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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

School's out

My counsel for you is simple and straightforward: Just go ahead with what you've been given. You received Christ Jesus, the Master; now live him. You're deeply rooted in him. You're well constructed upon him. You know your way around the faith. Now do what you've been taught. School's out; quit studying the subject and start living it! And let your living spill over into thanksgiving.  (Col. 2:6-7)


Paul writes to the Colossian church with the heart of a father.  He is concerned that they know how deeply God loves them, how desirous he is of relationship with them, and that he wants us well-established in our walk.  In the previous verses of this chapter, Paul says, "I want you woven into a tapestry of love..."  What more could we ask for than to be woven together with other believers, learning to love with all the grace God gives and growing in that grace with other believers?


As he goes on in this chapter, he reminds the church that they have received the mysteries hidden for so many years - because they have been given the Holy Spirit of God and are witnesses to the resurrection of Christ.  Paul is challenging the church to not be caught up by every new doctrine or "super-spiritual" doctrine that comes along.  He wants them to recognize that they have already received the complete revelation of the Kingdom of God and now they need to live in it.


Paul says his counsel is both simple and straightforward.  In other words, you don't need to have been schooled at the finest of Bible Colleges to get it.  You have been given the Holy Spirit to illuminate your mind and to bring to your understanding the truths contained within the Word.  The amazing thing that Paul gives us in this passage is the "clearness" of direction for our lives - he tells us that we have been given Christ; now it is time to live him!


Ever been given a gift and then put it carefully away for safe-keeping?  You are so taken with the value of the gift that you don't want to risk breaking it, you don't want to wear it out - so you tuck it away, admiring it every so often, and saying how lovely it is to have received that gift.  That is not what it is to be like now that we have been given Jesus - we are to put him on display, "using" him, not just admiring him!  Live him!  What does that mean?  It means that at every opportunity, Christ is on display - his character becomes our character, affecting our choices and displayed in our actions.  Sometimes we get so concerned about what people think about "Christ in us" that we forget to enjoy the privilege of "Christ in us."  


Today, let's pull Jesus out of the closet and let him be on display in our lives.  We've been founded well on him - let him give our lives stability today.  We've been taught well his doctrine - let it direct our choices today.  We've been deeply-rooted in him - let us find nourishment in the soil of his life and strength against the winds of chaos that cut across our path today.  It is time to put into practice what we have learned - put it on display today and see what God may do in and through you!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Garden to get a field

First plant your fields; then build your barn. (Proverbs 24:27)

At our weekly women's Bible Study last night, I mentioned that God wants us to build accountability into our lives.  I was asked a very pointed question, "How do you do that?"  It comes in many fashions, but this is a question that I have been asked many times in my life - how is it that we go through life and still struggle with the same stuff we were dealing with years ago?  We aren't as faithful in our study of the Word, we don't spend much time in prayer, the study of the Word seems difficult, so we avoid it.  Well, don't fool yourselves - this walk is NOT easy and it is NOT easy to be accountable for the stuff God asks of us in it!

The writer of this Proverb shows us something about accountability that I want to explore this morning.  He presents us with the concept of being a farmer.  A farmer has several things in mind as he is going about his daily chores of life.  He needs a plot of ground in order to plant a garden.  He starts small - a garden is certainly not a farm.  It is in tending the garden that he learns to "farm".  I can tell you for a fact that is tougher than it looks!  You cannot just go down to the local nursery, pick up some seeds, come home, drop them into unprepared soil and expect miraculous growth of beef steak tomatoes!  There is preparation necessary and the crop that is yielded is a direct result of the quality of the preparation.

Don't miss the first concept about accountability - it begins with the small stuff.  I think we see our present state and think there is just no way we will get to where we dream of being.  Discouragement sets in and we languish in our guilt of having tried and failed, or of having not even tried at all.  Okay, bear with me here - I'm going to a secular movie to drive home this fact!  "What About Bob" is a movie about a man paralyzed by his phobias.  He cannot get out of his apartment, cannot face the world because he is a germa-a-phobe.  In this movie, his psychiatrist gives him some advice that we need to embrace ourselves - take "baby steps".  Throughout the movie, you observe Bill Murray taking "baby steps" to deal with his phobia.  It is not the best movie in the world, but it illustrates the point.  When we want to see results, we have to do SOMETHING about it!

When we have the small steps accomplished, we move on.  The writer of Proverbs says we plant the field, then build the barn.  What a crazy thing it would be to build a barn and have nothing to fill it with!  Yet, we often look at our faithfulness in study of the Word in just that way.  We have compared our "farm" with another believer's "farm" and we don't see the same results, so we get discouraged.  That is why Scripture warns us against comparing ourselves with one another. 

If we want to have a barn, we have to start by planting a field!  It doesn't happen overnight, but eventually we will see the garden become a field and the field a farm.  Soon, we have a barn, full of refreshing stuff that will bring life to those who partake of its stores.  Maybe we are not great at journaling or writing a blog.  Maybe we don't even "get it" when we read the Word.  Then, get your hands on some "gardening" tools! 

When I first began to commit to study of the Word, I had to get some books that would walk me through the book in the Bible that I was studying.  I found some that walked me through an introduction to the book so I'd know what the author had in mind (kind of like the abstract of the entire book of the Bible), then the author would get into breaking down the various chapters and verses into "digestable" chunks.  I liked to read Bible studies by Charles Stanley, Joyce Meyers, and others.  They write in a simple fashion and don't hit you with so much meat all at one time that you cannot possibly absorb it!

After you begin with the teaching of others to help guide you through your study of the Word, then you will eventually become more comfortable with reading it on your own and letting God speak to you.  Your gardening right now - relying on the fact that a "failed" crop is never really a failure.  Even if you don't "tend the garden" each day this week, the soil benefited from being tended as many days as it was!  The crop produced may not be as rich as you'd hope to see it, but the soil benefited from being tended! 

Don't tackle more than you can handle - perhaps you begin with a "flower pot" sized Bible study technique.  How about taking one index card, writing out some question you have for God or something that you'd like to study about.  Then, over the course of the week, use your concordance or an online concordance to find some verses that speak to that question.  Then add those verses to the index card.  Over the course of the week, you may be very surprised and delighted with what God shows you in his word about what it is you are seeking.  There's your garden!  Tend it well, then begin to look at expanding to a field.

At the garden level, you need a trowel.  At the field level, you need a plow.  The work becomes harder and the time involved in producing a crop takes a little longer.  The barn still stands a ways off, even for one who is tending their field!  Eventually, there is sufficient harvest yielded to require the barn.  It is incremental growth that God designed us for!  Have fun with your garden!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Better than a bubble bath

It wasn't so long ago that we ourselves were stupid and stubborn, dupes of sin, ordered every which way by our glands, going around with a chip on our shoulder, hated and hating back. But when God, our kind and loving Savior God, stepped in, he saved us from all that. It was all his doing; we had nothing to do with it. He gave us a good bath, and we came out of it new people, washed inside and out by the Holy Spirit. Our Savior Jesus poured out new life so generously. God's gift has restored our relationship with him and given us back our lives. And there's more life to come—an eternity of life! You can count on this. (Titus 3:3-8)

It would not occur to me to open today's lesson with the comment that we were both stupid and stubborn - but Paul did a nice job of already doing that, so I will not stand in the way of delivering the message!  In our sinful, self-absorbed life "before Christ", we were both stupid and stubborn.  Stupid implies that we were lacking the ordinary quickness or soundness of mind that we now possess with having the mind of Christ.  Our thinking outside of Christ was pretty dulled - it was slow as it comes to the spiritual things and pretty wishy-washy to boot.  We'd like to "clean up" the description of our state of mind as "foolish", but track it down - it all means the same thing!

Paul also says we were stubborn.  If he didn't get our goat with the idea that we were stupid, now he calls us stubborn!  The nerve!  Well, actually, the term is quite applicable to our state of being prior to Christ.  You see, stubborn carries the idea of being so fixed on some way of thinking or course of action that we are resolute in that course of action.  We don't "want" to waiver from it because we have "willed" to continue, in spite of the consequences.  I'd say "stubborn" about wraps up our condition of "willful" disobedience prior to Christ taking over the controls of our lives!

The neatest part of this passage is the "but when".  But when God...
Think about it - when God stepped in, he saved us from the dulled thinking and steadied us on a course that would not take us off some deep end into a pit of despair.  I love the "buts" in the Bible - there is always a hope for something better when we see that the condition we are in is not determined to be our permanent condition because we have a merciful and gracious God that reaches out to lift us out of our stupid and stubborn life pursuits. 

