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Monday, February 28, 2011

Invitation to attend

18 If people can't see what God is doing, they stumble all over themselves;
But when they attend to what he reveals, they are most blessed. 
(Proverbs 29:18)

It has occurred to me that not knowing what God is doing is often the condition of many of our hearts each day - we are "along for the ride", but oblivious to the destination.  One of the questions the pastor asked yesterday was, "What is this Christian experience all about anyway?"  It occurred to me this morning that many of us would have a hard time with that question - not because we aren't enjoying our salvation, but because we really aren't sure what we are doing with our salvation.

Our passage puts it pretty plainly.  We can head out for a destination - not knowing the reason we are travelling the road we are on, oblivious to the traveling companions we have along the way - all the while making forward progress of some sort.  The question we need to ask is if it the "right" progress?  Are we really heading in the way we should be heading?  There is much to be said for "blind trust" in God's plan for our lives - but I think God wants us to have at least "glimpses" of his purpose!  Without a vision, the people perish.

Attending to what God reveals takes some pretty intense effort on our parts.  First, and foremost, we have to be exposed to his truth.  There are a variety of ways to be exposed - through a message preached, a blog written, or by discovery of his truths directly from his Word.  We can be just as "under-nourished" spiritually as we can be physically - just by taking in stuff we don't really need at that moment, but it is convenient.  Just living on a diet of truth that someone else has gleaned for us from the Word is like eating pre-prepared food all the time.  We will receive something, but we won't have the reward of discovering the many ingredients that went into its preparation.

Second, we have to be invested in the process of discovery of God's plan.  Our writer puts it as "attending to" - in other words, paying attention!  When we attend to what God reveals, we are devoting ourselves to the mission of following what he purposes for us.  We are committed to tend that truth as though it were a secret garden just revealed to us for our enjoyment.  We are invested in the outcome of what that garden produces - not just in the enjoyment of its wonderful fragrances.

Last, but certainly not least, God is the one doing the revealing - we are simply placing ourselves in a position to be available to the revelation.  There are many times I hear news reports about a comet that is passing by - not set to appear again for another fifty years.  I want to be able to see it, but am I willing to pay the price of being up at 2 a.m. to see it?  Not really!  If it could show up before 9 p.m. I'd be much happier!  I don't get to see the comet, even though it is right there revealing itself to me for my enjoyment, all because I am not willing to place myself in a position to enjoy its revealing!  

When we place ourselves in the position to receive revelation - open heart, readied mind, available spirit, obedient will - we are never disappointed.  God's delight is in blessing us with more revelation of his plan and purpose when our heart is set on discovery.  His wisdom is imparted when a mind is readied to receive truth.  His Spirit is set on opening us up to new possibilities when our spirit is in alignment with his.  His leading becomes our delight when our will is submitted obediently to his purpose.  In fact, as our passage says, we become "most blessed" when we are open to God's revelation.  The key is in "attending" to that revelation.  

Sunday, February 27, 2011

A two-sided coin

9 Just as lotions and fragrance give sensual delight, a sweet friendship refreshes the soul. 

17 You use steel to sharpen steel, and one friend sharpens another. 
(Proverbs 27:9, 17)

I like to go to the Proverbs once in a while to get some insight into life's lessons that the man who was known as the "wisest man in the world" learned in his lifetime.  There is much recorded within the Proverbs related to the type of friends we pick, what it is like to make unwise choices in friends, and what the value of a good friend is.  Today, I'd like to consider the latter - a good friend and their worth.

Lotions and fragrances are merely outward adornments.  They are applied to the surface of our bodies - yet they have a tremendous ability to provide "sensual" delight.  In other words, they create enjoyment just in their application - both to the one wearing the fragrance or enjoying the lotion's application, and to the one who has the joy of experiencing the outcome of their application by the other person.  

There are times within friendship that are like applications of lotion - they help to smooth the surface and provide an encounter that is both enjoyable and memorable.  A good friend knows when a hug is needed, or when a touch will produce a sense of peace or security.  A good friend is aware of the impact of life's constant barrage of pressures and will respond by giving words of encouragement that are like lotion applied to the dry surface of the skin - they bring refreshing and soothe the dryness of your soul.

There are also times within friendship that are like the anointing of a fragrant perfume - the "fragrance" of what is produced when the two friends are together is an enjoyable experience.  Fragrances do a lot to stimulate our desire - we desire to partake of food because it "smells good"; we desire to use a certain laundry soap because it leaves our clothes "smelling fresh".  So it is in relationship with one another - a good friend will have the impact of affecting our desires in a positive and uplifting manner.

The second verse almost seems opposite the first - with the first reflecting the "softer" side of relationship, the second reflecting the "harder" side of that same relationship.  It is important to remember that relationship has both sides.  A good friend actually stimulates growth in our life - they bring out both the best, and sometimes even the worst in us.  In doing so, they are like iron sharpening iron.  A blade of a knife is only as useful as the "edge" it has - you cannot use a butter knife to carve a prime rib!  We need each other to show us where we have become "dull" and "ineffective" in our walk.  In so doing, we are "honing" each other so that we possess the "edge" we will need to be of use exactly the way we were designed to be.

We often want to find a friend that has the characteristics of the first verse we considered today - then run from the one that is like iron sharpening our "dull" edges.  Being sharpened is equally important - yet it is often doubly painful!  We must be willing to endure a little pain in relationship in order to realize the "edge" it will produce.  Sweetness, refreshment, and enjoyment are good in their season - but we also need the hard times to bring us to the place of being strong, sharp, and perfectly "honed".  

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Cheap words leave us with belly-aches

17 You grab a mad dog by the ears
   when you butt into a quarrel that's none of your business. 
(Proverbs 26:17)

Our passage today is pretty plain - stay out of other people's business!  When we butt into where we have no business being, we often find it is like taking hold of a rabid dog - we get bit!  This is a good lesson to learn, but a tough one to learn.  It easy to get caught up in the business of another.  Sometimes we do just because we "want to be in the know".  Other times it is because we "want to rescue" someone who is in the middle of a muddle.  Whatever the reason, we would do well to consider the consequences before we "step in the middle" of what we never belonged in in the first place!

