Sunday, July 31, 2011

Preconceptions Mislead

18-19When Jesus saw that a curious crowd was growing by the minute, he told his disciples to get him out of there to the other side of the lake. As they left, a religion scholar asked if he could go along. "I'll go with you, wherever," he said.  20Jesus was curt: "Are you ready to rough it? We're not staying in the best inns, you know."   21Another follower said, "Master, excuse me for a couple of days, please. I have my father's funeral to take care of."  22Jesus refused. "First things first. Your business is life, not death. Follow me. Pursue life."
(Matthew 8:18-22)

Jesus has just finished a night's work at the house of Peter - one of his disciples.  He has healed a leper and a Roman Centurion's servant on the way to Peter's house; cured Peter's mother of a fever that has left her ill and unable to do her work around the house; and then spent the night healing all kinds of people afflicted with physical disease and tormented within.  Now, in hopes of getting a little rest, he asks his disciples to set out across the lake.  I am not sure if Jesus ever enjoyed a lazy afternoon as a man growing up - we don't have much recorded about his R&R.  Yet, we get glimpses of Jesus' connection with is humanity when we see that he was tired, needing rest, feeling pushed by the crowds.

Two people approach Jesus before they can push off from shore - both certain that the life Jesus is leading is the life they want for themselves.  They have likely seen the various miracles of the past several hours and want "in on the action".  The first commits to go "wherever you go" - then almost as quickly pulls back when he discovers that he will be "roughing it".  There are a lot of us Christians that want the "5-star" experience when it comes to following Jesus.  If we are presented with anything less, we pull back and reconsider.

The other man was really intent on following Jesus, but he had some "additional stuff" that he had to attend to before he wanted to "join up" with the disciples.  Isn't this so typical of us?  We have so many preconceived ideas of what is important in our lives - neglecting the one thing that is absolutely the most important!  

In psychological terms, we might call this confirmation bias - we favor any perception that confirms what we believe to be true, often neglecting to see other truths in the process.  These guys did not think about the fact that there might be a cross at the end of the road for Jesus - they just wanted in on the "good stuff" of the here and now.  They did not see the negativity of the opponents of Jesus - only the throngs of the crowds.

We might commit - but do we take the time to really understand that commitment means more than "pledging" our hearts?  It means that we actually give our hearts, souls, and bodies to the work of following Jesus.  Sometimes that means we have smooth sailing - other times, we face conflicts, come upon difficult relationship issues, and get involved in circumstances we would have avoided if we'd really thought twice.  

When we are only following our "preconceived" ideas about what life with Christ should be like, we may want to "bail" when the rubber meets the road.  Whenever we approach God with any commitment of our time, talents, or treasures (including our heart), we need to be honest with him.  He'd rather have us admit our "heart struggle" with what he asks us to do than to be "covering it up" under a facade of religious affirmation.  

We all have these "heart struggles" when it comes to being totally obedient to what God asks of us.  In admitting our struggles, we can tap into God's strength to move beyond them into the place of service he has for us.  No good comes out of believing only the best and refusing to see that there will be bumps along the way.  

This is a day-to-day walk - complete with its ups and downs.  It has its moments of "5-star" ecstasy - but it also has its moments of "roughing it".  God uses both to build us, encourage us, and to help us to grow, softening us where we are hard, and shaving off the rough edges that give us cause for concern.  

Saturday, July 30, 2011

If you wanna!

1-2 Jesus came down the mountain with the cheers of the crowd still ringing in his ears. Then a leper appeared and went to his knees before Jesus, praying, "Master, if you want to, you can heal my body."
(Matthew 8:1-2)

How many of us approach God in prayer much in the same manner this leper did that day?  We might fall on our knees, or assume some other position of petition, and then lay it out as, "Ummmm.....God, if you might wanna, maybe, could ya...."  I am not immune to the, "God, do ya think ya might...", kind of prayers.  I sometimes find myself asking God in a "round-about" manner for exactly what it is that I want.

Somehow, we have learned that we cannot be forthright with God about our needs, fears, hopes, etc.  We have developed a skill of "sugar-coating" them, or not even presenting them to him at all.  Either way, we are denying God exactly what he wants to do!  God is all about taking care of us - not meeting every one of our "wants", but certainly meeting our "needs".  

Jesus' immediate response back to the leper was a hearty, "You betcha, I wanna!"  The man was made instantly whole again - no sign of his leprosy!  I wonder just how much time we allow to go by with unmet spiritual, emotional, and physical needs simply because we don't lay it out there before God.  When we are honest with God, he has a chance to be involved in our lives as he desires to be.

Let me just say that we may have a difficult time at first trying to decipher between our "wants" and our "needs".  Yet, if we are forthright about both to God, he will sort them out!  The leper had been living with a disease that separated him from his family, friends, and his worship.  His healing was more than physical - it restored him in so many ways.  Jesus did not look at this fellow and say, "Now, Mr. Leper Man, is this really a need?"  Nope, he saw the man's faith and he responded with a resounding, "I wanna!"

Here's the thing - if you "wanna" grow in your relationship with God, then he wants to help us grow.  If we "wanna" be free of our fears, then he wants us to help us develop the faith to trust him with what it is we are fearing.  If we "wanna" let go of unforgiveness, then he wants to see us out from the burden of carrying all that baggage.  If we "wanna" new SUV when the old one is still in awesome condition, God may not see that as a need at the moment - we already have something that is blessing us with faithful transportation right now.

