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Friday, December 31, 2010

Reality, Results, and Rewards

31-32 Then Jesus turned to the Jews who had claimed to believe in him. "If you stick with this, living out what I tell you, you are my disciples for sure. Then you will experience for yourselves the truth, and the truth will free you."
 33 Surprised, they said, "But we're descendants of Abraham. We've never been slaves to anyone. How can you say, 'The truth will free you'?"
 34-35 Jesus said, "I tell you most solemnly that anyone who chooses a life of sin is trapped in a dead-end life and is, in fact, a slave. A slave is a transient, who can't come and go at will. The Son, though, has an established position, the run of the house. So if the Son sets you free, you are free through and through.
(John 8:31-35)

The reality test of discipleship:  Living out what Jesus tells us.  All the world is into the fad of reality shows.  At every turn of the day, new ideas for reality shows spring up - everything from being marooned on an island to trudging across country without any to your name, dancing with famous people, or swapping mates in the name of entertainment.  These shows often push the envelope and exhibit the basest of human nature - it is truly "no hold barred" as far as they are concerned.  And people eat it up!  Why?  Perhaps because we are living "posthumously" through those on the screen.  Perhaps it is because we want validation that we are not any worse than others.  Regardless the reason, the shows are prospering.  Now, they are even reaching out to children - in the name of discovering their "talent".  

There is one "reality test" that that would never make it to the top reality show ideas, though - the test of walking daily as a disciple of Christ.  I imagine some would see this as too "tame" for the widescreen.  Still others might see it as too "ordinary" or "mundane".  I feel sorry for those who would make that judgment without ever experiencing the reality of the walk.  In fact, they'd discover that there is nothing "ordinary" about a walk with Christ.  It is challenging at every turn.  There is more dedication required in one simple act of obedience than all the challenges of the reality show realm could combine!  The walk is not for the weak of heart - it requires determination, commitment, and endurance.  The neat thing is that if we lack any of these, Jesus provides what we need!

The result of discipleship:  We will experience the truth.  As with the reality show programs, there is an end result that is desired in our Christian walk.  The disciple of Christ is to be transformed into the image of Christ.  There is to be an exchange of nature - resulting in the revelation of Christ through us.  Truth is freeing - even when we don't know we are bound!  The Pharisees were questioning Jesus about the reality of his ministry when he spoke these words in our passage.  He was called upon to explain who he was, what he was all about and what he was doing on this earth.  In response, he challenges them toward discipleship and reminds them that they need to be free of their bonds of sin.  Now, if you know anything about the Pharisees, you probably know that this did not sit well with them!  

You see, we don't realize the benefits of the "result" until we have a revelation of the "resistance".  Sin is resistance - we are resisting the control of God in our lives, choosing our own way over his.  In turn, we get all bound up in sin.  At every turn there is "resistance" in our lives.  If we experience enough resistance, we often reach out for different "results".  Jesus promises the result that really matters - being set free from all that brings resistance into our lives.

The reward of discipleship:  The truth will make us free.  As with the reality shows of the widescreen, there is a reward to those who choose the path of discipleship.  The truth makes us free!  

If you are struggling with the walk of a disciple today, I challenge you to see that the reality is that you lack nothing to enjoy both the results and rewards of discipleship.  Everything you need is revealed in Jesus - he is the truth that will set you free.  

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Power of Two

18-20"Take this most seriously: A yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is no in heaven. What you say to one another is eternal. I mean this. When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action. And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I'll be there."
(Matthew 18:18-20)

The portion of the passage that caught my eye this morning was the fact that God points out the power of "two".  We have heard the slogan over the airwaves of the "Power of One" - pointing out that dogged determination and the efforts of just one person can make a difference in society.  This is quite true and should not be discounted.  But...there is something even more powerful when two are standing together!

When two of you - there is a point when we can no longer stand alone.  At that point, we need to reach out to others.  In a society that values the strength and ability of an individual, this is seldom overlooked.  In recent years, we have seen education begin to teach the concept of "teamwork" by having students do "team projects" to obtain their grade rather than individual reports.  This is not taught so much for the benefit of developing the inter-relatedness of each other as much as the development of the "social skills" that allow people to work together for the good of the whole.  In God's economy, there is a benefit in being rightly related - first to him, then to others he places in our lives.  It is more than the social skills of teamwork - it is the strength of not standing alone.

Get together on anything at all on earth - the promise is pretty "all-inclusive".  Whenever two of us get together on anything at all on this earth, God is there.  The idea is that God never wants us to walk alone - he knows we need the strength of others - the physical hand, arms, and presence of another.  The strength of their hug, the warmth of their smile, or the intimate "knowing" of their silence all serve to give us the strength to endure the present battle.  God values when two stand in agreement - determined toward the same goals, living the same values, pursuing the same excellence.  In that union, he is glorified.  

And make a prayer of it - now we come to the crux of the matter.  It is in the prayerful expression of our united stand that God is present.  God gives us the one we stand alongside, not just for the hugs and moral support, but as a prayer partner.  One who will take the burden we bear and lift it to the throne room of God.  It is an honor to lift the needs of another to God - it is his joy to answer the prayer of one so committed to the other.  We stand as more than just "moral support" - being a sounding board or a place to "dump" our stress and worries.  We stand as "prayer support" for each other - a person who will do battle on behalf of the other.

