Monday, October 31, 2011

Covering the Tab

9 Overlook an offense and bond a friendship;
   fasten on to a slight and—good-bye, friend! 
(Proverbs 17:9 The Message)

The Amplified Bible puts this passage this way:  He who covers and forgives an offense seeks love, but he who repeats or harps on a matter separates even close friends.  To cover an offense is more than just overlooking it in a casual manner, responding with a flippant attitude that "it didn't really matter".  Sometimes, I think we get a little confused with what it means to overlook an offense.  You see, in friendship, there will be repeated offenses - that is a given.  We don't set out to offend, but we find ourselves doing it sometimes without really noticing how our actions, words, or slights bring offense to another.  The Amplified Bible is a little clearer about the process of "bonding a friendship".  There is the process of overlooking the offense, and the subsequent process of forgiving it!

When a friend and I go to a restaurant for a meal, we often "cover" the check for each other (taking turns "covering" the bill).  What we are doing is taking care of the debt of that other person's meal.  Now, take that to the idea of the other person at the table having offended you.  When you "cover" that offense, you are actually cancelling out the debt of that offense.  There is a willingness on our part to "step up" to cover the offense - to relieve the other of that offense.  It is a continual thing - we must always keep the "accounts" square in friendship - not allowing anything to stand as an unforgiven "debt".

This type of friend is highly coveted indeed.  The type of friend that repeats, or harps on an offense constantly reminds the one who has committed the offense that there is a "debt" owed.  We have a natural tendency to rehearse that which another "owes" - kind of like when an accountant goes over and over the books to keep accurate tallies on the debits and credits on the accounts.  Rehearsing the "debt" not only damages the original relationship, but the relationship others will have with that individual down the road.  

We actually influence the way others see or friends by the things we allow to be repeated about them.  We may find ourselves repeating an offense - sharing how we were slighted by that other person - without realizing that the repeating of that offense (matter) is really damaging that individual's reputation in the eyes of another (not to mention how God must feel about it).  The negative we allow to be spoken will never result in a positive relationship with another.  We must guard our words - quickly letting go of the offenses that we really don't need to hold onto anyway.

The idea of "covering" the debt of another is perfectly exemplified for us in the action of the Cross.  Jesus fully "covered" our debt for sin - taking full responsibility and making full restitution for our debt.  When he asks for us to "cover" the slights of another with the same grace he extends to us, he is really not asking what he was not willing to do himself.  

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Potency and Purity

3 As silver in a crucible and gold in a pan,
   so our lives are assayed by God. 
(Proverbs 17:3 The Message)

Yesterday, we took a look at the process of "stoking" the furnace of our hearts - getting us to a place that God can work with us, forming us into what it is he envisions for us.  Today, I'd like to continue to explore another instrument of the craftsman used in the process of purification - it is what is known as the crucible.  The crucible is similar to the furnace, but its purpose is not so much to heat to the point of being "pliable" in the hand of the craftsman as it is to bring to the surface that which is impure in the substance he is working with.  For some of us, we feel the "heat" of the crucible much more often than we'd like.  Take heart, that really means that God is just at work bringing to the surface the things in our lives that he needs to remove by his tender care.

When I lived in Alaska, I got to know a gentleman that was into looking for gold.  He used a process of "panning" for gold in the streams and rivers of the area.  He did not hit any big "mother lode" of a gold find, but he found enough to make it worth his while.  As I would watch him go through the arduous process of sifting that sand, stone, and debris through the gold pan, I observed his tenacity for the process.  Slowly, he'd let water in and out of the pan, shifting the contents back and forth, until all that remained were tiny flakes of gold in the midst of just a little sand at the bottom of the pan.  That gold would catch the rays of the sun and glimmer brightly in the midst of the sand that remained.  He'd pluck out the gold bits, placing them carefully in a pouch he maintained for that purpose, and then he'd "dig in" for another plate of sand, debris, and stones.

Whether it is the craftsman at the crucible, refining the impurities from the metal substance being heated, or the gold miner gently sifting the debris away until only the "shiny stuff" was visible, both are reflective of the process of getting the impurities out of the way so the "good stuff" is seen.  Did you ever stop to consider that we often don't see the "good stuff" until there is enough agitation in our lives to bring it out clearly?  We often resist the agitation of our souls - because it hurts - without realizing that without that agitation, the good stuff is always going to be masked by the other stuff that gets in the way of it!

I see a word used in this passage that we don't use so much in today's communication - assay.  There are two meanings of this word that I think apply to our passage today:

1)  To examine or analyze - the goal of the process of the crucible is to determine the measure of what is contained within.  When God goes about the work of assaying our lives, he is bringing us through one examining process after another.  No part of the assaying of our character is unnecessary - it all serves a purpose of exposing the impurities and bringing out only the best in us.  

2)  To determine the potency of something - the process of assaying a substance is to see what "strength" that substance is capable of producing.  When a scientist assays the various substances that make up a product, they are really looking to see if the strength of the combined substances will make the substance more or less potent.  God only looks for that which will lend potency to our lives - all the other stuff he wants to remove.  