So, isn't it time that we start laying it all out before God, allowing him to sort through the needs and the wants.  The desire of God's heart is that we come to him with the faith to give him what it is that is on our heart - those things that burden us, keep us bound, and chew up so much of our attention trying to "fix" or "live with".  He wants to meet our needs - we just have to "wanna" give them to him!

Friday, July 29, 2011

A Blossom for a Day

Don't be in any rush to become a teacher, my friends. Teaching is highly responsible work. Teachers are held to the strictest standards. And none of us is perfectly qualified. We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths. If you could find someone whose speech was perfectly true, you'd have a perfect person, in perfect control of life.
(James 3:1-3)

I am blessed to have two beautiful hibiscus bushes in my front yard.  I worried that they were blighted by the frosts of this past winter and the dryness of this summer.  Yet, as I drive up almost every evening, there are the bright pink blossoms on full display!   The leaves are a rich green and the blossoms are full. Yet, as I consider these magnificent plants, I am caught by the majesty of their blossoming.  The work so hard to prepare that blossom, but it lasts only one day.

As  came through Bible College, I had a very wise professor who spoke words into my life that I will never forget.  I was struggling with the balance between raising young children, being a wife, and the continual demands to keep up with the intense studies.  He asked me if I was willing to prepare a lifetime to be used ONE day by God.  Most of us would just jump right in and answer in the affirmative on that one, but he made me go home, think it through and then come the reality of that answer in my spirit.

The fact was, preparing for a LIFETIME to only be used just ONE day in the hands of God seemed pretty overwhelming.  What the professor was doing was asking me to both count the cost and to evaluate my motives.  Just like the hibiscus blossom, I could be asked to put in a whole lot of time "forming" before I ever had the "glory" of being on display as God's handiwork.  The same is true of all of us.  We don't get things perfect just because we determine to do them right!

In fact, we often fail!  We try - fail - try again - fail again - try yet again....  You get the drift.  We don't always "blossom" the first time we try.  My hibiscus plants went through two years of no blossoms.  Yep, lots of rich green leaves, but no blossoms.  I thought it was a problem with the watering cycle, so I stepped that up.  Then I thought it was a problem with fertilizing them, so I bought the necessary fertilizer and lavished that upon them.  Still, no blossoms for two years.

What happened with my hibiscus?  I don't really know, but I do know that this year is awesome!  The blooms are magnificent.  Yet, the enjoyment of their "glory" is very limited!  One day - that is the extent of each bloom.  Just like that plant, we are often "dormant" for a season or two - in preparation for the glory that God will bring forth from our lives.  When that "blooming" occurs, there is a display of his majesty like no other!  Maybe I am being a little "weird" here, but I wonder if God asked my hibiscus if it was willing to prepare a LIFETIME to be used just ONE day in his hand?  If he did, maybe it responded back, "You bet!  Because what you will bring forth will be far better than what I could bring on my own!"

God may be asking you today if you are willing to do the "prep time" - learning through the failures to be something of awesome glory in his hands.  If so, don't be in a hurry to answer, but consider the cost, my friend.  Evaluate your motives.  There is a cost - perhaps a season or two without any signs of ever producing anything of beauty.  Yet, when the blooms of character are produced, what an awesome display of his glory!  Bloom on!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Sermon Lessons: Construction

24-25"These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on. If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock. Rain poured down, the river flooded, a tornado hit—but nothing moved that house. It was fixed to the rock.  26-27"But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don't work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach. When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards."
(Matthew 7:24-27)

Our entire neighborhood is "under construction" at this time - streets are almost impassable due to the roads and sidewalks being torn up to retrofit them to meet standards for the disabled, deal with cracked walkways, and to even out the very uneven patches of walkway we have been dealing with for years.  At 5:00 a.m. this morning, the trucks were back - air brakes blasting, cement sliding down chutes, and men scrambling to get the cement formed before it dries.  In Arizona, construction has to begin early in the summer months - especially the pouring of the concrete.  The hot sun bakes that stuff faster than you'd imagine!

The inconvenience of having only one lane to drive down, sidewalks that are impassable, and cars parked everywhere except their own garages is just something we have to deal with as this project is underway.  The benefits of the construction project will indeed be nice once it is all done.  In the meantime, we have to deal with the noise, mess, and inconvenience of the construction process.

The same is true in our lives - we are definitely "under construction".  That construction process involves quite a bite of noise on our part - usually complaining, whining, and statements about not understanding what is going on!  We deal with a lot of mess - because our lives are more than a little messy.  We certainly view the constructive processes of our lives as less than convenient, as they rarely "fit" our schedule!

Jesus tells his disciples that these lessons he has brought into their lives during this time away with him are more than just stories - they are life lessons that need to be "worked into the core" of their lives.  In other words, they are the foundation of all they are, will do, and will experience.  As is the case with our sidewalks, driveways, and roadways here in the neighborhood, the "cement" of our lives is poured, smoothed out, and takes form by the skilled work of his hands.  It is not a quick project - it takes time to get it right!

The better the foundation, the stronger the structure.  The process of preparing us for the foundation to be laid is as important as pouring that which will bring foundation into our lives.  The ground of our hearts and minds must be prepared to receive what God is doing.  The recesses of what brings "unevenness" into our lives must be explored so that the things that would "trip us up" are removed.  Then, and only then, is the ground prepared for the receiving of the "cement" of his Word.  

