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Friday, September 30, 2011

Branching Out

4"Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can't bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can't bear fruit unless you are joined with me.
(John 15:4)

I have this little vine that has been attempting to grow for about two years now.  Each spring, it sends out a little shoot, but before it can develop all that much, the hot suns of Arizona beat upon its fragile leaves and it withers.  After a particularly hot summer, it has only about 5 leaves at the very base of it.  I will cut is down, trimming away the dead shoots, and see if it has a chance to come back this fall, but I am not holding out much hope.

Jesus reminds us that we have to be connected to the vine if we are to bear any fruit.  Those shoots that I will trim away this weekend are indeed still connected to the vine, but they are definitely dead.  They were affected by their environment more than they were affected by the vine they were rooted to!  Sometimes, we are like that - we are affected by our environmental pressures more than we are the fact that we are rooted in Christ!

I know this passage speaks to the fact that we cannot bear fruit apart from Christ, but sometimes we begin to realize growth in our lives long before we see the evidence of fruit.  When that growth begins to occur, we sometimes get all jazzed about the growth, putting it on display!  Just like my little vine, sending up a bold new shoot in the spring.  One thing I noticed is that it sends off only one shoot.  I wonder if that is why it withers so quickly.  

You see, I don't think Christ made any of us to stand alone in him.  When we are in a position of new growth, we need each other.  Trying to grow strong in Christ is not an easy thing.  We face many "environmental challenges" that seek to make us wither up before we ever get a chance to take on that growth and make it permanent!  If you have ever wondered about all the "fresh starts" you have made in your life, it might just be because of the times you have tried to stand alone in that new start.

I am the vine - you are the branches.  These were Christ's words.  He never said, I am the vine and you are THE branch.  He identified that the strongest vine - that which bears the most fruit - is that which has BRANCHES.  Yep, we need each other.  We cannot be well-rooted alone.  We are sitting ducks, wide open to the attacks of the enemy of our souls when we try to go it alone.

It is just a simple lessen from a struggling vine in my yard, but one I needed to learn myself.  I tried for years to stand alone - unrelated, not properly connected to others who would encourage my growth.  It just did not work.  The fact is...I need the other branches!  They provide what I lack.  In turn, I hope I provide something they lack, as well.  

So, the next time you wonder about why your growth may be withering away, you might want to ensure that you are still connected to the vine.  If you are, then you might want to ensure that you are connected with other branches.  Don't go it alone - it will never work out well.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Ummm...can you say "depressed"?

11 Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul? Why are you crying the blues?
   Fix my eyes on God—soon I'll be praising again.
   He puts a smile on my face.  He's my God.
(Psalm 42:11)

There are a variety of psalms written by David that carry almost the same theme of desperation - intense desire to see God intervene in his life, some tragedy making his life almost unbearable, some sin keeping him out of fellowship with his creator.  This one has some "meat" to it that I'd like to explore this morning. David is lamenting over his circumstances - over his downtrodden disposition.  In other words, he is pretty well down-in-the-mouth - depressed beyond measure.  He is mourning over something or someone - the impression is that he has lost out on something in his life and he is in a deep, deep depression as a result.

He begins with the idea of being thirsty.  He desires to drink God in afresh.  Have you ever been so thirsty that you just guzzle down the fluids?  In Arizona, one of the dangers of working outdoors in the heat is that you get dehydrated quite easily.  You just plug along with your work without any real recognition of how much fluid you need to replace in order to keep up with your body's sweating.  If you don't replace it fast enough, and frequently enough, you end up with the condition we call "dehydration".  

Dehydration is a process of excessive loss!  That is what David has experienced - excessive loss - and it has left him feeling totally "parched" so that he desires nothing more than to drink in God afresh!  He has even had a change in his diet!  He states, "I am on a diet of tears - tears for breakfast, tears for supper!"  David is in a place of severe depression.  His sadness is greater than he can endure alone.  His loss is leading him to feel this prolonged "void" in his life - and it is tearing him up!  

As with most of us, when we are feeling particularly "lost" and like there is a huge "void" in our lives, we do some "recollection" of the past.  We call this rehearsing our memories.  That is exactly what David tells us that he does.  He says, "These things I go over and over, emptying out the pockets of my life."  The tendency to rehearse the things we have once been able to count on is not unusual.  We are people of "memories" - we count on our memories to sustain us in the hard times.  David says that his best memories are of those times when God central in his life - square in the middle, causing him to be at the head of the pack in giving praise and worship to his creator.

The key to David's lament in this chapter is really found in his revelation of what he does when he finds he is down in the dumps - when grief has overtaken him and his life seems to be circling the drain!  He says, "When my soul is in the dumps, I rehearse everything I know of you!"  He focuses on all that he knows about his creator - rehearsing it over and over again.  The fact is, when we begin to rehearse what we know about God, we have a change of heart!  Our heart is affected by our thoughts - in turn, our emotional "affect" is changed!

David makes the admission that most of us have made at one point or another in our lives - "God, I think you've let me down!"  We ask the "why" questions.  Why did you let this happen?  Why do good people die?  Why does bad stuff happen to good people?  The list goes on.  In plain language, he admits to God that he equates his present situation to God letting him down.  The revelation he comes to in his rehearsal of all he knows about God is that God NEVER lets his kids down!

