Thursday, May 31, 2012

A little weeding time

Have you ever observed just how easily weeds grow and how terribly much work tending a garden seems to require?  It just does not seem fair at how easily the weeds sprout up all over the place, while coaxing one rose bush to bloom requires dead-heading, careful watering, and regular fertilizing.  A typical lawn may require hundreds of dollars a year just in "weed-preventer" chemicals!  What is up with all these weeds?

God can pour on the blessings in astonishing ways so that you're ready for anything and everything, more than just ready to do what needs to be done. As one psalmist puts it, "He throws caution to the winds, giving to the needy in reckless abandon. His right-living, right-giving ways never run out, never wear out."  This most generous God who gives seed to the farmer that becomes bread for your meals is more than extravagant with you. He gives you something you can then give away, which grows into full-formed lives, robust in God, wealthy in every way, so that you can be generous in every way, producing with us great praise to God.  (2 Corinthians 9:8-11 The Message)

The weeds never seem like a blessing, do they?  In fact, they almost make us curse!  I have learned some very interesting lessons from my weeds, though.  There are weeds which are very green - pluck them up and the lawn or garden seems to have "bald" patches which once appeared all nice and green.  Some are deceiving us with their pretty flowers - lulling us into admiring them, while all the while, they are preparing to let loose of hundreds of "weed-seeds" in a moment of time!  Then we have the weeds which don't really seem to be evident - but step on one of their spiny "burs" and you will soon be aware of their presence.  Lest you think I am only referring to the weeds in my outside garden and lawn, I am not.  There are these similar kinds of weeds in my "inner garden" which take over if not addressed!

Our passage today reflects on the blessings of God - extravagant blessings.  Yet, when Paul presents this idea of God pouring out blessings in astonishing ways, he is referring to the "giving" in order to have something to "give away".  Some may think it odd of me to get a "blessing" out of weeding my garden, but in some respects, it is very rewarding.  Sure, the lawn looks a little barren for a while when those green, leafy weeds are no longer firmly rooted in the soil. is this "barren" soil which gives room to the grass to grow as it is intended to, spreading out, taking root, and providing a rich and refreshing cover of green.  

The burs are a different matter.  I have to get "pricked" a few times before I actually get to the root of those menacing tentacles of pain!  The cocklebur weed is a tenacious thing - spreading out in all kinds of directions, weaving itself carefully into the blades of grass, until it has a firm root.  Then, before long, it puts out all these spiny little burs.  As time passes, these burs harden and become a menace to anyone who gets one attached to their sock, pant hem, or the tufts of an animals fur.  They become a source of irritation and try as you might, they just seem to attach more firmly whenever you make a move!

Now, what do those burs have to teach me?  First, they take root fast and "spread out", getting into areas they shouldn't.  Sin is like that - it spreads if not weeded-out quickly!  Second, although unnoticed at first, the burs make it quite evident in the end!  Sin cannot be hidden long - the "burs" will prick at us.  The more we "worry" on the burs, the more they seem to get entwined in our emotions.  Our faithful God is quick to point out the sin when it is not yet deeply rooted - weeding it out early prevents it from being a "bur" to be reckoned with later on!

What about the weeds which lull us into admiring them with their beautiful show of brightly colored flowers?  As a kid, I would walk the desert and find the wildflowers.  I never realized they were mostly weeds!  They "displayed" themselves as pretty flowers!  Sin is deceptive this way - putting up a good show at first, but secretly ready to release hundreds of "seeds".  The seeds produce fresh doubt, fear, worry, shame, guilt, and the list goes on.  Lulled by their seeming appearance of being "okay", we miss the "outgrowth" of their seeds!  Weeding them out, instead of admiring their "appearance" of being "okay", prevents seeds which will produce countless other issues in our lives.

So, getting back to our passage - God "gives" in order for us to have something to "give out".  Even the lesson of the weeds is a blessing which was given in order to be given out.  If it speaks to you - awesome!  

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Running to, or running away?

Distress - great pain, sorrow, or anxiety - it is the condition of such acute pain or suffering which is characterized by our extreme need.  When we think of distress, we often think of something which "drives" us to do something we might not otherwise have considered.  In fact, there are two paths we take in our distress - the one ends in further misfortune, the other in seeking help for a way out.  

Distress that drives us to God does that. It turns us around. It gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain. But those who let distress drive them away from God are full of regrets, end up on a deathbed of regrets.  (2 Corinthians 7:10 The Message)

Paul lays it out quite well for us in this passage - distress that drives us to God turns us around.  It "rights" our focus and gets us on the right path again.  In fact, no other "solution" for our distress will ever bring us the satisfaction and peace God affords as we bring it to him.

Look at what Paul says about distress - it can either drive us toward God, or away from God.  When we are moving toward something - it is in our view - we have hope of attaining whatever it is we are looking for.  There is an expectation which builds.  When we move away from something, we usually do so because we see it as a thing we fear, or we really have not come to the place where we recognize what it is we are trying so desperately to run away from.

Wrong decisions have a way of confusing us.  We make decisions, some on the spur of the moment, without much thought.  Then, when we see the results of the decisions, we may not be pleased with what the decision has produced.  We have a tendency to do a lot of "self-talk" when we make these wrong decisions. It varies from berating ourselves for our poorly thought out actions to hiding them away under a load of shame and regret.  The problem with these responses - they both produce more confusion for us.  Our emotions get caught up in the "distress".  Left alone in our misery long enough and our "acute" pain begins to become "chronic".  We live under the load of guilt, shame, and pain - just because we don't turn to the one who can remove it all.

Paul spent quite a bit of time helping the Corinthian church deal with unwise decisions.  He encountered their members engaged in sin, with the hopes they'd run right to God.  He engaged them in considering the other people in their lives, in hopes they'd take their companions to Christ in prayer when they were incapable of turning to him themselves.  He encouraged them to embrace the one who needed to be restored, in hopes they'd understand better the grace and mercy of our compassionate Savior.