That "poured" Word has to be smoothed out into all the corners of our lives - taking on the form he desires to see.  Just as with the cement, the Word is carefully eased into the corners, worked and reworked, in order to get out all the tiny "bubbles" that would form weak areas if they remained.  God is careful in his design because it is paramount to the success of the next phases of our usefulness!  He takes time to "form us" so that we don't just take the Word in, and then it dries up and is worthless in its purpose or design.

There is a design to the cement work being done here this morning on my street.  There is an even greater design in what God is doing in our hearts!  He is about the process of "molding" us into what it is that will bring him honor, bring others access to him, and give us usefulness in his hands.  These Words are what give us strength, allow us to pass from one stage of growth to another, and give passage to the waters of the storms that come.  

We cannot escape the "construction" work of the Word - if we do, we are certain to have cracked foundations, weak spots, impassable areas of our hearts, and little shelter from the storms of life.  It is by his hand that we were formed - it is out of his heartfelt love that we receive his Word.  What we allow to be formed within us is what will become foundational to all we do in life.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sermon Lessons: Charisma

 15-20"Be wary of false preachers who smile a lot, dripping with practiced sincerity. Chances are they are out to rip you off some way or other. Don't be impressed with charisma; look for character. Who preachers are is the main thing, not what they say. A genuine leader will never exploit your emotions or your pocketbook. These diseased trees with their bad apples are going to be chopped down and burned."
(Matthew 7:15-20)

We have all met or heard of individuals with such dynamic charisma that people just flock to them and seemingly "give all they have" to see that person's vision be furthered.  In some cases, the efforts of that individual have been very pure and the rewards have been genuine.  In others, the motivations were very much indeed personal gain and personal grandeur.  Jesus tells us to watch out for the "practiced sincerity" of some, but to look at character rather than charisma.

There are lots of people in this world, in the church and outside the church, who rise to the level of leadership based on nothing more than charisma.  Charisma is the power or quality that gives an individual influence or authority over another individual or group of individuals.  Sometimes we call this charm, magnetism, or "personal presence".  Regardless of what we call it, Jesus warns us that seeing only this "personal presence" or charm is dangerous - we must evaluate the individual and their work by the character of their heart.

The truth Jesus is speaking relates to individuals who have the most significant influence - preachers or teachers.  Yet, this lesson could apply to anyone who we elevate to a position of leadership over our lives - local officials, our boss, or even a friend who seemingly is always the most influential in our group of friends.  The purpose of what he tells us is simple - we have to become good "inspectors" of the fruit of a man's life.  It is the "fruit" that makes up the character of an individual, not the charismatic traits they possess.

When we go to the supermarket, some of us make more conscious decisions about what ends up in our cart than others do.  In fact, by reading labels, comparing prices, looking carefully at the quality of the item we want to purchase, we choose one over the other.  Over the past several years, my mother's eyesight has become so "blurred" by a disease that she no longer can read the labels, see the prices on the shelves, or recognize a piece of fruit has bruises in it.  She needs someone to come alongside to assist in "picking out" the right stuff.  

The truth is that we sometimes need someone to come alongside us in helping us to pick out the right stuff, too!  Especially when it comes to what or who we dedicate our time, attention, and life treasures toward.  We can get "pulled in" by the fancy labels, the promise of good things inside, and the "sale price", but in the end, the quality of what we got did not match the label, the promise, or the price!  I am not just talking about groceries here!  This also applies to who we engage as our friends, pastors, teachers, mentors, and leaders.  We need to be careful to not be "lured in" by the allure of charisma - a charismatic friend may not make the best confidante!  

I looked up that word this morning and found that "confidante" is actually defined as a woman to whom secrets are confided or with whom private matters or problems are discussed.  We can see how easy it is to go to the person who seems to know all the answers - yet they may not be the ones to give us the best answer, or hold the confidence we discuss.  The choice of confidante is best measured by the character of the individual.  Charisma may be there, but if it is not backed with character, we need to cautiously back away!

So, today we have a chance to become better at "reading labels", "examining the fruit", and considering the "price" of the relationships we keep and the placement we give to others in our lives.  It could be the best move we make in keeping us safe from being lured into places and practices we will later regret!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Sermon Lessons: Cost

13-14"Don't look for shortcuts to God. The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time. Don't fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do. The way to life—to God!—is vigorous and requires total attention."
(Matthew 7:13-14)

The cost associated with acquiring something is sometimes not important to some people - they seemingly don't really think the associated cost is a big deal.  Then there are others of us who are a little more frugal (not stingy) in our spending, so we pay attention to the cost associated with both acquiring and maintaining whatever it is that we are getting.  We look at the length of the warranty and read up on the reviews registered by others who have acquired the product.  We'd say that we were wise "consumers".

The fact that God looks for us to be wise in our approach to him is clear evidence that he appreciates a wise "consumer" who counts the cost associated with obtaining eternal life.  He is encouraging us to not only look at the cost of "obtaining" eternal life, but also the "cost" associated with our daily walk (we might call this the "maintenance" of our walk).  We don't "do stuff" to "maintain" our position of salvation and eternal life, but there is a daily cost associated with maintaining closeness in our walk with Christ.

We are always looking for shortcuts.  Traffic is too heavy on one road, so we cut over to the other road going the same direction in hopes of avoiding the busy streets.  The results we hoped for in our change of diet aren't shedding the pounds fast enough, so we opt to add some new "miracle" diet drug to speed the process.  It is part of who we are to want to take a few shortcuts in life.  There is one place where shortcuts don't work - our daily walk with Christ.  If we are so focused on the shortcuts, we miss out on the rewards of the journey!