My Father in heaven goes into action - that says it all!  God sees the two standing in agreement, lifting the needs of each other, and he goes into action!  What more can be said?  God in action is better than any solution two heads could come up with!  Yet, two hearts joined in prayer is the key that puts God's power into action.  

The next time you are tempted to stand alone - remember the "power of two". God's heart is "softened" and his power is placed into action by the prayer of those who stand united. 

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Spiritual Attention Deficit Disorder

26 Dear child, I want your full attention;
   please do what I show you. 
(Proverbs 24:26)

As a child, my mother would often say to me, "Listen to me!"  It was never said in anger or in a moment of disappointment.  Rather, these words were spoken in a "sing-song" manner, but were very specific - they were intended to get me to REALLY listen to what she was saying.  Why?  Because she knew what she was talking about!  She had walked through much already, learned many lessons, and had the advantage of experience on her side.  She wanted me to pay attention to the things she'd already learned so I did not have to make the same mistakes!  That's love!

She was asking for my "full attention" just as God stands everyday asking for our full attention.  He is asking us to tune up our ears, focus our minds, and direct our heart toward his voice.  Why?  Because he knows what lays ahead, how it will affect us, and what we need to make it through!  That's love!

When God asks for our full attention, he is asking us to "narrow" the field of voices we are paying attention to - those we give careful thought to.  It is a concentration of our faculties that affords him access to ALL of our inner doubts, conflicts, and frustrations.  There, he sorts things out, brings order to chaos, and gives clarity.  When we are so focused on the chaos, we aren't open to the clarity that is at our disposal.  So, God asks for our "attention".

Many of us have "attention deficit disorder" when it comes to listening to God. We spend all kinds of time and energy getting distracted by the loudest voice of the moment - those things that seem to tug at our emotional strings.  Then we wonder why we are in a "muddle" of chaos emotionally!!!  Lesson #1:  God is seldom the loudest voice!

As part of understanding and overcoming our "spiritual attention deficit disorder (SADD, for short), it is important to recognize that we limit our success by focusing on the voice of "emotion".  Emotion is irrational - it seldom is based on fact, but on "feeling".  How the event "makes us feel" becomes predominant, not how it will impact the outcome of our lives if we respond to it in irrational ways.  Lesson #2:  God's voice is rational, focused, and direct!

His voice may not be the loudest, nor may it seem to "stroke us emotionally" just as we would like to be stroked at that moment, but it is reliable.  If we settle into taking time to hear (focusing our attention), then pay attention (doing what we are shown), there is almost always a better emotional outcome for us in the end!  Lesson #3:  God's goal in speaking to us is to keep us safe, give us direction for our present, protecting us into our future!

So, if we find that we struggle from "SADD" behavior, it is time to respond differently when we fell the tug at our heart that begins with the "listen to me" warning.  It is intended to better us, never hurt us.  It is intended to focus us, not leave us in chaos.  It is intended to bring us into partnership with God, not reliance on our emotions or other voices that lead us astray.  We often find that we don't need more clarity - we often need less chaos!  

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The road to forgiveness

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you."
(Luke 6:27-30)

Jesus is speaking these words - the setting or timing of when they were spoken is important to understand.  First, he is under attack from those who should be shouting in joy at his works.  The Pharisees see him "mixing with" common sinners and criticize him terribly, publicly ridiculing him for the company he keeps.  Second, he is criticized for his timing.  He heals on the Sabbath - seen as a "work" by those of Rabbinical teaching.  Their hearts are so "into" the rule-keeping that they fail to see the needs right before them.  Last, but not least, he has just finished the appointment of his twelve disciples - calling them to be his closest companions during the ministry he performed on this earth.

There is one thing I have learned over the years - if we are prepared for the journey, the path is easier to travel.  It is when we are unprepared to travel where it is we are called to travel that we struggle with the pathway we are on.  At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus deals with one of the most difficult "roads" that any of his disciples must walk - the road to forgiveness.  Why does he begin with this teaching?  I believe it is because Jesus wanted his disciples to know that they'd find themselves walking it over and over again.  He wanted them to be prepared.

Le me just share a few things that I have gathered on my journey in my understanding of forgiveness:
  1. It is a journey we'd rather not travel alone, but we often find ourselves as the only ones realizing that the journey is necessary.  We recognize that there is the need to forgive - bring forgiveness into relationship - but we feel as though we are the only ones traveling the road.  Those who may have committed the offense may not even realize that they play a part in the journey.  It is important to remember we NEVER walk the path alone - Jesus is alongside each step of the way - even when the ones involved in the offense are unaware the journey has begun.
  2. It is a road that must be traveled frequently - over and over until the journey is completed.  In this chapter, Jesus was asked by one of his disciples just how many times he must forgive.  He posed a question and suggested an answer that seemed quite generous - seven times.  To that, Jesus answered, "Naw, seventy times seven....", and at that, jaws dropped.  Forgiveness is extended over and over - until it is complete.
  3. It is an uninvited pathway - we don't forgive just because another asks us to travel that path with them - we initiate the journey, often without anyone else realizing the journey has begun.  This is quite evident in Jesus' words to his Father on the day of his death, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."  Those who needed his forgiveness the most did not seek it - in fact, they did not even know they needed it.  Our offenders often don't seek forgiveness - ours is the path to them.
  4. It is an unconditional and costly journey.  I have traveled often - usually taking a relaxing cruise to get away.  One of the "amenities" that is offered through my travel agent is the opportunity to buy "trip insurance".  If the "condition" exists that requires the cancellation of my trip (sickness, natural disaster, etc), I am assured a full refund of my entire "investment" into the trip.  Nothing is lost.  This is not the case with the road to forgiveness.  There is no "trip insurance" with the assurance that your "investment" will be fully enjoyed and participated in by all.  There are no "conditions" under which the journey can be "refunded" if the destination is not reached by all involved in the offense.  In other words, we pay the price - others enjoy the benefit - often without realizing the price that was paid.    
So, although it is a difficult road to travel - it is a necessary one.  Jesus began his ministry with his disciples revealing this much needed lesson of life.  Forgiveness begins with me taking the first step.  Forgiveness is possible only because of the first step taken.  Do unto others...we call this the "golden rule" by which we are to relate to one another.  Easier said than done.  It is a difficult path to walk, but the rewards of the journey are astronomical.  There is nothing more binding than bitterness.  There is nothing more weighing upon us than a load of unforgiveness.  There is nothing more costly to us than forgiveness that is not sought, or is not "deserved".  