He gives us the anchor we need in the verses we consider today as our meditation verses.  "Fix your eyes on God - soon you'll be praising again!"  We may not praise out of a sense of joy for what we have gone through or experienced - but because of the faithfulness of our God to bring us through to the other side!  When we are fixed on God, we cannot drift further into our depression.  When he is our anchor, the circumstances may come, but we are held firmly in place!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A consuming fire!

What does straw have in common with wheat?
   Nothing else is like God's Decree.
Isn't my Message like fire?" God's Decree.
   "Isn't it like a sledgehammer busting a rock?
(Jeremiah 23:29)

To a farmer, a crop of straw has little value compared to wheat.  Each has its purpose, but what is yielded in the return of the seed planted is much greater to the farmer with wheat than it is with straw.  If all the farmer is doing is raising a bunch of cattle, the straw might have a purpose - but it still has a very limited purpose.  God's word is as different from the words of others as wheat is from straw.  There is something infinitely more valuable in his word than that of man, no matter what authority that man may claim to have.

Israel finds themselves in a position of having drifted from what God had intended for them as a nation - they were in a position of seeking visions and messages from their prophets.  Yet, these visions and messages were just that - visions and messages from the heart of man, not the voice of God.  The nation had adopted the "philosophy" of the nations around them instead of remaining true to the "truth" of the God they were to be serving.  Sometimes we find ourselves in a similar situation - looking to the things and people of this world we live in to give us what it is that will "fix" us.  This is a dangerous position to find ourselves in because when we rely on anything other than God's word to guide us, we are open for all kinds of error in our ways.

The passage is clear:  God's Word is like a FIRE.  His Word is like a HAMMER.  Fire and hammers have differing characteristics, but when God uses something we are familiar with to describe something about himself, it is because he wants us to make a connection that we associate with.  So, let's examine how God's Word is like a fire.

First, fire gives light.  By your words I can see where I'm going; they throw a beam of light on my dark path. (Psalm 119:105)  Light makes vision possible - try seeing clearly in the dark sometime and then turn on a light.  You will see just how much "detail" you missed by not having the light.  In the darkness, you only make out images of what you could see in detail once the light made manifest the intensity of color, or the beauty of the portrait on the wall.  

Light actually gives us the ability to conceive and perceive things in the spiritual sense, as well.  Light brings about an enlightenment that we were lacking - enlarging us and bringing us to a place where we comprehend something.  In the spiritual sense,it gives us spiritual insight that brings us to a place where we are freed from ignorance, or a place of misinformation in our lives.  Have you ever had one of those "Ah-haw" moments when it just seemed like there was immediate clarity as to what you were to do in a situation?  That is because you received the insight that brought you out of your ignorance about what to do next.

Light really brings about a discernment - giving us the ability to distinguish and select those things that are excellent, appropriate, and true.  It is light that helps us go way beyond the obvious or superficial - it guides us into the detail and the completeness of revelation.  So, living without God's light is like walking around in the dark - that is why he tells us that his word is like fire!  It gives us the ability to move beyond the obvious or superficial in our walk!

Second, fire gives us heat and is a kind of "fuel" that we use in everyday life.  It adds energy that causes us to expand and rise to new levels.  Ever remember doing that science experiment where we set a beaker of water on to boil and then watched as an object was actually expanded by the heat?  As the heat is "turned up" in our lives through God's word being spoken into our daily walk, we sometimes feel like we are being asked to "expand" a little - to rise to a new level.  The heat applied to the water in the beaker causes that water to begin to stir - it sets it in motion.  Without the heat of the fire, the water is really without "incentive" to move!  God's word is like that - it gives us incentive!

Last, fire consumes that which it touches.  I was a Girl Scout, so I made my share of campfires as a kid.  One of the things that I was taught was to have a healthy respect for the "force" of fire.  We had to dig a pit, surround it with stone, clear the brush away from the place where we'd light that fire, and then be vigilant to watch for flying embers as the fire burned.  One spark drifting to dry timber nearby could result in devastation to the entire forest!

Why did the leaders emphasize such care with the fire?  It was because of the consuming force of fire - it would dramatically change the image and character of that which it touched.  That wood piled into a nice stack on the center of the pit soon was reduced to glowing hot embers - excellent for cooking our meals and roasting a few marshmallows!  Fire changes the "consistency" of that which it touches - that wood would never be the same again.

The same is true in our lives - once touched by the word of God, we will never be the same again!  Sometimes we avoid being touched by the flame because we don't want to be affected by the flame!  We want to affect the flame, effectively trying to "stamp out" what the Word is attempting to change in our lives.  When we do this, we effectively are resisting the change God intends by igniting that fire within!