In fact, Paul goes on to say that he washed us inside and out by the Spirit.  We are washed so that our choices will be affected.  Choices begin in the thought life - if it is no longer lacking in soundness, won't the choices we make be better?  Certainly!  Actions proceed from our thoughts - so the way to better actions is through better thinking.  The way to better thinking is an exchanged mind - renewed (washed) by the Spirit of the living God!  We've been given the freedom to exhibit a new life - the life given by the Spirit of God. 

Our new life demands new choices and new actions.  We don't take a bath and then put on our old, filthy clothing we'd been in for weeks.  We put on fresh undies, don a freshly ironed shirt, and pull on a clean pair of jeans.  Snug in the feeling of freshness that we experience through the "bath" and the "donning" of the clean clothes, we feel like a new person!  Translate that into spiritual life.  We are "bathed" by the Spirit and Word - cleaning up our minds, washing away the dirty effects of sin in our lives.  Then we are told to clothe ourselves with some pretty awesome stuff - peace, joy, righteousness, etc.  There is a "freshness" in renewal of the mind that produces a "freshness" in our "appearance" to a lost and hurting world.

I guess it goes without saying that I certainly don't want to embrace a life of stupid decisions followed by stubborn actions any longer.  My life has been transformed - I've been bathed by the Spirit.  How about you? 

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Actions speak

Your job is to speak out on the things that make for solid doctrine. Guide older men into lives of temperance, dignity, and wisdom, into healthy faith, love, and endurance. Guide older women into lives of reverence so they end up as neither gossips nor drunks, but models of goodness. By looking at them, the younger women will know how to love their husbands and children, be virtuous and pure, keep a good house, be good wives. We don't want anyone looking down on God's Message because of their behavior. Also, guide the young men to live disciplined lives. But mostly, show them all this by doing it yourself, incorruptible in your teaching, your words solid and sane. Then anyone who is dead set against us, when he finds nothing weird or misguided, might eventually come around. 
(Titus 2:1-8)

We began to look into the book of Titus yesterday.  As you may recall, Paul was writing to Titus about the character traits of a solid church leader.  As we move on in this study, we see that Paul now tells his readers that they are to speak out on the things that make for solid doctrine.  One thing I understand about Paul's stand in life is that he no longer lived by the "rules" of the church just because they were the rules.  He had a life commitment to his Christ and that spurred him to look beyond the rules to living in such a way that his life was a living testimony of the power of Christ to transform.  He had come to the revelation that rules create rebellion in the hearts of rebellious people.  Rules did not produce right living unless the heart understood the basis for the rules.

Actions speak louder than words - our actions are the judgments others will form.  Like it or not, others judge us based on what they see much more than on what they hear from our mouths.  Paul wanted the believers to speak up for the things that make for solid doctrine - sound beliefs and grounded life principles.  Their manner of living was to be temperate - moderate, living within the limits - not extreme or excessive in the pursuit of their own natural passions or appetites. 

In addition, Paul focuses us on the importance of living in such a way that our actions build the dignity of others - encouraging them to develop healthy faith, solid love for others, and tremendous endurance in their beliefs.  He asks us to live in such a way that our actions produce evidence of goodness, wisdom, and right choices.  Paul's emphasis in this chapter is to focus us on the fact that our actions may be the only thing someone uses to form their opinion about God's grace and love.  It is important for us to remember that a person can be turned away from God's message, or drawn toward it for the answers they seek, all because of what they see in us.

What others see in us becomes the standard of acceptable actions on their part.  Our actions are reproduced in the lives of those with a less mature faith than our own.  So, our words should be solidly reflective of the truths contained in the Word.  Our actions should be above criticism when judged against the Word.  In other words, when someone looks at us they see Christ.  Pretty lofty goal, huh?  Regardless of where you are today in your spiritual walk, Christ can and will be visible - you need to recognize the power of his grace to shine through, even if we aren't perfect yet.  God's character shines through us in the form of actions that reflect both his power and his intense love.  Couple this with the truth in his Word and the testimony of a servant of Christ becomes a powerful tool to reach a hurting and lost generation.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Change Agent

I, Paul, am God's slave and Christ's agent for promoting the faith among God's chosen people, getting out the accurate word on God and how to respond rightly to it. My aim is to raise hopes by pointing the way to life without end. This is the life God promised long ago—and he doesn't break promises! And then when the time was ripe, he went public with his truth. I've been entrusted to proclaim this Message by order of our Savior, God himself. Dear Titus, legitimate son in the faith: Receive everything God our Father and Jesus our Savior gives you! (Titus 1:1-4)

Paul opens this letter to Titus with his usual flare for explaining what "credentials" he has as a minister of the gospel and what his "purpose" is in writing.  It is kind of like those "abstracts" you find of one of those very intense research articles in a trade journal - it gives you the meat of the article in a concise few paragraphs so you can know if you are interested in delving into the next ten pages of study information, statistics, and outcomes.  I think Paul did a great job of defining his purpose in each of his letters to the churches we find recorded in the New Testament.  We are going to spend some time on Titus, so let's dig in.

Paul says he is both a slave and an agent of Christ.  Interesting contrast in terms, huh?  Most of us think of a slave as one in bondage or service to another, while we think of an agent as one who acts in the place of the other.  Let me begin by saying that "slave" has several meanings in the Bible, depending on which Hebrew or Greek word was used.  In this case, Paul was referring to himself as one who is toiling in service for another (Christ).  When he refers to himself as an "agent", he is likely referring to the fact that as one in service to Christ, he is acting as an instrument by which Christ can receive results.  He is acting in the place of Christ as his messenger - under the authority of the one he serves.

His mission is quite plainly established in this passage:
  • To promote the faith among God's chosen people - bringing people to the foot of the cross and leading them into a deeper walk
  • To get out the accurate Word of God - not just a semblance of the truth, but the accurate Word we can stand on with assurance
  • To show how to respond to the Word - it is one thing to hear it - it is quite another thing to know how to respond to it
  • To raise hopes by pointing to eternal life - if we understand the reward at the end of the journey, the steps along the way may be a little more bearable
  • To build trust in God's promises - not just a casual acquaintance with the Word, but an intimate knowledge of the Word that produces a deep trust in the covenant God has made with us within the promises recorded there
As Paul moves on in the letter, he advised Titus to appoint leaders in the church that have several character traits that will make them the best leaders for God's people.  Briefly, we will examine these character traits:
  • They are able to welcome people - wouldn't it be a shame to have a pastor or leader of a church that had absolutely no ability to establish relationships and make people feel unconditionally welcome in the walls of the church?
  • They are to be helpful - speaks of a servant's heart
  • They are to be wise and able to exercise wisdom - it is one thing to possess the "book knowledge" of the Word that one can get from Bible College or Seminary - it is quite another thing to know how to apply it
  • They are to be fair - try leading a group of people and having "favorites" - it just doesn't work
  • They are to be reverent of God and others - God first, held in a place of absolute honor and respect - then it flows to every relationship
  • They are to have a good grip on "self" so that they are not a stumbling block to others - can I say more?  What leader could lead well without first understanding his/her own limitations, strengths, etc.?
  • They are to have a solid grip on the Word of God - because that is the most important instrument they have to set people free and to bring the sheer enjoyment of serving Christ into full understanding in their lives
The last trait he outlines in this chapter of a leader of the faith is one who is able to use the Word to produce a robust faith.  We kid about this word "robust" in my work setting because we have heard it used (perhaps over-used) for everything under the sun.  We want "robust" outcomes - financial, service, employee satisfaction, etc.  Paul describes the role of the leader as one who is able to spur people in their knowledge of God until they come into a place where their own faith is "robust" - flourishing, deeply-rooted, well-established.  He points to the fact that this type of robust faith is able to stop sinners dead in their tracks!  No wonder Paul emphasizes this ability for a leader - reproducible faith that brings conviction and changes lives.