I wonder who God has placed in our path this week who is experiencing great "distress"?  It may be emotional, physical, or spiritual - a really huge weight on the shoulders of the one caught under the burden of distress.  You might be called to be the voice of exhortation to them - speaking words which serve as a warning spoken in the tenderest and most loving way.  You could be the one awakened by an awareness of their need - moved to spend time lifting them up to the Father, battling with Satan for their very soul.  Still, you could be the arms of grace - embracing and restoring the one who has been buried for so long under the weight of their sin and shame.  

What we do with our own distress determines if we will be free from it, or continue to be weighed down under its load.  What we do when we recognize the distress of another may very well determine if they will be free from the weight they are bearing up under!  Be the hands and feet of Christ today.  Your movement toward the one in distress could be the very thing which turns them in the direction of God's grace and deliverance!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Thrill-seekers unite!

I have never been too excited to ride a roller-coaster.  In fact, I'd stay and watch as others enjoyed the "thrill" of the ride.  Why?  There is just something about sailing at speeds I have absolutely no control over which makes me stop to consider the risk!  If I have no control of the speed at which the thing carries me, then I have no control over when it stops, either.  In other words, I am out of control.

You're addicted to thrills? What an empty life! The pursuit of pleasure is never satisfied. (Proverbs 21:7 The Message)

There are some people "addicted" to the thrills life offers.  They live for the moment.  The problem with being a thrill-seeker is found in understanding why we seek the thrill - the immediate emotional response which produces excitement.  The issue is not in the emotion it eludes - but in the reality of the emotions being only for a moment in time compared to the span of time we call "life".  Thrill is produced by the adrenaline rush we get from the action we are involved in.  Adrenaline is an immediate release - not meant to carry us for the duration, just for the immediate need to either fight or flee.

It is truly an empty existence to live for pleasure.  At the end of our spending, what do we gain from the thrill of it?  Probably bills we cannot pay.  When our unbridled passions lead to a moment or two of "thrill-seeking" activity, what we are left with often leaves us feeling more unsatisfied than we were before we pursued the thing (or person) we were so passionate about.  At the end of our indulgence, we come to the place some call "reality".  I don't want to imply the "thrill" was not reality - sometimes it is - but it does not last.  Anything which does not last is truly going to leave one feeling empty.  

This is the caution our writer wants us to see - thrill-seeking becomes something which we form an attachment to.  In some areas of the hospital, there are nurses and doctors we'd say are addicted to the adrenaline rush.  For example, the trauma centers in the large emergency rooms are filled with nurses and doctors who live for the "thrill" of the next challenging trauma.  They feel they are at their "best" when they are challenged.  I daresay, the emergency room doctors and nurses think this is rarely the case with the other 90% of nurses and doctors who work throughout the hospital.  The others seem to "plod" along, almost with a 'dull' existence (in their estimation).  

The opposite is probably closer to the truth.  In the "plodding" of everyday life, we find the evenness of emotional stability.  Paul put it this way, "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)

Paul reminds us of the importance of embracing what God does for us - he provides more than "the thrill" of salvation, he provides the "stability" of living it out day-by-day.  Seems "ordinary", huh?  Probably not too exciting for the "thrill-seeker", but quite appealing to the one who longs for "stability" and "permanence" in their lives!  Some days with God don't seem to be very "thrill-filled", but in the living out of what God expects, we enjoy the "evenness" of emotional stability, the "thrill" of enjoyment in his presence, and the "ecstasy" of special moments with him.  No other "thrill" produces the same affect on us as the "thrill" of being held in the hand of God!  What thrill will you seek today?

Monday, May 28, 2012

The stirring of my heart

If you have ever been in love, you might understand what I am about to say - no one else captivates your attention quite the same as the one you hold in such closeness in your heart.  Even if you have never been "in love" with that special man or woman in your life, you likely understand this statement - where the heart is, there is your focus.  Over the past several days, I have felt God directing me to focus on the heart.  As most may recognize, to teach, one has to be taught.  Therefore, if you are picking up on anything in my blog, you are likely to know God is continually dealing with my heart.  In turn, he is dealing with my focus.  How about your focus?  Is he dealing with yours, too?

Your profile turns all heads, commanding attention.  The feelings I get when I see the high mountain ranges—stirrings of desire, longings for the heights—
remind me of you, and I'm spoiled for anyone else!  (Song of Solomon 5:7 The Message)

I love this passage because it speaks of what "stirs" God's heart!  It is us!  When he looks upon us he is "spoiled for anyone else"!  No one else captures his attention like us - no one!  I wonder if we can say the same about our own hearts?

If you have ever read through the Song of Solomon, you may have been a little uncertain about the meaning of it - kind of a love story plopped right in the middle of the Bible.  I know most of our Bible is not written in chronological order, but when it was constructed in the typical 66-book outline from Genesis to Revelation, I think there was a purpose why the Song ended up right where it did.  Think about it...

Genesis through Deuteronomy encompasses the creation of mankind, the tenderness of God to care for his creation, and the redemption of a people who would be the delight of his heart.  Joshua through 2 Chronicles outlines the struggles of putting down roots in a land which was not their own.  Ups and downs are recorded for our learning - lessons on the hardships of disobedience. Then comes Ezra and Nehemiah - hope for rebuilding what was lost.  The message of redemption rings true once again.  Esther bespeaks the lessons of obedience and submission.  Job the testing of faith and the blessings of steadfast commitment.  Then we launch into the Psalms - praises and prayers designed to show us how living in the presence of God affects our lives.  Proverbs and Ecclesiastes presents practical messages of living uprightly, making right choices, and learning how to control what otherwise might control us.

Then...the Song of Solomon.  A book of intense love - the captured thoughts of two so in love, the connection of heart is almost palpable.  All along, God has been directing us to this point - the connection of heart, not just mind.  The following books from Isaiah through Malachi cement the idea of a life without God being void of substance, bound by the very thing we'd hoped would have given us liberty.  They bespeak the message of a heart grown cold.  We don't even need to outline the message of the New Testament - the word "new" bespeaks it all.  God gives what man cannot - a new heart.