So, rather than resisting the "fire" of God's Word, isn't it time that we allow it to do exactly what it was intended to do?  Fire promises us illumination - it won't leave us in the dark.  Fire affords us understanding - bringing new clarity into our lives.  Fire creates a newness - changing us is ways we never thought possible.  Have a healthy respect for the power of God's word!  It desires to consume what it touches!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Shepherd's Voice

1-5 "Let me set this before you as plainly as I can. If a person climbs over or through the fence of a sheep pen instead of going through the gate, you know he's up to no good—a sheep rustler! The shepherd walks right up to the gate. The gatekeeper opens the gate to him and the sheep recognize his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he gets them all out, he leads them and they follow because they are familiar with his voice. They won't follow a stranger's voice but will scatter because they aren't used to the sound of it."
(John 10:1-5)

We don't see too many sheep around my neck of the woods, but whenever I see them in the fields, grazing just prior to "lambing" season, I love to stop for a few minutes to watch them.  The ranchers have a few fields they bring them to just at that time, and those fields are usually rich with some type of crop that has been recently harvested.  The sheep appear to be eating the remaining "stubble" of the cut harvest.  They are purposefully brought there for that season - probably because of the opportunity to eat whatever that crop leaves for them.

As we read our passage today, Jesus is called the Shepherd and we are his sheep.  As our shepherd, there are some things that Jesus does that ensure our safety and provide for the "seasons" of our lives.  First, the Shepherd enters through the gate.  When we invited Jesus into our lives, we really were giving him free access to our hearts.  He is the "gatekeeper" of our hearts.  He comes and goes as freely as he desires, exploring deep within the confines of our hearts.  As our "gatekeeper", he also ensures that nothing else passes without his notice!  

He knows each of us by name.  Now, that is no small task!  He has a huge flock - how well can you keep track of the names of those in your church alone?  He doesn't stop with a "name" only - there is something of a connection he makes with each of us by the very mention of our name.  He intends for the mention of our name to attract our attention, to alert us to danger, and to keep us focused on him.  

He leads us out of the protective surroundings of our "pen".  The shepherd has a tremendous task in front of him anytime he "moves" the sheep.  With movement, there is always the danger of being distracted by what lies ahead.  Sheep are silly that way - if something catches their eye, they follow it.  In moving us forward, he also has an eye out for the distracting forces that will play upon our minds, hearts, and souls.

He walks ahead of the sheep - not because he sees himself as better, but because he knows himself to be their protector.  A guide has a responsibility to point out the path, to give insight into the surroundings, and to ensure the safety of those on the journey with him.  Jesus is always watchful over us and leads us with the knowledge of what lies ahead.  The sad thing about sheep is that they sometimes forget who they are following, getting caught up in the "side-shows" along the way!

He brings new sheep into the fold - allowing the fold to grow and expand.  Each new sheep is an infusion of new life into the fold.  They bring new dynamics that need to be understood and accepted.  Yet, without the infusion of these new members of the fold, we'd be a pretty static bunch of sheep!  

What about the sheep?  That's you and me, in case you hadn't gotten the drift of where I was going yet.  We can infer a lot of things about the sheep from what it is the Shepherd "does" for and with the sheep.  He even goes all the way to the laying down of his life for them.  That means that there is such extreme value in our worth that the Shepherd is willing to give the ultimate sacrifice - life!  

Besides hearing his voice, the sheep recognize that voice.  God's voice is quite distinctive.  For those who tell me that they have never really learned to hear the voice of God, I ask what "voice" they are hearing.  Usually they will describe some vague "feeling" that they know what to do, where to go, etc.  Well, the Shepherd's voice is not well-known to the newest members of the flock, but it is to those who have been hearing it for a while.  It is natural to not feel sure about the "voice" of God to begin with, but as you become more familiar with God through his recorded voice (the Bible), you begin to recognize his voice when he is calling you!

Last, but not least, because the sheep spend so much time in the care of the Shepherd, they come to trust him for their protection.  The simple truth is that when an imposter enters, the evidence of him being just that is plain enough through the very evidence of his voice!  The "poser" is identified through the familiarity we have with the voice of God.  That is why it is so important that we begin to learn all we can about the Shepherd - taking special care to learn his "voice" through his Word, his teachings, and the leading of the Holy Spirit! That familiarity will be the very thing that causes us to be alert when a "poser" voice attempts to get us off-course!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Give me space!

I run for dear life to God, I'll never live to regret it.  Do what you do so well:
      get me out of this mess and up on my feet. Put your ear to the ground and listen, give me space for salvation.  Be a guest room where I can retreat;
      you said your door was always open! You're my salvation—my vast, granite fortress. 
(Psalm 71:1-3)

One of the things that I find amazing in scripture is just how many times we have the idea of "running to", "seeking", "hiding within", etc., as we examine the various responses we have toward the safety of God.  We run to him - hoping to find the answers we need.  We seek him out - because we cannot possibly find any other source like him.  We hide within the shelter of his wing - knowing that our enemies cannot possibly overtake us when we are that close to his heart.  Our psalmist reminds us that we will never live to regret these steps we take toward God!

Well, the simple truth is that we often run to God, seek his shelter, and look for him to hold us near when we are in trouble!  It is a natural response to "run to" what gives us security and safety.  Here, we find the honesty of our psalmist - he is in a mess!  Probably a man-made mess, at that!  He has fallen - why else would he have to ask God to put him back up on his feet again?  The fact is, we also find ourselves in some pretty awkward places - man-made messes that leave us fallen and in the mire of our sin.  Just like the psalmist, we call out for God to "fix" what we cannot.