20 When you run out of wood, the fire goes out; 
   when the gossip ends, the quarrel dies down.
(Proverbs 26:20)

The passage goes on to remind us of the power of our words.  When we "stoke" the fires of passionate discourse with the words spoken out of our emotion rather than from rational thought, we often end up with a mess.  Being in the middle of a quarrelsome situation is not easily navigated.  We sometimes feel "caught up" in the midst of the moment - contributing to it without realizing that we are doing so.  Words are powerful instruments - they both build the momentum of the quarrel and have the ability to extinguish the quarrel.  The choice of words determines the outcome.  Our passage reminds us that when the gossip ends - the quarrel is extinguished.

Gossip is often thought of as the "back fence" type of communication - the secret exchanges of words that you engage in when others are not around.  They can also be the words we use to share those "juicy tidbits" that no one else knows.  Both are equally as damaging.  Another aspect of gossip that we don't really think of is the idea of "tattling" on another.  We use the words of gossip to share the "bad stuff" we think we know about another.  Our passage reminds us of the damage of these types of words - they cause quarrels.  

A quarrel is a break in friendly relations - it often ends relationships.  That seems extreme, but it is quite true.  Quarrels not resolved quickly will provide fuel for bitterness, resentment, and mistrust.  In turn, the relationship is damaged.  Quarrels emerge because there is a disagreement - someone is finding fault with another's actions, ideas, etc.  "Stoke" those ideas of "finding fault" and you end up with a rift in relationship.

 21 A quarrelsome person in a dispute is like kerosene thrown on a fire.
 22 Listening to gossip is like eating cheap candy; 
do you want junk like that in your belly? 
(Proverbs 26:21-22)

To wrap this up, the writer of our proverb reminds us that the character of a quarrelsome person leads them to be constantly "throwing kerosene" on the fire of the quarrel.  They just don't realize that their actions and words are being that damaging.  That is why we will do well to walk away from the exchange.  We will eventually be affected by the exchange if we don't.  The writer reminds us that even "listening" to the exchange affects us - it is like eating cheap candy - we end up with a belly-ache!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Send up the flares!

 10Distress that drives us to God does that. It turns us around. It gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain. But those who let distress drive them away from God are full of regrets, end up on a deathbed of regrets.  11-12And now, isn't it wonderful all the ways in which this distress has goaded you closer to God? You're more alive, more concerned, more sensitive, more reverent, more human, more passionate, more responsible. Looked at from any angle, you've come out of this with purity of heart. 
(2 Corinthians 7:10-12)

Paul knew that his letter to the Corinthian church, encountering their lackadaisical approach to sin in their midst, caused them some "distress".  That is often the case when sin is encountered in our lives - we find some discomfort in the exposure and we feel "distressed".  Distress is often described as that which causes us pain, anxiety, and often sorrow.  For that reason, we all have a dread or sense of "mourning" whenever we think about those things that bring distress into our lives.

I would like us to think of this from a different perspective - beginning to see distress as a "signal" that we need help.  When a ship or an airplane finds they are in trouble (sinking or unable to maintain altitude), they send out a "distress signal".  The hope is that someone will hear that SOS and respond by coming to their rescue.  The purpose of the signal is rescue!  That is what Paul pictures for us in this entire letter to the Corinthian church.  He wanted to bring truth - uncomplicated by human opinion - and then see it do its work in the lives of those who would embrace it.  

For those willing to embrace the truth, the result was "rescue".  That is the case in our lives, as well.  When truth brings exposure of some type of sin in our lives (those small compromises or those outright BIG sins), we have two choices.  We can either deny they exist (and go down with the ship in the process!), or we can send out a "distress signal" that acknowledges we need rescue.  Paul reminds us that when we choose to admit we are in distress, we find the means for our rescue in Christ.

Distress is designed to drive us toward God - not deeper into depression, distrust, or despair.  When a stranded motorist places a flare along the roadside, it is placed there to call attention to both the condition of the car and the need of the motorist.  The car needs the "healing" touch of the mechanic - the motorist needs the protection and assurance of knowing that their signal will result in the attention they need.  

Paul says we will never regret the pain of distress - but this is conditioned on our using the present distress as a signal we need help, not as a means to become even more resentful and bitter toward God.  If we embrace our present distress in this manner, we will be driven toward the one who can help us in the midst of it.  If we allow distress to "goad us" toward God, rather than away from him, we will know no regrets.  The circumstances that act as those "goads" may not be comfortable for the moment, but they have life-long rewards in the end.

Think of the stranded passenger of an airplane that has "gone down" in the wilderness.  As the distress signal is repeatedly sent, their expectation is turned toward their rescuer(s).  They trust that the signal will be heard - in turn, they will soon be rescued.  Sometimes we send up our "signal" of our distress, and when our rescue is not immediate, we waiver in our trust that the signal is being heard.  The "wilderness" is a trying place - it tests our faith.  We are brought to the end of our trust in "self" and are exposed to new depths of learning to rely on another to do what we cannot do for ourselves - rescue!

The moment we realize that we are never alone in our distress (our signal is indeed being heard "loud and clear") - we will change our perspective about that which is giving us that distress.  We will no longer see it as a thing that creates anxiety, sorrow, or fear.  Instead, we will think of it as something that is stretching our capacity for hope, encouragement, and joy.  In other words, we are allowing the distress to drive us toward God!

You might be sending up the flares today in your own lives.  If so, stand firm in your hope!  Those flares are being acknowledged - your S.O.S. is seen and heard.  Your help is on the way - the things that are moments of distress today will be memories of glory tomorrow!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Settling is never God's plan

The Spirit of God whets our appetite by giving us a taste of what's ahead. He puts a little of heaven in our hearts so that we'll never settle for less.
(2 Corinthians 5:5)

What a joy it is to realize that what we experience of God today is only a taste of him - we only experience in part what one day we will experience in full.  A taste of what is ahead is often all we have to go on as we step out in our faith walk each day.  We don't know what to expect, but we do know who to expect to be alongside as we take those steps.  