The process of assaying is really a process of analysis.  Therefore, the crucible is an instrument of analysis in our lives.  The crucible results in a lot of agitation of the substance contained within - "good stuff" is hidden deep and must be uncovered.  God is not too timid about how he goes after that which is hidden within - both the good and the bad.  When he gets the bad to the surface, he gently removes it, freeing us from that which impacts our potency and purity.  When he sees the good stuff becoming clearer and clearer, he is delighted because he knows we are developing the strength of character that will give us the potency to stand strong in this world.

God's goal in the crucible - in the refining process - is not to break us, but to bring out our highest potential, our greatest potency, and our strongest character.  The process involves a little agitation in order to uncover the "good stuff", but without that agitation, we'd never really get to see the beauty his grace is able to produce in our lives.  So, allow him to stoke the fires, sift the debris, and assay on!  Good stuff is about to catch his eye and become that which he notices with great delight!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Lessons from the Glass House

3The refining pot is for silver and the furnace for gold, 
but the Lord tries the hearts.
(Proverbs 17:3 The Amplified Bible)

On my journeys in Virginia, we went to an old-fashioned glass blower's house.  We learned that the fires of the furnace had to be stoked for a period of not less than two weeks in order to get the necessary heat to actually produce the highest quality of glass.  Two weeks of stoking a fire seemed like a lot to me - think about it - two weeks of standing around, just waiting to be able to "get on" with the thing you really know you enjoy doing.  Isn't that how we often think about the times of the "stoking" of the fires of our heart?  We want to move on to the next thing that we actually enjoy about our walk with God and he wants us to have the fires stoked a little hotter so that the thing produced will actually be of the highest quality!

The crucible is only at its best when it is at its hottest point.  In order to get the fires that hot, they have to be stoked quite frequently.  That means constant oversight and care.  More "fuel" must be added to the fires to keep them burning, coals must be turned over and over until they glow red-hot, re-infusing the embers with fresh oxygenation.  As the glass-blower worked with that "blob" of glass he removed from the furnace, it had no real form, but it was very pliable and as a result, it had potential to be something it was not presently.

I think that is the purpose of the furnace (crucible) in our lives - it brings us to the place of being something we are not presently.  As the glass-blower worked with that unformed glass, he went through many iterations of forming, reheating, reforming, and reheating that glass.  And guess what, the final process was the heat of the kiln!  Even once formed into what he wanted it to be, it needed one more "heating" in order to "cure it" to be useful in the hands of the one who would put that vessel to use.  I think we often find ourselves thinking we are finally what God desired for us to be, then find ourselves in the "kiln" of his "curing process" and wonder why.  It is probably because without the final step, we might not fulfill his intention!

The glass, in its original form, is a mixture of various products (sand, potash, lime, etc).  The glass, in its final form, no longer resembles the "ingredients" of the process - but what is produced is a thing of beauty.  The individual ingredients are necessary - life provides these for us.  God is the one who knows the EXACT mixture of ingredients that will produce the vessel he desires.  Without the furnace, the ingredients are nothing more than a mixture of parts.  It is the furnace that actually "melds" the parts into the thing we will eventually behold as a beautiful, functional vessel.

Don't know what the "ingredients" are that God is mixing together in your life, but they are indeed important to his finished image of you!  The furnace is also part of that process.  We might want to consider the value of the process of the furnace - though it is quite uncomfortable, it produces a thing of beauty and functionality that is never apparent in the "ingredients" of our lives when they are all viewed individually.  It is the furnace that "melds" us into the thing God desires.  

Friday, October 28, 2011

Guilty, but not condemned!

 6 Guilt is banished through love and truth;
   Fear-of-God deflects evil. 
(Proverbs 16:6 The Message)

We deal with guilt so many times because of well-meant intentions - our failures doing nothing more than bolstering our stores of guilt that we already have way too much of in the first place.  What is it about guilt that has so much power over our lives?  I think it might actually be that we fear what we cannot seem to control - so we hold onto what is familiar to us (guilt) instead of letting go (grace).  

We feel guilty because we lost control - so we try to control our behavior in some "better" fashion the next time.  Have you been down that road a time or two?  I daresay that I have!  When we don't quite succeed the "next time", we add another ration of guilt to the already heavy load of it we carry around!  Then we wonder why we don't "feel" well!

The Amplified Bible adds just a little clarity to this passage:

6By mercy and love, truth and fidelity [to God and man--not by sacrificial offerings], iniquity is purged out of the heart, and by the reverent, worshipful fear of the Lord men depart from and avoid evil.

There is a purging process for our guilt to finally "feel" like it is removed from our lives.  That purging process involves much on God's part, but very little on our part!  God removes the stain of our guilt - we respond to that grace by departure FROM evil and turning TO God.  So, how do we make this practical in our everyday living?  I think we find the answer in the "ordered steps" that God outlines for us in scripture.

1)  We BRING our guilt to the only one who can actually absolve us of that guilt!  Too many times, we take our guilt everywhere else, or choose to "manage it" ourselves.  What a futile place we find ourselves in when either of those is our plan for dealing with our guilt!

2)  To really be FREE of guilt, we need to believe that God cares about our guilt!  We only want to bring things to God that we figure he really cares about.  The truth is that God cares about our guilt!  Real or imagined, confessed or held onto, our guilt belongs in God's hands - not ours!  I think we feel that our guilty feelings are something that we need to hold onto and this limits God's ability to heal us where we so desperately need his healing!