That is what the psalmist is counting on - that God will fix what he cannot.  There are times when we just don't have the answers to our challenges.  We continue to fall into the same sin over and over again.  We feel defeated and like we just cannot get back on our feet.  I call this being in the mully grubs.  It is the state where we feel hopeless, depressed, and all alone in our issues. I think that is where the psalmist finds himself.

The next words tell us much about how we "get out" of the mully grubs - we ask God to pull us out!  To give us space for salvation.  When we use the term today, "Give me some space," we are really saying we need time to see something worked out.  Our psalmist says he wants God to give him space for salvation - I think he is asking God to give him mercy when he falls, pick him up again, dust him off, and let him set out again on the course God has designed for him.  

We all know that we will fall, don't we?  Sometimes I am amazed at how many Christians actually think that "salvation" implies walking "right" 100% of the time!  Guess what?  If we could do that, we'd be in heaven right now - because we would have reached perfection!  Until that time, we will fall!  Until that time, we will need God to "give us space" for salvation!

It is important to recognize that God "gives us space", but we should never take that "space" for granted - as though it were a license to live however we wanted.  In this "space" God gives us, he is transforming us little-by-little into the men and women he desires for us to become.  He is "working out" our salvation by "working out" our sin!  It is kind of like what we do when we re-model a house.  We begin with the demolition work (working out the old) and then we install the new stuff (seeing the transformation of the old into the beauty of the new).  

So, today you will need a little "space" for salvation to be worked out in your life.  Don't despair!  The good news is that God gives us that "space" and we ARE being transformed.  The demolition of the old may take a while and the construction of the new may seem like an unending task - but the work is underway!  You are a new creation in Christ Jesus - old things have passed away and all things have become new!  

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Bullies Beware!

 3 Go ahead, examine me from inside out, surprise me in the middle of the night— You'll find I'm just what I say I am. My words don't run loose. 4-5 I'm not trying to get my way in the world's way. I'm trying to get your way, your Word's way. I'm staying on your trail; I'm putting one foot in front of the other. I'm not giving up. 
(Psalm 17:3-5)

There is a national summit coming up about the effects of "bullying" in our schools today.  The issue has risen to the level that our government is actually stepping in to created "anti-bullying" laws and to present information that will help both parents and educators identify the "signs" that kids are being "bullied".  Isn't that a sad state of affairs for a nation to find itself in?  The need for a summit to address the effects of bullying!  David is facing some "bullies" in his life when he pens these words.  In fact, verse 7 says, "I am running from the neighborhood bullies right to you!"  

I guess I have faced my share of bullies in life (not to say I won't face more along the way).  These individuals are overbearing, unpleasant, and intimidating.  Their targets are the smaller and the weaker.  This was the exact situation that David found himself in as he flees from the armies of King Saul and even Saul himself.  Saul is King - who wants to reckon with a King and his armies?  Not me!  David wasn't a man of great stature - he was a man with a heart for God.  The world often looks upon that as a sign of weakness, not strength!

Yet, David wants us to know that it IS a place of strength!  David even feels so confident in his walk with God that he gives God permission to "surprise him" in the middle of the night and put him to the test.  In other words, he is saying to God that he is not afraid of examination because his words match his actions.  He is not a fair-weather Christian, saying one thing, but doing another.  He is the same in the dark as he is in the light of day.  That is a posture of strength!  

How did David get to this posture of strength?  Well, it seems that he lays that out for us in these verses.  He says that his words don't run loose - he is not frivolous in his speech.  He had learned to "think" before he spoke!  He chose his words well and kept those to himself that really did not need to be spoken.  Ummm....I could take some lessons here!  I am forever speaking - then regretting having spoken!  This is a tough lesson to learn, but if we are to be in a posture of strength, our words need to matter!

Next, he is quite plain about the fact that he is not trying to make a way for himself - he is asking God to make a way for him.  Sometimes we get so caught up in trying to make a name for ourselves that we forget that we bear the name of Christ already!  David had come to the place that he realized that following the world's example of success was not going to get him very far.  Look at Saul - he was a mess!  Out of his mind one day, peaceful the next.  He couldn't handle any form of "competition" without insane jealousy.  He lived in fear and used that fear as motivation to "bully" those that he feared.  

David had embraced God's instructions - his Word - as a way of sorting out what was his own way and what was God's best way.  That is a posture that we all need to assume.  When the Word of God becomes THE factor in our decisions, not just A factor in our decisions, we will be much better off.  We allow all kinds of things and voices to "sway" our decisions.  David had learned that only one voice was worth listening to - the voice of God.  He "found" that voice in the Word of God (the Bible).  It was through exposure to the Word that he knew how to face his enemies.

Last, but certainly not least, he learned that perseverance is not easy.  It was a continual process of putting one foot in front of the other - even when the way got rough.  David is being chased hither and yon, through deserts and into crags in the hills.  He is sought by armies, run after by mighty men of warfare, and attacked by the King himself.  He has not a whole lot of places to turn!  Yet, in that very situation, he assumes the posture of putting one foot in front of the other.  He is still making progress in his walk with God - despite the influences that would attempt to divert him from that exact thing!