When one "whets" the appetite - it is kind of like eating appetizers.  We could fill up on them, but if we did that we'd miss the good stuff just about to come around the corner!  That which "whets" our spiritual appetite is designed to make us eager, living in anticipation of what will be revealed next.  We learn to yearn when we have learned the purpose of the appetizer!

That which "whets" our appetite will direct our attention - it makes us eager, keenly aware of whatever is coming.  The Holy Spirit has the mission of giving us "tastes" of God's goodness, protection, love, etc. - in preparation for God to reveal even greater evidence of these things in our lives.  A little of heaven is in our heart - not because God only wants us to experience only limited measures of his goodness - but because he wants us to never settle for less than him.

A little bit of us wants more of what we experience of God's goodness, but a little bit of us struggles with the idea of the investment of time, energy, and attention that waiting on what God has next.  We often find that we "settle for less" when we are not willing to wait for the "best".  In God's economy, little things add up to bigger things - the least become first, the best is held for last, etc.  If God revealed all he has for us, all his glory to us at one time, we'd not be able to handle it!

What we do with our appetites determines our end result.  Responding to the right "appetites" is paramount to not "settling for less".  Later in this chapter, Paul tells us, "Become friends with God; he's already a friend with you."  Closeness with God - drawing near to him - is a response to the whetting of our appetites.  As we experience small blessings, we desire bigger blessings.  As we enjoy small glimpses of his glory, we yearn for the full revelation of his glory.  As we are entreated toward his loving arms, we envision the ecstasy of being enveloped fully in his unconditional love.

Someone once told me that we have as much of God as we want - as much of him as our appetites will allow us to consume.  It is kind of like the difference between stopping at a burger joint and sitting down to a home-cooked meal complete.  Both will "fill us up", but each produces a different sense of satisfaction.  One was quick, easy, and relatively "inexpensive" to obtain.  The other took time to procure, prepare, and participate in.  It could not be "eaten on the run" because it was not "designed" to be partaken of in that manner.  The most meaningful of God's blessings are meant to be partaken in the stillness of the moments spent with him - not on the run!

God may be whetting your appetite for more of him - designing specific revelations of his grace, mercy, and love - in order that you will not settle for the things that quickly fill you, but then leave you less than satisfied in the results they provide.  Let us learn that "settling" is never God's plan - it is in anticipating more that we learn to not "settle" for less!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Transition is a fearful thing

4-5 Complain if you must, but don't lash out.
   Keep your mouth shut, and let your heart do the talking.
   Build your case before God and wait for his verdict. 
(Psalm 4:4-5)

Transition is a time of unrest for all of us.  We like the familiarity of what we have come to know as "constant" and "secure" in our lives.  When transition is called for, we often feel like our "legs are being pulled out from under us".  This might be why we are as apprehensive in transition as we see to be.  We allow fear to guide our thoughts and influence our actions instead of taking the things we fear to God for his guidance in those times of transition.

Transition by definition is simply change - changing from one position to another, a state of "stability" into a state of the "unknown".  When we explore this definition a little further, we also see that it is characterized by times or seasons of transformation.  Transition brings with it transforming opportunities.  We enjoy the butterfly because the caterpillar underwent the transition!  There is a process in transition whereby a metamorphosis from one state or stage into another is underway.  The end result is to make us more beautiful, stronger, and different from what we were when we entered into that transition.

One of the frequent things we see when people are in a state of transition is the tendency of our nature to complain about the process.  We don't seem to understand the process, so we lash out against it.  The psalmist gives us insight into how we can approach transition with a degree of maturity that will assist us in making it through the transition in a positive manner.  
  • Limit the complaining - it is the easiest thing to do to enter into the "whining" stage of complaint when we don't understand something, we don't feel it is fair, or we don't interpret the transition as something we can endure.  Complaint is often an expression of our uneasiness over the situation at hand.  It is quite easy for complaint to go the other direction into becoming an expression of our resentment at the transition that is occurring.  How we face the transition is directly impacted by both our "self-talk" and our "outward talk" about that transition.  
  • Let your heart do the talking - when our heart does the talking, we find that what is expressed is often really the grief we are experiencing with the transition at hand.  As we let go of something we have developed a comfort level with, we often experience a deep sense of grief over the loss.  We want to hold onto what "feels secure" to us, while God may have a different plan for our "security".  Grief is understood in the midst of transition - we are parting with the old and embracing the new.
  • Build your case before God - there is no other resource is as readily available or as totally reliable to assist with the fear associated with change, the grief associated with letting go of the old, and the sense of unease created when transformation must occur.  We often gravitate toward building our case before man - our writer reminds us that God is in control, so build your case there.
  • Wait for his verdict - once you have laid it all out before God (your fear, disappointment, grief, unease, etc.), wait.  Sheesh!  Not the easiest instruction to follow, huh?  I know for a fact that I am not the best at "waiting" to see what will unfold.  It is in the "wait" that we often receive the greatest revelation of what the future holds.  Think about that caterpillar for a moment again - in the moments of transition, he is going about his daily life until one day he is somehow moved to create a new form of existence for himself.  He goes into the safety of a cocoon - a place for his transformation to occur.  That is kind of like us building our case before God - we take time to envelop ourselves in his watchful care, and then we wait for the rest to occur according to his plan.  In the end, the cocoon produces the beauty of the butterfly - sometimes it is a Monarch, other times a simply little butterfly with golden wings.  
So, whatever transition we face today, perhaps we'd do well to consider the instruction of our psalmist.  God can deal with our complaints - we need to take them to him, not others who have no control over the transition.   God is about to work in the midst of the transition - to produce what he believes will produces the greatest beauty in us.  We need to find what we need for the transition in the safety of the "enveloping" covering of his care.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Blabber and Chatter really matter

19 The more talk, the less truth;
   the wise measure their words.
 20 The speech of a good person is worth waiting for;
   the blabber of the wicked is worthless.
 21 The talk of a good person is rich fare for many,
   but chatterboxes die of an empty heart.
(Proverbs 10:19-21)

The Book of Proverbs is filled with all kinds of wisdom about our communication - what gets said and what should remain unsaid.  There is more set in motion by one word than most of us realize.  The three verses above give us some insight into the choices we make with our words.  