Look again at our passage -  The feelings I get when I see the high mountain ranges—stirrings of desire, longings for the heights—remind me of you, and I'm spoiled for anyone else!  God looks upon us and he is stirred with desire. Desire to provide what will make us whole, completing us in every good and perfect way.  If you read the rest of the book, you will see times when it seems like the two lovers are never separated, followed by the times when there seems to be a distance between them.  Isn't this the way of our walk with Christ?  Times when we just cannot get enough of him, followed by times when it seems like we are a little distant from each other?  

As I leave you today, I want to leave you with just a couple of thoughts.  When God looks upon you, his heart is stirred.  When he sees your obedience, his heart is enraptured.  When he gazes upon your heart, he sees it as no one else does - perfect!  When we pause long enough to take in his image, our image becomes one with his.  If we stir up a longing in his heart, just think how much beholding him can stir up ours!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The devil is in the details!

How many times have we heard the idiom, "The devil is in the details"?  Did you ever realize the origin of this idiom actually went:  "God is in the detail"?  Quite a difference, huh?  There is more than one difference here - do you see it?  First, the biggest is God vs. the Devil.  But...look at the subtle differences.  With the devil, it is the "details" (plural) which is the focus.  With God, the word is "detail" (singular).  This is not a mis-type.  It is the original form.  I wonder if the devil gets us so wrapped up in the details so we will miss the detail God is intending for our present focus? 

One of the most recent forms of this idiom is:  "The truth, if it exists, is in the details".  Maybe you don't get very excited by understanding the origin of the various idioms we use so freely, but when we stop long enough to examine them, we see some interesting stuff.  With this in mind, let's launch into our scripture:

Our work as God's servants gets validated—or not—in the details. People are watching us as we stay at our post, alertly, unswervingly . . . in hard times, tough times, bad times; when we're beaten up, jailed, and mobbed; working hard, working late, working without eating; with pure heart, clear head, steady hand; in gentleness, holiness, and honest love; when we're telling the truth, and when God's showing his power; when we're doing our best setting things right; when we're praised, and when we're blamed; slandered, and honored; true to our word, though distrusted; ignored by the world, but recognized by God; terrifically alive, though rumored to be dead; beaten within an inch of our lives, but refusing to die; immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy; living on handouts, yet enriching many; having nothing, having it all.              (2 Corinthians 6:4-10 The Message)

Wow!  Our service is validated (or not) in the details of our lives!  Now, this should give us cause to pause.  Think of the details of the past one hour.  Maybe you are at work, or simply luxuriating in a late start on a day off.  Regardless, you had some "details" you could recall.  Now, take this one step further - how many of those "details" actually matter in the whole scheme of things?  Now I have gone meddling!

There are times in life when we just get caught up in the details without really taking any close look at what they contribute to the overall impact of our day.  Paul reminds us we are being watched.  We may not realize who, or how many, but people are watching us.  They may be looking in curiosity to see how it is we work through the tough times.  They may be even attach an element of admiration when they see us beaten up, but still moving forward.  Yet, the most important thing for us to understand is the opening statement - "in the details".  

Tough times, difficult projects, and oppressive forces - the details manifest in the heart.  The heart motivates every action of our hands and every word of our mouths.  We are at the verge of getting our feathers ruffled (or our knickers in a knot) - how we hand the "details" makes all the difference.  The devil would like us to focus on the "details" - God points us to the one "detail" which makes or breaks us.  The one detail - the response of our heart.  

Paul presents a litany of stuff we all face at some time or another.  Don't get lost in the list of "stuff".  Get the focus on the root of the passage.  People are watching us as we stay our post, alertly and unswervingly.  We are being validated by our action, and often by our inactivity.  When something is validated, it is proven real.  We think we have to line up all the pieces (the details) - God says it only takes one piece to make or break us.  

Just some food for thought today.  Detail or details?  How are you focused today?  It will make a difference in the outcome!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

It is time for the news!

In today's electronic age, we seldom resort to "snail mail" as a means of keeping in touch with others in our lives.  I am quite guilty of this myself.  It is not that I have lost the ability to write a letter, place a stamp on it, and walk it to the mailbox.  It is the "immediacy" of email and instant messaging which makes it all the more appealing to me.  In the past, the "news" we'd share about changes in our lives would come via the postal service, arriving to the recipient days after the "news" was indeed "news".  In the military, we had mail call.  It was a time when we'd all gather around in hopes of one link to home in the form of a small envelope filled with "news" and maybe even a little token of love.  In turn, our loved ones would hurry to the mailbox when they'd see the familiar mailman's truck passing by.  We all want to know the "news" of another's life.

Does it sound like we're patting ourselves on the back, insisting on our credentials, asserting our authority? Well, we're not. Neither do we need letters of endorsement, either to you or from you. You yourselves are all the endorsement we need. Your very lives are a letter that anyone can read by just looking at you. Christ himself wrote it—not with ink, but with God's living Spirit; not chiseled into stone, but carved into human lives—and we publish it. (2 Corinthians 3:1-3 The Message)

We are all "writing letters" of a different sort - the letter written on a human heart touched by the hand of a forgiving and loving God.  These are letters which are "read" by many - not just those closest to us.  The "news" of a changed life is indeed something to be heralded.

I want to challenge us for a moment.  Let me pose a couple of thoughts about what is being "written" in our hearts today.  

- First, "news" is the report of something recent - a new event or occurrence.  What can you point to in your life today which reflects the hand of God writing on your heart something which is new or fresh?  If you are having a little difficulty with this one, then maybe it is time to seek him out - taking some time to allow his touch to be felt almost always assures us of seeing the evidence of his "writing" in our lives.

- Second, "news" is usually a collection of things - not just one point or idea.  In order to "frame" the "news", one has to "tell the story".  When God sets out to write his story in us, he "frames" the story.  There is something about God's writing which points others to see the trail grace has made as it traces over our souls.  In the reviewing of the various "points", one sees a clear picture of who and what God has done in our lives.