I don't want to make light of bullying - it is a real thing that has risen to huge proportions in our society today.  It does not stop in our schools - it is also in our workplaces, neighborhoods, and just about everywhere we look.  There is a posture we can assume against the bullies in our life - whether they are physical people or all of Satan's hosts.  That is the posture David took - living a life that was consistent to the core.  As we do so, we will stand strong against all the bullies that life can throw our way!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Our two measures

13-16 Don't carry around with you two weights, one heavy and the other light, and don't keep two measures at hand, one large and the other small. Use only one weight, a true and honest weight, and one measure, a true and honest measure, so that you will live a long time on the land that God, your God, is giving you. Dishonest weights and measures are an abomination to God...
(Deuteronomy 25:13-16)

In the times that these words were penned, the trade of goods meant that there was a "measuring" of what was traded against a "known" weight.  In other words, if we wanted a pound of flour, we weighed it on a scale with a "known" one pound weight on the other side of the scale.  When they were balanced, we knew that we got exactly what we asked for - one pound of flour!  The caution given in this passage is that of having "two measures" - one allowing us to be honest, the other allowing us to be dishonest.  The idea is that of credibility!

When we say something is credible, we are saying that it is believable - we can place our confidence in it.  There are lots of things we place our confidence in that are not entirely that "credible".  For instance, we trust in our finances to bring us peace and security.  When the market changes, we panic because what we thought we had may suddenly become of less value in the present economy.  Another example is believing we have a "right" to act a certain way just because another has acted against us in a particular manner.  In fact, the opposite is often true - God expects us to turn the other cheek and forgive.

Credibility is based on trust.  We come to trust that thing or person - usually because it has proven to be "trust-worthy".  The warning to us in our passage today deals with having TWO weights - one is trustworthy, the other is not.  In real life, this is kind of like having one way of treating someone when we see them "measuring up" to our expectations, and another when that individual does not meet our expectations.  I am so grateful that we don't serve a God with a dual-standard (two "measures" or weights) that he uses as he deals with us!

God has "honest" standards - they can be trusted.  When he says, "Let's see here...as I place you on the scale with the "counter-weight" of my Son, Jesus, on the other...I get a perfect balance!"  In other words, God is saying that we perfectly "measure up" to the exact person he wants!  The problem is that we tell God that we want to use a different weight on the scale....like the one we create in our minds that tells God we are NOT measuring up to what he expects!  Then we get all down on ourselves because we see ourselves as always a little "light" in the "measuring up" category!

Guess what that is called?  Here's a hint...it begins with the letter "s".  Yep, you guessed it...shame.  We don't see ourselves as "measuring up", so we actually are believing that there is no hope we will ever "measure up" or be perfectly "balanced" when compared to the "honest weight" on the other side of the scale (Jesus).  The fact of the matter is that God has only one weight in his bag by which we are measured and that is Jesus!  All other weights we try to create and place on that scale to evaluate if we are "measuring up" are simply not reliable.

So, the next time we are tempted to pull any other weight out of our bags by which we will want God to "measure" us against, let's be cautious about that.  We have been given a very reliable (trustworthy) weight to be placed in the balance - Jesus.  That "counter-weight" is always keeping us "on the level" with God.  No matter what our sin, the "counter-weight" by which God views us is ALWAYS Jesus.  

Friday, September 23, 2011

Evidence of what is in the package

9-11 Word got out among the Jews that he was back in town. The people came to take a look, not only at Jesus but also at Lazarus, who had been raised from the dead. So the high priests plotted to kill Lazarus because so many of the Jews were going over and believing in Jesus on account of him.
(John 12:9-11)

Lazarus became a living testimony of the power and deliverance of God when his life was raised.  He became a "threat" to religion the day he was raised!  The Jewish high priests are actually resisting his testimony because it was causing people to leave the "comfort" of religion to experience the dynamic of relationship.  The fact of the matter is that God uses people to do the work of bearing testimony to his deliverance!

We are never a threat to "religion" when we are just living in the status quo.  As soon as we "cross the line" into a real and vital relationship with Jesus, guess what....we become a "threat".  For the sake of clarity, let me just say that when I refer to "religion", I am referring to the rote, mundane, going to church kind of ritual that never really allows a man's heart to change or his life to be a testimony of God's power.  When I speak of relationship, I am speaking of that life that exudes the power of God for others to behold.

The Jewish high priests are threatened because their "followers" are "converting"!  They want reality in their lives - they want to experience some of the "vitality" that Lazarus was a testimony of that day.  All the Jewish leaders could offer the crowds was a set of religious rules - a set of standards they live by - but the connection of the "rule" with the "ruler" was never really made!  By definition, relationship is a "connection".  What Lazarus showed the people was the intimacy of "connection" with Jesus.  

Connection implies involvement.  When we move away from the ritual keeping of rules, we move into a place where God becomes involved in our lives and we become involved in his work.  There is an inter-relatedness between connection and power.  Jesus came to the tomb of Lazarus - spoke the words to come forth - embraced him as he did - and Lazarus maintained that connection by being with Jesus as a living testimony of his power and grace.  That is how it is with Jesus - he wants us to be connected to him.