  1. The more talk, the less truth - in other words, the more we have to say, the greater chances are that we will embellish what is truth within the statement with things that may not be entirely true.  When we "add words" that really don't "belong" in the discussion, we are simply trying to "enhance" the truth.  There is simplicity in the truth - it needs no enhancements.  
  2. The wise measure their words - not because they are scared to speak what they know to be true, but because not everything we think needs to be spoken!  We may know a truth, but there is a season (a time) for each truth to be brought forth.  The "timing" of what we say is as important as the "content" of what we speak.  Learning to "measure our words" will enable several things.  First, others will see the value in what is shared because it is not "fluffed up" with other ideas that don't really lend to the conversation.  Second, others will have a chance to hear what is being said because it is direct, appropriate, and in the correct timing.
  3. The speech of a good person is worth waiting for - it is valuable because there is something of value in each word that comes from a "good heart". A good person is sometimes a "label" given to someone who does "good things" or is a "good friend".  In scripture, being a good person is more of a state of character that is reflective of the teachings and principles of Christ.  There is a manifestation of obedience to the Word of God, the leading of the Holy Spirit, and the responsiveness to your own conscience.  
  4. The blabber of the wicked is worthless - this is indiscreet communication. Just being indiscreet in the timing is bad enough, but also being indiscreet in the content of what is shared makes the communication doubly worthless!  There isn't a whole lot of thought that goes into this type of communication - it is free-flowing, without constraints, and often quite damaging, as a result.
  5. The talk of a good person is rich fare for many - in another translation, this says, "The lips of the righteous nourish many..."  Words aptly spoken, timed well, and not riddled with nonsense have a way of "nourishing" the one who hears them.  They foster growth.  They are spoken in such a way that they strengthen, build up and supply what is needed in the situation. 
  6. Chatterboxes die of an empty heart - most likely because they also die with very few friends left!  Nothing is more disappointing and dissatisfying than to be surrounded by gossips.  Gossips destroys more relationships in a few simple words than guns kill people!  Words are destructive when they are spoken to the wrong person, at the wrong time, or in a manner that is ill-intentioned.
The truth is simple, but it is often the most difficult to speak.  We struggle with the truth so much because we don't know how it will be received.  If there is one thing I have learned it is this - truth is meant to be shared.  It is what sets us free.  There is a time, a place, and an appointed means by which truth can and should be shared.  When we are faithful to consideration of the timing, appropriate selection of the place, and the leading to share what we know to be true, there is an anointing on those words that help them to be expressed and heard in a way like no other words can have impact.

Learning to be wise in our selection of what gets spoken is our first challenge. Being faithful to speak what we know to be true is next.  Not mixing truth with things that "fluff up" is a challenge to be mastered by all.  Communication is a difficult thing - maybe our most challenging growth opportunity in life!  It takes a lifetime to learn to do it well!  

Monday, February 21, 2011

Strength is for service, not status

1-2 Those of us who are strong and able in the faith need to step in and lend a hand to those who falter, and not just do what is most convenient for us. Strength is for service, not status. Each one of us needs to look after the good of the people around us, asking ourselves, "How can I help?"
(Romans 15:1-2)

In the world around us, strength opens doors.  There are opportunities galore for "strong" people - those who possess the ability or talent to carry out the task at hand.  This became quite apparent to me when seeking my first job in the workforce.  There were many "you are under-qualified" responses, even though I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I could do the job.  Why?  The one conducting the interview did not view my "qualifications" as those that displayed the "strengths" that the company needed for that position.  Since strength opens doors, it makes it appear that weakness keeps them shut.  

Paul makes it quite clear that there is a function and place for those that possess spiritual strength and are able in the faith.  The type of strength spoken of here is not that of being "qualified" for the position of pastor, teacher, or evangelist.  It is the simple strength of having walked where another is walking right now.  The ability he refers to is simply the testimony of a changed life - the willingness to share the transforming power of Christ in your life.  The reason we are made strong is to be of service - not to use that strength to our aggrandizement.  

Strength is for service - not status.  Strength comes in many forms:
  • The ability to withstand forces that come against you
  • The ability to remain firmly grounded when surrounded by things that would seek to topple your faith
  • The manifestation of vigor and action instead of timidity and retreat
There are times when those in our lives have no apparent ability to withstand, remain, or exhibit movement toward a goal.  That is where Paul tells us we have an obligation to be involved - strength is for service.  We are called to serve each other - not out of obligation, but out of obedience.  In those times of service, connection is made.  We connect with another, and in turn, the weak brother/sister connects with God.  The power of God becomes their own.  They are made strong as a result of our obedient service.

I daresay that most of us don't mind being of service when it is convenient for us - when the "mood hits us" and we don't feel that the "service" will mess with our plans".  But if service imposes on our time, demands a sacrifice of us, etc., we are not as quick to respond.  Why is that?  Simply because we still don't get that our strength may actually be the very thing that another needs to hold onto until they can develop their own strength themselves - becoming assured in their faith and upright in their stand.  I think the members of AA and those types of groups get that - they hold onto each other until the other is clean and sober, then commit to being there when the other needs them.  

Paul reminds us that we need to look after the good of the other - asking ourselves how we can meet the need they have in their lives.  This is intentional action - we commit to looking outside of ourselves, using the talents we have been given, and remaining open to the leading of the Holy Spirit.  There is nothing passive about service - just as there is nothing passive about strength or ability.  We are strong because we have passed through the test, developed the faith-hold that helps us stand strong, and have a deeper trust relationship with Jesus than we had before the test.  That strength was not developed for our "independent" use/enjoyment - it was developed to share.