There is nothing more freeing than unconditional forgiveness - taking the first step.  There is nothing more enlightening than seeing the other person through the eyes of Christ.  There is nothing more rewarding than the steps toward your offender.  A tough journey at that, but a necessary one!  Walk on!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Simpleton or Wise?

11 Simpletons only learn the hard way, 
   but the wise learn by listening. 
(Proverbs 21:11)

Yesterday, I spent a little time speaking of the value of listening - developing the skills that make us good listeners.  Listening is really a two-way street.  We have open ears to hear the message - but we also ask clarifying questions so as to get the full meaning of what is being shared.  That is how God intends for us to be with our spiritual "ears" - listening with the intention of getting the full meaning of what he is sharing.

Our passage today deals with the difference between being a "simpleton" and being a wise learner.  We rarely use the word "simpleton" anymore - in fact, I cannot remember hearing it used in the past several years.  A simpleton is a fool, a knucklehead, a ninny - he does not seek to understand - we call him ignorant.  I grew up with the idea that a fool was some kind of ninny that just did not get what was going on.  I think we need to focus on the fact that the fool is one who is "ignorant".

First, I'd like to look at the root of the word:  Ignore.  The fool is one who ignores what is right in front of his face.  He spends very little effort attempting to grasp what he have evident in his path.  The fool is ignorant because he will not learn from what is available to him - he has the tools, but he lacks the initiative to use them.

Second, the fool is oblivious - ignoring the obvious.  Even when there is clear evidence, he chooses to ignore it as not pertinent to him, the situation, or the future.  Being oblivious is really because of two traits of the fool - being inattentive and being easily distracted.  The ability to distract a fool is really quite easy because he lacks to "focus" that is required to stay on task - not because he does not have the ability to focus - just because it is the path of least resistance.

The warning is that the simpleton (fool) only learns things the hard way!  Ouch!  That stings!  Ever feel like you could have learned a lesson just a little quicker or a little easier?  The obvious conclusion is that you were submitting to the path of least resistance (the fool's path) and had to learn that lesson the hard way.  So, the tendency to be "foolish" in our response to life events is apparent in all of us.  We make the choice - live as a fool, taking the path of least resistance, or live as a wise man, submitting to the path of learning.

Keep one thing in mind:  The "hard way" is evident at the end of the path of least resistance.  The path of learning may seem "hard" at first, but in the end, it is really the path of "least resistance".  Submission to the process of learning is paramount to avoiding the life-course of a simpleton.  Learn on!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Listen - then speak

13 Answering before listening
   is both stupid and rude.
(Proverbs 18:13)

When I was in Bible College, one of the classes we took was designed to give us the skills to "listen" - really, seriously, listen.  I thought it was a long semester learning the skills of biblical counseling - beginning with the skills of listening and ending with the skills of listening.  What was that all about?  Well, it is really evident in our passage today - answering before listening is both stupid and rude.  People were going to want to confide in us, hard things would be shared, and answers would be sought - but...we needed to hear them out before offering the advice!

In fact, a failure to listen long enough or allow the time to build the trust that would be required to really share the issues could result in a wrong perception of the issues and a faulty answer to the problem.  That would benefit no one.  The entire eighteenth chapter of Proverbs is about words - how a fool speaks in ramblings and without thought; how a few words of gossip are nothing more than cheap words that really turn your stomach in the end; or how fights are started by the words that are chosen.  And this is only one chapter of the Bible!  

God has much to say about how we speak, what we listen to, and when it is that we are to speak.  He commends us for bringing forth truth instead of lies.  He exhorts us to listen before we speak.  He encourages us to consider the audience and the timing of the message before we bring it.  It must be an important thing for us to learn if God speaks to us so much about our speech and about our listening ears/hearts!

Words are weapons or wealth - they have the power to heal and the power to restore.  Our passage today encourages us to learn the skill of being good listeners.  That may mean that we have to learn to NOT speak!  I was often taught that all I think may be true, but not all I think needs to be spoken.  I need to give others time to come a place of clarity in their thinking - eventually they will come to a place of sharing that may include the things I knew before they even said it.  If that is so, they needed that time in order to be ready for the answer God wants them to receive.  This is called wisdom - learning to speak when the time is appropriate.

I have learned that words do more than describe a situation - they expose a heart.  I want to give the other person enough time to connect with their heart.  When I take the time to truly listen, I give them the time they need to make that connection themselves.  You'd be surprised what you learn about the heart of another when you give them time and opportunity to share it without jumping in to offer advice at the first opportunity.