Why is relationship a threat to religion?  It is simple really...relationship makes the "connection" that rules never will.  As a matter of fact, when all we are focused on is the "rules" we have to keep or never break, we often lack any incentive to pursue the relationship!  Think about it.  When you are so intent on not breaking the rules - like when you see those signs posted that remind you that there are workers on the roadway and that the fines for speeding are doubled in that area - don't you slow down just a little bit as you see the patrol car on the side of the road?  

You become "intentional" about the rules and all the other stuff that you were focusing on takes backseat!  That is why the Jewish leaders had such a hard time with Jesus - they saw people moving away from the ritual, mundane way of "worship" and this was a threat to their existence!  I don't know about you, but I want to be a threat to religion!  I want to be a living testimony of relationship, not a dead-weight of religion.  

Belief is never a matter of having "seen" something - all the miraculous signs were evident to both the religious leaders and the ones who were following Jesus.  The "signs" don't convince the mind - they affect the heart!  Belief often requires a testimony - like when you buy a package of seeds at the home store.  That package of seeds has a photo (a sign) of a fully grown plant, bearing much fruit.  Until that package is opened, the seeds planted, and care taken to tend that seed, the evidence of what is in the package is never fully understood.  

A seed only does what it was intended to do when it is planted!  In the package, it is just a nice thing (kind of like all the religious rules).  Once in the ground, tended appropriately, the seed yields something beyond its original form.  That is true of each of us as we become related to Christ.  We take a new form - exponentially yielding fruit in season.  That is what it is to be in relationship with Jesus - we become the evidence of what is "in" the package!  That was what Lazarus was that day so long ago - an evidence of what had filled his heart!  

Thursday, September 22, 2011

I don't like to wait!

5-7Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, but oddly, when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed on where he was for two more days. After the two days, he said to his disciples, "Let's go back to Judea."
(John 11:5-7)

These verses are taken from the story of the healing of Lazarus, a good friend of Jesus.  Lazarus is quite ill, near death, and his two sisters (Mary & Martha) send word to Jesus and his disciples.  Their intent would be that Jesus would come at their request and that he would intervene to heal their brother.  Their brother was not only their "kin", but in the economy of the time of this writing, he was their provider.  The single women were under the care of their male living relatives (father, brother, uncle, etc.).  If he passed away, it was a huge change in the lives of these two women.  Yet, their plea for his healing is likely motivated by their intense love for their brother.

What stands out is the delay we see in Jesus' response to their plea to come.  What the sisters did not understand was that God was using this experience to reveal his glory.  The lesson we can learn from the delay is that the period of waiting is never a sign that Jesus loves us any less.  It says in the passage that precedes these verses that Jesus loved Lazarus.  We don't see that recorded too many times, so we know that Jesus had a special fondness for this good friend.  It is hard for us to understand that if Jesus loves us that he doesn't immediately intervene in our lives at our immediate point of need.  Mary and Martha were struggling with this very same issue.

Jesus may delay in his intervention, but it never is because he fails to love us. In fact, a delayed intervention is often an opportunity for God to display his greatness and his glory on a grander scale.  He has a different plan!  There is always a "bigger picture" that we don't fully see or understand in any of God's "delays" in our lives.  There may be a specific audience he is preparing to witness the intervention.  There could be a specific lesson of faith that he wants to develop within us that will act to sustain us later in life as we face other challenges.  Regardless, it does not mean that his love for us has changed.

In the midst of the circumstance that causes us to panic, God sees a whole different dimension.  He sees the need for our faith to increase.  He knows that our hearts are in a state of anxiety and that we need to learn to trust more fully.  The lessons are innumerable - and the "wait" is invaluable!  We may see no way out, but God saw our way out long before we recognized that we even would find ourselves in that circumstance or need.  God has the plans for our "intervention" already formulated and set in motion long before we ever cry out for his help.

The delay of those two days must have been heart-wrenching for these two sisters.  Watching their brother fail before their eyes probably tore at their hearts and elicited all kinds of emotions.  Martha meets Jesus on the path to the house - Mary stays inside - weeping for the loss of their brother.  The crowds question why Jesus delayed - if he loved Lazarus as much as he claimed, then why was there not a quicker intervention?  Martha resists the opening of the tomb - Lazarus had been there several days - he would be quite "ripe" by now.  

All this goes on - Jesus patiently allowing the grief of the women to overflow, the accusations of the unknowing crowd to be expressed, and the doubts of the masses to come to the surface - then he makes his move.  We don't get it, do we?  Why the delay?  Why the seeming lack of concern for what Mary and Martha were going through?  But...it was for the glory of God.  He had bigger plans!  That very "delay" brought many to a place of making a decision about Christ that day.  It says that many "turned around" from their doubt and began to follow him.  I wonder if our sustained grief is an occasion for his excellence to shine forth even more?