I have no idea where you will be asked to serve today.  It may be in the simple act of lending a listening ear to a lonely soul.  It could be in changing a diaper for a mom on the edge of losing it with youngsters making demands of her all day long.  It could even be in giving of your time to stop what you are doing and spend just a moment in prayer for that one God is bringing to your mind right now.  Using your strengths and abilities may seem "insignificant" compared to some, but it is what you have to offer.  Offered in obedience, those strengths and abilities become instruments of grace, mercy, and hope to those around you.  

Sunday, February 20, 2011

My weapon? A donkey's jawbone!

14-16 As he approached Lehi, the Philistines came to meet him, shouting in triumph. And then the Spirit of God came on him with great power. The ropes on his arms fell apart like flax on fire; the thongs slipped off his hands. He spotted a fresh donkey jawbone, reached down and grabbed it, and with it killed the whole company. And Samson said, "With a donkey's jawbone I made heaps of donkeys of them. With a donkey's jawbone I killed an entire company."
(Judges 15:14-16)

Israel is in a time of punishment - being attacked by the Philistines.  They have wandered into compromising sin and God is allowing the Philistines to be used as his means of judgment on their sin.  Samson was born of a woman unable to bear children - a miracle in those days that neither involved artificial means, nor test tubes!  As an angel of the Lord reveals that she will have a son, he also instructs her to set him aside (dedicate him) to the Lord's work of delivering the Israelites from the hand of the Philistines.  God was about to do the work of removing the curse of judgment that Israel had come under.  He is raised as dedicated unto the Lord, but when the time comes for him to be out on his own, he goes into the land of the Philistines and falls in love with a young Philistine woman.  His parents are livid - thinking this would bring God's judgment down on Israel even harder.  What they did not realize was that this was all in God's plan of giving Samson an "inroad" into the camp of the Philistines.

As the story of Samson's life progresses, we find it is time for him to receive his bride.  As was the custom, he came to make the final arrangements, arrange for the "exchange" for his betrothed, and there was a great feast.  At the feast (lasting 7 days), he brings up a riddle for the 30 groomsmen there in attendance to attempt to solve.  It has to do with Samson's recent experience of getting honey from the carcass of a lion he had previously slain with his bare hands.  The groomsmen cannot figure out the riddle, so they engage Timnah (Samson's betrothed) to "get it out of him".  When they provide the answer to the riddle, Samson is furious because he knows that Timnah has been the one to provide the answer.  The events enrage him and he goes out and kills 30 men, strips them and brings their clothes to the groomsmen, then heads home to his parents.  A short time later, he goes to the house of his future father-in-law and asks for his betrothed wife.  He is taken aback by the news that she had been given to his best man as his wife and that he will have to settle for a younger sister if he wanted to take a bride.

This infuriates him even further.  He takes 300 jackals, ties their tails together, lights a torch and places it between their tails, then sets them lose to burn up the fields of the Philistines - a devastating loss of crops for the people.  The Philistines want his head and his Israelite brothers are all to ready to assist.  Three dozen Israelite men go to him, sharing their fear that the Philistines will retaliate for what Samson has done.  They bind him hand and foot, bringing him to the Philistines in bonds.  This brings us to the events of our passage today.  The Philistines think they have it made - their attacker delivered to them by the hands of those that should have been most loyal to Samson!

But...the Spirit of God had a different plan!  This is often the case when things just seem to be "falling into place" for the one who stands against God.  When they least expect God's intervention - God's hand is proven stronger!  Samson's bonds drop free and he sees a bone from the jaw of a donkey.  Now, you might conclude that the bone of a donkey is not much of a weapon - especially against a band of angry military.  But God...the powerful words of our passage.  In his power, Samson uses the least likely instrument of warfare to slay the entire company of military men gathered to do him in.  

We don't fight against the things that hold us in bondage - those things that the enemy of our soul tends to use as instruments of his warfare - with traditional weaponry.  In God's hands, even the jawbone of a donkey becomes a tool of defense greater than the might of any marauding force!  The very thing we least suspect as able to provide our deliverance may be the very thing God designs for our use in times of struggle.  We often discount what seems unlikely to be the means of deliverance because we have preconceived ideas of what our defense should look like.  But God...

What I want us to see that our deliverance comes in the "But God..." moments.  When we least expect it, through the means we'd least expect to see used, in the moment when it seems all is lost - God is there!  Our deliverance comes in unusual ways sometimes.  Israel's deliverance from a marauding, domineering influence was being accomplished by the hand of a man dedicated to him - in very non-traditional ways.  Samson's deliverance was coming in ways that made onlookers gape in amazement and historians repeat in awe.  God's deliverance is sure - his means of deliverance is not always what we'd expect, but it is sure!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Grave clothes and tomb living

Six days before Passover, Jesus entered Bethany where Lazarus, so recently raised from the dead, was living. 
John 12:1

It would be easy to read over this passage and just miss entirely what John recorded for us about Jesus' entry into Bethany.  One very special event had transpired there that made Bethany a notorious place - Lazarus had been raised from the dead.  Not just the dead, but the tomb.  Already wrapped in burial clothes and scented with the herbs of burial, he laid there for three days.  His sisters were grief-stricken at the loss of their brother - the male head of their home.  Now, we'd miss the intention of these opening words if we were to just gloss by them on our way to learning about how Judas would betray Jesus.  

No words are recorded for us by accident.  They aren't in the Bible just to give the story some sense of "plot" or to "add character" to the passage.  They are each there by intention.  Therefore, when we see the words, "Jesus entered into Bethany where Lazarus, SO RECENTLY RAISED FROM THE DEAD, WAS LIVING," we need to pause to notice what that really says.