As we dig into this book over the next several days, keep in mind that Paul is like a father to these church leaders.  He is giving advice, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that if embraced by the church will produce a group of lively, spirited believers - intent on following Christ with all they are.  It is that intensity of spiritual character that makes it possible to stop those that oppose the faith "dead in their tracks".  Paul wanted to establish a church that not only sheltered the believers so they could grow in Christ, but a church that welcomed the hurting and was skilled at shutting down those that stood in opposition to their faith.  May we become strong in our belief, capable of standing strong in our faith, and confident in our position as a child of the King!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Waiting for hope to appear

When life is heavy and hard to take, go off by yourself. Enter the silence.  Bow in prayer. Don't ask questions.  Wait for hope to appear.  Don't run from trouble. Take it full-face. The "worst" is never the worst. Why? Because the Master won't ever walk out and fail to return.  If he works severely, he also works tenderly. His stockpiles of loyal love are immense.  He takes no pleasure in making life hard, in throwing roadblocks in the way.  (Lamentations 3:28-33)

 
We continue today in the not too well read book of Lamentations.  Yesterday, we left our discussion of this chapter with the understanding that we are to exhibit an expectant hope in our waiting.  That hope leads us to action - and that direction is determined by God himself.  If we are pursuing correctly, we are directed correctly.  It is a guarantee.  Now, the writer explores the times in life when things are dealt us that seem heavy and hard to take - not like those times ever come up for a Christian, right?  I have lived long enough not to know that if you are not in the today, just wait - they are right around the corner!
 
The attitude exhibited by our writer when these heavy and hard to take times come is to run to God - spend some time by yourself with your heavenly Father.  There is benefit in taking time for God to bring clarity to the circumstances of life.  In those times, he is able to show us where and how to move.  We tend to want to over-think the situation, don't we.  We allow all the possibilities, all the challenges, all the seeming impossibilities to rattle around in our thoughts for a long time sometime before we finally escape to that quiet place and allow God to bring clarity.  We want to "over-think", but God wants us to "over-turn" our worrisome thoughts, our fears, and our dread about the situation - he wants us to enter into rest.  That is only possible when we have learned the value of patient, expectant, passionate waiting.  Seeking is a process - we may seem to be inactive, but when it is a waiting filled with passion, it is not inactive at all.
 
The writer goes on in this same chapter to say that we need to take a good look at our lives - the way we are living - and then we need to "reorder" our lives under God.  Okay, good thought, you might say, but how do we really do this?  We often need time to look at the way we are living and then the reordering process can begin.  It is often not until we have an understanding of "how" we are living that we see "who" we need to be living for.  In the "examining" times of our life, we can be reordered by the Word, the Holy Spirit, and the gentle pull of a loving God.  We just need to be available to be reordered!  It is frustrating to me to go online, look for a product, and then find it is on back-order or no longer orderable.  I just want to say to the website owners, "Then why do you represent that you have the goods if you aren't capable of producing what you advertise?"  God often looks over our lives in hopes of finding that we will be produce what is being advertised - we say we trust, but do we really exhibit that trust?  So, when we spend time allowing God to settle us down, we learn the ways of a trusting heart.
 
What God does in the silence of the waiting cannot be replaced by any other advice we can receive.  Here are some closing thoughts for the day:
  • Enter in silence - silence born of sorrow, silence born of fear
  • Bow in prayer - in reverence and awe
  • Don't spend a lot of time asking questions - get them out there quickly, then listen attentively, be present in the moment
  • Wait for hope to appear - expectant in your pursuit, hopeful in your waiting
God stirs hope within - it is his calling that stirs us.  Our response to the call determines the outcome of the waiting.  Remember, even in waiting God is calling.  Even in trouble, God is providing and directing.  Even in silence, God is speaking.  Are we listening intently?  Or are we too busy asking questions to see the answers that stand right in front of us?  Let's learn to be passionate in our waiting and "reorderable" in our walk.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Passionate Waiting, Diligent Seeking

God's loyal love couldn't have run out, his merciful love couldn't have dried up.  They're created new every morning. How great your faithfulness!  I'm sticking with God (I say it over and over). He's all I've got left. God proves to be good to the man who passionately waits, to the woman who diligently seeks.  It's a good thing to quietly hope, quietly hope for help from God.  It's a good thing when you're young to stick it out through the hard times.  When life is heavy and hard to take, go off by yourself. Enter the silence.  Bow in prayer. Don't ask questions.  Wait for hope to appear.  Don't run from trouble. Take it full-face. The "worst" is never the worst.  Why? Because the Master won't ever walk out and fail to return.  If he works severely, he also works tenderly.  His stockpiles of loyal love are immense.  He takes no pleasure in making life hard, in throwing roadblocks in the way.  (Lamentations 3:22-33)

Lamentations is one of those books of the Bible that people seldom turn to or quote in day-to-day exchanges about the greatness of God.  When I first started reading it, I kind of thought, "Pretty dry stuff!"  Then I came across this passage and it came alive!  Who knew?  Good stuff hidden in some pretty dry reading!

The merciful love of God - his loyal love - new every morning!  Beyond the mundane of my today is the awesome of God's love!  Woohoo!  Look at the writer's disposition here.  He is feeling pretty beat up by life.  If you took the time to read the couple of chapters just before this, you'd see that he has been through some pretty ugly stuff and his walls seem to be coming in around him.  Life has been a challenge and he is barely keeping up!  Yet, in the midst of it all, he has made a determination of heart that keeps him steady - I am sticking with God!  Sometimes, that is all we feel we have left in the midst of the toughest stuff we face in life - God and nothing else.  The writer goes on to say, "God proves to be good to the man who passionately waits, to the woman who diligently seeks."  What a hope for each of us!

Knowing my joy in looking at the meaning of words and seeing the "meat" contained in the various definitions of the word, you'll have to indulge me just a moment here while I explore the meaning of "passionately" and "waits".  See, I don't really connect waiting with being passionate!  I find the two ideas just a little bit at the opposite ends of my understanding.  If I am passionate about something, I usually am pretty much driven by that passion - it energizes, it pulls me forward, and I am "active" in my passion.  Waiting implies that I am not moving forward, perhaps not even very energized about the whole thing.  So, why does this writer connect the two?  Let's look.

Passionately carries the following meanings:
  • To be affected by something so deeply that there is an expression of intensity within - kind of like an enthusiasm
  • To be capable of being acted upon by some external agent or force - not dead to what once moved you deeply and can move you deeply once again
  • To be moved in such a way that you exude fervor or zeal - intense emotion that compels you to act and not be immobile
Okay - see why I think passion cannot be connected with waiting?  The idea that comes to mind when I think of passion is something like a current - maybe it is hidden below the surface, but it has an intensity that carves out the course of the river and keeps the waters fresh and new each and every day!  Waiting implies that we are staying in place - but don't miss the very next definition that Webster gives!  It implies that we stay in place in expectation of something, with a readiness to receive or respond.  Now, do you see why the writer connects the two?

Think of it this way - you are having your passions ignited by a holy and passionate God in order to be ready to respond to the moves he makes within your life!  Even in the waiting, there needs to be the compelling of our heart to earnestly seek with a passion that comes from deep within.  To this, the writer adds that we need to be diligent seekers.  Steady, earnest, and energetic in our pursuit of God's best in our lives.  Someone who seeks is one who makes every attempt to discover, to ask for or request in such a way that nothing else will satisfy until what is hidden is discovered completely.  That is the absolute culmination of passionate waiting!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

God-chosen lives

And these God-chosen lives all around—what splendid friends they make! (Ps. 16:3)

God places us in relationship with others.  He places us in those specific relationships that we need in order to develop into the person he designed for us to be.  We need those "others" as much as they need us - there is a specific time and reason for each relationship.  They are placed directly in our path - to pray, uphold, and to do battle.  Sometimes we think we have done all the choosing in the relationships that we pursue - when in actually, God has been at work placing those individuals in our path for this very moment.

My choice is you, God, first and only. And now I find I'm your choice! (Ps. 16:5)

David exclaims with a certainty that he has made God his first choice - his only choice.  Don't miss the next line - and now I find I'm your choice, God!  David's revelation about his "choices" in life is really two-fold.  First, the primary relationship we have in life is our relationship with God.  No other relationship matters as much - none has as much impact.  When we get that right, all other relationships seem to "fall into place".  Second, David realized that his "choice" of friendship with God placed him in the unique place of being God's choice.  God wants to be both our first choice and his only choice.  He doesn't want to grapple for position in our life.  He wants first position.

I'm happy from the inside out, and from the outside in, I'm firmly formed. You canceled my ticket to hell— that's not my destination! (Ps. 16:9-10)

Look at the end result of making God first and only.  Happiness - not the kind we get from stuff or events that bring us some fleeting moments of pleasure.  True happiness - starting on the inside and oozing forth to touch those around us.  That is how relationship with God works.  He impacts our life so we can impact those around us.  Happiness is a result of a firm foundation - don't believe me - try standing on a rickety ladder in the midst of a windstorm and see how happy you are!  God gives us "grounding" in our relationships.  The direct result of our relationship with him is that we can be a support to those around us - because of the work of his grace and mercy in our lives.  David said he was firmly formed.  How does that happen?  We see the answer in the last verse of this short Psalm.