Know this - God's delays NEVER lessen his love!  We may have high expectations that Jesus will be right there at the first mention of his name - his delay may cause us to wonder if he heard us, or if he cares for us.  His love NEVER fails!  His "delay" is really for our benefit (and often the benefit of those around us).  I put "delay" in quotation marks because it SEEMS like a delay to us - but in fact, it is the perfect timing of God that brings about the perfect resolution to our need and the perfect display of his glory.  We receive (in just the right timing) what he planned for us right from the beginning.  God knows the end from the beginning - we have to trust that he has a plan - even in the "delay".

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I ain't no quitter!!!

11-12 Now God, don't hold out on me, don't hold back your passion.  Your love and truth are all that keeps me together.  When troubles ganged up on me, a mob of sins past counting, I was so swamped by guilt I couldn't see my way clear.  More guilt in my heart than hair on my head, so heavy the guilt that my heart gave out. 
(Psalm 40:11-12)

David starts this psalm with the words, "I waited, and waited, and waited for God..."  Have you ever been in the position of just waiting, and waiting, and waiting - all the while growing more fearful and frustrated that nothing is happening?  If you have walked with Christ for more than an hour, I think it is safe to assume that you might have experienced this kind of agony in waiting!  We don't understand the delays and we don't remember the next time how long of a wait it was the last time!

David's next thoughts are, "At last he looked; finally he listened."  That is often how we think about God when the answer seems delayed.  But...I don't want us to miss the entire context of this psalm.  David really gets down to the crux of things in the middle of the psalm - when he begins to describe what he had come to realize about his condition of heart.  Here's just a taste of what David had been through:  "6 Doing something for you, bringing something to you—that's not what you're after.  Being religious, acting pious—      that's not what you're asking for.  You've opened my ears so I can listen."

David had been in a place of "doing" - being religious, acting pious - really with no true heart devotion behind the actions.  In fact, he goes on to say that it was when he actually took time to read what God wrote about him (from the Word) that he made the turn-around.  I think that is a natural response to the "waiting" that we sometimes experience with what we expect God to do, what we hope he will answer, etc.  We "fabricate" all kinds of "doing" in order to see if in the "doing" God will take notice and act!  David came to realize that all the "doing" in the world really does not move the heart of God - our heart devotion is what moves him!

Then we come to this revelation that David makes - "I am so swamped by guilt - I could not see my way clear of it!"  I just wonder if the "wait" is sometimes to bring us to a place where we see our need for repentance. That is actually one of the outcomes we see repeatedly in the Bible.  God allows his children to experience some delay in the answer they are seeking, they come to a place where they recognize unrepented sin in their lives, and when they begin to reveal their desire to be free of their guilt, God begins to intervene.  For some, that time of waiting instantly goes to a time of self-examination and repentance.  For the rest of us, we wallow a while in our misery of sin's guilt and try to figure out why the prayers we lift are not answered!

Yet, look at what David said, "More guilt in my heart than hair on my head!"  He was pretty down on himself at that point, yet he acknowledges that if God would "unleash" his passion over David's life, his guilt would be lifted.  It was God's love and truth that would restore him - hold him together when all else seemed to be working to tear him apart.  This is true of us...nothing holds us together, puts the pieces back together, than the passion of God unleashed in our lives.

So, we cannot end there...we need to see how David ends this prayer to his faithful God.  Here it is:

 16-17 But all who are hunting for you—oh, let them sing and be happy.  Let those who know what you're all about tell the world you're great and not quitting.  And me? I'm a mess. I'm nothing and have nothing: make something of me.  You can do it; you've got what it takes—but God, don't put it off.

He recognizes that there are men and women around him who are "stronger" than he is at that very moment.  He turns to them and asks them to proclaim the truth over his life and the lives of others who are in the similar place of hurting.  His proclamation is that God is NOT quitting!  He may be a mess personally, but it is God that can take that mess and turn it into a glorious thing.  

You may be in the place where you feel that all you have to bring to God are the "messes" of your life.  That is okay - God can deal with the honesty of our repentant heart.  He already knows about the messes anyway - at the moment we bring them to him, we begin to realize that he is NOT quitting!  He has us in his sights and he desires to intervene right where we need the greatest interventions!  We may need the strength of another who is walking this path with Christ to proclaim that truth over our lives until we finally "get it".  That is okay!  Let me be the first to proclaim it -- "God is NOT quitting!!!"  He has you in his sights and he is at the ready to release his passion in your life once again!  Open up to him and see him restore what your doubt, fear, fatigue, wrong attitudes, etc., have destroyed!  God is NOT a quitter - don't you be either!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Halted by our Guard

7-8 God guards you from every evil, he guards your very life.
   He guards you when you leave and when you return,
      he guards you now, he guards you always.
(Psalm 121:7-8)

When I was in the military, I had the unfortunate lot of pulling "guard duty" on a few select occasions.  The thing that struck me most was that I was guarding "stuff" that I had no clue that anybody would want!  Sometimes I'd be assigned to the motor pool - now, I ask you, who wants an olive drab sedan?  At others, I'd walk the perimeter of the base, looking for intruders.  Ummm....now, ask me if I EVER saw any?  Nope!  So, what was the purpose?  Simply because you never know when the enemy will attack, or at what location.  So you "prepare" for the worst!