Christ tells his disciples that this walk is a vigorous one - it demands our total attention.  That speaks to the fact that we cannot have mixed motives.  We are either "in this" with Christ, or not.  We cannot have one foot in the walk and the other not.  In case you have not noticed...your one foot determines the course the other foot will go (even if it is being drug along!).  

The "cost" associated with our daily walk is vigor - having a strong, robust, and vital walk.  Have you ever noticed that when you deny your physical body rest and proper nutrition, it begins to drag, mental acuity goes to pot, and you just cannot function at peak capacity?  The same is true in the spiritual sense.  When we neglect the "rest" we need - those times alone with God just soaking in who he is - we lag behind.  When we don't take the time for the proper spiritual nutrition - good teaching in the Word, time in the Word ourselves - we are not "fueled" for the walk.

The cost of salvation that is associated with our "part" (what we do) is really in the commitment we make to the everyday stuff.  Jesus paid the initial cost (his life on the cross for the salvation of all who would come to him).  We make the commitment to the maintenance of the walk.  That is our part.  So, consider the cost (the price you are willing to pay) for the maintenance of a close walk with Jesus.  If you find you have been trying to take "shortcuts" in maintaining that walk, you will find yourself falling short of what you are truly capable of enjoying!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Sermon Lessons: Contact

7-11"Don't bargain with God. Be direct. Ask for what you need. This isn't a cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek game we're in. If your child asks for bread, do you trick him with sawdust? If he asks for fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate? As bad as you are, you wouldn't think of such a thing. You're at least decent to your own children. So don't you think the God who conceived you in love will be even better?"
(Matthew 7:7-11)

The very fact that we can make frequent and open contact with a holy God is always a thing of amazement to me.  I cannot fathom that degree of love and grace that welcomes sinners into the presence of the holy!  Jesus is very forthright in his reminders about prayer - first in his instruction to the disciples about "how to" pray (we call that the Lord's Prayer), and now in his reminders that God is not to be "bargained with" in prayer.  It is not a "you do this for me" and "I will do this for you" kind of contact.

Two instructions appear here:  Don't bargain with God and be direct.  When we are in the position of bargaining, we are saying we have something "worth" trading for.  Either our price is what the owner of the item really can "get by" with, or the advantage of having what we are trading is something to be desired by the owner of the item.  

The fact is, we come to God with a whole lot of needs and not much else.  God isn't looking for us to bring him something as a "trade" for his blessing - he just wants us to fall so totally in love with him that we enjoy spending the time with him.  The "side benefit" of that time with him is often the blessing!

Being direct for some people.  In fact, it is a way of life for them.  They were raised in a home that actually made this an expectation.  Yet, for most of us, being direct was not the expectation and often was taken as a little bit of an affront - we were viewed as being "too" direct.  So, we learned to "skirt" the real intention of our actions or requests with subtle "clues" and "little bargains" that would eventually get us what we hoped for.  

Being direct is simply proceeding by the shortest course - in other word, get to the meat of what you want to express, don't mince words.  God actually doesn't mind that his children are that open with him.  He wants that freedom of expression - even if the thing being expressed is disappointment, fear, or doubt.  God can work with that kind of "directness"!  

Contact with God is the best when it is by the shortest course possible!  Whenever we put up "obstacles" to that access - like the idea that we have not "performed" well today, so God doesn't want to hear from me until I get my act together - we are doing ourselves the most harm!  God doesn't need our perfection - he needs our heart.  He doesn't reward our "perfect performance" - he rewards our commitment.

Today is a fresh day for "direct" and "open" contact with God.  Don't let anything be an obstacle to keep you from that.  In fact, maybe you have never discovered the "shortest course" to his feet - it is on your knees!  So, crawl right up into his lap, open up your heart, and enjoy that time with him today.  You won't regret that "contact"!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sermon Lessons: Comparison

1-5 "Don't pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It's easy to see a smudge on your neighbor's face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, 'Let me wash your face for you,' when your own face is distorted by contempt? It's this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor."
(Matthew 7:1-5)

I am probably not the only one that felt a little "picked on" in elementary school.  In fact, there are actual laws on the books today to deal with what you and I just simply had to muddle through - they are called "anti-bullying laws".  The instruction we received from our parents and school counselors was that the tendency to "bully" or "pick on" another individual was really a clear sign that the "bully" was pointing out the faults of others because they did not want to have others know their faults! 

Now, we are in the workplace and faced with a whole new dynamic of "bullying" that we must deal with - it is sometimes called "office dynamics".  The "gurus" that analyze the "office dynamics" tell us that we need to first increase our own self-awareness so that we can successfully begin to interact with others through an awareness of the other person.  In short, and without a whole lot of hype, what we really need to do is take ownership for our own actions and stop comparing ourselves to the other guy!

Comparison is not a bad thing - if the focus is on how much we have in common.  It is when we begin to meddle with the things that are different in a manner that is rude, judgmental, or hurtful that we begin to break down the relationship.  Comparing ourselves to another individual is a "flawed" concept, simply because the other individual has their own set of strengths and weaknesses.  We have ours.  No one individual is "completely" strong or weak.  In fact, that is why we find ourselves attracted to another individual sometimes - their strengths offset our weaknesses.

