and he resisted any doubt that God would pardon him. By faith, he claimed his spiritual birthright. Note too that it was not with Esau that he wrestled, but rather with his advocate. So although sometimes we may need forgiveness from someone, we must first work out our fundamental salvation with God.

The author of Hebrews then talks about Sarah’s hesitant but eventually sincere belief that she was going to have that promised son (Heb. 11:11). Later we read about Joseph (verse 22), and then of Moses (verses 23-29). And then, to everyone’s amazement, the writer commemorates Rahab (verse 31).

Rahab in the Family?
In health-care research the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget for 2012 is almost $32 billion.1 The majority of this money will be spent on the development of innovative devices, effective drugs, and more targeted treatment protocols for diseases. Although these contributions from biomedical research are important and are projected to save millions of lives, every year in the U.S. approximately 200,000 lives are lost and many more suffer some type of injury because of preventable medical errors. Clearly, research on patient safety is of equal importance with any other. Agencies such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) heavily fund such research. In 2010 the RWJF budget awarded approximately $300 million in grants.2 More and more the findings from research on patient safety suggest that one of the major factors in the prevention of unnecessary errors is the mindfulness of health-care workers.3 When one is mindful, there is constant heedful engagement in current realities. The use of any innovative technique, the delivery of any wonder medication, and the education about any disease management needs human-to-human interaction. If health-care workers always pay proper attention in each patient interaction, we should see significantly fewer medical mistakes per year. 

All of us are in God’s hospital for sinners. We are all patients.  God is ever mindful about our spiritual safety. He is anxious about the debilitating effects of such chronic diseases as lying, cheating, hard-heartedness, harshness, and coldness. He is constantly engaging us in real time to restore our spiritual health.

Maybe it’s those very mechanisms of divine mindfulness that earned Rahab a place on the list of the faithful. The many travelers she met were probably quite prone to extraordinary and bizarre stories about far-off lands. But the Holy Spirit in real time exploited their narrative exaggerations to actually witness to Rahab. These were divine mindful interactions with Rahab within the sad reality of her then current situation. She learned to fear Israel’s God. As she told the spies: “The Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Joshua 2:11). God, through those stories, was saving her from much more than Jericho’s destruction. He was teaching her about Himself, the God who so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that believing in Him, she would neither die in Jericho nor perish in hell’s fire, but have eternal fellowship with His eternal family. He was connecting her to Calvary. 

It is Calvary that really connects us all—Jacob and Rahab, and you and me. We are connected by our common faith in the Christ of the cross who saves us! It does not matter what makes up our stories. However different our individual experiences, the sacrifice of Golgotha’s hill unites us in forgiveness for our past and assures us of the same outcome tomorrow.

God is from the beginning to the end. He is ever-present. Thus every reality is current for Him. God makes beautiful plans for all of our lives so that we can exemplify “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report” (Phil. 4:8, KJV). He created those blueprints so that we would find favor with Him and with our fellow humans!

On the other hand, the devil, the destroyer of our masterpiece, keeps guessing and anticipating from day to day what plans God has for us. Then he cunningly tries to place us in situations that can frustrate God’s ideal daily schedules. How does he do this? By leading us toward decisions that will have devastating consequences for our future days, months, or even years.

Still, even if we are suffering from the outcomes of a wrong decision, God maintains real-time interactions with us. No matter how destructive a decision may be, the Holy Spirit never abandons us. God promises to bring us back “from the depths of the sea” (Ps. 68:22). He knows how to use any circumstance, positive or negative, to save us. There is no permutation, variation, or transformation of His master plan for our lives that He cannot handle. He is the omnipotent, never-exhausted Creator God. Michelangelo had to adapt his painting techniques to construct his masterpieces on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. God is infinitely more adaptive with His own masterpieces, made in His own image (Gen. 1:27). He is ever mindful about our soul’s salvation. Like Rahab, we may lay hold of His redemptive plan for our lives, and trust as she trusted in the God whose love has bound us to Himself and to each other at the cross.

Not Yet Through
By Hebrews 11:32, 10 hall-of-faith inductees have been mentioned. The author is moved by the profoundness of their testimony to wonder what else is left to say. Up until now, the stories are of the faithful through whose trials God demonstrated His supernatural power: Abel and Elijah saw fire come from heaven, Noah saw rain for the first time, and Abraham and Sarah saw the fruit from a barren womb.

But now the writer shifts to heroes regarded as faithful for overcoming in the everyday course of life. There is Gideon, of the 300; Barak, who partnered with Deborah to defeat Sisera; and David, the youth who hung out with God while tending sheep, a youth whose friendship with his God made outrage natural when his God was insulted. And the writer continues, surrendering specifics and embracing generalities while continuing to reach for comprehensiveness—they defeated lions, and fire, and sword, and armies, and . . . (verses 33-37). “The world was not worthy” of those giants (verse 38).

It sounds like an end, but the author is not yet done. There is more to say.

Ultimate Reward
In verse 39 the writer gets it said, and it is contrary to what some may expect. It may even strike you as a letdown: “And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise” (KJV). They lived in a world that didn’t deserve them. And besides that, they missed out on something promised them? Why would faithful living be worth anything if that was how it ended? Perhaps it wasn’t as bad as the author claimed. Perhaps they did get something: fire did consume Abel’s sacrifice, Sarah did get her son Isaac, Esau and Jacob did kiss and make up, and Samson did bring down Dagon’s temple. Moreover, God does laud David son of Jesse as a man after His own heart (Acts 13:22).

True. But the author of Hebrews knows there is something more. Something better. Something better that God Himself has planned, and planned with us in mind (Heb. 11:40). One more cord to bind the family together. And what is this cord, this better plan? It is something so big that it includes all the generations of the faithful. Something so big that all the saints—Adam, Abel and Eve, Joshua, Hannah and Samuel, Mary and Joseph, Brother and Sister Simon Peter, and you and I as well—can be present and participate. He who binds us all to Himself at the cross and by the cross has gone to prepare a place where the family can be together (John 14:3). It is too much joy and glory to properly imagine, but this we know—it is something better for all His faithful children, His ultimate reward for us!

The family that He has attended through mindful real-time interactions, that His love has kept close by the cord of the cross so our affections would not wane, and that He has brought back from the depths of the sea even when we wandered far away and got desperately lost, God will draw that family of His redeemed pride up heaven’s soaring intergalactic promenade to gather us all into His powerful embrace. The ancient saints have waited long for that thrill. But it is His will that we do this together, that they without us should not be made perfect!

In a sense, it is His ultimate statement on how He values each one of us. As surely as the sacrifice of the cross is equally accessible and applicable to, and adequate and effective for, each of us, just so surely the glory of the future He has planned becomes our own all at once. Not drip by drip, and trickle by trickle, but all at once, in one unimaginably glorious family reunion. He’s holding back the reward a little longer, so that all of His children, together, can be part of history’s biggest reunion ever, on the sea that looks like glass.

1 www.nih.gov/about/director/budgetrequest/NIH_BIB_020911.pdf.
2 www.rwjf.org/grants/.
3 K. E. Weick and K. M. Sutcliffe, Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity, 1st ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001).

Deleise Cole-Wilson is a research fellow at the University of Michigan and lives in Ann Arbor with her husband and two daughters. This article was published October 25, 2012.