- Third, "news" is something written and expressed - it is not "news" if it is kept to oneself.  It is simply "new" knowledge if we keep it to ourselves.  God's purpose for "writing" on our hearts is so others can see and enjoy the story.  Look at what Paul wrote to the Corinthian church.  He did not need all kinds of letters of endorsement from others - his greatest letter of endorsement was a changed life.  Our lives are evidence of God's "re-creative" power.  They are "news" worthy of expression.  

So, really there are various forms of "mail" we read in life - the instant electronic type, the snail mail type, and the ever-present "mail" of a life touched by his hand.  Others are "reading" us each and everyday.  I wonder what "news" they will see today by looking upon my life?  How about you?

Friday, May 25, 2012

What's growing in your pitri dish?

In a sense, all of us have experienced the best and worst at times.  Moments when it just seems you will burst with excitement leave you feeling totally encouraged.  Then, almost without notice, another moment comes, bringing weight seemingly beyond your ability to carry it.  I have no idea why life has to be so much like a "pendulum" swinging this way and then the other at times.  With the highs and lows come opportunities.  We are given new insights into the tremendous blessings we have in life.  We are also given insights into the "old habits" we "count on" to get us through.  Sometimes, the old habits are more of a hindrance than a benefit.

All of you, slave and free both, were once held hostage in a sinful society. Then a huge sum was paid out for your ransom. So please don't, out of old habit, slip back into being or doing what everyone else tells you. Friends, stay where you were called to be. God is there. Hold the high ground with him at your side.    (I Corinthians 7:23-24 The Message)

By definition, a habit is an acquired behavior.  We become so acquainted with doing something a particular way until it becomes almost involuntary to us.  Think of the first three things you did today.  How many of those actions are simply out of habit?  For me, it was making the bed, the coffee, and my packing my lunch.  Totally habit.  No one left me a list of instructions requiring these of me - I simply gravitated to them because it is my usual custom.

In another sense, a habit is the "dominant" disposition we display.  It is the most consistent response to the influences we have in life.  When the pendulum swings one direction, we almost consistently respond one way or another.  We have developed a "dominant" tendency which displays the true character of our heart.  Over the past several days, I have been speaking a lot about the heart. It is true - the heart betrays the "real you", does it not?  So, focusing on the heart is a good thing when it comes to understanding what is "dominant" in our lives.

Old habits are hard to break.  I used to chew my nails.  They'd be little stubs. They are certainly not long, elegant nails today - I keep them trimmed because I am in healthcare.  Yet, they are no longer chewed to the quick.  Why?  I changed my habit!  What influenced the change?  One semester in microbiology!  When I took a culture scraping from what little nails I had, left it to incubate over the weekend, returning the next week to find a multitude of colored, fuzzy stuff growing in the dish, I was left with a pretty visible impression!  

Now, wouldn't it be nice if every "old habit" we have could be as easy to see?  Having the visible evidence of its affect on our lives would be so telling, right?  If we could somehow put every old habit in a petri dish, let it incubate in a controlled environment for a while, then come back to examine it, we might be surprised at what we see "growing"!  

A controlled environment allows for the evidence to become apparent - but can an uncontrolled environment do the same?  As the pendulum of life swings, things surface.  Responses we thought we'd done away with in the past, or images of old patterns of sin come creeping to the surface.  In the moment, we probably don't have any "control" over the environment, but if we were wise, we would reach out to the one who can help us analyze what lays beneath the surface.  

We are given the gift of the Holy Spirit present in our lives.  He is the one who "captures" the "culture" of our response.  He is also the one who brings us into the "controlled environment" where we can see exactly what incubation of these old habits will produce.  In seeing the evidence, he trusts us to allow him to help us change these old habits so they will no longer produce these "ill-effects" within us.  I wonder if we realize just how much God loves us?  He cares so much about the "old habits" because they have such "ill-effects" in our lives.  It is his greatest joy to help us "isolate" what causes us the greatest harm.  In letting him examine the "culture" of your life, there is a little risk, but the benefit of the revelation outweighs the risk!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Words of the Heart

What makes you stand out from another in a crowd?  Lately, I have been observing all kinds of things which make folks stand out.  Things like those into multiple body piercings - loops dangling here and there, chains connecting this to that, and studs outlining their facial features like eyeliner. Okay - it makes a statement, but not the one I want to make.  Then there are the ones who clamor for the latest of fashions - skirts shorter this year, towering on six inch spikes of death (better known as "heels"), and gargantuan purses truly capable of accommodating the proverbial kitchen sink.  Again - not my cup of tea.  So, what is it we desire to have on display? Is it our fashion sense?  Is it our need to be noticed?  Is it the "shock-factor" we give our onlookers?  

A wise person gets known for insight; gracious words add to one's reputation. (Proverbs 16:21 The Message)

Solomon offers us one insight into our "display" - get known for your insight!  It isn't what we "display" on our bodies - it is what is displayed in the outpouring of our minds, hearts, and spirits!  Where do gracious words emanate from?  The scripture points us to the heart - out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45).  How is the heart made reliable?  Scripture points to the fact of our heart being "deceitful" and "desperately wicked" - a puzzle no one can truly figure out (Jeremiah 17:9).  We are faced with a conundrum of sorts, aren't we?  We want a great reputation, but our heart betrays us!

As we look again at our passage, we are directed toward our words - following the path scripture points us, we find the root of our words is the heart - therefore, the root of a good reputation lies in a changed heart.  In allowing the examination of the heart, we often are providing the means to "uproot" the stuff which negatively impacts our reputation.  A plant grows in various kinds of soil - in varying places of nourishment.  

Looking at some of the well-cultivated gardens of the South, I find rich, dark soil.  It is filled with all kinds of nourishment for the plant.  The soil is easily worked and relatively free of barriers to growth.  Yet, the soil is affected by "external" things - like rain, or sunshine.  Too much rain and a lack of sunshine - mold and mildew begin to affect the roots.  Not enough rain and too much sunshine - plants wither.  It is a fine balance, isn't it?  So, "intake" is important to maintaining the health of the plant.  This is the purpose of the roots, is it not?  Intake also involves spreading leaves wide to receive the rays of the sun.  A different type of plant grows in the shadows of the tree than that which is out in the blistering sun of day!  Too much of even a good thing can affect us adversely!  The importance of "balance" in our lives is not to be missed.