Our passage today reminds us of the dangers of comparison - we have a tendency to elevate what we see as our strengths and diminish what we actually are displaying as our weaknesses.  It took a long time for me to realize that pointing out the weaknesses of another did NOT take the heat off of me when I displayed those same weaknesses.  In fact, it MAGNIFIED them.  That is why Jesus tells his disciples that they must first remove the LOG from their own eye before they take aim at the speck in the other person's eye!

The more we try to "down-play" our weaknesses by pointing out those of another, the more we play the part of the "bully".  It took me a long time to get comfortable enough with myself to be truly honest about my "junk".  The "junk" of my past, those things that make me who I am, is nothing I can down-play or hide.  In fact, it lends to my character!  As time has gone by, I see that God has been at work on the things I tried so hard to down-play.  In turn, as I was open to the fact that the "junk" existed in me, I was allowing him to use others who had struggled with similar "junk" to help me overcome my "junk". 

So, today is a new day for us all.  We have the opportunity to stop down-playing our weaknesses by pointing them out in others.  We have the chance to be totally free of the need to compare, criticize, and create tension.  The first step is to admit that what we are really pointing out is that LOG in our own eye! 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sermon Lessons: Coping

34"Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don't get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes."
(Matthew 6:34)

There are many life events that we just barely eke by with any semblance of being "all together" at the culmination.  There are others that we seem to simply "sail" through.  Which do you prefer?  I think we'd all say that we want the ones that we can "sail" through opposed to those that give us cause to reconsider!  I once read that we should not borrow from tomorrow what rightfully belongs in tomorrow.  That is the definition of worry in a nutshell - bringing imaginations about the "what if" of tomorrow into the "known" of today.  

The very definition of "coping" is to struggle or deal.  I imagine that we all have days where we are simply "dealing" with stuff - not really rising above it, but muddling through with all the intensity of the moment.  Yet, the definition of coping does not end there.  It goes on to say that we struggle or deal on a "fairly even playing field" or "with some terms of success".  Well, I guess that means we are making it despite the pressure to give in!

The very best definition of coping is the ability to face difficulties with a sense of calm and adequate resources.  We all have different "coping mechanisms" - some of us exercise a little more to "burn off" the stress, while others of us "eat a little more" (a method I don't really recommend as it adds more stress because you now have to exercise a little more!).  The simple truth is that we all have the same resources to "deal" available to us - we just may not realize that they are at our disposal.

The passage today points us to the fact that it is "when things come up" that we get the resources to "deal" with them.  Worry gives us an "uneven" playing field - in other words, the other guy has 10 husky linebackers and we only have one puny one better known as "me".  Worry opens the doors of our minds to the infinite possibilities of rationalization.  We think we are "rationalizing" our way "through" the problem at hand, but we are really bringing all kinds of irrational thought into the mix. 

The truth is that we are all given the capacity to "cope" with life - we just have to realize our capacity and then allow God to exercise his capacity where ours is insufficient.  That is where we come to the place where we are really able to "cope" with life - when God is given freedom to intervene instead of us struggling through on our own.  There is a very "old world" meaning to the word "cope" and it simply means that we come into contact with and encounter something or someone.  What better source of contact can we make than to go to the one who holds our destiny in his hands?

So, if you are holding on by the skin of your teeth, just barely getting through today, take hold of this passage.  First, act on the instructive portion of this passage:  Give your entire attention to what God is doing.  Second, stay focused on the time frame we are directed to:  NOW.  Third, stop "planning" tomorrow while we have things to deal with today.  Fourth, know with a certainty that God will help you!  He does not make promises that he will not keep!  Last, recognize the timing:  It is God's, not ours!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Sermon Lessons: Carefree

30-33"If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don't you think he'll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I'm trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with gettingso you can respond to God's giving. People who don't know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don't worry about missing out. You'll find all your everyday human concerns will be met."
(Matthew 6:30-33)

I had never really considered the fact that most of the wildflowers in the world go completely unnoticed by human eye.  They spring forth from the hard soil of the earth, struggle against the elements, bloom in all their majesty, and no one ever sets an eye on them!  Then there are the potted flowers I buy from the nursery with high hopes they will adorn my flowerbeds long enough to give me a little enjoyment through the milder seasons in Arizona.  I barely get them planted, stand back and admire my work, then watch them fade away!

What are the differences between the wildflowers and the ones planted in my garden?  Well, first of all, it is who is doing the planting and caring for them!  One is completely God's handiwork - the other is a local nursery worker, followed by me, then left to the fate of the sprinkler system and sun!  No wonder God's do so much better than mine!  Yet, that is not the only difference between the two.  There is also the fact that one is deliberately planted to bring God joy - the other is planted to bring only me joy!

That wildflower, bending with the gentle breezes, in the meadow, or tucked gently into a crag on the side of a cliff, has been placed exactly where they are by the hand of our Creator God.  They enjoy their placement because it has been designed by God.  I doubt if that wildflower on the side of the cliff says to itself, "I wish I was in the meadow" and then bemoans its "fate" of being on the majestic cliff!  Yet, how many times do we "bloom" where we have been planted only to complain about our "planting"?

The fact is that God plants us where we will bloom best!  In his perfect wisdom, he plants us - some in meadows, others in seeming "aloneness" in the "crags" of life. our perfect position we have the true honor of bringing God joy.  It is when we understand that we are not placed to bring ourselves joy that we truly begin to enjoy where we are "planted".  It is there that we can begin to be "carefree" - allowing God to soak up the beauty of our lives as he designed it!