3)  God is responsible for the MERCY and LOVE part of dealing with our sin (our guilt is usually associated with our sin).  We have the part of being truthful and maintaining open relationship with God.  That's what it means to have "fidelity" in our relationship with God.  God's answer for our guilt is first for us to "confess" it - that is where communication begins!  

What we sometimes find ourselves doing is stopping with the first "confession" of our guilt.  When that guilt rears its ugly head again later on, and it will, we don't bring it back to the one who helps us remember that his mercy and love are already covering over that guilt.  As we are faithful to bring it back to him as many times as it takes for us to actually begin to feel like it has been dealt with and we can let go of it, God is faithful to bring us face-to-face with is grace and love once again.  He isn't "re-forgiving" the sin, he is just reminding us that it has ALREADY been forgiven and he loves us so deeply!

When we learn to take the steps God designs for our freedom, we finally begin to see the light at then end of the tunnel - and we find it is not an oncoming freight train laden with guilt!  In fact, it is a carriage of grace, festooned in all kinds of wreaths of his love and grace!  Be free - climb on board that carriage and let him usher you onto the next step in your growth - freed from guilt and embraced in his love.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Emptied to be filled again

1-2 Directed by God, the whole company of Israel moved on by stages from the Wilderness of Sin. They set camp at Rephidim. And there wasn't a drop of water for the people to drink. The people took Moses to task: "Give us water to drink." But Moses said, "Why pester me? Why are you testing God?"
 3 But the people were thirsty for water there. They complained to Moses, "Why did you take us from Egypt and drag us out here with our children and animals to die of thirst?"
(Exodus 17:1-3 The Message)

Yesterday, we began to explore the lessons of the barren places of the wilderness we find ourselves in at times.  We looked at the fact that we often find ourselves "camping out" at a place where it seems like no provision will ever be made.  We find ourselves complaining, even growing a little bitter because of the seeming lack of provision in the time we are experiencing.  Today, I'd like us to consider that the steps of a righteous man (and woman) are "ordered" by God.  That means that even the dry places are by his provision!

The most awesome lesson we can embrace in the wilderness barren places of our lives is that provision for our deliverance is only available through our obedience.  Moses was called upon to lead this group of wanderers.  In his leadership, he was often faced with the challenge of a very discouraged group of followers - complaining to him about the seeming barren places they would find themselves experiencing.  That is how we are - we get delivered from something way too powerful and strong for us to ever overcome on our own (like they were delivered from the hands of the Egyptian armies) - and the next thing you know, we are in a dry place and think God has abandoned us! 

The main reason we take so long to actually get out of the wilderness is our "slowness" to learn the lessons of the wilderness journey.  The stages of the wilderness are often shortened through our immediate response to trust God, to be obedient to his direction.  But...obedience is hard and we often struggle with what we don't understand, so we "linger" a little longer at the dry places and bitter waters because of our own struggles!

When all we can see is our past, bemoaning what it is that we have "lost" in our past, we never really see the provision of the present.  In fact, we cannot see the present,  nor the future, until we turn from focusing on the past and move toward the new!  There is a lesson in the wilderness - that is the lesson of release.  In the wilderness, barren places, we learn the value of "releasing" what we have held onto with such tenacity - our past!  It may be something we viewed as "good and enjoyable" - not really a bad thing for us, but something that God wants us to be able to "release" to him so that we can press deeper into him.  It may indeed be something that God desires us to let go of because it weighs us down unnecessarily.  Regardless of the lesson of release he is teaching us, we need to be willing to open our hands (and our hearts) to let go of what he asks us to leave behind.

When we find ourselves in the midst of our complaints about the wilderness - the barren and dry places of our life - we often don't hear the voice of direction.  We miss out on the small voice of God's refreshing that direct us into the places of refreshing we so desperately yearn for.  The stages of the wilderness may just be shortened a little if we'd learn to be quiet long enough, and frequently enough, to listen for his voice in the moments of seeming barrenness.

I just returned from a trip to the East Coast - enjoying a week in the tall oaks, observing the changing of the colors of the leaves, marveling at the intensity of greens, yellows, oranges, and reds.  The time was definitely a refreshing retreat from the struggles of the present "battles" that I found myself in just prior to leaving.  I am never more thankful for the dry place than when I get to experience the refreshment of his provision!  Remember, getting through the wilderness is done in stages.  The steps may seem a little methodical, and a little tumultuous, but they are indeed steps that will reveal his provision all along the way when we keep our eyes focused on him.

When we begin to experience "release" of what we once counted on, held onto so dearly, we sometimes feel a little barren - emptied inside.  That is another lesson of the wilderness - it leaves you empty just long enough to be filled up again!  God's goal is to empty us of what really does us no good to hold onto and to fill us with that which will refresh us for the journey ahead.  Not sure what you are being asked to let go of today, but just know that when you are emptied, he stands ready to fill!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Water...I need water!