Looking at the rocky desert landscape of Arizona, I find alkaline soil - hard, impenetrable, and almost hostile to growth.  The things which grow in this soil are much different in appearance than those of the deep South.  In fact, many of the plants growing in the deserts have to struggle to grow.  There are rocks in the soil, impeding the deep reaches of the roots to much needed water sources.  The "leaves" of the desert plants resemble spikes!  In fact, they often repel rather than attract.  Most of the time, you don't hear anyone saying, "Oh my!  Just look at the beauty of that cactus over there!"  But...there is something to be said about the roots of these growing things in our desert.  Their roots go deep!  They have to in order to survive!  Strong winds apply pressures each monsoon season - easily ripping up those which are not anchored deep.  Hot seasons produce very little relief in drenching rains.  

Now, consider the "reputation" of the two types of "growth".  The plant of the deep South - it is beautiful, lush looking, and admirable.  But...will it endure the harshness of the seasons?  I challenge us to consider again the plant of the Arizona desert.  First, it is adaptable.  When the seasons of dryness come, it may not bloom as much or as vividly, but it sinks its roots deeper and endures.  Second, it has adapted to where it is planted.  The spines may look a little "rough", but they are simply "adapted" leaves.  Last, but definitely not least, they grow where others tend to wither.  

Bringing this back to our discussion of "heart", here's what I want us to see.  An "adaptable" heart reflects the soil its roots are planted within!  At first, we may only see the spikes of "adapted leaves", but in time, we see the beauty of sturdy, steady, and deeply anchored roots.  The woodpecker makes his nest in the hollow of the cactus, carving out a safe habitation for its young.  He looks beyond the long spikes of the cactus, anchoring his trust in the shelter of the stately cacti.  

Hmmm...I wonder if this is what Solomon had in mind when he reminds us of the reputation of the wise?  They may not "fit the mold" of what the world calls wise.  If you have ever been drawn to the words of one touched by God in the depths of their heart, you will soon realize they have adapted to the soil they are planted within, allowing it to affect them deeply.  In turn, their words provide a little nourishment to all who take them in - a shelter of sorts.    The external appearance may not always reflect the internal source of strength realized in the "rooting" of the wise person - but their words betray their roots!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A little too close for comfort!

Most of us have never experienced the type of persecution which lands us in jail for our testimony of Christ.  In fact, many of my readers actually luxuriate each day in our "comfort" of living in a country which promotes religious freedom.  Over recent months, I have observed the largest percentage of my readers shifting from the US and Canada to some of the countries where religious freedom may not be as available - such as Russia, Slovania, Indonesia, India, and Saudi Arabia.  In fact, the most "hits" have come from Russia over the past 60 days.  I can only praise God for the expansive audience the internet allows!  

A few days later Felix and his wife, Drusilla, who was Jewish, sent for Paul and listened to him talk about a life of believing in Jesus Christ. As Paul continued to insist on right relations with God and his people, about a life of moral discipline and the coming Judgment, Felix felt things getting a little too close for comfort and dismissed him.  (Acts 24:24-25 The Message)

Felix was governor of the region.  He is asked to hear a case which is a little unsettling to him - the case of "State" versus "Paul - a believer in Christ".  As the chapter opens, we learn something interesting about this case - it is a "set up".  The charges have been "trumped up" to make Paul out to be some type of "rabble-rouser" worthy of a life sentence in prison.

Felix is in a little bit of a muddle here.  In fact, he is torn on what his verdict should be.  Why?  Maybe it was because his wife was a Jew, as was Paul.  In fact, if you know anything about Paul, he was a Jew of the Jews (a Pharisee - a student of the Law of Moses).  If he ruled against Paul, siding with the religious Jews which brought him before the court, what was he saying?  It was kind of like, "This group of Jewish believers I will support, but this group I will not."  Now, there's a pickle for you!

So, he delays his sentencing.  Yep, the age-old strategy of "stalling" in the moment of needing to make a decision works to his advantage here.  He tells the crowds he will need more time.  In reading this chapter, I actually chuckled by the passage which precedes ours today.  So, I thought I'd share it, too.

Felix shilly-shallied. He knew far more about the Way than he let on, and could have settled the case then and there. But uncertain of his best move politically, he played for time. "When Captain Lysias comes down, I'll decide your case." He gave orders to the centurion to keep Paul in custody, but to more or less give him the run of the place and not prevent his friends from helping him. (Acts 24:22-23 The Message)

He "shilly-shallied".  In the simplest terms, it means he wasted time - delayed in order to not make a decision.  He was vacillating this way and that, not able to figure out one way as better than another.  So, when in doubt, just throw the guy back in jail!  Only, look at what he "allows" for Paul.  He gave him the run of the place!  Anyone incarcerated would be the first to tell you this just doesn't happen!  Prisoners are just not allowed to have visitors anytime they want them, moving about as they wish.  In fact, they are on a regimented routine - going hither and yon as the guards require.

The thing I want to focus on today is the summation of Paul's testimony before Felix.  Our passage points out several important things.  First, Paul was given opportunity to share the Good News even in his "bound" state.  There is nothing which can "shut down" the testimony of Christ when it is genuine!  Second, he was bold in his message.  We learn he "insisted" upon right relationships between God and man.  He pointed them repeatedly to the truth of restored relationship - not just religious pursuit, but intimate relationship.  Last, but not least, he continued to warn of coming judgment.  Amazingly, the prisoner preaches of coming judgment to the very one who could pass the most serious of judgments against him (at least in the natural sense).

The result - it made Felix uncomfortable because it hit way too close to home.  The evidence of the reality of Christ is too much for even the most stalwart of souls to resist.  When the message hit too close to home - he sent Paul back to the cell.  Interestingly, he does not order him killed, nor does he prohibit his speaking out his testimony.  He simply distances himself from Paul - to ease the discomfort a little, I am sure.  