You may not be noticed by the masses, but God has his eyes constantly directed toward you.  You never escape his watchfulness.  He sees your struggle to get your "head above the hard soil" of life.  He knows how you will "fit in" with the "environment" where you have been planted.  He encourages your growth with "gentle storms" and "forming winds".  He opens you to fullness of beauty with the warmth of his radiance, much as the sun does for the wildflower in the field.

It is in being "carefree" that we truly become aware of how much we are "cared for" and watched over.  In blooming exactly where we have been planted, we bring much joy to the one who has planted us exactly where we are!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sermon Lessons: Clarity

 22-23"Your eyes are windows into your body. If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body is a dank cellar. If you pull the blinds on your windows, what a dark life you will have!"
(Matthew 6:22-23)

As a nurse, one of the first things I notice in my assessment of a patient is the clarity of their eyes.  The eyes really tell a lot about what is going on with a person.  Whenever one of the boys gets sick, I look to the eyes, often seeing reddened "rings" around their eye, making the eyes themselves look a little "hallow" and "sad".  They may not open their eyes as wide, and the "crystal-clear" appearance of the eye may look a little "foggy" or "dry".  See, the eye really can "alert" us to much that is going on inside a man!

I may not know all the specifics of what is making the child "ill" at that moment, but the eyes "betray" the thing that is happening in their body!  The same is true with our eyes when it comes to emotional and spiritual matters.  They affect the "clarity" of our eyes, as well!  For example, ever see a man so stressed by what he has managed to get himself into by not being able to say "no"?  His eyes betray much about his situation - he appears like there is no hope of being out from under his burdens, his lack of rest, and his fear of failure.

Whenever you want to "meddle" a little into the life of another - simply examine the eyes.  You don't even have to ask much to see that the person is hurting, they are playful, or they are weighed down by some circumstance. The truth is that the eyes are indeed windows into our souls.  They betray the true condition of the heart.  Whatever is within a man will be on display through the eyes.  Maybe that is how moms all over the world know when their children are lying to them!!!

Try as we might, we cannot successfully hide what is hidden deep.  We think we "pack it away" very successfully - but as Jesus puts it, either we display the good, or the not so good!  There have been many times that I told a friend that their eyes "betray" them - even when they are saying everything is "all right" in their lives.  The sadness or pain displayed in their eyes says more than their words do.  We would do well to look beyond the words!

So, why is this important?  Simply put, what we allow into our lives affects what others perceive from our lives.  We are mirrors of what is within - through the "eye-gate" of our souls.  When we begin to be selective about what we will allow into our lives, we are also making choices about the "window-treatments" we are allowing for the windows of our soul!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Sermon Lessons: Concentration

16-18"When you practice some appetite-denying discipline to better concentrate on God, don't make a production out of it. It might turn you into a small-time celebrity but it won't make you a saint. If you 'go into training' inwardly, act normal outwardly. Shampoo and comb your hair, brush your teeth, wash your face. God doesn't require attention-getting devices. He won't overlook what you are doing; he'll reward you well."
(Matthew 6:16-18)

When I was growing up, homework required peace and quiet.  I was not allowed to have the radio on (yep, that means I did not have a stereo!).  I could not have TV going (as a matter of fact, it could not be on till chores were done and homework was finished!).  I did not get to chat on the phone with a friend while we worked on the homework together (maybe because we didn't put phones in kids rooms at that time!).  Mom and Dad were really trying to give me an environment in which I could "concentrate" on what I needed to get done. 

Jesus points out that there will be some times (periods) in our lives when we will set aside some time and energy toward really "concentrating" on God.  We may think of these times as going to a retreat, choosing a time to fast and pray, or even just a few days set aside with limited interruptions from the outside world, such as camping in the outdoors.  The purpose of the "set apart" time is to focus on God.

In the process of "concentrating" on God, we are bringing all our efforts, our activities, and our attention to one central place.  We are moving from being very scattered in our efforts, activities and attention, to being very focused.  When we are concentrating on something or someone, there is a tendency to come to a place of "convergence" - we become in sync with each other.  

For example, my grandson is at a stage where he loves to talk - sometimes about anything that comes to mind.  In that "talking" he sometimes doesn't make a lot sense.  Yet, when I take the effort to really concentrate on him (putting aside all other distractions), I find that he is really trying to connect with me, learn something, or share some very meaningful experience he has had.  If I miss the chance to concentrate on him and what he is sharing, I miss the chance to connect with him.

When we are in the process of concentrating on something, we are coming to a place where that object becomes clearer, stronger, and more intensified.  It is like turning up the power on a microscope, with each lens serving to intensify the view we have of the object of our focus.  Jesus reminds us that we need those times when we are concentrating on him - not because he needs to be the center of our attention - but because we gain something in the time of examining him this closely.

It was no big production to do my homework - nor is it a big production to take time to listen to my grandson.  All it takes is a little time, effort on my part to concentrate, and a heart desire to get something out of the encounter.  That is what God says he will reward.  Not a big show of religious activity - just the simplicity of a heart focused on knowing him better.

So, don't miss out on the times of "concentrating" on God.  The ability to focus on him, the desire to have him "intensify" himself in us, is really a matter of us making the time and effort into the encounter with him.  

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Sermon Lessons: Connection

14-15"In prayer there is a connection between what God does and what you do. You can't get forgiveness from God, for instance, without also forgiving others. If you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God's part."
(Matthew 6:14-15)

These verses come immediately after Jesus instructed the disciples how to pray. We think of that instruction on prayer as the "Lord's Prayer" - but Jesus was outlining some things to remember in prayer and what prayer does for us.  To that instruction, he adds the idea that we often miss - that prayer is a connecting point between us and God.