Our challenge is NOT in having the right advice to offer - it is allowing enough time to pass for the other person to actually WANT our advice!  So, tune up those listening ears and shut off that constant flow of "free speech".  It is time to listen!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Who do you say I am?

24-26Then Jesus went to work on his disciples. "Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You're not in the driver's seat; I am. Don't run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I'll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?
(Matthew 16:24-26)

Jesus has spent endless days answering the accusations of the Pharisees - men who just plain did not accept him as Messiah.  They were so consumed by all their rules - Jesus was consumed with the fact that access to God is not with keeping rules, but in knowing Christ.  They pushed away from him - he pulled those who were open to his teaching near.

Jesus has just finished asking his disciples who they REALLY think he is.  They answer with the "pat" answers, the easy answers - well, people say you might be   John the Baptizer, Elijah or Jeremiah.  He asks them to declare who THEY think he is - one lone disciple spoke up - Peter.  He declares with a certainty - you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.  

To that revelation Jesus adds this teaching we have before us today.  Anytime there is a revelation of the person of Christ, hearts are opened.  Anyone receiving that revelation comes into a place of discipleship.  Jesus tells them - anyone who intends to come with me must let me lead.  This is the stumbling point for many - letting Christ lead.  We want the controls - we find it difficult to not pursue salvation on our own terms.

Jesus reminds us that it is not a self-help pursuit - discipleship is sitting at the feet of the Teacher, learning of him, allowing him to direct our path, and enjoying the privileges of his presence.  People of the day in which Jesus was teaching would have understood this concept better than we do today.  We are not accustomed to having to wait for the Rabbi to circulate into our townships in order to get the teaching of the Word - to become educated, learned, and wise.  Today, we can simply turn on our computers, seek out innumerable teachings online and find ourselves immersed in all that promises the answers to life's woes.

The message of Christmas is found in a person, not in the day itself.  It is Christ that we celebrate today.  It is his GIFT of sacrificial love that we embrace with open arms.  Jesus asks us to answer one important question today - who do YOU say that I am?  If you call him Savior, rejoice!  If you have yet to call him Savior, reach out to him today.  He is waiting to be invited into your life.  

Remember this:  Jesus not only wants to lead our lives - he came so that he could lead our lives.  When we submit to him, we are allowing the fullness of the gift of his sacrificial love to be at work in our lives exactly as he intended. Open up to his leading - control is best when it is submitted to one who knows how to perfectly orchestrate!

Friday, December 24, 2010

The right tool produces the right cut

1-3 "I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn't bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken.
(John 15:1-3)

An age-old question:  Why does a tree or vine need to be pruned?  Doesn't it hurt it?  Won't it die if we do all that cutting?  I remember watching Dad take out the pruning sheers, oiling them a little, sharpening the blades, and then cutting the bushes, vines and trees until they barely resembled what they were.  In the end, they looked "naked" - cut back almost to the point of what I considered to be "death".

What I did not understand was that proper pruning produces even more growth and prolongs the life of the tree or bush.  In fact, Dad would point out that an un-pruned tree could actually be a hazard - branches breaking off in windstorms or causing damage to roofs and surrounding structures as they swayed in the wind.  In our yards, we want things that enhance the beauty of the yard, so the purpose of pruning is to keep things "in shape" so that they contribute enhancing effects to the landscape.  In the orchard, pruning has a significantly different purpose - it is designed to get more fruit, earlier fruit, and healthier fruit.

Pruning is usually done during the dormant season - when the tree or bush has less sap flowing, leaves are not consuming all the life-flow of that sap, and the health/lack of health of the branches becomes very evident.  The one thing I learned from Dad was that the right tool produces the right cut.  Use the wrong tool and you may splinter off the branch, leaving a ragged cut that was neither beautiful, nor conducive to further growth the next season.  In fact, "where" you cut the branch is just as important as the tool you use to do the cutting.

You always cut near the "collar" of the branch - where it joins in with the branch you want to have remain.  Why?  It produces a better cut that ends the life of that pruned branch and focuses the growth potential on the branch that remains.  You go to where a large branch "V" occurs and cut it off at the "V" - leaving no indication that the branch existed except for evidence of the "cut".  This forms the tree into the shape you desire.

Dad never "topped" trees - he always pruned them.  For those of you that don't know what it is to "top" a tree or bush, it is the arbitrary cutting to do nothing more than shape the tree/bush.  There is no care in where the cuts occur.  What ends up happening is that the tree or bush sends off many more shoots from that area, increasing the wildness of the growth instead of stopping growth in that area.

