Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Nature vs. nurture

The age-old question of mankind might go something like this:  "Why did I just do that?"  We find ourselves asking and re-asking this very question as we find ourselves continually reworking our plan to be fresh in our obedience - only to find we will inevitably ask the question once again.

So, then, if with Christ you've put all that pretentious and infantile religion behind you, why do you let yourselves be bullied by it? "Don't touch this! Don't taste that! Don't go near this!" Do you think things that are here today and gone tomorrow are worth that kind of attention? Such things sound impressive if said in a deep enough voice. They even give the illusion of being pious and humble and ascetic. But they're just another way of showing off, making yourselves look important. (Colossians 2:20-23 The Message)

What happens when we try to keep "rules"?  We struggle with them, right?  We find ourselves asking, "Why am I being asked to NOT do this?"  When someone tells us NOT to do something, we often suspect we are being kept from doing something we might actually enjoy!  We interpret something is being kept from us so we pursue what has been declared "off limits", or we struggle against our desires to "obey" the "rule" set for us, right?

The problem arises when we view "rules" as a set of standards we MUST follow.  When there is a lack of desire to follow them, we struggle with them. Rules aren't bad - they just have to make sense to us, or we resist them severely.  A rule is any set of "understood" principles, or regulations which are to be used to govern our conduct.  They describe for us what is possible or allowable in a circumstance.

Since we have to understand a rule, we resist what we don't understand.  It it makes sense, we do it - if not, we don't.  Paul reminds us they require "pious devotion", "self-denial", and "rigorous discipline".  Now, are any of these in your top three character traits?  Likely not!  When we understand something, we perceive the intended meaning behind it.  We perceive the significance of our actions related to the rule.  In fact, we become sympathetic to the nature of doing something a certain way.

In looking at what Paul was telling us, I think he may have been giving us a clue as t why "keeping rules" for the sake of keeping them really does not work!  We have to understand (be sympathetic to the nature of the rule) in order to really get any benefit from the rule.  When we understand the nature of the rule, we also will understand the "nurture" of it.  Let me explain.  A rule is never intended to just be "kept".  it is designed to "keep us" in some particular way.  A rule is to affect our behavior - in turn, keeping us safe.

One rule we all associate with is the rule of the speed-limit.  When we see the "nurture" of the rule we are more likely to be compliant with the limit set. For example, in a school zone we are asked to drive at a speed of 15 miles per hour, being prepared to stop for children in the crosswalk.  The idea behind the rule is the safety of the children in the school zone.  Children don't always look out for their own safety, so there are rules set to attempt to protect them.  We are asked to "limit" the speed of our vehicles in order to anticipate the unknown activity of the children in the zone.

Often, God asks us to "limit" our activity to what he determines as that which will nurture us and positively impact our nature.  No amount of self-help can impact our nature.  We need the nurturing of God's rules.  So, instead of resisting the rules, let's choose to embrace the nurturing that is able to affect our nature.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The awesomeness of our God!

Okay!  I came across this passage again this morning as I was re-reading the Psalms and just had to stop to share it!  

God's love is meteoric, his loyalty astronomic, his purpose titanic, his verdicts oceanic. Yet in his largeness nothing gets lost; not a man, not a mouse, slips through the cracks. (Psalm 36:5-6 The Message)

Okay...knowing me as you might, you know where I am headed, don't you?  Yep, let's break it down!  First, I want you to see each of these "attributes" of God are broken down with their own individual "descriptive" word.  Our psalmist does not simply say God is loving - he calls his love meteoric.  He doesn't reference God as loyal to his word - he calls his loyalty astronomic.  These are big terms which lend much to understanding each of these attributes.  So let's explore them a little:

- God's love is meteoric!  Here's what I know about meteors (and trust me, it is limited).  A meteor is a sudden appearance of something brilliant beyond our imagining.  It is so revealing in the sky because of the brilliance it is displaying - we cannot help but notice it.  It appears suddenly (at least for those of us who don't sit under the lens of a huge telescope all day).  In movement it is swift.  It crosses the sky at speeds which we cannot possibly comprehend simply we could never move that fast!  Now...take this back to God's love.  His love appears when we often don't expect it, in ways so which so brilliantly reveal his greatness!  His love comes swiftly - without delay - crossing over our lives, leaving an impact of a lifetime!  Woohoo!

- God's loyalty is astronomic!  Okay, this one is easy - his loyalty is bigger than we can fully comprehend or contain!  It is enormous!  It is beyond anything we  could experience in the natural sense.  Now, think about it for a moment.  His love is meteoric.  His loyalty is astronomic.  The brilliance, swiftness, and impact of his love is coupled with the hugeness of his loyalty!  You cannot separate the two.  Where do meteors appear?  In the sky right?  What is the root of astronomic?  Astronomy, right?  What does the study of astronomy deal with?  The sky!  So, our psalmist is connecting God's love and loyalty - they go hand-in-hand.  In other words, David is reminding us God's love is swift - it is also reliable.  His love brings light - it also allows light to live within us!

- God's purposes are titanic!  The idea is one of enormous power, strength, and capacity.  So, David is reminding us God's purposes are never without the power to back them up!  They are never without strength which is limitless.  They are never without the capacity to endure, overcome, and expand!  Now, what is a purpose?  It is the reason for which something exists, or is done, right?  So, the reason God moves, responds, and loves is never small!  There is always a purpose to his movement!  There is always a reason for his response (and even for his lack of response!).  His strength is displayed in every movement on our behalf!

- God's verdicts are oceanic!  A verdict is simply a decision.  God's decisions are oceanic.  They are vast - it is almost incomprehensible to us to understand fully his decisions - but we can trust them!  Why?  Simply because his love is meteoric, his loyalty astronomic, and his purposes titanic!  Just sayin!