It is in the times of prayer - short or long, heavy or lighthearted - that we "connect" with God.  Jesus takes that one step further - he reminds us that it is where we connect with "what God does" and "what we do".  So, it is a time of bringing to God what we are incapable of doing and for us to admit what it is that we are doing with what he has committed to us in this life.  

The one area of "connection" that he emphasizes is the example he spent some time developing already with is disciples - that is the concept of forgiveness.  God is in the "business" of forgiveness and reconciliation - he expects us to be in the same "business".  Our ability to be effective in the Kingdom of God is directly proportionate to our willingness to be obedient to what it is he asks of us.  We do our part - he does his.

It is in those moments of "connection" with God that we begin to understand that he truly is unconditional in his love for us.  We recognize how much he has provided in our lives.  We transition from just seeing our needs to understanding the deep heart-needs of others.  That is why it is so important that we have these times of "connection".  

Connection suggests linkage - there is direct contact with whatever we are connected to.  If that connection is weak, infrequent, or broken, the bond is broken and allows for other things to creep into that space of connection that should only be between us and God.  

If you have a car battery that has a build up of corrosion along the positive terminal post, over time that corrosion keeps the cable from making connection with the terminal post.  That build up of corrosion is actually a very toxic substance known as lead sulfate.  That corrosion is caused by the "seal" between the terminal and the cable being less than "perfect" - there is some type of "looseness" in that seal.  Dirt, heat, humidity, etc., lead to the corrosion - much as hidden sin, unforgiveness, etc., leads to an interruption in our "closeness" to God's "recharge" in our lives.  A good mechanic will tell you that it is only by continual inspection, cleaning, and protection that you will eliminate the corrosive build up.

So, don't neglect the "maintenance" of your connection with God's grace, love, and forgiveness.  Look for the little things that are "building up" to cause some distance between you and God.  When you see evidence of them in your life, it is time for a little "maintenance" of that connection!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Sermon Lessons: Courage

48"In a word, what I'm saying is, Grow up. You're kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you."
(Matthew 5:48)

13Do 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.
(James 3:13)

I think it takes great courage to live out the Christian life.  When you really begin to examine what Jesus outlines in this Sermon on the Mount, he is focusing on his disciples living by a standard that is just a little higher than the rest of what other "religions" require.  For example, he says to live as "kingdom subjects" - living out our God-created identity.  Before we can do that, we have to discover what that identity entails.  We have spent a couple weeks now outlining the "criteria" of our identity in Christ.  So, in capping this off, Jesus says, "Now, live like you are a new creation!  Stop living by the old ways of thinking and acting!"

Two characteristics he emphasizes of a man or woman that has taken this "God-created identity" to heart - graciousness toward others and generosity.  Why does he focus on these two when he describes us living "grown up" lives? It is simply because when we finally "grow up" in Christ, we learn to look beyond our own needs and wants - connecting with the needs of others.  We learn that always being right is not always going to be the best for relationship development.  In turn, we learn to be gracious to overlook offenses, or let another "win" on occasion.

These seem like strong words for Jesus to use.  Remember, he is speaking to those disciples who were his constant companions.  He wants more for them, and he is requiring more of them.  The words to "grow up" imply that they may not have been living very mature lives.  It gives me great joy and hope in knowing that others struggle with making mature decisions, too!  As "old" as I am in a physical sense has nothing to do with the "maturity" of my decisions.  I have been a Christian for 41 years now...but I still struggle with living like a "grown up" in the spiritual sense sometimes. 

I demand my own way - whining and complaining when others seem to be getting theirs.  I whimper and act annoyed when the demands of another's life interfere with my plans.  I run into circumstances that present me with all kinds of temptations to act wrong, talk boastfully, and live out of sync with my new identity.  The truth is, we all do!  In fact, none of us is above another in this "living out" of our Christian faith.  The message to "grow up" is to all of us  - if we count ourselves as disciples of Christ.

Courage is defined as the quality of mind and spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear.  This is not "bravado" - the boastful, puffed up, kind of "courage" that puts self out there for all to see.  It is the quiet connection with our source of strength (Christ) that enables us to face life head-on.  "Grown up" people exhibit this type of "head-on" courage.  There is a desire to "be all we can be" in Christ.  Today will present some opportunities for "grown up" decisions - are you ready?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sermon Lessons: Consistency

33-37"And don't say anything you don't mean. This counsel is embedded deep in our traditions. You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk, saying, 'I'll pray for you,' and never doing it, or saying, 'God be with you,' and not meaning it. You don't make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say 'yes' and 'no.' When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong."
(Matthew 5:33-37)

26-27Anyone who sets himself up as "religious" by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.
(James 1:26-27)

I remember watching James Bond movies as a kid.  Secret Agent 007 would cleverly avoid those pesky pursuers with the such things as trick pens that dispense sleeping gas, or a car equipped with a gadget that emitted a huge billowing smoke screen, causing his car to be able to speed ahead without his enemies knowing he had moved on.  We are sometimes guilty of using these kind of tactics to avoid real disclosure of our true intentions, the hidden secrets of our hearts, or the hurts of our past - sending up smoke screens with our words to attempt to create a "disconnect" between the real us and the image of "reality" that we want to portray.