If you can draw a few lessons today from what Dad taught me, they would probably be this:
  • God never prunes us for the sake of just "pruning" - he always has an intention in mind - healthy growth, staying some wayward growth in our lives, and/or the production of fruit.
  • God uses the best technique for the "pruning" in order to accomplish the desired results - if it is to stop us in our tracks before we become too "wild" in our growth, then he even does that.
  • God is concerned with the end result - not just with the appearance of health.  He wants to see solid growth, productive lives, and healthy relationships.  To that end, he prunes.
  • God always uses the appropriate instrument to get the desired result of his pruning.  Sometimes it is a saw, producing a more noticeable "cut" in our lives - other times, it is the sheers, just barely cutting away a small sucker or a branch that is not looking as healthy.
We have a great "gardener" in Jesus.  We can trust him with his "pruning" techniques and the exact timing of his work.  He is skilled at what he does and he understands what each "pruning" will produce.  We can embrace the pruning if we trust the one doing the pruning!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Invitation into sanctuary

3-5 You've always given me breathing room,
      a place to get away from it all,
   A lifetime pass to your safe-house,
      an open invitation as your guest.
   You've always taken me seriously, God,
      made me welcome among those who know and love you. 
(Psalm 61:3-5)

David had an intimate relationship with God - evident in how frankly he speaks with God and how "free" he is in the presence of God.  There is much to be said about having a deep, beyond the mundane, relationship with God.  Look at what David tells us here - God is the one who welcomes, we are the ones who come into that place invited.

David acknowledges that God gives him space - breathing room - a place of sanctuary.  Have you ever had a really good friend that you can just be yourself around?  You can kick off your shoes, let down your guard, and be your real self - no pretense, no masks, just you.  God desires that kind of relationship with us - extending to us the invitation to come into his presence and "chill" - find rest for our souls.

We are reminded that it is a lifetime pass - not a one-time experience, but a cultivated enjoyment of the presence of God.  We have an open invitation - come freely into his presence, drink deeply of his graces, and know that you are there as an invited member of his household.  

David's most consistent theme in his writings is that God knew him and he knew God.  He even acknowledges that he is aware of this because God "takes him seriously" - nothing he shares with God escapes God's attention or care.  Why?  Because he knew God in a personal way and he loved God with all his heart was capable of.  

Jesus came to this earth so many years ago, taking on the form of human nature, to connect with us.  He laid aside his divinity to take on human form - connecting with the struggles we encounter, understanding the limitations of our mortal bodies, and involving himself in the tasks of ordinary life.  That is why scripture reminds us that we have a Savior that is not unaware of our struggles, knows what temptations await us at every turn.  

This is the season we celebrate his birth.  A few weeks ago, our pastor brought forth the idea that sinners (like you and me) are the POINT of the birth of our Savior in human form.  They are not just PART of it, they are the POINT of it. God takes each of us quite seriously - we are the objects of his affection and the consistent POINT of his attention.  Isn't it time that we recognized the tug of Lord on the strings of our heart?  Isn't it time that we came into his presence, thoroughly enjoying the sanctuary of his graces?  

We are the POINT of this season - sinners in need of a Savior.  What will you do with your Savior this Christmas?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Enter to learn

1 Watch your step when you enter God's house.  Enter to learn. That's far better than mindlessly offering a sacrifice, doing more harm than good. 
(Ecclesiastes 5:1)

Solomon was charged with the responsibility of giving God's people a place of permanent worship - he built the Temple in Jerusalem - the first "physically permanent" structure for the presence of God.  Up until that time, God's presence had been enclosed in a tent-like structure we know as the Tabernacle.  It was "portable" and served Israel well during the time they moved throughout the wilderness, were on the move while taking the land of Canaan, etc.  David had longed to build God a "permanent" house for his glory to indwell, but it was passed to his son, Solomon. 

Solomon gives us some words of "wisdom" about coming into the "house of God".   It is a warning to those who would choose to worship at the throne of God.  He reminds us that we are not to enter God's presence flippantly - but with mindful care.  I wonder how many of us head off to churches around this world on our day of worship (whether it be Sunday, Saturday, Friday or another day of the week) without even so much as a consideration of why it is that we are going.  I imagine that there are many that can say without a doubt that there is absolutely no "fore-thought" in that "church attendance".  In fact, it is more of a social gathering than a time to seek God, learn of him, or celebrate his presence.

In Old Testament times there was a great deal of preparation that went into worship.  Hearts and minds were "cleansed" - thoughts focused - bodies prepared.  Why?  Because they were entering into the presence of a holy God. Solomon reminds us that we are to use "care" in entering God's presence - coming to God's house (his church).  The attitude of heart that he reminds us we need is one of serious attention - in other words, we have made provision to learn.  We have centered our focus so that we are open to learning what it is that God is about to share with us.

In the presence of God, revelation is available.  Careful attention to being readied to learn is what he has in mind here.  When we are "open" to receive from God, there is an expectancy that reaches out toward God in worship and in attentiveness to the sharing of the Word.  Enter to learn - come with a purpose.  Learning comes as we become "acquainted" with the object of our attention.  If we are attempting to learn the task of driving an automobile, we spend some time learning about what makes it work, how it is maneuvered, what distance it takes to stop its forward movement, and what steps we must take to ensure safety in our driving ventures.

So it is with coming into a position of being open to receiving from God - we have to become acquainted with the object of our attention.  That suggests we have to place our attention on him - eager to learn of him.  This is the beginning of our holiday weekend - many are preparing to gather for Christmas Eve services, Christmas day gatherings, and celebrations of the birth of Christ. What a tremendous thing it would be if we could enter into his presence this holiday season with a fresh determination to learn of him - careful to enter with purpose, attentiveness, and great anticipation of what it is he has to offer us this holiday season!