1-2 Directed by God, the whole company of Israel moved on by stages from the Wilderness of Sin. They set camp at Rephidim. And there wasn't a drop of water for the people to drink. The people took Moses to task: "Give us water to drink."  But Moses said, "Why pester me? Why are you testing God?"  3 But the people were thirsty for water there. They complained to Moses, "Why did you take us from Egypt and drag us out here with our children and animals to die of thirst?"  
(Exodus 17:1-3 The Message)

Okay, I just have to ask this question - why on earth would a huge band of wandering people actually "camp out" in a place where there was absolutely no visible water for their basic physical needs?  Sometimes I think we just don't "think" about where it is that we "camp out" for a while along the way.  We "get going" with God really well, then all of a sudden, we find ourselves "camped out" at a place that seems barren, without any provision for our basic needs, let alone our spiritual needs!  Then what do we do?  You got it!  We complain to God because we are in a barren and dry place!  There are times that I wonder if God would just as soon answer with "Duh!" instead of his overwhelming patience.

As I was reading this passage with my weekly Bible Study small group, I just got carried away by God to a place of considering the words of the passage.  I want us to break this down a little to see what God can reveal to us through these "wilderness wanderings" of his people, Israel.  First, I saw that the passage began with the words, "Directed by God".  That means that they weren't in a barren and dry place totally because they just wandered out their on their own.  They were on a path with God and came upon this dry place.  The fact is, we don't know what the path will hold, but God does.  He is aware of the exact points of "barrenness and dryness" that are part of the wilderness journey and he prepares a way out of the desert place (in his time).

Coming out of the desert place is often done in stages.  We seldom find that moving from the wilderness into the land of plenty is never a "direct" journey for us.  In fact, we see that the wilderness almost presents obstacles to us ever getting out of that place!  Water was essential to this group - and they had none.  It likely seemed quite impossible to them that they'd ever leave the wilderness without the provision of water they'd need to make the journey.  We would probably equate this to the various "things" that just seem to keep "coming up" in our journey that seem to "trip us up" a little.  The fact is, God prepared this people to make the move to this very place.  Therefore, there must be a provision in what appears to have nothing of value!

Why do we move by stages through the wilderness?  God has to take enough time to teach us the lessons of the wilderness.  I think there are a lot of lessons that we only become attune to when we are stripped of all we depend upon and are face-to-face with our utter need.  In those places, no provision that we could make on our own will get us through.  In fact, we keep camping out at the bitter waters and the dry places, completely unaware of the miracle that lies just beyond the points of our intensest need!

The waters you face in the wilderness today may be a little bitter, if they exist at all.  The bitterness of reliance on our own efforts, past failures, disappointments of missed opportunities - all need God's touch to truly make them "sweetness" in our lives.  In the place of barrenness and thirst, we finally find that God's touch is all that will take care of the bitterness we have experienced.

Tomorrow, I will expand upon these lessons of the barren place a little further.  Until then, don't curse God for the barren place, but thank him for the miracle that is just around the corner.  His purpose in the barren place is just to drive us further into his provision!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Count it all joy!

 7-8"Listen now, you who know right from wrong, you who hold my teaching inside you:  Pay no attention to insults, and when mocked don't let it get you down.  Those insults and mockeries are moth-eaten, from brains that are termite-ridden, but my setting-things-right lasts, my salvation goes on and on and on."
(Isaiah 51:7-8 The Message)

There are times when we just feel like the world is against us - like all we live for and stand for is just ridiculed and considered to be silliness in the eyes of those around us.  These are the times when we need to re-read these words and take heart.  The unbeliever has no revelation of God beyond our testimony of a life "squared up" by living the principles God teaches.  It is the testimony of one that can affect the lives of millions!

Do you realize that mockery is really the highest form of honor we can receive?  Think about it - someone sees our the testimony of Jesus in us and finds it so convicting that the only thing they can do is to attempt to counterfeit it!  That is a true definition of mockery - to attempt to imitate or counterfeit!  This has been the pattern with humankind from the beginning of time - if we cannot have the real thing, we just try to get as close to it as possible!  Why else do you think we have "generic" everything on the store shelves?  Not only is it an imitation of the real thing, but it costs less!

I was once told that people make fun of what they don't really understand.  That is indeed true, but I think they also find what they don't understand a little "threatening" to them!  Their attacks are attempts to ridicule or deride the testimony of Christ within our lives that are often undertaken because there is a "threat" in the reality of Jesus they see in us!  As long as they are only presented with an "imitation" or the "generic Jesus", there is no threat to their way of life.  When there is any evidence of the reality of Christ in a person's life, it affects those around them.  The natural outcome of living by the teachings of Christ, allowing them to affect our conduct, is that others will sense the reality of Christ in us and be convicted by the evidence they see.  

I recall hearing my pastor years ago ask the question, "If you run into a total stranger this week, what characteristic of Christ will be the first thing they recognize in your life?"  Now, being wired the way I am, I wanted to raise my hand and begin firing off answers!  You know, the "pat" answers that we all know - the answers like:  "The unconditional love of Jesus", "The grace of God", or "The sweetness of Jesus' willingness to accept the sinner".  You probably could make your own list.  The fact is, when I really began to think that one through later on, I found that the "pat answers" really weren't all that "pat"!