Now you've got my feet on the life path, all radiant from the shining of your face. Ever since you took my hand, I'm on the right way. (Ps. 16:11)

No other relationship can give us the same "footing" to face life as our relationship with our Lord.  The "firmness" of our foundation is based on his first step to "take our hand" and to guide us along the path we walk in life.  As we reach out to God to take his outstretched hand, he asks us to reach out to others as an extension of his loving care for us.  Who is God asking you to reach out to today?  What relationship has he placed in your path that needs your attention?  Begin today by thanking God for those relationships that challenge you, that uphold you in tough times, and even for those that you might not even see the purpose of today.  No relationship is by accident.  God has a design in each one.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Be alert! Be present!

"Don't be afraid, I've redeemed you. I've called your name. You're mine.  When you're in over your head, I'll be there with you. When you're in rough waters, you will not go down.  When you're between a rock and a hard place, it won't be a dead end—because I am God, your personal God, The Holy of Israel, your Savior.  I paid a huge price for you...  So don't be afraid: I'm with you."  (Is. 43:1-4)

What a wonderful message given to Israel all those years ago.  I have redeemed you - paid the ransom price to give you your freedom.  I have called your name - specifically recognizing that you are mine. I think God says the same thing today to each of us - I've redeemed you and called your name.  Awesome!  I like the next part best - when we are in over our heads, he'll be there with us!  God knows perfectly well that we are creatures of habit - if we got into the mess we are in once, we're likely to get into it again!  He promises to be right there alongside us even when we are in the mess we have made by our own doing - our own ill-chosen path. 

God knows our present situation, just as much as he knew our past and sees our future.  He sees all the mess of our lives and is continually attentive to guiding us to know the steps to take to get out of it!  Yet, we don't get out of the mess we have made of our lives alone - he is right there, guiding us each step of the way.  It is important to stop here for a moment.  None of us can "go it alone" in life.  We may try, but eventually our need will become too great for us to bear up under alone.  We'll feel the pressures of life mounting - either because we have enjoyed greater success than we are emotional or spiritually capable of handling without it crushing us from a pride standpoint; or we will have failed so miserably that we wallow in self-pity and shame.  When we are in that state - he reaches out with the redeemer's hand, pulling us out of the mess and setting us on a firm footing again.

Isaiah goes on in this same chapter to tell us that God wants us to be alert - to live in the present.  It is of no value to dwell on the past - it only pulls us down and keeps us rooted in what "was" or "could have been". 

"Forget about what's happened; don't keep going over old history.  Be alert, be present. I'm about to do something brand-new."  (Is. 43:18-19)

God asks us to be alert and to be present.  If we are, we won't miss what he is about to do.  See what he promises - I am about to do something brand new.  Not something refurbished or re-invented, but something brand new.  That is exactly what God does in our lives - he makes us brand spanking new!  Our part - be present!  Pay attention to what he is doing - use your senses to take in what is all around us.  God gives his revelation to those who are alert, present in what he is doing. 

We often get so "stuck" in the way it "was" that we cannot see the hope or the potential of the way it "is" today.  We can miss the tremendous blessing of today's revelation of God if we are so focused on the "what if's" of yesterday, or the "could be's" of tomorrow.  Two simple commands:  Be alert!  Be present!  Yet, so very difficult to accomplish in our daily walk, huh?  Let's begin today afresh, asking God to help us be both alert and present in our walk with him.  In so doing, we are asking God to take the "in over our heads" choices we've made and turn them around into something "brand new" that only he is capable of doing.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Living Right and Well

"Take a good look at my servant.  I'm backing him to the hilt.  He's the one I chose, and I couldn't be more pleased with him.  I've bathed him with my Spirit, my life.  He'll set everything right among the nations.  He won't call attention to what he does with loud speeches or gaudy parades.  He won't brush aside the bruised and the hurt and he won't disregard the small and insignificant, but he'll steadily and firmly set things right.  He won't tire out and quit. He won't be stopped until he's finished his work—to set things right on earth.  Far-flung ocean islands wait expectantly for his teaching." (Is. 42:1-4)

Jesus has many attributes - some of which are outlined in this passage.  First, he won't call attention to what he does.  Yet, what he does is ever apparent and leaves a lasting impression.  Jesus doesn't need to call attention to his actions because a changed life calls the attention to God all on its own.  Second, Jesus doesn't brush aside the bruised and the hurt, nor does he disregard the small and insignificant.  He has a place for each of us in his plan.  It is a comfort to know he uses all of us and has an eye for us - no matter what our circumstances or background.  He steadily works in our lives to set things right - it is incremental growth that is pictured here.  Growth that is a process of steady focus on the part of our Master.  Lastly, Jesus doesn't tire out or quit - he cannot be stopped until he has finished his work.  We serve a tenacious God who is not easily swayed or discouraged - even by our continual sinning or lack of progress. 

"I am God. I have called you to live right and well.  I have taken responsibility for you, kept you safe."  (Is. 42:6)

Isaiah goes on to tell us that God has called us to live right an well.  To be called is to summon to a particular activity, or to cause to come.  Let me go a little further and tell you that God does more than invite us to right living - he brings us into right living - rousing us from our spiritual "slumber" and bringing us into action in our spiritual walk.  The call is to live right - upright, straight, directed, by the rules living.  God is continually focused on helping us to be genuine and real - learning to act in accordance with truth and fact.  The call is also to live well.  Someone who does something well does it with skill or aptitude that presents the end result as something we'd say was satisfactory or pleasing.  God is about the work of helping us to live in such a way that we exhibit soundness in our choices, living in an attentive manner so as to exhibit solid growth in our lives.

Isaiah makes it quite clear that not only does God call us, but he has taken responsibility for us, keeping us safe in our daily walk.  We are under the shadow of his wings - protected and secure.  It is God who has responsibility for both our present and our future.  Later in this same chapter, Isaiah tells us that God will be a personal guide for his people - directing them through the unknown in life.  He says that God will be right there to show us what roads to take - all the while paying particular attention to the fact that we could stumble if he did not prepare the way ahead of us.  God keeps us - his eyes and protective covering never leave us.  No wonder he says we are called to live right and well - it is possible because of his attentive care for each of us all along the way.  If we were walking this spiritual walk alone, we'd crash and burn.  With his watchful eye, we are upheld and carefully guided each step of the way.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Waiting Game

I waited and waited and waited for GOD. At last he looked; finally he listened. He lifted me out of the ditch, pulled me from deep mud. He stood me up on a solid rock to make sure I wouldn’t slip. He taught me how to sing the latest God-song, a praise-song to our God. More and more people are seeing this: they enter the mystery, abandoning themselves to GOD. Blessed are you who give yourselves over to GOD, turn your backs on the world’s “sure thing,” ignore what the world worships; the world’s a huge stockpile of God-wonders and God-thoughts. Nothing and no one comes close to you! I start talking about you, telling what I know, and quickly run out of words. Neither numbers nor words account for you. Doing something for you, bringing something to you – that’s not what you’re after. Being religious, acting pious – that’s not what you’re asking for. You’ve opened my ears so I can listen. So I answered, “I’m coming. I read in your letter what you wrote about me, and I’m coming to the party you’re throwing for me.” That’s when God’s word entered my live, became part of my very being. (Psalm 40:1-8)

Waiting is a process that none of us really relishes. In the waiting, we sometimes lose hope of the end reward. In those times of endless waiting for answered prayer, we can see the delay as a challenge that almost bogs us down and keeps us anchored to our present circumstances. If we look deeper at the meaning of waiting, we will see that although it carries a meaning of being stationary or unmoving, it also carries with it the idea of being in readiness or continual expectation. God looks for a “ready” and “available” people – those who will dedicate themselves to remaining stationary long enough to allow him to accomplish his purposes. Those purposes go way beyond our circumstances, deep into the central part of our make-up – affecting us deeply in our character. We should never under-estimate the value of the waiting.