Don't forget to make room for Christ in this Christmas season.  Enter into his presence - he is waiting to bless you with the best gift of all - HIM!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Three-Stranded Cord

12 By yourself you're unprotected.
   With a friend you can face the worst.
   Can you round up a third?
   A three-stranded rope isn't easily snapped.
(Ecclesiastes 4:12)

The Book of Ecclesiastes is not usually the first book I turn to when trying to find uplifting, encouraging words to fill my thoughts.  As a matter of fact, Solomon spent a great deal of time "bemoaning" the fate or futility of whatever he considered.  He has a lot of "negative" things to say about life - and he pours out his heart in the many verses contained within the book.  Interwoven every so often is a nougat of truth that will pop out like the one above - illuminating a truth that speaks volumes.

By yourself you're unprotected!  We are not meant to stand alone - though we may try, we will fail.  There is a principle taught from the very beginning of time that we need each other.  From the creation story forward, man was not meant to be alone.  God even said, "It is not good for man to be alone."  Don't get me wrong - God does not want us to become reliant on another to do in our lives what he intends to do.  He gives us each other so that we don't walk alone.

With a friend you can face the worst!  Let me be the first to admit that I have tried my best to "stand alone" in the midst of trial, fearful circumstances, and the worst of times.  In the end, I am miserable.  I daresay, if you've tried this yourself, you have found yourself in the same sad state, too.  Oh, you may not realize it, but it's true.  Unless you actually walk through something you are personally going through with another individual, you will never see the difference.  It wasn't until I reach the point of obedience to God that included letting others into my carefully guarded "space" others called "independence" that I fully realized how miserable it was to walk alone.

A three-stranded rope is not easily snapped!  Round up a third!  Having one close friend is awesome.  Having another is priceless!  The individuals God brings into our lives add value - some bring talent, others bring time, while still others bring invaluable treasure (love, respect, trust, etc.).  Each adds value.  Each brings a strength that we did not possess alone.  Two strands of yarn tightly entwined makes a significantly stronger piece of yarn - but add the third and it is a cord that brings support, strength, and sweetness to a relationship.

So, in the quest for words to encourage you with this morning - I offer these.  Be a friend.  Embrace a friend.  Draw from each other.  Encourage each other.  Open up to each other.  Learn to count on another.  Bring another into your trust.  Within the cords of that relationship there is strength immeasurable.  We are not meant to stand alone.  

Monday, December 20, 2010

Keeping right perspective

1-4 Joshua was up early and on his way from Shittim with all the People of Israel with him. He arrived at the Jordan and camped before crossing over. After three days, leaders went through the camp and gave out orders to the people: "When you see the Covenant-Chest of God, your God, carried by the Levitical priests, start moving. Follow it. Make sure you keep a proper distance between you and it, about half a mile—be sure now to keep your distance!—and you'll see clearly the route to take. You've never been on this road before."
(Joshua 3:1-4)

Israel is about to take Jericho - a huge city fortified with walls and a large army. This was a city surrounded by palm trees, rich soil, and natural springs.  As a result, the land was coveted for its resources.  It is a good place for Israel to begin their invasion of Canaan - giving them water, food, and position for the next stages of their attacks.

As the invasion begins, Joshua commissioned the leaders to give the instructions to the people.  Spies had already been sent out into the region - entering Jericho without much notice.  They stayed with Rahab, the harlot - learning about the city and its surrounding area.  The army of Israel had "insider information" on the ins and outs of this city - not to mention an "inside source" to support them on their attack, if necessary.

The leaders bring some very important information to the people - instructions that will keep them well, provide for their security, and act as a guide for their every step.  It is simple:  Keep God before you!  The rationale for this:  You have never been this way before!  You may have expected some great revelation from God if you were about to go into some new land, laden with giants, surrounded by fortified cities.  I imagine most of us would want the "inside scoop" on just how God was going to "pull things off" before we'd even want to take our first step!

Spies had been sent - reports had come back.  They knew the gravity of the battle ahead.  I imagine they were likely a little intimidated by the size of the walls - if not by the fact that these cities had "trained" armies.  These Israelites were not a trained army - they were "green" when it came to warfare.  That would make me feel pretty "inept" in that situation!

We cannot forget the report they brought back - the people are all trembling in their boots because of US!  In fact, the cities of Canaan had already heard of the reputation of the God of Israel.  They knew of the reports of the Sea being parted, swallowing countless numbers of Egyptian soldiers, and their safety being maintained in their exodus from Egypt.  They had learned that they did not even have to "bear arms" to accomplish this great exodus!  God's reputation was well-established already!

That is important for us to remember when facing the next major challenge of our walk (whatever that may be).  God asks one thing of us - keep him squarely before us!  Why?  Because we have never been this way before.  When taking new ground in God's kingdom, we need to remember the "placement" of God - if he is squarely in the middle of our thoughts, our hopes, and our movements, we can count on his reputation making the path clear for us.  

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Be Strong! Be Courageous!

And don't for a minute let this Book of The Revelation be out of mind. Ponder and meditate on it day and night, making sure you practice everything written in it. Then you'll get where you're going; then you'll succeed. Haven't I commanded you? Strength! Courage! Don't be timid; don't get discouraged. God, your God, is with you every step you take.
(Joshua 1:8-9)

Joshua was the leader of Israel right after Moses passed away.  Moses passed the torch to him to get the Israelites out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land.  He was commissioned with a huge purpose - cross the Jordan.  It was the time for Israel to finally take what God had delivered them from Egypt to inherit.  The promise to Joshua - "I'll give you every square inch of land you set your feet on".  If that was not enough to get Joshua motivated to move into the land, God promised to be with him just like he had been with Moses.