In fact, I found that I pretty much had "conditions" on my love, "grace" was sometimes the furthest from my inclinations toward another, and "accepting" a sinner was almost impossible because they just didn't "fit" in my life!  Ouch!  Ummm....can you say, "Conviction"?  As I began to be honest about my own short-comings, God began to work with that honesty.  I am far from being able to love without "strings" attached (conditions), but I am getting better at it.  I have a lot to learn about grace, but I find that the more of it I am recipient of, the easier it is to understand how much another needs that same "slack" in their lives.  Accepting sinners for who and what they are is much easier when I get the first two pretty much in alignment with God's expectations.

So, the next time you are mocked for your faith, I would encourage you to not feel affronted by that counterfeiting of your faith, or the criticism of it.  In fact, you might just want to turn to God and thank him for the evidence of his life that is obviously "making it to the surface" in yours!  It is that evidence that is bringing conviction into another's and that is what brings God's grace into the lives of those most desperate to receive it!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Living on crusts and crumbs

 1-6 Job answered God: "I'm convinced: You can do anything and everything.
   Nothing and no one can upset your plans.  You asked, 'Who is this muddying the water, ignorantly confusing the issue, second-guessing my purposes?'
I admit it. I was the one. I babbled on about things far beyond me, made small talk about wonders way over my head.  You told me, 'Listen, and let me do the talking. Let me ask the questions. You give the answers.'  I admit I once lived by rumors of you; now I have it all firsthand—from my own eyes and ears!  I'm sorry—forgive me. I'll never do that again, I promise!  I'll never again live on crusts of hearsay, crumbs of rumor."
(Job 42:1-6 The Message)

Some days we all feel like we are living on nothing more than crusts and crumbs of rumors, bits of hearsay about God that others have passed our way.  We simply don't "connect" with God in a way that provides the meaning we are expecting at that very moment.  In those times, we can doubt that God cares, or even question if he is even aware of our circumstances.  The tendency on our part is to withdraw even further from God, wallowing in our self-pity of not knowing what lies beyond the current confusion, and wishing that someone, anyone would hear our cries for help.

Job was no different.  The crisis of one catastrophe in his life rose to the level of the next and the next, until he was almost overwhelmed by the continued crushing blows of the devastation he experienced.  He began strong - convinced that God would deliver him, that nothing escapes God's view.  He was certain that God would not allow tragedy to touch his life without a reason.  Then the second tragedy came, then the third, and before long, they were mounting up beyond his ability to "deal".  

There is one lesson we learn in those times of mounting issues in our lives - God doesn't want US to "deal"!  He wants us to rely on him to "deal" with the circumstances and to bolster our hearts for what lies ahead.  Too many times, we don't even bring God into the picture because we are "dealing" with the issue on our own - by what we have learned to do in the past.  The fact is that the way we "dealt" in the past may simply not work in the present.  God's mercies are new every morning for a reason!

When we are "dealing" with the situation, we are taking the action.  God's purposes are seldom fulfilled in the actions we take!  The direction of action should be at his hand.  Sometimes in the "dealing" we are attempting, we come to a place of "muddying the waters".  Literally, this means that the situation becomes more and more confusing as we attempt to put more and more of our own plans, actions, etc., into it.  At best, we find that we are "muddling through" - simply continuing despite confusion and difficulties beyond our ability to comprehend.

Job learned something in those hours and weeks of his "testing".  He learned that crumbs of hearsay are never enough to get us through the tough times.  We cannot live on secondhand relationship with God - we need the intimacy of our own deep relationship!  

He also learned that we are most able to "hear" when we actually stop long enough to listen!  That includes us stopping the talking long enough to hear his still small voice.  Some of us think that prayers need to be continual - without a chance for God to get a word in edgewise.  If we often stop long enough to actually listen, we will be surprised at how clear God can make the situation - removing the muddle of our present, replacing it with the clarity of his purpose.

Rumors abound about what God does, how he intervenes, what his love is like, how he responds to his children.  No rumor is going to hold us in the tough times!  Rumors are "stories", things believed because they are in common circulation.  Have you ever believed something to be true, then one day come across the actual truth?  I bet you have.  We cannot live long without being "duped" by some rumor along the way.  God warns us to not rely upon rumors - but to go to the source for confirmation of fact!

Job's final testimony is that he came to the place he was convinced.  He had moved to a place of belief - no longer arguing from a place of rumor or hearsay.  There are many forces in life that attempt to persuade us of their benefit.  Many times, we accept these at face value - without testing the reality of what we believe.  In the "testing moments", the reality of what we believe is put to the test.  Job came to the place that he no longer needed to believe based on second-hand knowledge - he knew of God's goodness on his own.

I don't know where you find yourself today, but I know that God's graces are never understood because you experience them through someone else!  They are understood only when you get first-hand knowledge of those graces in your own life.  We don't need to settle for crumbs and crusts of hearsay and rumor. We can know God intimately.  It is often in the investigation of the rumors and hearsay that we are exposed to the truth.  What have you simply accepted about God that you don't really know yourself?  Perhaps today's challenge may reveal more of what he wants you to know first-hand in your life!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Rebuilding Old Barns

17-18Have some of you noticed that we are not yet perfect? (No great surprise, right?) And are you ready to make the accusation that since people like me, who go through Christ in order to get things right with God, aren't perfectly virtuous, Christ must therefore be an accessory to sin? The accusation is frivolous. If I was "trying to be good," I would be rebuilding the same old barn that I tore down. I would be acting as a charlatan.
(Galations 2:17-18 The Message)

There is a Christian dilemma (let me call it a mis-belief) that we often hear people speak about whenever they are struggling with sin in their lives - it is that they "think" they are supposed to be perfect just because they gave their lives to Jesus!  If I am about to burst anyone's bubble here, let me apologize in advance, but we are NOT perfect!  We are NOT perfectly virtuous - we STILL sin!