David pens the words of this psalm with a sense of his desperation for God to intervene. It is a desperation that is born in the midst of overwhelming circumstance and then compounded in the time of waiting for God’s intervention. Desperation occurs in the inner core of our being – when we begin to experience circumstances in such intensity that they almost overpower us and crush in upon us from every angle. Desperation can have a defeating effect if we allow it to create an anxiety within us, but it can also have a releasing effect when we allow it to expose our need. In the waiting, we can succumb to the pressures, responding in our own efforts – or we can wait with the assurance that “at last” he will look upon us and listen to our cries.

The psalmist wants us to see the response of God to our waiting. He wants us to see that our patient waiting is always met by the Lord’s provision. God’s plans are too easy to miss in the hectic hubbub of daily life – in the waiting times they are made clear. God’s steadying power is never more evident than in the midst of trial. We need to see the progressive display of God’s grace toward David in his time of waiting:
  • He looked upon David – directing his attention to David’s pleading heart
  • He listened to David’s heartfelt cries– paying attention to each word, hearing them with thoughtful attentiveness, alert to never missing even one syllable of uttered plea
  • He lifted David out of the pit – taking him up from the misery of trial and moving him into the joy of his presence
  • He pulled him up – exerting just enough force in David’s life that David would respond to his tugging and be drawn upward to the presence of his creator
  • He made him stand – not on slippery ground, but on a foundation so solid that David could not possibly slip
  • He taught him to worship – creating a passion deep within his heart that stirred the emotions and lifted his spirit
  • He allowed him to be a witness – drawing more and more people into the presence of his God in abandonment to his love, grace, and peace
All this was a result of the time of waiting. God’s plans for us are too numerous for us to often fathom in our limited mental capacity. We cannot fathom all he has mapped out for our lives, but we can be assured that God’s love will always meet us exactly where we are. The times of trial may very well be a time of God getting our attention – helping to clarify our focus, revealing what he deeply desires for us. In those times, God’s ultimate intention is to allow us to become so disillusioned with what the world offers that we cannot help but embrace what he so graciously provides.

His intention in the waiting is that we would come to the conclusion that “nothing and no one comes close to him” – that we would lay down our efforts at living righteously and allow him to create that righteousness in the central parts of our being, deeply affecting our inner man. You might wonder how we can allow him to become all that we desire, all that we seek after, all that we find fulfillment in. I think David gives us a pretty clear answer to that question – it is not in what we do, but in how we respond.

All the “doing” in the world will not create a sense of God’s righteousness in us. It is in the times that we allow God’s Word to enter in, to become part of our being, that we are changed. It is in times of waiting before him, expectantly yearning to be filled up, that he meets us. Never underestimate the value of the waiting.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Outcome - Yours or Gods?

God is in charge of deciding human destiny. Who do you think you are to meddle in the destiny of others? (James 4:12) 

No matter how much we try to be in control, maneuvering for the best we think we can get in this life, all the while, God is in control of deciding the outcome.  James wrote of the importance of quickly falling on our knees (at least in spirit) before God and allowing him to reveal the outcome to us step by step.  It is much better to be in step with God than to be pushing against him each step we take.

And now I have a word for you who brashly announce, "Today—at the latest, tomorrow—we're off to such and such a city for the year. We're going to start a business and make a lot of money." You don't know the first thing about tomorrow. You're nothing but a wisp of fog, catching a brief bit of sun before disappearing. Instead, make it a habit to say, "If the Master wills it and we're still alive, we'll do this or that."  As it is, you are full of your grandiose selves. All such vaunting self-importance is evil. In fact, if you know the right thing to do and don't do it, that, for you, is evil. (James 4:13-17)

At best, our plans are imperfect - we cannot exclude God and expect for things to run smoothly.  James tells us that we really don't know a thing about what tomorrow holds.  We see this evidenced in our lives so often.  We go along, sailing right through life without really too many cares, then all of a sudden, life bursts on the scene and there we are!  Right in the midst of a calamity!  His advice to us is simple - make it a habit to ask God to show us his will - keeping us from our futile attempts to live life apart from him.

As James wraps up this chapter, he reminds us that there is importance in doing what is right.  In fact, he tells us plainly that to know the right thing to do and then to not do it is just plain evil.  To live this way is what some may come hypocrisy - saying one thing, then doing another.  We go through life attempting to imitate what should be a reality in our lives.  Imitators can easily be exposed - the attitudes of heart are apparent no matter how well we think we conceal them.  Imitators don't produce what we'd call "lasting results".  We don't have to be imitators (mask wearers) - God wants us to be real, embracing the teaching/learning of the moment and allowing that to affect who we actually are deep within.

One thing I have learned is that when we step out in obedience, God brings things together in the end.  God cares about what we go through as much as he cares about how we go through it.  The power of our walk comes in the consistency of our prayer. We may not hold our destiny in our hands, but we do hold a very important key to it - our attitude, our words, and our actions all determine the course of our lives.  If our attitude is one of obedient surrender to an all-knowing God, and our words are those that honor and uplift from a sincere heart, then our actions will be those that line up with God's Word.  Faith without work is not really faith!  Let your faith shine today!

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Treasure Trove

If you listen obediently to the Voice of GOD, you God, and heartily obey all his commandments that I command you today, GOD, your God, will place you on high, high above all the nations of the world. All these blessings will come down on you and spread out beyond you because you have responded to the Voice of GOD, your God: GOD’s blessing inside the city, GOD’s blessing in the country; GOD’s blessing on your children, the crops of your land, the young of your livestock, the calves of your herds, the lambs of your flocks.  GOD’s blessing on your basket and bread bowl; GOD’s blessing in your coming in, GOD’s blessing in your going out.  GOD will defeat your enemies who attack you. They’ll come at you on one road and run away on seven roads. GOD will order a blessing on your barns and workplaces; he’ll bless you in the land that GOD, your God, is giving you. GOD will form you as a people holy to him, just as he promised you, if you keep the commandments of GOD, your God, and live the way he has shown you. (Deut. 28: 1-9)

Moses is about at the end of his leadership with the people of Israel. He has seen them through their deliverance from the slavery of Egypt, into the miraculous crossing over the Red Sea, around the wilderness of Sinai, and into the promised land of milk and honey. During that time, God was establishing rules of conduct for the nation of Israel that would provide a means of salvation to them – pointing them to God and providing a means of worship for them as a nation. The rules of conduct were penned by Moses and now form the first five chapters of the Bible known as the Pentateuch. Within these pages, the Law of Moses is recorded for all future generations. Boundaries for daily conduct were clearly defined, not so much to place any new form of bondage on the nation of Israel, but to keep them from entering into bondage again. If they were to obediently observe the rules defined in the Law and live within the boundaries God had faithfully described, they were to know blessing in their homes.

As we consider these words penned by Moses so many years ago, it occurs to me that we may not fully recognize the meaning of “blessing”. Many times, we read over words and simply accept them at face value, not giving any more thought to those words. Webster describes “blessing” as anything that is conducive to our happiness or welfare. In other words, a blessing is something that is given or provided that directly provides for our protection and preservation. It is a thing that gives us a sense of approval and encourages us in difficult times. It is a sign to us that divine care is rendered in a loving, careful manner, seeing that every measure is taken to provide for our spiritual, physical, and material prosperity and happiness.

We would do well to see that these blessings in our lives come directly from GOD, our God. Moses uses both names of God that describe exactly who is bestowing this protection and provision. Jehovah Elohim is his name. The God who is unchangeable in his promises, permanent in his existence, and capable of becoming everything we need. He is the righteous God, demanding holiness because he is holy, yet moved by divine compassion. In this name, we see the creative power of God, but also his absolute power and authority. The God who promises blessing is the one who does so on the sole basis of covenant relationship.

In exploring these various blessings or gifts promised, it comes without surprise that they are conditioned on the obedience of the one looking to God for these blessings. We do our part, and God does his. This is the basis of covenant relationship – there are conditions to be met. In order to fully understand, apprehend and appreciate the blessings in our lives, we need to be obedient to the revealed will of God as he has defined it in his Word. In so doing, we are given provisions beyond number, protection beyond our means, and deep-seated happiness that is not based on circumstance, but upon the sense of tremendous welfare we enjoy. We sometimes describe blessing in our lives as a “treasure”.

Treasures are wonderful things. They can be described as anything that we consider as a type of “wealth” that we could store up or hoard. Treasures are wealth of any kind or of any form that produce a sense of “richness” in our lives. They are more than money, more than flocks or herds, and definitely more than a fleeting thing enjoyed. A treasure is something held as precious, cherished, and prized.