The "success" Joshua enjoyed in taking the land of Canaan was based on the passage today - he had to keep God's Word clearly before him and the people - obediently pursuing the revelation God had given through Moses.  If we look at how this sentence is structured, you will notice that it is an "imperative" - it demands your attention and your action.  There is an unavoidable obligation - keep the Word before you - practicing every word of it.

It is also a tremendous promise or word of assurance that reminds Joshua that there is to be an order to the victory Israel will win.  First, God in right position.  Next, his Word to be the guiding force of their lives.  Last, success in their endeavors.  This is definitely something we can learn.  When we get the "order" right, victory is just the next step away.  

There is something extra-ordinary in getting this right: God is with us every step we take.  When God is in the right position in our lives (at the center of all we do) - the hunger for his Word is also there.  His presence at the core of our being and his Word continually being turned over in our minds is certain to guide our steps.  Joshua received two other reminders:  Be strong!  Be courageous!  

The strength here is not that of physical strength - muscular enhancement that just let him fight like a warrior.  It is also the mental strength that would keep him focused in the times when defeat seemed more like a possibility than victory.  It is the emotional strength to doubt his doubts and continue on in the faith that God was with him each step of the way.  

The courage of a warrior - the strength of a leader - Joshua was expected to have both.  Both were based on keeping his focus right - God first, his Word constantly before him, and his steps would be ordered of God.  We will do well to learn the lesson of Joshua - Be Strong!  Be Courageous!  The Lord Thy God is With Thee!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

In the beginning

1-2First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don't see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God's Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss. 
(Genesis 1:1-2)

I awoke this morning thinking about God's creation - all he has formed, all that exists, and all that no longer exists.  Things, people, and trends - all have a tendency to come and all will go.  As I reflected on the "Genesis Story" - the record of creation - I marveled at the awesome order in which God put things together.  Consider this:
  • Light and Darkness - the first to be created.  Why?  Well, it is pretty obvious - without light, the rest could not be appreciated.  That is the way it is in our lives - without the light of Christ shining bright in our hearts, there is no fullness of appreciation of what he has done.
  • Sky and Sea - has it ever occurred to you what a miracle it is that the oceans stay where they are - separated from the sky and not just "flying around" willy nilly?  I have sailed the Atlantic, Pacific and Caribbean - each unique in its own way.  I have flown the skies high above clouds, hardly able to make out much below other than shape and form.  The sky and all contained in it governs the ebb and tide of the oceans.  The radiant warmth of the sun's rays makes the day evident and the night's moon reminds us of the presence of the sun even when it is not seen.  Jesus is the reflected image of our Heavenly Father that we cannot see.  
  • Waters and Land - separate, but joined.  Each existing for a different purpose - each supporting the other.  Just as the waters and land are separated, yet joined, so it is with us - we are separated from this world, but joined to it by our very existence as part of the human race.  We are called to be the light that radiates into the world.  There is no hope for the world without the joining influence of Christ.
  • Trees and Plants - each bearing fruit in their unique way.  God has a plan with all created things - it is to bear fruit in their unique way.  What is the fruit that God is bringing forth in your life?  It is meant for a purpose on this earth.
  • Lights in the Sky - Sun, Moon, Stars, Planets, Galaxies - we know not the depth or breadth of what he created in the galaxies.  We only see a fraction.  So it is with what we know of Christ - we see in part what we will one day behold in all its majesty and glory.
  • Fish and Birds - one to inhabit the skies, one to inhabit the waters.  Nothing is to be devoid of life - all are to be filled.  Each serves a unique purpose - each has a unique role.  The birds spread seed, the fish clean the ocean's floors.  What is your role in God's creation - are you fulfilling the unique place he has called you into existence for?
  • All the Animals - more than we could comprehend - every creature alive, every creature no longer in existence - all by his hand tenderly formed and uniquely placed.  Each supporting the other in what we call the "circle of life".  
  • Last, but certainly not least - human life!  All he had created, placed in the hands of his final creative work - us!  All to be enjoyed by us, all to be respected by us, all to be cared for by us.  Not worshiped - enjoyed.  Not idolized - respected and cared for.
Sometimes we blow by the creation story with the quickest glance at the words contained on the pages - oblivious to the unique order, the specific purpose of each phase, and the outstanding glory of what he created.  Each aspect of creation reflects him - his light, his glory, his life, his power - think about it.  See the Genesis Story through the eyes of one who is placed specifically in the midst of it all - to enjoy it, to learn of God from it, to know he exists because of it.

In the beginning...God created all things.  Even you and me!  We are his unique creations - made for a purpose, created by his specific plan, included in his vision of the creation story!  

Friday, December 17, 2010

Invitation to occupy

When GOD, your God, ushers you into the land he promised through your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give you, you’re going to walk into large, bustling cities you didn’t build, well-furnished houses you didn’t buy, come upon wells you didn’t dig, vineyards and olive orchards you didn’t plant.  When you take it all in and settle down, pleased and content, make sure you don’t forget how you got there – GOD brought you out of slavery in Egypt.  Deeply respect GOD, your God.  Serve and worship him exclusively.  Carefully keep the commands of GOD, your God, all the requirements and regulation she gave you.  Do what is right, do what is good in GOD’S sight so you’ll live a good life and be able to march in and take this pleasant land that GOD so solemnly promised through your ancestors, throwing out your enemies left and right – exactly as GOD said.  
(Deut. 6: 10-12, 14-19)

As Israel was called to enter into the Promised Land, they were told to not do so in their own effort, or in a timid way.  They were told to do so in the power and authority of the God they served – standing upon the firm foundation of his character.  They were to enter and to occupy. 