Paul knew that this would be a huge "bug-a-boo" in the church, so he addresses it in his letter to the Galation church.  His concern was that the recently formed church in Galatia was being "duped" into believing that they had to keep the rules of the Old Testament Mosaic Law in order to be "truly saved".  He had just left there with the church growing and free in their new belief in Christ as their Lord and Savior.  Those that opposed Paul, mostly Jewish leaders of the day, were coming behind him to dispute his teaching that the Law was fulfilled in Christ and therefore, no longer needed.

The fact is that the Jewish leaders pointed out that Christians still sin - so, they used that as a basis for accusing the believers of needing "something more" than Christ alone.  Paul makes it very clear to us that when we return to a system of works - trying to make ourselves righteous in our living instead of allowing Christ's Spirit to do that work within us - we are simply trying to "build old barns" again.  We tore down the old, rickety barn of "trying to make ourselves righteous" when we said "yes" to Christ's offer for freedom in him.  Why on earth would we go back to the rubble of "works" and try to erect that "structure" again?

Here's what he says to that idea:

19-21What actually took place is this: I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn't work. So I quit being a "law man" so that I could be God's man. Christ's life showed me how, and enabled me to do it. I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not "mine," but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that.  Is it not clear to you that to go back to that old rule-keeping, peer-pleasing religion would be an abandonment of everything personal and free in my relationship with God? I refuse to do that, to repudiate God's grace. If a living relationship with God could come by rule-keeping, then Christ died unnecessarily.
(Galations 2:19-21)

The secret is found in those four words:  Christ lives in me!  Nothing more - nothing less.  

We struggle with our concept of being "righteous" - that is what Paul is referring to here.  We have a "mindset" about what "righteousness" looks like - how a righteous man speaks, what he engages in, and who he relates to.  Yes, scripture is pretty clear that these things matter, but they are not something we can be successful in without the presence of Christ in our lives.

So, the crux of the matter is this:  Don't go back into bondage to rule-keeping when you have entered into the freedom of God's grace!  We don't build new barns by using the old, musty and splintered materials!  New barns really require new materials - that is what the Holy Spirit provides - the new materials that will help us to live out our new life in Christ.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Bringing out the best

 "To you who are ready for the truth, I say this: Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer for that person."
(Luke 6:27 The Message)

Okay, am I really alone here, or do others have a hard time really praying for their enemies?  That whole thing about loving your enemies is a kind of ethereal idea to most of us.  As a matter of fact, it is the furthest thing from our minds when we feel them breathing down our throats, giving us a hard time, or gossiping behind our backs!  But....

God's Word is explicitly clear - if we are ready to hear the truth, that is.  Love 'em!  In other words, be merciful just as our heavenly Father is merciful.  One of the reasons we find it so hard to "love 'em" is because they just aren't all that lovable!  Face it, the idea of loving our enemies, praying for them, and even giving them the shirt off our back is kind of repulsive considering how they act toward us!

Why does God even bring this up in the Word?  Why did Jesus find it so important to model this principle while here on this earth?  I think he was trying to live out an object lesson for us.  The truth is that we were enemies of God, alienated from him by our sin, when he chose to love us!  The main thing we are asked to do when we are asked to love our enemies is to lay down "self" - with all its righteous demands to be treated with dignity, honored for doing good, etc.  Honestly, that is hard because we are dealing with what we feel are our "rights" here.

Yet, Jesus did just that - laying down his "right" to be treated with dignity, honored for the tremendous good he was doing.  He saw beyond his "right" to be honored because of his deity and took on the form of human man.  He looked beyond his "right" to be treated well because of his tremendous good deeds (healing the sick, setting the captive free).  He looked beyond "self" in order to see US!

That is what God is asking of us - to look beyond ourselves long enough to see others around us.  We may not be "tickled pink" by what we see, but if we really look hard enough, we will find that God will put that enemy as a burden on our hearts instead of a drain on our energies!  The instruction is that God will allow them to bring out the best in us, if we are willing to have that occur.  

How can our enemies bring out the best in us?  Well, we could unpack that for days, but here are just a few ideas for you to ponder:

- By focusing on their needs, instead of our "rights", we are showing them that they matter to us and to God.  Our enemies don't have the guts to outdo the love of God manifest in our lives.  They will find it impossible to return good when faced with evil - but they will be challenged by what they see us doing when we do!

- By allowing them to see Jesus in us, his unconditional love and his merciful forgiveness, we are pointing them to the grace of God.  It is much easier for us to desire what we see that somebody else is truly enjoying.  When others see that the grace of God is operational and truly enjoyed in your life, there is a hint of desire planted deep within their hearts for that same enjoyment of such unconditional love and mercy.

- By showing them that you will invest in them what they probably do not "deserve", you are pointing them to the cross of Christ in incremental measures.  That is what grace does - it motivates the heart to share what others cannot experience apart from Christ.  Our "rights" can take backseat to grace if we will allow that grace to bubble to the surface often enough.