Treasures in the natural sense are often things “hoarded” for ourselves, kept for our own enjoyment or use. The treasures of God are never meant for self-gratification, or self-enjoyment. They are designed to be on display and to be put in use for his glory and honor. The treasures of God are given in generous measure to an obedient heart. In turn, what has abundantly been supplied is to be shared without measure.

God makes provision for many blessings in our lives, just as he did for the nation of Israel. As we examine the progression described on our text, we can see that the blessings promised come down on us individually (they are individually apprehended, enjoyed), but then they spread out beyond each of us (affecting all those around us). The blessing comes inside our cities – in the midst of our commerce and daily lives. The blessing spreads out to our country – in the areas of government, trade, and military might. It reaches the next generation (our children) and ensures an inheritance for them. The increase of our material goods (lands, flocks, herds, and livestock) is completely at the hand of God. Even our table is blessed by his protective hand, so that the daily provision for our bread is met. In fact, all our movement is affected by the blessings of God – whether it is in our coming in or our going out, he is there leading the way, protecting each step we take and bringing us into each new day by his hand. Enemies will not stand a chance against us – they come at us one way and flee in confusion in seven different ways, all because of the divine care and perfect deliverance of our sovereign God. Our workplaces and barns will know the blessing of God, just by our presence there. Perhaps the greatest blessing of all is that he is making us into a holy people – a provision that goes beyond my ability to comprehend or ability to provide in my own efforts.

God is in the work of making us each into something of extreme value – a treasure of his purpose. A thing of value is declared by the one who beholds it to be of worth, usefulness and importance to the one that possesses it. In God’s eyes, we are a treasure trove – a valuable and productive discovery that he declares as most excellent. As a result of his touch in our lives, we are declared to be something that is intrinsically valuable and desirable. He considers us to be of more value than any other possession he has. He declares us to be his riches – that which he esteems, prizes and regards highly. We are his treasures.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Landing on your feet

Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves. You lust for what you don't have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn't yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it. (James 4:1-2)

We are creatures of comfort - and often quite focused on getting what it is that we envision will aid us in our comfort.  James tells us that we want our own way - and we fight voraciously to get it.  We try every plan we can imagine - every scheme our minds can conceive to get our way.  Why is it that we don't see the simplicity and safety of just asking God for what it is that he knows will actually bring us the comfort we so desperately want?  Even if we are asking a little "askew" in our requests, God is quite capable of purifying our desires and then our meeting those desires in complete delight.

We often don't go to God with our desires or dreams because we are seeking after selfish things - but God wants us to lay these down, learn to trust in him, and then rest in his love poured out on our lives.  James goes on in this chapter to tell us that it is not the willful proud that God exalts - it is the willing humble.  In looking at that passage, I wondered which side of the fence I sat on most of the time - the willful proud or the willing humble. 

The willful proud could be classified as the obstinate, self-willed, unruly, and overbearing side of my character.  Yep, it is evident that this is sometimes the side of me that is exhibiting the strongest pull of that moment.  Then there is the willing humble side classified as the part of me that is inclined in both mind and heart to be ready, prompt to act, and eager to respond as God would direct.  It is the side of my character that does not seek its own power or prestige - does not act independent of God's direction.  So, why do both of these exist in one person?  It is really quite simple - none of us is perfect yet!

James says that we need to loudly say "no" to Satan.  I like the way the Message Bible puts this verse, so here it is:

So let God work his will in you. Yell a loud no to the Devil and watch him scamper. Say a quiet yes to God and he'll be there in no time. Quit dabbling in sin. Purify your inner life. Quit playing the field. Hit bottom, and cry your eyes out. The fun and games are over. Get serious, really serious. Get down on your knees before the Master; it's the only way you'll get on your feet. (James 4:7-10)

Quit dabbling in sin - not a full-fledged, out and out pursuit of some sinful pattern - just a casual dabbling with that which God asks us to avoid (the response and demands of the willful proud side of our character).  If we are playing the field, maneuvering for everything we can get out of a situation, we are pushing against God most of the time.  James says we need to hit bottom and cry out.  God often does the greatest amount of his clarifying work as we hit bottom!  Getting on our knees (at least in our spirit, if not in our physical posture) is the only way we can get to our feet again!  So, when you find yourself "riding the fence" between the willful proud and the willing humble - cry out to God!  Yell a loud "no" to the devil!  You are bound to land on your feet if you do!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Your True Colors

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don't try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way. (James 1:2-4)

James refers to the process of our faith-life being forced into the open by the challenges we face in our daily walk.  He tells us that pressure helps to produce evidence of our faith in Christ and brings evidence of Christ-like maturity in our choices.  I don't want you to miss the statement that "true colors" are revealed - they are often hidden or need something else to be removed in order for them to show through.

Pressure is defined as a burden of physical or mental stress.  It can be a constraint that comes into our lives that demands our attention.  There is usually an urgency about what we face - not able to sweep it under the rug.  To be mature means that we show evidence of growth and development.  It is possible to grow, but still be developmentally immature.  James is pointing toward the process where both our growth of character and spirit is in unison.  He is giving us the simple truth that the pressures we face in life have an impact of producing what God desires - the image of his Son deep in our lives.

If you don't know what you're doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You'll get his help, and won't be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought. People who "worry their prayers" are like wind-whipped waves. Don't think you're going to get anything from the Master that way, adrift at sea, keeping all your options open. (James 1:5-8)

Ask boldly - this is the attitude of heart that James describes we are to have when faced with challenges that we don't understand.  To be bold is to be fearless, assured, and confident.  A bold person stands out - they are conspicuous.  God never expects us to either keep our needs hidden or to feel like we have to just barely let our a "squeak" in his presence to lay our burdens down before him.  He says to come boldly - assured he will be listening, confident that he will be responsive, fearless to lay it all down (even the ugly stuff).  It amazes me how many times I come to God as the "worrier" and not the "warrior"!

Anyone who meets a testing challenge head-on and manages to stick it out is mighty fortunate. For such persons loyally in love with God, the reward is life and more life. (James 1:12)

Meeting challenges head on can only be done under the anointing of Christ - we have a passion, but he gives us the ability to actually fulfill what needs to be done.  A challenge is something that calls us out - invites us into competition.  It stimulates us - exciting our passion.  It also serves to call us into account - or into question!  What calls us into combat at this moment?  Are we facing those "giants" or running from them?  What invites us into competition - in our thoughts, our actions, or simply our interests?  What is it that stimulates us - what do we get excited about?  Those things that stimulate us act as a "goad" to draw us out of our present complacency. 

Whatever calls us into account can affect how we move forward - giving an account can be revealing and frightening.  Something in this life will hold our fascination long enough to be a challenge to us.  It could be a challenge that will produce right character, or a challenge that will reveal an opportunity for change in our lives.  Hold onto the truth - your true colors are being revealed!  I want mine to be the colors I don't mind "flying high"!  How about you?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Believing and Doing

James explains the idea that there needs to be a seamless unit of believing and doing.  We cannot separate our profession of faith from the performance of our faith (our actions).  They coexist - we show our faith by what we do, not by what we say.  In the third chapter of James, he opens up with the statement that teaching is "highly accountable work".  Then he goes on to describe the accountability that is expected of a teacher.  He also makes it perfectly clear that absolutely no one is qualified for the work of a teacher!  Why?  Because no one is absolutely perfect.  In this same chapter, he goes on to speak of the power of our words.  Let's explore...

A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!  It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell... (James 3:3-12)

James makes it perfectly clear that we need to learn the power of our words.  This is especially true as it applies to teaching - we have a responsibility to choose wisely the words that will help and not hurt.  Even as important as our words are, the way we live is even more important.  The old adage, "Your actions speak louder than your words", holds true.  When we live well, revealing wise choices and exhibiting a humble spirit, our actions speak volumes about the life change that has occurred within. 

Ever find yourself "twisting the truth" just a little to make yourself look a little wiser than you really were in that particular moment?  I have - but that is not wisdom - it is really pride in action.  That is why James warns us of both the power of our words and the evidence of our actions. 

Do you want to be counted wise, to build a reputation for wisdom? Here's what you do: Live well, live wisely, live humbly. It's the way you live, not the way you talk, that counts. Mean-spirited ambition isn't wisdom. Boasting that you are wise isn't wisdom. Twisting the truth to make yourselves sound wise isn't wisdom...  Real wisdom, God's wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor. (James 3:13-18)


We build community by treating each other with dignity and honor.  It is hard work to build community.  Just consider how hard it is to be gentle and reasonable with others when they are neither being gentle or reasonable themselves.  James describes the actions that build community as being free of competition and comparison. 