Our passage today is taken from a psalm that celebrates God's watchfulness over his children.  The writer begins with the question, "Where does my help come from?"  David knew that his "help" came from God and no other source.  He points us to God at every turn.  Now, he tells us why he has this confidence in the God he can neither see, nor touch.  It is he who guards our very life, now and always!

To guard means that someone or something is kept safe from harm.  There is a watchfulness over that person or thing that keeps it out of harm's way.  Did you also know that to guard refers to keeping a watchful eye so that the one being guarded does not escape or engage in misconduct?  God does more as the "guard" over our lives than just keep us safe - he also keeps us from escaping his care, running toward those things that will harm us, and reminding us of the pain that our misconduct will eventually end up costing us.  What a faithful "guard" he is!

As my children were born, there were things I did to "guard" them from injury.  One of the simplest things was to purchase those small plastic caps that fit into the electrical outlets.  How did I know to do this?  Well, I learned by experience, of course!  I learned that bobby-pins placed in those small holes in the walls give you a rather significant jolt of "attention-grabbing" current!  So, I "covered" the small holes that could injure my children because I had already experienced the painfulness of "misconduct"!

God places "safeguards" in our lives, much like the outlet covers, in order to prevent loss, injury, or reputation.  Just like my children, we resist those safeguards because we think something "good" must be on the other side of the safeguard!  I watched as my children took small fingers and attempted to manipulate the plastic guards from those outlets.  Each time, I'd remind them that they should not play with the outlets.  Guess what?  To my knowledge, my kids never got the "jolt" of playing around with electricity!

God doesn't want to "keep us from the good stuff" - he is working overtime to keep us safe from the "bad stuff"!  Safeguards don't mean we aren't curious about what is "on the other side" of the safeguard (boundary).  All it means is that we have something that stands between us and that object of our attention.  God leaves the response to the "safeguard" he has placed to us.  Much like my kids pulling with all their might to get that plastic plug out of the outlet, we often find ourselves "pulling with all our might" to remove the safeguards God has placed in our lives.

Did you realize that there are a ton of synonyms for "guard" in the Bible?  Here are just a few:  shield, shelter, watch, defend, bulwark, watchman.  God must really want to get the point across that we need "guarding"!  The next time you see one of these words, look at in context of what God says he is doing for his children as their shield, their defender, a bulwark, or a watchman.  It may open a whole new meaning for you about the value of God's "guarding" of our lives.  

Aren't you glad that you have someone as dedicated to your safety on Guard Duty in your life?  The next time you hear, "Halt, who goes there?", you might do well to actually stop and ask why God is stopping you.  He is actually trying to get you to realize the error of your steps, not to keep you from something good in your life!  The first step to enjoying the safety of our boundaries in understanding where we are crossing them!  

Monday, September 19, 2011

Don't quit on me now!

 4-6 When they hear what you have to say, God, all earth's kings will say "Thank you."  They'll sing of what you've done: "How great the glory of God!"  And here's why: God, high above, sees far below; no matter the distance, he knows everything about us.  7-8 When I walk into the thick of trouble, keep me alive in the angry turmoil. With one hand strike my foes, with your other hand save me.  Finish what you started in me, God. Your love is eternal—don't quit on me now.
(Psalm 138:4-8)

David had a special way of telling us about how God interacts with is children.  This psalm is just another example of what David had come to know about the Lord he served.  Imagine all kinds of this earth proclaiming that God is great and that his glory is high above all other!  David must have been speaking prophetically here, because we sure have not seen the day where we can say that the kings are giving glory to God like that!

The crux of this psalm is really found just after that - God, high above, sees far below!  We may not "see" him, but he sees us!  If nothing else, the fact that God even notices humankind should bring us to our knees!  David is quite clear when he says that "no matter the distance, he knows everything about us".  Wow!  Nothing escapes his notice - nothing is overlooked for his intervention.  Too many times we come to the conclusion that we are in the thick of things all alone - no one noticing the mess we are in.  Just the opposite is true - God never misses a beat!

David's plea is that God will finish what he began in David's life.  Those are words that literally tug at the heart-strings of God's infinitely large heart!  All of heaven knows that we are not very good at finishing what WE start!  We make starts and stops like jackrabbits on a hot day!  There is very little consistency in our walk, but God sees it all - both the starts and the stops.  Both attract his attention.  When we cry out for him to finish what HE started, forgetting what it is the WE started, his hands are quick to go into action on our behalf.

Why does God let us start things on our own when he knows they will end in failure?  I imagine it is so we will learn just how insufficient our self-will, self-dependence, and self-determination are.  Once we fail, we consider the error of OUR ways and are often open to considering the blessing of GOD's ways.  God never asked for us to be robots - under his control and just going through the motions of serving him.  He wants us to come to the conclusion that his ways are better than our own - so he allows us to experience the results of our own actions.

Then end result is usually that end up calling out like David, "Finish what you started God!  I got it all messed up when I tried it on my own!"  I honestly believe that God unleashes all of heaven's resources at those very words!  He never misses a step we take - all the while just waiting to hear that we need him to finish what he began!  Glory!