- By loving even when we are not loved in return, we are showing the love of God for a world that had no desire to embrace him.  It is a common thing to do good to those that treat you well, embrace you warmly, etc.  It is an uncommon thing to embrace those who would stab you in the back, or leave you hanging on a tree!  

It may not be easy, and I daresay that I struggle with this, as well.  Yet, in learning to lay down our "rights" to be honored, treated well, etc., we are really learning to love as God loves.  In turn, we usually are rewarded with much more than we'd ever enjoy by simply sticking with what we feel we have a "right" to in the first place!  

God's rewards are ALWAYS better than anything we could possibly imagine.  The command to us is to let our enemies bring out the best in us.  My prayer for us today is that God will show us exactly how to do that in those troubling relationships we each have.  I don't know exactly how we will do it, but God does, so I will trust him to reveal how to embrace our enemies as he embraces us!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Table for Two

You're blessed when you've worked up a good appetite for God. He's food and drink in the best meal you'll ever eat.
(Matthew 5:6 The Message)

I once heard it said that you know that you are living the way God intends when you find that you are taking what you see and hear in the Word of God and begin to live by them.  I think it goes beyond that - to actually living UPON them - they become foundational to all you think and do.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeatedly begins a number of statements with the words, "Blessed are you when..."  In the scripture, I found that we are blessed when we exhibit a poverty of spirit, hunger for his righteousness, experience sorrow, and in moments of persecution when we are reliant on nothing more than Jesus to pull us through.  Okay, now that is not a list of "stuff" that I would automatically add to my Christmas wishlist!

How many of us can honestly say that we have worked up a good appetite for God?  Most of us would be honest and say that, at best, it is good some days and not so good on others.  In fact, sometimes our appetite for the things of God is plainly not in control of anything we are "putting into" our lives at that moment!  We take in gossip and wonder why we feel "used up" and kind of "vacant" at the end of the day.  We ingest "empty calories" in a spiritual sense by spending hours upon hours "vegging" in front of the TV and wonder why we are "spiritually flabby". me silly....but don't we have to pay attention to what we take in and how we use it to be sure it is "good for us"?

Poverty of spirit is not being empty of the spiritually good things that God has prepared for us.  In fact, it is the exact opposite.  It is the condition of being aware that we have nothing good within us that we can offer to God.  We find ourselves aware that apart from the grace of God in our lives, we having nothing good to offer him!  Christ's disciples walked with him along the seashores and through the valleys.  They climbed to mountain tops with him, and found themselves in throngs of seeking people.  Where he was, they were.  They had little, traveled light, but enjoyed much!  Why?  Because in those moments of experiencing Jesus, they were having their faith made rich!

There are a lot of things in this world begging to satisfy our hunger.  God's greatest desire for us is that we will desire to have our hunger satisfied with goodness, peace, and mercy.  He delights in hearing that we are hungry for more of him.  I remember a neighbor of ours when I was growing up.  The family was Italian and loved to make huge meals when "company" came over.  We sat at a long table, laden with all kinds of pasta, sauce, cheese, bread, and other delightful items.  The enjoyment of that meal was made the richer by the company we kept!  The enjoyment of what God provides is made richer by the company we keep with him!

Psalm 125 reminds us that God encircles his people - always has and always will.  Even in the times when all seems to be lost, God encircles his people - always has and always will.  In fact, the very next Psalm tells us that those who plant in times of drought will rejoice in times of harvest.  Those who went off with heavy hearts will return dancing and singing in their hearts.  God's rewards are much different than anything that the world offers us.  In the world, we wallow in our sorrow.  In God's presence, we learn the deep lessons of sorrow.  In the world, we see no end in the drought.  In God's presence, we see the possibilities of rain in even the wispiest cloud!

What makes you hungry today?  What has become foundational in your life?  Is the Word of God more than a thing that you believe in - has it become the very basis of all you believe and DO?  How long has it been since you have felt encircled by God's arms - welcomed to his table, enjoying his company?  Perhaps it is time for a really good meal in his presence!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cookies for the King

1-2 So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
(Romans 12:1-2 The Message)

Consecration goes beyond the surface - in fact, it embraces all of our being when it is operational in our lives.  Consecration is simply the act of setting something apart for a specific use.  When we say that the chocolate chip cookies are just for daddy because they are his favorite cookies, we have the expectation that the one receiving enjoyment out of those cookies will be daddy.  The same is true when we say we have dedicated our lives to the service of our heavenly Father - he will receive the enjoyment our dedication brings.

Grace and mercy are two very powerful forces at work in our lives.  It is the "favor" of God and the "pardon" of God that is at work in us.  The first step in dedicating our lives to his service is to yield what he already owns!  We are in a kind of "territory dispute" with God most of the time.  We want to enjoy the liberty of his grace and release of his pardon, but when it comes to actually turning over the "deed" to our lives, we hesitate.  We are called to be separated UNTO God for his special work within and through us.  What we fail to recognize is that separation is completely voluntary.