Entering suggests a changing of position and the potential of going into something they were not familiar with.  Entry suggests making a new beginning – with the intention of taking possession.  It also carries the idea of being an active participant in that which God is doing.  

Occupying carries a slightly different meaning – it implies that we take ownership of that which we enter into.  Occupation requires an engagement of our attention to that which we seek the ownership of – owners are more than onlookers – they actually enter into the experience of that which they own.

It is necessary to see the method of ownership that we enjoy as a follower of Christ – it is that of being “ushered into” possession of that which was once occupied.  God goes before – he is the forerunner who graciously escorts us into realms unknown – in spirit, emotion, and in physical experience.  It is an occupied territory that we enter into – a change of ownership must occur.  It is a dispossessing work – dispossessing Satan and his hosts; dispossessing ego and its demands.  It is more than just “experiencing” for a period of time – it is a complete change of possession that is promised.  Look at all we enjoy – that which we did not prepare; that which we did not build; that which we did not harvest. 

As we rightly order our lives and begin to respond to him in obedient reverence, we are commanded to love the Lord with all we’ve got.  This is not a partial commitment to give some of ourselves to him, but a commitment of our entire being to live in such a way that all we do, say and think is a manifestation of having him central in our lives.  Love with every emotion we have, surrendered in abandoned adoration to him.  

Abandon really signifies a change of heart that is evident in our no longer trying to perform a certain way – it implies that we will be given to him in such a way that we give ourselves over to his governance unrestrained.  Love him with all our soul – with every part of our being that makes us who or what we are.  Love him with all our strength – all that we have capacity for, with every effort we can make, with unreserved service and adoration.  Love him with whole-hearted commitment that dedicates the will to the fulfilling of the will of another.

We are then to live as examples to all who surround us – first to our families, then to those we contact in our communities each day.  The dedication of our lives is to impact others.  They are not to just “hear about” Christ, but they are to see him modeled in our daily walk.  The promise is a blessing of God on our lives that we cannot fully contain all he provides.  The riches of a child of God are never earned or self-constructed – they are a provision from a loving God in response to our dedication to his gracious love.  

Life in Christ is not a system of works – things done to gain approval or right-standing.  Rather, it is a heartfelt response to an intensely gracious love that draws us in, wraps us in its presence, and relishes its effects in the inner core of our being.  There is a vulnerability, or openness to possibilities beyond our imagining, that occurs when we are willing to lay it all down before him.  Let us not be bound to our own efforts to live righteously– the possibilities contained within abandonment far outweigh the limitations of our abilities to live right.  Living right is a natural outcome to abandoning our hearts to the one who creates that righteousness in us as his love is allowed to deeply affect the center of all we are.  Let us learn to love with all we’ve got.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Invitation to let God lead

 10-12 The land you are entering to take up ownership isn't like Egypt, the land you left, where you had to plant your own seed and water it yourselves as in a vegetable garden. But the land you are about to cross the river and take for your own is a land of mountains and valleys; it drinks water that rains from the sky. It's a land that God, your God, personally tends—he's the gardener—he alone keeps his eye on it all year long.
(Deuteronomy 11:10-12)

The nation of Israel is just about to cross over into the land God had promised to them years before.  Their ancestors had this very day in mind - now it was becoming a reality.  The leader of the nation at the time was Moses.  He was speaking to Israel, as the Lord gave him the words to speak, of how it was that they were to enter the land, what it was they were to do with the land, but more importantly, how it was that they were to live once they arrived in the land.

Then he shares with them this little passage we have above - the land they would inherit would not be like that which they had come out of - it would be tended by God.  Without waxing too philosophical, there are some parallels to what God said to Israel that day and what he says to each of us as we enter into the newness of relationship with him.  The promises are similar for us - it is a new life, with a new caretaker - there is a change of mind and heart that is necessary to appreciate the difference.

At the point of our salvation, God asks for us to give him the reins of our lives - to allow him to be in control.  For some of us that are "control freaks", giving up control is a scary option - we have a hard time letting go.  For those of us that have been so "out of control", having some sense of "control" in our lives seems pretty promising.  With this change of control, our mind / will / and emotions are impacted.  We are reminded that Christ must be the central one in our thoughts - keeping ourselves focused on his will - allowing him to temper our emotions.  Most of us get that - but we struggle with trusting God.

Look at what God speaks through Moses - today is a new day!  This is a new land!  There is a new way of doing business that lays ahead!  It is no longer what you can do for yourself, but what God will do for you!  If we can get the idea that God does not want us "doing" for ourselves what he intends to do for us, we will enjoy a sense of peace in times that ought to cause a man without Christ much worry.  

Don't get me wrong - we have a part to play in victories won in our lives - but God is the one who tends over our lives like a gardener tends over a garden.  He is the one giving us both the strength and the ability to do as he directs - our part is the obedience.  For many of us, we get so caught up in the details of trying to work out life on our own terms that we miss how it is that God has already worked it out for us!  God is asking us to remember that we are no longer living in such a way that we have to do it all for ourselves.  He is central in our lives - he is at the controls - so we need to let him lead.

Our invitation today is to let God lead.  It is a land prepared for us - we need to learn how to enjoy the fruits of what he has for us in this new life.