I wonder just how much our own testimony "gets a little too close to home" with those we are given audience with?  Does the message of our lives match the message of our mouths?  Who knows - we may be given audience to someone one day with great influence.  This "audience" may be the very thing which influences a nation.  What your words and life accomplish under the anointing of the Holy Spirit may be far-reaching.  Just remain faithful to the testimony of Christ, the reality of restored relationship, and the right-living of solid morals.  Your life speaks volumes - even if it is to an "audience of one".  

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Strip down!

Our pastor recently asked us to keep this passage before us as a reminder of the fact we all run a race.  As he shared, some run a direction all of their own choosing, but the run alone.  As a believer in Christ, we run in a race alongside the greatest runner of all times - Christ himself.  If having his example (pace-setting) before us was not enough, he left us with a huge crowd of "models" who also ran the race and won.  We can learn much by considering how they ran.

Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we'd better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we're in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he's there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!  (Hebrews 12:1-3 The Message)

I don't want to focus on these models today, though.  I want us to really consider the content of this passage.  There is some instruction on "how to" run the race which I think it would behoove us to see:

1.  Strip down!  In the military, we learned to run in combat boots, full fatigue uniform, and sometimes even with our packs on our backs.  Now, if you have ever tried to run any distance in combat boots, you know this is not an easy feat.  They are just not built for running!  It is amazing to consider just how much "stuff" we want to carry into the spiritual race we run.  We have burdens we just don't want to let go of - serving only to weigh us down.  We have covered up our sins with ill-fitting facades - all they do is add extra weight and really are not helping us to run any better.  We are to have our feet shod with the gospel of peace - - yet we plod along in "combat boots"!  We hold onto anger and bitterness as though they were attached to our very soles (actually they are attached to our "souls").  The instruction:  STRIP DOWN! 

2.  Start running!  No race is ever won until we actually begin running!  I have been both the observer on the sidelines and the runner in the race.  I no longer can run in the natural sense due to the damage my knee has suffered over the years, but I can still cheer on those who do.  In some senses, I miss the ability to run.  There was something in the adrenaline rush of running alongside others -- pushing beyond your perceived capacity to run any longer until you got that second burst of energy.  You don't get the energy until you run!  Have you ever seen a runner out at 2:30 in the morning?  I have.  Why are they out there at that hour?  Their body craves the run.  I wonder how much we actually crave the run in the spiritual sense?  

3.  Keep your eyes on the finish line!  If you run, there must be a destination in mind.  If you just set off running without a goal in mind, you might not ever make it home.  I think of the character "Forrest Gump" -- in the movie, he sets out one day to "run".  He has no destination in mind -- he just runs.  When he gets to the opposite coastline, he stops, turns around, and runs again.  He does this several times until one day, he just stops.  He is finished running.  This is similar to us running without a goal in mind.  We set out, run a long time, then just stop.  We really don't have much to show for our running, but we can say we "ran".  How much better is it to have run a race in which the goal is clearly in mind?

4.  Study how Jesus did it!  A good runner always has "pace-setters" in mind.  He studies how others endure the race.  He looks at how they pace themselves, where they rest, when they take nourishment -- how they run stands as an example for us to follow.  Now, imagine learning how Jesus "paced" himself.  You don't see him arriving on the scene (earth), taking over local governments, clearing the temples of all sinful characters, and announcing "I am God", do you?  He allows himself to be "paced" by one who knows how the race should be run (his Father).  He had dedicated times of rest.  He took nourishment (both natural and spiritual) because without it, he'd not be able to continue on.  Why do we attempt to run any differently?

5.  You will get weary!  Running fatigues the one running.  It is natural to get weary in this race.  What we do with the weariness determines if we will win the race!  Do we rest a while, regrouping our spiritual strength, renewing our stamina to run hard again, or do we just give up?  If we allow weariness to keep us from running hard again, the race beats us!  I applaud our writer -- he is realistic.  He warns us of the weariness which will come upon even the best runner.  His advice to us -- review the race from the viewpoint of the winner!  That will shoot adrenaline in your soul indeed!

So, are you running today?  Have you stripped down?  Is your goal clearly defined, or does it need some refining?  Who are you holding out as a "pace-setter" in this race?  Are you finding yourself weary?  Maybe it is time to refocus, renew, and re-engage in the race.  See you on the "track", my friends!

Monday, May 21, 2012

May I have a word with you?

If you have ever found yourself thinking, "I wish I hadn't said that", you are probably in good company.  Most of us have experienced some moment of remorse over poorly chosen words.  We just had no idea of the impact they'd make when they were actually spoken.

Irresponsible talk makes a real mess of things, but a reliable reporter is a healing presence.  (Proverbs 13:17 The Message)

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.  (Philippians 4:8 King James Version)

Well, now this certainly says it all!  I discovered this topic has some of the most content in looking up passages about "words", "speech", and "communication" in the scripture.  Since we all probably find ourselves in the category of "irresponsibly speaking" on occasion, I'd like to share some principles I found in the scriptures related to our words.  Carefully chosen words lead to a carefully "walked" life.  (Proverbs 13:3)  The words we choose to speak have a life-altering ability.  Not only do they alter our lives, but those who hear them.  To this end, let's examine how the passage from Philippians 4:8 may impact our words if we take hold of the principles taught:

1.  Our words should be true.  If you have ever spoken words which really do not conform to the facts, you probably have either interpreted the facts through a "skewed" perspective, or your intention was to mislead.  Either way, the words have an ability to mislead.  God's first reminder to us - be truthful.

2.  Our words should be honest.  You might think this is the same as being truthful, but it carries a different type of meaning.  In being honest, we are to be upright and fair.  In other words, we speak in such a manner so as to be fair in what is said.  Perspective goes a long way in determining our perception of a situation.  If we first determine we want a perspective which causes us to see things in a truthful manner, then the words we speak sometimes are "tempered" by the "fairness" principle.  Let me explain.  When we go to a counselor about our problems, what is the counselor doing?  They are listening to both sides of the story!  From a neutral perspective, they help us "re-frame" our perspective to see things from another's viewpoint.  Before long, if done well, we begin to see the other person differently.