First, Bethany is noteworthy now for this miracle, but had a rich heritage.  A small town about 1.5 miles outside of Jerusalem, best known prior to this miracle for being a city with an "almshouse" - a place for the collection that would be distributed among the poor and sick in the region.  Bethany was also a town that catered to the needs of the sick.  It was kind of like a place to go when one was not doing well physically.  One other event in this town got people riled up - the dinner Jesus has in the home of Simon the Leper.  So, we also know this is a town with leprosy prevalent in it.

Second, Lazarus lives there with his two sisters.  It was a town populated by many peoples from various regions.  The last in a row of cities just prior to entering Jerusalem.  Many pilgrimages were taken each year into Jerusalem from all over the land of Israel - in honor of Jehovah and keeping of the feasts he had established.  Many would pass through this region.  Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, would have opened their doors to many as they sojourned there for a rest prior to entering into the holy city.

Third, and the most important thing, Lazarus, once dead, is now living!  So recently raised from the dead - now living.  What a wondrous statement of fact!  What a tremendous message of hope!  In fact, if we really look at this, we can ask several questions that might give us insight into why this simple opening statement was penned for us to learn from:
  • What is the purpose of resurrection?  To that we might say it is to give evidence that God exists, that his power is over everything that would attempt to destroy his people.  We might add that it is to manifest his grace and to display his glory. 
  • What is the evidence of resurrection?  It is the opposite of the death - life.  There is a shift from one state of being into another.  The tomb is empty, the grave-clothes have no further purpose, and even the stench of death no longer exists.  
  • What is the outcome of resurrection?  A changed life.  No longer the same - Lazarus was transformed by the miracle of his resurrection.  We are also transformed by the miracle of our resurrection.  Don't get too literal here on me - I know you were not raised from a crude tomb, wrapped in grave-clothes, and sprinkled with herbs of burial.  Yet, you were raised to newness of life in Christ.  The outcome is the shedding of all that is old - the "putting on" of all that is new.  The evidence is that the old no longer has a purpose in our life - we are living a new life.
Lazarus, who was one dead, was living - not bound by the past, freed for the present.  That is the result (outcome) of resurrection.  We sometimes attempt to "live" still bound by the grave-clothes of our past.  Not only is this impractical (as they bind us pretty tightly), but they reek of the past sinful lives we were living before Christ.  They carry the evidence of the old life into the present.  The work of resurrection for Lazarus was complete when he put on the fresh clothes and took dinner with Jesus.  He "put off" the thing that had him bound, and "put on" that which gave him freedom.

If we are walking around within the bonds of the "tomb", we exhibit the evidence of the hopelessness of the tomb in our lives.  If we are freed from the tomb, why would we want the "tomb-clothes" as our garments any longer?  

Friday, February 18, 2011

Faith - what is it?

1-2The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It's our handle on what we can't see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.
(Hebrews 11:1-2)

Lots of people have sought to define faith.  The philosophers, theologians, and word-smiths will define faith as the confidence someone puts in another or any thing.  In the King James version of the Bible, the above passage begins with the words:  "Now, faith is..."  Therefore, I am inclined to take this as my definition of faith.  In Bible College, I was given the assignment of writing a paper on "What is faith?"  That was a struggle for me because I kept trying to find some really deep, philosophical meaning to faith.  When it came down to it, I did not get a good grade on the paper because the Dean said I did not "know" the subject - my head knowledge had not made the connection into heart knowledge.

Today, after many years of serving Christ, when I think of faith, an acrostic comes to mind:
  • F inally
  • A ligned
  • I n
  • T rusting
  • H im
Simply put, faith is coming to the place that you look no other place than to him and him alone!  Whatever the need, he is the first place you turn.  His is the first answer you respond to when you are seeking advice.  Nothing excites you more than the possibility of discovering his will in your circumstance.  That's faith.  As our writer says, "Its the handle on what we cannot see".  

We often try to make the simplest things so complicated in this walk.  We somehow equate simplicity with a lack of wisdom, a lack of knowledge, or a lack of growth.  In fact, this is just the opposite of how Jesus described his disciples.  One day, he drew a child into is lap and began to explain that the things of his kingdom were best understood through the eyes of a child.  Why?  Simply because they don't attach a bunch of strings to what they see and interpret like we adults do. They trust simply because someone they accept as an authority in their lives tells them something. 

Jesus' hope in using that illustration was that his disciples would come to a place of simply trusting him - by being fully aligned with him, they'd come to know whatever they needed to know to live life to its fullest and in the safety and power of service to the King of Kings.  We look for all kinds of other things to be our source of "trust" - material things, our educational attainments, the measure of success we find in advancing our career, etc.  Nothing quite brings us to the place where we fully "get the handle on what we cannot see".  The material things will fail us - often when we least expect them to.  The education we receive today is outdated by tomorrow.  The advances in career simply are never a guarantee of success in the future.  Nothing is as plain as trust in Christ.

Faith - the firm foundation that makes life worth living - aligning ourselves in trusting him.  That's my definition today - a far cry from the philosophical and intellectual "mature" definition I attempted to give all those years ago in my thesis.  Faith is something we experience - not something we fully understand.  Faith is something we "know" in the fibers of our being - because we know where we have aligned our allegiances.  Faith is really a person - Jesus.  He is the means of our hope, the revelation of that hope, and the fulfillment of that hope.  Plain and simple.  

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Consuming fire is a byproduct of a desperate heart

1-3 Listen, God! Please, pay attention! Can you make sense of these ramblings, my groans and cries? King-God, I need your help. Every morning you'll hear me at it again. Every morning I lay out the pieces of my life on your altar and watch for fire to descend. (Psalm 5:1-3)

A bold cry from a desperate heart - Listen!  Pay attention!  Why?  I need your help!  There is no other acknowledgement that God needs more than the simple admittance that we "need his help".  I honestly believe that those very words set in motion countless things way beyond our comprehension - things meant to protect us, provide for us, and powerfully intervene in the turmoil of our life experiences.  David was desperate - desperation moves the heart of God.  