In the off chance that I am not clear here, let me explain.  God never REQUIRES our dedication.  He is honored by it, but he never compels us to serve him.  WE choose whom we will serve.  What we fail to recognize is that by dedicating ourselves to him, we are really being set apart for the most awesome enjoyment that one could ever experience.  Just like daddy may savor those chocolate chip cookies that have been "dedicated" to him, our heavenly Father will savor our dedication - giving over our "right" to hold control of our lives into his hands.

The most awesome thing happens when we finally yield the control of our lives to Jesus - we begin to bear the image of that which we yield to.  Did you ever see two totally close friends and notice how much they "resemble" each other in their habits, ideals, and even in their communication?  "Likeness" actually occurs because of the frequency of contact that they have with one another.  

When we finally desire God's enjoyment of our lives more than our own enjoyment of our sin, God is honored to take what we yield to him.  But...he only takes what is yielded (dedicated / consecrated)!  There is a practice in the Old Testament that we don't see any longer in our church services - the practice of the altar sacrifices.  That is okay, since Jesus was the perfect sacrifice!  Yet, I think there was some value in seeing how the altar affected what was dedicated to God by being placed on it!

Every gift laid at the altar is affected by the altar.  I call this the "altering" effect of the "altar".  It is like putting those chocolate chip cookies in the cookie jar for the enjoyment of one person only - each time that jar is opened, the aroma of those cookies rises.  At the altar of God's grace and mercy, there is an aroma that reaches God's nostrils and invites him to enjoy that which has been dedicated to him.  Yet, at the altar, God awakens a sense of need in us, as well.  It is at the altar that we are acknowledging our dependence upon him.

One last note - the CALLED OF God are CALLED FOR God - his enjoyment alone.  He already paid the price for our souls at the cross.  When we yield the right to govern our lives (our will), we are truly giving evidence that we are willing to have that which controls us the most affected by the altar.  Paul refers to this as having our minds renewed.  I think he might have had the picture of the altar in mind - leaving no part of our self-will untouched by the fire of the Spirit.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Corrected Courses

17 The road to life is a disciplined life;
   ignore correction and you're lost for good. 
(Proverbs 10:17 The Message)

Not too many of us embrace discipline very willingly.  As a matter of fact, we probably chafe a little under it!  We often think that someone is being too harsh in their "judgment" of us and we want to rationalize why it is that we are the way we are.  The proverb is pretty plain about this, though.  If we want to really live well, it is done by having a disciplined life.  If we ignore correction, we face the inevitability of a whole lot of wrong turns!

Since the advent of GPS devices for our smart-phones and cars, most of us have given up the old way of "navigating" to an unfamiliar destination.  My parents traveled in a recreational vehicle for about six years after their retirement.  Mom's "duty" was as "navigator".  She had a huge box of maps - one for each state, and even some for Canada.  To be truthful, I think they are still in my garage.  The thing about printed maps is that they are only as good as the paper they are printed on.  They don't "update" with new road development, construction detours, and the like.  Since they don't "update", they become obsolete quite quickly.

There are times that I think we want to rely upon God's Word to help us with the decisions we need to make in life.  The times when we are struggling with an addictive habit, we turn to the Word to find the help we need to break free of that habit.  Perhaps we are trying to make a decision about our future, seeking knowledge about God's will for our lives.  We turn to the Word for something that looks like the "road" we are traveling on today.  Then there are times that we simply want to "update" God's Word to "fit" the direction we are headed in life - making it "fit" where we are at rather than us learning to be "fit" by the Word.

The truth is that the Word of God is only one "tool" that God uses to keep us on course with him.  A disciplined life incorporates all the tools God provides - the Word, the good teaching of solid believers, wise counsel, and the directing of the Holy Spirit.  When ALL these tools are put to use in our lives, there are times of "correction" that occur.  It is like the GPS "re-directing" us onto the path that we need to be following.  If we ignore being "re-directed" long enough, we find ourselves in a real muddle.

No matter where we are in our walk with Christ, we all need some correction once in a while.  Sometimes our impulsiveness has us ACTING before we really take any time to THINK about what it is we are doing.  If we'd slow down long enough, listening to the direction we are receiving, we might just avoid some of the actions that cause us so much grief.  

Here is a little hint of what a disciplined life is like:

Dedicated to God's purposes
Intent on serving him
Simple, not over-complicated by the muddle of life
Connected with others of like faith
Indwelt by the Holy Spirit
Praise filled
Limitless in possibilities
Instructed in grace
Noticed by God
Encouragement to others in this walk with us
Determined toward obedience in every area of our life

Ignoring correction impacts each aspect.  When we ignore God's nudging to see his hand in our circumstance, we are determining to live by our own purposes.  When we seek our own way, we are no longer intent on serving only God - we allow self to become god in our lives.  Complicating our lives with too much activity, too much of anything, really only serves to keep us out of connections that we desperately need in order to be whole in Christ.  Ignoring the prompting voice of the Holy Spirit impacts our ability to praise - sin leads to guilt and we feel like we cannot move.  Openness to grace removes the guilt, but if we never learn the lessons of grace, we will not value what we have received.  God notices a heart that is turned to him, one that encourages others in their own walk of grace.  When he sees the determination of our hearts, he rewards the steps of obedience we take.

Just some thoughts of living a disciplined life this morning.  Our tendency to avoid discipline at all cost is only natural to us.  Once we embrace it as a way of life, the rewards are limitless.