3.  Our words should be just.  Think of this as words which actually are proper to be spoken at the time.  In other words, they are given or awarded rightly. If we use words like "always", "never", or "without fail" in describing another's actions, are these words accurately reflective of the other's actions?  Not usually - - try as we might, we cannot "accurately" label someone's actions as consistently, without fail, as always being a certain way.  So, we need to learn to bring "reason" into the picture.

4.  Our words should be pure.  When something is considered "impure", it is usually because it has had something "added" to the mixture.  So, pure words don't carry a lot of contaminating "add-mixture" stuff.  We don't embellish.  We don't need a whole lot of examples to build our case.  We need keep our words as free from inappropriate elements as possible.

5.  Our words should be lovely.  They should possess a beauty to them which is sincere and which appeals both to the heart and the mind.  Words which are insincere have a "masked" meaning.  They may appeal to the mind for a while, but when they hit the heart, their true meaning becomes apparent.  

6.  Our words should bring a good report.  Mom always taught, "If you cannot say something nice, don't say anything at all."  Our guiding principle with this concept is to allow our words to be morally excellent.  If they don't reflect good morals on our part - don't speak them.  If they destroy the good morals of another - don't speak them.  If they would be best left unspoken - don't speak them.  The questions to ask ourselves:  Are they right?  Are they fitting?  Are they proper?  If not, don't speak them.

7.  Our words should bespeak virtue and praise.  Words should lend something to the integrity of the relationship.  If they don't, they tend to tear down rather than knit together.  

Now, if this seems like a rather long list, it is.  God gives it to us in bite-sized chunks so we have an ability to allow him to impact our words in measurable ways.  If we begin at the top, working with God each step of the way, he can impact our choice of words.  It may not come instantly, but as we commit to the principles taught, we become much wiser with the use of our words.  We don't need to manipulate to get our message across - - it comes across in a powerful and altering way because it is tempered with the grace of God!  As a closing thought, take a lesson from one who has learned, "All words need to be thought, but not all thoughts need to make it into words!"

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Driver's Education Moment

In high school, I took the infamous Driver's Education course.  For quite some time we sat behind the banks of simulators, working through various scenarios we might encounter on the roadway.  Before we could get behind the wheel of a real automobile, we were exposed to various "tests" of our responses, awareness of danger, etc.  When we finally got behind the wheel of the Driver's Education vehicle, it was an ominously important step!  We were DRIVING!  But...guess what?  There were two steering wheels, two sets of brakes, and two accelerators!  So, in actuality, if we weren't driving "well", our instructor could "take over control" of the vehicle - overriding what we were doing in order to keep us safe!

Real help comes from GodYour blessing clothes your people!  (Psalm 3:8 The Message)  

I would like us to imagine our life today in a similar manner.  We all have some "simulator" training - then the "real deal" comes, doesn't it?  We go through small tests of our faith, then there is this honking big one.  Just as the simulation training in the classroom of our Driver's Education class prepared us for the reality of the roadway, the smaller challenges of today increase our faith for the huge challenge of tomorrow.

As I made my first venture out onto the roadways, we headed out onto a journey mapped out by our instructor.  He had chosen the specific roadways because they afforded certain challenges -- left-hand turns, lane changes, merging traffic patterns, etc.  We came along a green light which changed to amber.  My instinct...speed up, go through it.  My instructor's instinct was to override the accelerator, stomp on the brakes, and steer the car to a stop prior to entering the intersection!  

I was about to make a decision which "committed" me to act a certain way, but may not have been the wisest or safest.  I was behind the wheel, but he truly was in control of the vehicle!  Try as I might, no amount of stomping on the gas worked!  For my safety - I was being overridden.  I did not know to yield, but he did!

Now...for just a moment, I would like you to think of yourself in the passenger seat, someone else driving the vehicle.  You are approaching what you consider a safety concern.  Be many times have you actually stomped on the floorboard???  Why did you do that?  Unless you are driving a Driver's Education vehicle, you don't actually have any brake pedals over on your side of the car!  

The thing I don't want us to lose sight of is the nearness of God as we navigate this "roadway" of reality we call life.  We may think we are behind the wheel, but he has the ability to override, help us steer clear of dangers, and to bring us safely to a stop when it is the best maneuver for us!  He's like the Driver's Education instructor - in control.  The most dangerous thing for us to do is to take away the controls he has in our life!  

Our passage says it all - we will inevitably be at a point when we need his help - no matter how "carefully" we are "driving" our lives - we will come upon the intersection which will be the defining moment for us.  We can either yield the controls, or we can staunchly refuse to yield...still trying to stomp on the gas when he has told us to clearly apply the brakes!  The test in the moment is who will ultimately get control.  One has to yield control in order for the other to take it.  God is a gracious "instructor" in our lives - - he asks for control.  But...thank goodness he still overrides some of our decisions on occasion!

Who's really driving our life?  How well have we done with the simulation training we have been through?  Has it made us more aware of the dangers we will face?  Has it made us more sensitive to the need for God's protection?  If so, we will do well on the roadway because we are prepared to drive as though our life depends on his intervention every leg of the journey!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Unlimited spending!!!!

My daughter recently posted a silly little question on Facebook.  She asked why she could not have unlimited spending at two of her favorite shopping hangouts.  One of her friends posted back:  "Well, the Bible says, 'Give and it shall be given unto you, pressed down, shaken together and running over.'  Start buying me lots of stuff and you will be crazy blessed!"  Now, I know this was a humorous response to silly question, but I liked the idea it prompted in my mind about today's blog!  