Think about it - if you had two kids sitting side by side on the couch, each making a plea for your attention, which one would you be most inclined to turn to?  One is sitting passively there, holding up a sign with crudely written words, "Will honor you for food".  The other is bouncing up and down, waving his arms, crying out, tears flowing down his face, crying out, "Please, please, I need you!  No one and nothing else will do!  I need YOU!"  

In serving God, there is no room for complacency.  The characteristics of a complacent heart are simply to be so self-satisfied with the present situation that you don't see or acknowledge any need for change.  You are completely unaware of the potential dangers that lurk just around the corner if you continue in that place of complacency.  In healthcare today, we understand very well the concept that "nothing is as certain or as constant as change".  In our spiritual walk, we should be just as certain that nothing is as EXPECTED as change!

I think David realized that change was inevitable - but also that it was expected.  He had patterned his life after the ways of God - he knew full-well that yesterday's "constants" would be today's "traps" if he allowed himself to "settle in" and just enjoy the ride.  David admits his need - he even goes so far as to tell God that he could expect to hear about that need over and over again until that need was met.  Not met in his own power or ability - but in the power and purpose of God himself.

Desperation is marked by a sense of urgency - there is an awareness of the circumstances of the heart, mind and soul that leads to an admission of the urgency of the need.  There is an ultimate effort to give it all - in surrender to the one who can take the little we surrender and make it significant in his hands.  David says he did that every morning - offering his "all" to God on the altar, hoping for God's fire to descend and to consume his total offering.  Nothing was as vivid to the Hebrew people as the sense of an offering totally consumed by the fire of God.  Think about it - a life offered totally consumed by the fire of the Spirit of God!  That was David's plea.

Urgency compels us - it moves us forward (or gets us bouncing up and down on the couch, so to speak). It creates an internal motivation to "do something".  The danger comes in us trying to "do something" in our own efforts - not seeking God's "something" to create the exact answer that we need.  We see the need for "food", just like the first boy on the couch.  He sees the need for "spiritual sustenance", just like the second boy on the couch.  Yes, he meets our physical needs for shelter and food, but he desires to meet much more than those.  He desires to meet the needs of our stripped-bare hearts, our hurting emotions, and our ripped apart relationships.  He wants to repair damaged beliefs, tainted perceptions, and unrealistic fears.  Those are the pleas he hears the quickest - that turn his ear, direct his attention, and fill his heart with compassion toward us. 

Nothing moves the heart of God quicker than the one who realizes that the need for change is present, not future.  His response to that realization is to send consuming fire!  

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Equally yoked

20 Walk with the wise and become wise,
   for a companion of fools suffers harm.
(Proverbs 13:20)

There is much to be said about the wisdom we exhibit in the company we keep.  Companions are often the first line of defense against stumbling when we are not paying attention to our journey - they can also be the first line of affording the opportunity to stumble!  Mom always used to tell me to choose my friends wisely.  At the time, I really never knew the purpose of that statement - but looking back at some of the choices I've made, I see the wisdom in her words.  

Our passage today reveals two truths:
  • Those we associate with influence us - good or bad, they influence us.  There is much that brings influence into our lives, but there are times when we turn to the influence of a trusted friend, a faithful companion, quicker than we turn to anything or anyone else.  Therefore, choosing who we allow into our lives determines the influence we allow.  Influence is simply the effect of one person on another.  If you examine the meaning of this word further, you will find that there is a definition that describes the power to "sway" the other in one direction or another.  Effect can be good or bad; sway can be toward the best, or toward the worst.  Influence, then, is a key factor in the choice of traveling companions we align with in our lives.
  • There is an advantage to being yoked with someone going the same direction - there is nothing as effective as the words, comfort, intentions, and insight of another who is walking the same path as you are.  In the days when we relied upon a team of oxen to pull a cart, the farmers always paired the oxen so that there was not one stubborn one constantly pulling against the work of the other.  He wanted them to pull together, because the strength to work to their capacity was realized in being "equally yoked".  If one pulled against the other, their strength was diminished and their work was ineffective.  The effectiveness of our walk is directly impacted by those we "yoke" with in the day-to-day work of life.
Our passage reminds us that when we walk with the wise (equally yoked), we become wise.  This can be a simple as aligning yourself with someone who has more experience doing what it is that you want to accomplish - like someone who has already invested well assisting you in learning how to invest your finances for your future.  Yet, we sometimes are too afraid, or unwilling, to align with those who will afford us the opportunity to grow where we most need to grow.  We are like the oxen too stubborn to be "yoked" with another who might steer our course correctly.

Sometimes it is good to take inventory of who we are surrounded by in our lives.  If we find we are always gravitating toward others with exactly the same experiences, at the same level of spiritual maturity, etc., we seldom are challenged to grow.  If we wisely choose one or two that have differing experiences, who are growing in areas where we most need to grow, there is wisdom in that choice!  We need each other - not so that we won't be lonely along this journey - but because we need to grow in the journey.  Yep, we need to become wise, but the first step to "becoming" wise is to make the "right" choice in our companions!

Who is your traveling companion through life in this season of your life?  Today's companion may differ from those of years gone by, and there will likely be others as you journey on.  Take inventory of those traveling with you today.  Are they challenging you where you need challenge?  Are they enabling you in ways that bring growth, or are they pulling you down?  If they are not enabling your growth, it may be the greatest sign of wisdom to choose another who will!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

An acrostic to consider

8-10If we claim that we're free of sin, we're only fooling ourselves. A claim like that is errant nonsense. On the other hand, if we admit our sins—make a clean breast of them—he won't let us down; he'll be true to himself. He'll forgive our sins and purge us of all wrongdoing. If we claim that we've never sinned, we out-and-out contradict God—make a liar out of him. A claim like that only shows off our ignorance of God.
(I John 1:8-10)

This morning, please consider this acrostic:
  • C onsideration
  • O f
  • N eeded
  • F orgiveness
  • E ffectively
  • S ubmitting
  • S elflessly
  • E verything
  • N ow
Kinda corny, I know, but it came to me this morning as I opened my eyes to my wake up call from the worship music playing on the clock radio.  One of the first things I do in the morning is to ask God where he wants me to focus my study that day - this is what he gave me.  Confession is often a poorly understood concept - partly because it is hard for so many people to admit their need, and partly because it is something that they fear because they are ashamed of their failures.