James puts it that we are really just "setting ourselves up as religious" by talking a good talk!  We have probably heard it said that "talk is cheap" - I think that is what the Lord may have had in mind when he said that we need to be "real" in our walk.  There is no value in "embellishing" our character with talk.  Whenever we do this, we are presenting a false image of who Christ is and what Christ has done.  

I always thought Christians were supposed to act all pious and "in control", never really showing any sign of fear, mistrust, anxiety, etc.  To admit that you struggled with depression, feelings of low self-worth, or even being addicted to something was something we considered a sign of tremendous weakness!  So, for years, we Christians kept things "bottled up", presenting nothing more than "smoke screens" that gave an illusion that kept people from examining us too deeply.  The end result is that we may have "escaped" people knowing us for who we really are, but that "escape" comes at a high cost.

There is nothing more helpful for me than to hear another believer share that they struggle with some of the same things that I do.  The fact is, we are all made of the same material and influenced by much the same influences.  We may not have been raised in the same home environment, faced the same challenges, etc., but we have similar emotional, spiritual, and physical make-up.  So, why do we struggle so hard to be what we are not?  In the removal of the smoke screen, we become who we are, allowing others to see us as the "real" us.

Jesus and James speak of the same idea - we need to say what we mean, means what we say, and live openly.  In so doing, we are not saying one thing, but doing another.  There is no "facade" to our religion - it is genuine.  This is what we could call consistency or congruence.  What is seen is in alignment with what has been said - no smoke screens.  Jesus refers to putting up the "religious facade" as in-genuine - you look good, but if you were examined closely, the image of what was portrayed would not hold the test.

There is something liberating in being the "real" you.  There is also something quite enlightening to others - they see that even Christians struggle with the tough stuff of life.  When faced with cancer, we crumble in fear.  When challenged with debt, we attempt to dig our way out.  When overtaken by temptation, we find ourselves mopping up the damages.  When crushed by criticism, we doubt our value.  We are human!  We struggle with human stuff!  There is no value in putting up a "religious" smoke-screen!  

The sad thing is that when we put up the "religious" smoke-screen, we destroy the other person's ability to see how God's grace counteracts the fear of cancer, improves our financial stewardship, restores what has been damaged by wrong decisions, and builds us up when we are feeling low.  The value of "consistent" or "congruent" living is that others get to see how God answers the basic needs of hurting lives.  So, the next time you are tempted to send out a "smoke-screen" to hide behind, think again!  

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Sermon Lessons: Confession

23-24"This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.  
 25-26"Or say you're out on the street and an old enemy accosts you. Don't lose a minute. Make the first move; make things right with him. After all, if you leave the first move to him, knowing his track record, you're likely to end up in court, maybe even jail. If that happens, you won't get out without a stiff fine.
(Matthew 5:23-26)

Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed. The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with.
(James 5:16-17)

There is much to be said for being able to own up to your mistakes.  This is especially true within relationship.  There is nothing that binds two people together in a more committed manner than being able to confess your mistakes. Too many times, we hold out for the other to come to the place of admitting they were wrong before we will take even one step in that direction. When we choose to do this, we alienate ourselves from that which will bring health to our own lives.  It is in confession that we find healing.

The principle Jesus taught to his disciples involved making the "first" move.  The idea is that whenever it comes to mind that you have offended, or that the other feels that you have offended them, it is our responsibility to make the first move toward reconciliation.  Sometimes we think that we did nothing wrong and in actuality, when you examine the facts, we probably didn't!  But...the other person interpreted something we said or did as offensive to them.  It was a difficult thing for me to learn that I was responsible for the way YOU perceive me.

It is in my actions, words, or lack of these, that you form an impression of me.  You "perceive" me as kind, caring, and a joy to be around, OR you see me as meddlesome, overbearing, and a pain to be around.  The way I "come across" is my doing!  Sometimes, we don't do such a good job at putting our best effort into being the best in relationship.  Whenever this happens, riffs occur.  Jesus pictured being at the altar, ready to offer a sacrifice of worship, and realizing that a "riff" had occurred.  His instruction:  Leave the sacrifice (abandon what you are doing) and beat a path to the doorway of the one you have offended.

Now, for some of us, this "pathway" to the door of the one we have offended may be a little better worn!  I have been in relationships where I find that we are just like sandpaper to each other - constantly rubbing each other wrong.  Those "paths" are a little deeper worn than in some of my other relationships. In fact, I "know the way" without even looking - simply because I have made my way to them often enough that the way if familiar to me.  At first, it was very awkward and uncomfortable.  Now, it is a little easier, but no less important!

If we are always waiting for the other to make the first move, we may wait a long time.  In that passage of time, the mind and heart has a chance to "formulate" all kinds of imagined reasons for why the relationship will never work again.  It is that very passage of time that Jesus was focusing on avoiding.  He even says that worship is not more important than making things right when an offense exists.  It matters that much to him to see us living well with each other!

We are not "overlooking" an offense and just letting someone get by with something.  Instead, we are coming together to "settle the differences" - making a clean slate of things.  Sometimes, it means we both confess we were wrong - at other times, it may only be one of us that comes to the place of confession.  It does not have to be both of us realizing the error in our ways to bring reconciliation - it only takes one of us making the move!  In time, God will do the rest. 

You have heard it said, "Confession is good for the soul."  In the times of open dialogue within relationship, confession plays an important part in the destruction of "dividing walls" that serve to drive us far apart.  Who is God laying on your heart today to "beat a path to"?