Have you ever come on anything quite like this extravagant generosity of God, this deep, deep wisdom? It's way over our heads. We'll never figure it out.  Is there anyone around who can explain God?  Anyone smart enough to tell him what to do?  Anyone who has done him such a huge favor that God has to ask his advice? Everything comes from him; Everything happens through him;  Everything ends up in him. Always glory! Always praise!   Yes. Yes. Yes. (Romans 11:33-36 The Message)

Paul challenges us with this question:  Have you ever come on anything quite like this extravagant generosity of God?  If we really begin to consider this, we probably all would find we have so much in the way of "riches" right in our own possession and we either don't see them, or we have been taking them for granted all this time.  The immediate blessing which comes to mind is the incredibly unfathomable acceptance of each of us into the family of God.  I am not from royalty, but I have been adopted into a family of incredible royalty!  Now, there's a blessing to consider!

What about the blessings of our ability to do simple tasks which we take for granted so very often?  Things like brushing our teeth, combing our hair, and buttoning our own clothing.  As a nurse, I have seen thousands over the years lose this very ability - through the effects of crippling arthritis, spinal cord injuries, or neurological assaults on the brain.  We just don't know what a blessing it is to be able to complete these simple tasks until we find ourselves unable to do them!

So, now that you have thought of a few blessings you maybe take for granted, let's look at what else Paul says here.  He tells us we'll never figure out God.  Well, I am no rocket scientist, but I'd agree with him whole-heartedly on this point!  Try as I might, God's wisdom, grace, and unconditional love are unfathomable to me!  Everything comes from him.  Everything happens through him.  Everything ends in him.  Everything!  

All we "possess".  All which seemingly just "happens" in our day.  All is a result of him being the Lord of our lives.  Nothing is by our own creation - we are impossible of creation without him.  Nothing is by our own efforts - he gives us the breath and strength to undertake the task at hand.  

When we stop to consider God, we think of one word:  Everything.

When we stop to consider what we are without God, we think of one word:  Nothing.

So, if I want "everything" - I am really saying I want more of God!  

Now, it may not be unlimited spending at my favorite shopping hangout, but it is much more fulfilling than a new pair of jeans!  So, before we start wishing for more of what we "think" we need, maybe we should start asking for more of what we "really" need!  God is never more honored than when we bring our need to him.  It is in the acknowledging of our dependence upon him that he is brought honor.  

Apart from God, we really possess nothing.  In God, we are blessed with and through everything!  It is not just what we possess, but what possesses us!  God's greatest glory is not found in us figuring him out - - it is in us honoring him with our obedience and love!  Our "unlimited spending" is really most rewarding when it is in the courts of God.  

Friday, May 18, 2012

Not another "stay-cation"!

It is almost the end of the school season and many families are beginning to make their plans for summer vacations.  Some will choose to laze around the lake, taking in nature in all its beauty.  Others will head for far away family, renewing the bonds and memories which the miles have imposed in their separation.  Yet, others will clamor for the long lines of the amusement parks and thrill of riding the latest rides.  Whatever the location, the purpose of the time is "to get away" from today's hassles and to enjoy some time in a moment of "escape".  I daresay, we "leave" in order to "renew".  Some will use this break from school as a time to pick up family and belongings, moving to a totally new place in the country.  Jobs, family demands, or other opportunities influencing their decision to "move on".

So what do we do? Keep on sinning so God can keep on forgiving? I should hope not! If we've left the country where sin is sovereign, how can we still live in our old house there? Or didn't you realize we packed up and left there for good? That is what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace—a new life in a new land! (Romans 6:1-3 The Message)

The choice to "leave" one location, then to "cleave" to another is sometimes temporary, as in vacation.  At other times, it is quite a permanent choice.  I wonder how we treat our "leaving" of our past lifestyle "before Christ" - - as a vacation from sin, or as a clean break?  I have treated it as a "vacation" at times - - turning back to the same old stuff.  How silly is that?  I tasted of the goodness of grace, felt the renewal of forgiveness, and then chose purposefully to step back into what I had just left.  Some would say I need my head examined, right?  Well, you are probably a little off-base there - - I really need my heart examined!

Whenever we treat God's forgiveness and his renewal as a "season of vacation" from our sin, we are likely to turn back to it at a later time.  When we actually make a "move away" from sin, we have a much better time overcoming it.  Let me explain...

- God offers us an escape from the "country where sin is sovereign".  This is a place of profoundly wrong choices which impact us in many negative ways.  We find ourselves lacking in relationship stability because we choose to focus on self rather than others.  We are engulfed with self-pity because we don't get our way.  When we do get our own way, we don't find the fulfillment we hoped would be attached to the choice.  It is truly a place we'd like to escape.

- Vacating a space can be temporary, or permanent.  The determination becomes apparent when we examine how much we have "dissolved" our ties with the place we left.  If we go on a vacation, we pack a few bags, knowing we will return.  In fact, we often ask someone to watch over our place while we are gone, ensuring the plants are watered and the dog is cared for.  We plan to return.  We never intended to "pull up roots" and move on.  We were looking for a temporary "fix" for our problem.  

- Vacating a space permanently carries some interesting ideas for us to consider.  First, we can "move on", but take all our stuff with us!  We back up the moving van into the driveway, pack up all our belongings, put the car on a hitch behind the van, pile the family and dog in the front seat and away we go.  We "leave", but we are still "cleaving" to the stuff we are taking along with us!  But...we can "leave" in order to "cleave" to something new.  I did this when I left for the military in 1976.  I left it all...only the clothes on my back (and they took those away from me!).  When I arrived at Ft. Jackson, they gave me new garments, a new place to live, and all new associations.  It was a true "break" from my life as I knew it.  They were intending me to "cleave" to my new way of life!

I wonder how we treat our "break from sin" - - is it a clean break?  If we leave, but never break the tie of "cleaving to" the sin, we find ourselves drawn back.  I returned "home" after basic training - - but I was changed.  My ties to home were different.  It was my past.  I had a future planned out for me and I was "on mission" with the military.  I had a new purpose for my life.  Guess what?  God has the same plans for us.  Break with the past.  Be on mission with him in the present.  This is his plan.  This is where we find liberty and purpose.

Just some thoughts on "vacating" for you to consider today!