Confession begins with the idea of considering what our true need is.  When we understand that a true need exists within our lives we respond differently than if we just "feel unhappy".  When we allow our minds to be set to work in the process of "considering" something, we are paying attention to that action, those thought patterns, or those desires.  We are focusing our energies on making a decision about them.  Confession begins with us focusing our energies on making a decision about the sin that has us bound.  It may be as simple as coming to a place of truly considering the choice of words we use when we speak - maybe they are consistently harsh, or perhaps they are crass.  As soon as we begin to focus our energies on "considering" those words, we become tuned-into where those words fall short of what God would desire to have come out of our mouths.  

That brings us to the idea of recognizing those thoughts, desires, or actions as needs.  When we truly contemplate those items in the light of what the Word of God says about how we are to think, be motivated, or act, we come into a different perspective of these areas of need.  We want to have them dealt with, or we want to hide them from view - the first leads us to confession, the latter leads us into denial and a whole lot of emotional turmoil.  Whatever is hidden often provides ample fuel for shame to build.  

Once we have considered our need, we come to a cross-road.  We can either hide that need, or we can effectively submit it to the one who can address that need with all authority and power.  When we choose to ignore or hide that need, we are acting to preserve "self" - we don't want to lose face with another or with God, so we hide that need.  The transparency of confession is often uncomfortable because we don't want to be honest about our need.  We may feel that if we are honest about our need, others will think differently about us.  Or perhaps we have not learned enough about the deep love of God that is unconditional, so we fear that he will reject our request for forgiveness because our sin is "too great".  Either way, we remain in bondage.

The only path to real freedom is that of confession - plain and simple.  The only way to truly make an effective confession is to be honest.  We have to be honest with ourselves about the depth of our need, then with God about the depth of our desire to be rid of that thing that pulls us down, adding unnecessary weight to our shoulders and burden to our soul.  This is the obedience part of confession - coming face to face with our need, admitting to ourselves that we have no power or authority to overcome that thing that pulls us into patterns of behavior/thought that are both dishonoring to God and to our own spirit.  Then...laying it down in front of him - so he can deal with it in his mercy and grace.

Our passage today reminds us that if we are "faithful" to confess our need, he is "faithful" to forgive us.  Faith is then part of finding forgiveness - it begins with the recognition of a need, considering why that need exists, and then effectively laying that need before the ONLY one who can truly meet that need head on - Jesus.  His response to our confession is forgiveness - total and complete!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Peanut Butter and Honey

14-16The unspiritual self, just as it is by nature, can't receive the gifts of God's Spirit. There's no capacity for them. They seem like so much silliness. Spirit can be known only by spirit—God's Spirit and our spirits in open communion. Spiritually alive, we have access to everything God's Spirit is doing, and can't be judged by unspiritual critics. Isaiah's question, "Is there anyone around who knows God's Spirit, anyone who knows what he is doing?" has been answered: Christ knows, and we have Christ's Spirit.
(I Corinthians 2:14-16)

Capacity is determined by what is attempting to enter the vessel and the vessel's "space" to hold what is entering.  For example, if we have a used jar of peanut butter that has not been scraped clean and washed out, there are remnants of peanut butter in there.  For all intends and purposes, we'd say the peanut butter jar was empty.  No matter how much we attempt to fill that "empty" jar with something else (like honey), that jar would never be totally full of the honey because it still was partly full of the peanut butter.  It may not be much peanut butter, but it still affects the taste of the honey and it takes up space that the honey would like to have enjoyed.

Capacity is defined as the ability to both receive and contain.  Paul tells us that the un-spiritual self cannot receive the gifts of God's Spirit - things like truth, wisdom, and insight into God's ways.  Why?  To our human nature, these things are silly - they just don't make sense.  For example, if you are an engineer and you are speaking with another engineer about how something is constructed (like a bridge), the force it can withstand under pressure, and the specifics of its design, you probably both understand each other.  If you are like me, you are thinking, "I just want to cross that bridge - I don't really need to know how it is made in order to do that, do I?"  The "details" seem silly to me because they don't "apply" to me - I have no interest in receiving that detail just to cross that bridge!  

So it is with spiritual truth - to the one who has not invited the Spirit of God into their lives, the truths shared are nice, but they have no real relevance.  They are not received because there is no "use" for them.  To the one who has invited the Spirit of God to oversee their lives, giving constant guidance and tutelage, those truths, no matter how small are like honey - they ooze into every crevasse they have access to and begin to affect that space.  The challenge comes in getting all the "peanut butter" out of our "jars"!

We cannot contain all God wants us to contain until we have the "vessel" fully cleaned out.  We sometimes try to embrace spiritual truths without really allowing the Spirit to deal with the things that need to be removed / cleaned up along the way.  Try washing an "empty" jar that has contained peanut butter - that stuff gets into the tiniest nooks and crannies of that jar!   You really have to work hard to get it completely clean (unless you have a dishwasher that does the work for you!).  That is how it is when we "try" to clean ourselves up after coming to Christ - attempting to deal with the things that entice us to make wrong choices, but they are just hanging on to us like they belong.  

The key is to allow the one who has the ability to thoroughly clean the vessel to do that work - just as we'd rely on the dishwasher to remove the peanut butter!  If we want capacity for the things of God, we need his Spirit to clean out our vessel of those things that "take up space" without really serving any purpose anymore.  I cannot say what those may be for you - but I know that his Spirit will be faithful to point them out and remove them when he is given full access to your life.

So, you might want to ask this question:  Are you settling for "some" honey with a little of your left-over peanut butter?  Or are you desirous of only pure honey in your vessel?  If you choose the pure honey, you will need to turn the vessel over to him in order to allow it to be emptied so that your capacity is expanded.  God wants full access - not to compete with the "left-overs".