Why does James begin with teachers, interject so much about our words, then end with community?  Well, here is one thought you might consider.  People all around us are looking carefully at our actions - they often look for the actions we exhibit to match our words.  We "learn" from each other - by the words we speak and the actions we reveal.  We either build or tear down based on the words we speak and the actions we take.  Community is built or torn down by the teaching we embrace, the influence it has on our lives and the actions it produces in our relationships.

Today, let us begin the task of asking God to focus on our words, ensuring that they match up with our actions.  We may not all be called to the ministry of being teachers, but the truth is that we all teach some lesson!  As James says, "do the hard work" of building a strong community - it has great rewards.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Pulpit - Part II

And I am going to keep that celebration going because I know how it’s going to turn out. Through your faithful prayers and the generous response of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, everything he wants to do in and through me will be done. I can hardly wait to continue on my course. I don’t expect to be embarrassed in the least. On the contrary, everything happening to me in this jail only serves to make Christ more accurately known, regardless of whether I live or die. They didn’t shut me up; they gave me a pulpit! Alive, I’m Christ’s messenger; dead, I’m his bounty. Life versus even more life! I can’t lose. (Philippians 1:19-21)

Yesterday, we discovered that Paul had learned to see how God brings good out of chaos, blessing out of burden, and greatness out of abasement. This is truly a place of contentment – one we’d do well to learn in our present day society. I imagine all of us face our own circumstances, unwanted as they may be, in differing ways. Some of us will actively seek the easiest, quickest resolution to the circumstances, just so that we can move on. Others will wallow in the self-pity of the moment, never truly grasping the blessing of the trial. While still others of us will say we are doing well, content in the moment, all the while secretly chafing to just be free of the present circumstance.

The lesson of contentment is not merely a lesson of “accepting what comes our way” – it is learning to see the value in the moment, regardless of the circumstances we face. The degree of excellence that is available in the moment is equivalent to the vantage point from which we view the moment. We will do well to change our focus – looking at our circumstance from a new perspective. A vantage point is one that gives strategic advantage or a comprehensive view. Paul had a vantage point of knowing with absolute certainty that Christ would complete what he had begun – in chains or out. His vantage point was that of a pulpit – his present circumstance had given him opportunities he would not have experienced otherwise. He had a pulpit – a position from which he’d preach the message of Christ.

Alive – we are Christ’s messengers; dead – we are his bounty. Messengers are those who bear a message – Paul’s message was one of trust, faithfulness in times of adversity, contentment in times of lack, peace in times of turmoil. His life spoke more in his attitude toward his circumstances more than any message he could have spoken. The same is true of each of us – our lives speak much louder than our words. Our response to trial - good or bad, yielded or resistive, God-focused or self-directed – speaks volumes to a watching world.

A bounty is that which is given generously. Paul knew that even in death, his life would be given generously as a “first-fruit” of the New Testament church. It would serve to honor Christ, even in death.

We are challenged to look at our perspective toward our present circumstances – some of us face trials beyond our imagined capability to endure. In these times, the challenge to us comes in the form of remaining steadfast, trusting completely, and not losing heart, even in the midst of what seems impossible. It is in those times that we learn the lesson of God’s possibility in the midst of our impossibility – his creative power, his gracious outpouring of mercy and love. In these times, we have the opportunity to embrace God’s grace to endure, as Paul did. Learning to see the present trial as an opportunity to use our lives as a “pulpit” from which the gospel message can be preached – through our responses, by our attitudes, in our trust – is the greatest reward of a believer. Let us learn to be “pulpits” of God’s message – in or out of trial.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Pulpit - Part I

And I am going to keep that celebration going because I know how it’s going to turn out. Through your faithful prayers and the generous response of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, everything he wants to do in and through me will be done. I can hardly wait to continue on my course. I don’t expect to be embarrassed in the least. On the contrary, everything happening to me in this jail only serves to make Christ more accurately known, regardless of whether I live or die. They didn’t shut me up; they gave me a pulpit! Alive, I’m Christ’s messenger; dead, I’m his bounty. Life versus even more life! I can’t lose. (Philippians 1:19-21)

Knowing how life will turn out is often an elusive thing for most of us – we fear the worst, hope for the best, and take whatever comes our way – almost living with fatalist mentality. Others drive so hard that life almost passes them by without any notice – all in the pursuit of some title, advantage, gain. Paul had learned to be content in the situations of life that he found himself in – present situation included. He’s imprisoned for preaching the gospel of Christ and finds that there are mixed groups of folks on the outside of the prison walls – some carrying on his work with the true message of Christ being preached; others with selfish motives of gain or status preaching the message with mixed or impure motive. Regardless, he finds himself faithful to the calling on his life, celebrating the fact that the gospel is being preached, and resting assured that he will again enjoy the freedom of release from his present circumstances.

He had learned to make use of his present circumstances. It is a joyous thing to view our circumstances from the vantage point of “I can hardly wait to see how God will be glorified in and through this opportunity!” versus the crisis point of “When am I getting out of this mess?” The amazing thing Paul had learned was contentment – he had learned to rest secure in the circumstances of his life because his heart had made a shift from control to trust.

Contentment is a state of being satisfied, free from cares or concerns. Most of us seldom reach this point in our lives because we are always looking for something more – the next big revelation, the next big opportunity, the next big something. With this type of focus in life, we often miss the very blessing of the moment that Christ has so graciously prepared for us. We overlook the purpose of the moment in pursuit of the promise of the future.

Paul rested in the assurance that everything Christ wanted to do in and through him would ultimately be done. He had come to the internal peace of mind and heart that allowed him to trust God in the midst of trying circumstances. He never lost the desire to continue on in his missionary journeys, but he did not chafe against the value of the present moment which involved his imprisonment.

He rested in the fact that everything a believer goes through in his daily walk is for the purpose of making Christ known to the world in just a little bit of a different way than he was known through the life of that believer yesterday. He rested in the assurance that God brings good out of chaos, blessing out of burden, and greatness out of abasement. Tomorrow, we will continue to look a little deeper at how God uses contentment as a tool to minister to a hurting world around us.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Open hearts, Open doors

Look at him; give him your warmest smile. Never hide your feelings from him. (Ps. 34:5)

God knows our feelings.  Then why do we spend so much time trying to "clean them up" before we allow them to be expressed to him?  We are fickle creatures, always trying to "preserve face", even in our communications with our Creator.  David had come to a place in his walk where he finally realized that the "fronts" we try to maintain are simply not necessary in the presence of God.  God want the reality of who we are and what we are experiencing to be what we express to him in prayer, praise and worship.  He doesn't want our emotions to be "masked". 

Worship God if you want the best; worship opens doors to all his goodness. (Ps 34:9)

We definitely cannot argue that worship honors God.  Our passage also says that it opens doors to all his goodness.  It is like that honoring adoration of all he is and has done ushers us into his presence and in that place of his awesome presence we find all we need for life and godly living.  His presence is not a vacuum - it is not void.  It is filled to overflowing with the goodness of all that God is!  As we take off the masks we wear to "look" all right in our day-to-day relationships, God brings us right into the very treasuries of his grace - mercies untold.  There he unfolds his arms, welcomes us in, and strokes away our fears, wipes away our tears, and turns back all the decay of the years.

If your heart is broken, you'll find God right there; if you're kicked in the gut, he'll help you catch your breath. (Ps 34:18)

We often think of access to God's throne-room as some place we have to do lots and lots of preparation to enter into.  Hear what the Psalmist is saying in this passage.  If our heart is broken - it is right there that you will find God!  It is in our brokenness that he is reaching us.  If we are kicked in the gut - he stands right alongside to help us regroup and move on.  The nearness of our God is a very comforting thing.  He is there through the tough times, ready to restore as soon as we need it, and always standing with us through the times we are engrafting important life-lessons into our walk.  It is at he first recognition of the depth of our need that he stands ready to rescue.

Disciples so often get into trouble; still, God is there every time. (Ps 34:19)

Don't get me wrong - we still face troubles that bring tremendous emotional struggles.  We will not always feel like being "real" with our present feelings and interpretation of life.  God never negates the choices we make - because he knows the value of a wrong choice.  He sees the redeeming influence of a lesson learned and the power of his love in letting us learn that lesson.  We can go through life blaming him for the bad stuff or look for him in the midst of it - even when we are there by our own doing.  The choice is ours - the freedom to seek him where it seems he'll never be found is guaranteed.  Hold onto this promise that the Psalmist leaves us with today.  When we get in trouble - and we surely will - God is there every time!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Sound - Inside and Out

For God's Word is solid to the core; everything he makes is sound inside and out. He loves it when everything fits, when his world is in plumb-line true. Earth is drenched in God's affectionate satisfaction. (Psalm 33:4-5)

The Psalmist opens this psalm with a command to lift our voices in praise to God - to not be afraid to sing out a new song to him.  Despite the tremendous blessings we enjoy as a child of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, we sometimes find it our first response to cry out in complaint rather than praise.  This is because we human are influenced by the moment - not really allowing the Spirit of God that indwells us to be that influencing factor in our lives.
 
There is a hidden message in this passage that would be easy to gloss over - everything God makes is sound inside and out.  That means even you and I are "sound" inside and out.  To be sound implies that we are free from flaw, defect, or decay.  Hallelujah!  I may not always feel it, but I am a new creation in Christ Jesus and as such, I am free from any flaw, defect or decay!
 
Nothing God makes is without soundness.  If you are doubting that, then read on as the Psalmist declares, "Watch this: God's eye is on those who respect him, the ones who are looking for his love. He's ready to come to their rescue in bad times; in lean times he keeps body and soul together. We're depending on God; he's everything we need. What's more, our hearts brim with joy since we've taken for our own his holy name. Love us, God, with all you've got."

God's eyes are on us - observing all that comes into the craziness of our world. Nothing escapes his oversight - it is more than that God just watches what happens in our lives - he has oversight.  He stands ready to come to our rescue.  Yet, we might not be ready to be rescued.  We want to try things on our own a little, then we will reach out for his rescue when we see we cannot do it on our own.  If we can learn a lesson from David, we'd be wise to learn that stubbornness of heart keeps us from what God originally intends for us.  It creates a substitute for what God wants to create in the span of our lives.
 
In closing this Psalm, David cried out, "Love us, God, with all you've got."  He was depending on God to be his "constant" in uncertain times.  His relationship with God had become a "necessary" thing in his life - he could not find satisfaction in any other place or relationship.  Think about this:  What we rely on most determines the outcome of the experience.  If we start with God as our focus and keep him in our focus all along the way, we will see completed in us what God has begun at the point of our salvation - we will truly be new creatures in Christ.  In turn, we will cry out in praise to our God, lifting new songs of praise!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Waiting in expectation

So don't you see that we don't owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent. There's nothing in it for us, nothing at all. The best thing to do is give it a decent burial and get on with your new life. God's Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go!  This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It's adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike "What's next, Papa?" God's Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what's coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we're certainly going to go through the good times with him!  (Rom. 8:12-17)

The apostle Paul opened this chapter with the idea that a new power is now in operation in our lives - we are living exchanged lives.  In choosing this new way of living, we are provided assistance to live "right".  Paul has spent time presenting the futility of living by the rules in order to attain a righteous state spiritually.  Now, he focuses on the idea that re-doubling our efforts to do good really doesn't pay off.  What we need to do is to embrace the Spirit within us and allow him to do within us what we have proven impossible to do in our own efforts.

God wants us to have our outside actions aligned with our inside attitudes - and he wants both to be pure.  Paul has offered us two choices - obsess over the rules or rest in the leading of the Spirit.  Look at the contrast - one is totally our own effort, resulting in tiring attempts that really don't yield much of a harvest of righteousness.  The other is a restful, trusting attitude that allows the right stuff to take root in our lives.  There are three things that Paul presented to us that will bring us out of bondage to sin: 1) Attention to God; 2) Obedience to the Spirit; and 3) Trust in God's actions within us.

Focusing on self is exactly opposite of focusing on God.  If we are focused on self, our actions prove it.  If we are attentive to God, our actions manifest him.  Paul has spent 8 chapters telling us that we don't owe our old lives of self-centered focus anymore attention - it is time to live exchanged lives.  Now, he transitions to an awakening process that God has begun in us at the point of our salvation.  He says that if we go through hard times with Christ, then we are guaranteed to go through good times with him.  There is an awakening of our Spirit to the enlarging process God has in mind for each of his children.

Did you ever consider the idea that we are actually "enlarged" in the waiting?  Just as a woman awaits the birth of her child, watching over the months as the child grows within her womb until it so apparent that there is a new life contained within, so it is with us spiritually.  We can see the growth - starts so small that it seems to not even be noticed - then all of a sudden, we are "pregnant" with spiritual growth!  What seemed to be unnoticed now is apparent, but there is much more hidden within just waiting to burst out onto the scene of our lives!  At first, we don't see what is enlarging us, but we see the effects of the work going on in our spirits. 

Consider this - we can become so obsessed with how something is happening that we miss that it is happening!  Sometimes we focus on wanting to see the total change of character (the birth), when we just need to be trusting in the waiting period (the pregnancy).  Rushing the birth of a baby leaves a baby at risk of not being fully developed.  Rushing our spiritual character birth can be as traumatic.  Paul went on in verse 25 to say that the longer we wait, the larger we become and the more joyful our expectancy.  In the waiting, there is a "God-process" going on, increasing our spiritual capacity for more of him and less of ourselves.

The moment we get ahead of God, tired of the waiting, God's Spirit is right alongside of us to help us along the way.  We can choose to spend more effort trying to avoid the wait, or we can settle into the waiting period and see what God will produce.  God is all about the shaping of our lives - we can be shaped by our experiences or by the Spirit that dwells within us.  I'd choose the latter - it has proven to be much more beneficial in my life!

In the waiting, God embraces us.  Tenderly caressing the growth he sees within.  The most meaningful exchange between two people is when two are in agreement with the embrace and both are invested in the relationship.  Today, move into God's embrace.  Allow him to complete the growth within you.  Don't rush that spiritual "pregnancy" within you! 

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Exchange me, please

But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can't keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don't have what it takes. I can will it, but I can't do it. I decide to do good, but I don't really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don't result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that it's predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God's commands, but it's pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I've tried everything and nothing helps. I'm at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn't that the real question?  The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.  (Rom. 7:17-25)

Isn't it amazing how much "living by the rules" makes us more of a rebel?  We set out to "do right" and then end up "doing wrong" in the end?  How does that work?  It works because it is impossible to keep the rules 100% of the time!  The "rules" in life give us a framework to live by.  They outline for us what is "right" and "wrong" so that we don't have to guess about it.  The rules become boundaries that guide us - hopefully, keeping us from absolute ruin and devastation in our lives that comes from pursuing things that could harm us.

Christ's death took our "rule-dominated" life to the grave.  At the point of his death, the pattern of "keeping all the rules" so that we'd be accepted by a holy God as righteous ceased to be the focus.  Simply being "rules" focused no longer was attributed to us as "righteousness".  Instead, our righteousness comes from an exchanged life - death to our old man and new life in Christ Jesus.

Whenever we place more emphasis on keeping the rules than we do on understanding the intent of the rule, we become slaves to the rule - we enter into a place of bondage.  We definitely need the commands and rules of God in our lives - because we cannot arbitrarily choose right from wrong.  We cannot consistently see the right choice - sometimes we need it presented, then we just need to step out obediently.

Decisions don't necessarily result in action.  You know this to be true.  Think about the last time you made the determination in your mind to go on a diet and exercise more.  How long did that little decision last?  It takes more than good intentions to change character.  We have rebellion "inbred" into us!  Attitudes, beliefs, intentions of the heart - they pull us into doing wrong easier than we often believe possible. 

Paul knew this very struggle in his spirit - he knew the he needed more than "rules" to follow in order to break the rebelliousness of his heart.  He needed the hope and power that only Christ can give.  It is Jesus that sets things right in our lives - brings "right order" into our thoughts, creates "righteous" attitudes behind our choices. 

Yet, it is a struggle.  There is a war between the two - my own will and the will of God.  I want to keep a few rules and hope for the best.  God wants to change my heart and bless me with the best.  As soon as I realize the futility of the rule-keeping and the hope of an exchanged heart, I begin to make right choices, act appropriately, and enjoy the blessings of God in my life.  It won't happen 100% of the time at first, but day by day, the choices become more evident and the struggle of the will becomes less intense.  There is an evidence of the "exchanged life" apparent in every action, word and the thought behind both. 

So, today, why not make a choice to stop struggling with the intentions to keep all the rules and let God's Spirit enter into the areas of your life where you are struggling.  The exchanged life begins with the acknowledgement that you cannot accomplish a righteous life in your own efforts!