To wrap it up, David points us clearly to the idea of nothing getting lost in God's greatness.  This is good news to me because I am but one human being in a huge number of others who walk this earth.  It is comforting to know NOTHING escapes his oversight, his protection, his planning, his intervention! NOTHING!  It is impossible for Satan to "pull one over" on God.  It is impossible for us to escape his notice (even when we might want to).  Nothing escapes him - nothing slips through the cracks!  Not you - not me!  His love seeks us out - in all its brilliance and suddenness.  His loyalty upholds us - not as a crutch, but as a strong tower of defense and a shelter of offense.  His purposes cannot be thwarted - there is always movement on our behalf.  His judgments on our behalf are always right!  There is no other hope so great as to put our hope and trust in him!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

May I meddle a little?

There have been times when I hear people almost bragging about their escapades.  It is as though they have no sense of awareness of just how they sound when they recount the stuff they have engaged in.  In fact, some even appear to have a sense of pride with acknowledging their folly!  Now, I am not one to "parade" my folly in public.  I have a hard enough time admitting to my failure in private without having to flaunt it for the world to see!

Fools make fun of guilt, but the godly acknowledge it and seek reconciliation. (Proverbs 14:9 NLT)

I think our passage has much to say about how it is we do with our "guilt" when our escapades have been less than honorable.  The fool makes fun of the guilt they feel.  Try as we might, we cannot rid ourselves of the sense of guilt with simply laughing it away or making light of it.  If we dismiss our guilt long enough, we become almost "immune" to the sense of guilt we feel about a certain behavior.  We begin to justify it and form an "opinion" of it being okay - if not for others, at least for ourselves.  In some circles, this is similar to something referred to as "situation ethics".  

In the simplest sense, situation ethics holds the belief that the end justifies the means.  In fact, with this type of interpretation of life, we find it easy to set aside rules and regulations whenever we feel the "greater good" will be served by our actions.  To truly understand situation ethics, we must understand the concepts taught by Joseph Fletcher when he reported this as the "fulfillment" of Christ's instructions to love unconditionally.  He believed their were no absolute laws other than the law of agape love - unconditional love.  To this end, the consequences (or outcomes) of any action did not really matter because it was end justified the means.  Now, if you cannot see the danger in this belief system, it is time to really go back to scripture to see what Christ taught.

Jesus always began with "love God" and then he taught to love "your neighbor" as yourself.  You cannot ever "love God" if you throw out the absolutes he proclaims - things like don't cheat, don't covet, don't have any other god before me, etc.  These are absolutes in God's kingdom.  So, Jesus was teaching we need to embrace the absolutes of God's kingdom and this will result in us being able to love our neighbor.  The end, in this case, is justified by the means - the means being the keeping of God's command to love him whole-heartedly (with all we've got).

Now, back to our passage.  Fools make fun of guilt - but the godly acknowledge it.  It is one thing to acknowledge something - it is another to do something with the knowledge we have!  The godly doesn't stop with an admission of guilt - they go on to the place of obeying one of God's absolutes - confession!  Scripture teaches us to bring our sins to Christ and there we will find forgiveness.  It is not an exercise of excusing our sin - it is an erasure of the stain of the sin and the ability to walk away from the pull to do the sin again.

So, what we do with our guilt determines the end of our guilt.  We can flaunt it openly, proclaiming the end justified the means.  Or...if we are wise....we can confess it, seeking forgiveness and restoration at the foot of the cross.  The first method of dealing with our guilt will only "numb" us to the experience of guilt - it never removes it.  The latter not only removes it, it gives us the ability to walk away from the very action which produced the guilt in the first place.  The fool chooses to continue the pursuit of the action which produces the guilt - the wise choose to turn away from it, seeing no justification in their sin. 

It is truly a dangerous thing to "pick up" a false set of beliefs - those which veer from the truth clearly outlined in scripture.  We can "interpret" scripture and reflect upon it with all kinds of "opinion".  The danger is us forming a set of beliefs which "fit our actions" instead of us allowing God to "fit our actions" to his Word!  Lest I meddle further...I will leave you with these thoughts to ponder.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

All the bells & whistles, please!

Have you ever bought a new car from the car dealership?  If you have, you can probably associate with the anxiety of having to make all those choices!  First, you have to have an idea of the basic type of vehicle you need.  Car or truck, SUV or van, two doors or four, etc.  Then you head to this "section" on the lot.  The inventory is sometimes daunting!   They are all lined up in colors galore - bright and shiny.  You navigate in and out of each row, looking at each one, picturing yourself behind the wheel.  Then comes something I will call the "sticker effect".  You find the one you really like - upgraded wheels, window tinting, leather interior - you know the one I mean.  Then...you see the "sticker" and almost feel the blood running from your head and the dollars emptying from your bank account!  What happened to your desire at that moment?  It was probably "diverted" to settle for a vehicle with a few less bells and whistles!

Ears that hear and eyes that see—we get our basic equipment from God! (Proverbs 20:12 The Message)  

As I was re-reading this Proverb today, I came across this verse and it made me chuckle a little.  I think we might do a little "lot walking" with God at times - dreaming big, having eyes that like the shiny stuff, until we see the "sticker"!  We want all the bells and whistles he can provide, but then we see the sticker and we get the sticker effect!  Oh, don't get me wrong - we don't "pay" for our salvation with anything we can do ourselves, but as we grow with Christ, the "bells and whistles" of an obedient life begin to become more evident in our lives.  Sometimes we want all these "bells and whistles" without the cost of obedience!

We want the anointing - but are we willing to be disciplined in our study of the word and time in listening to his voice guide us?  We want the depth of knowledge evident in the lives of those we hold before us as examples - but are we making the investment into sitting at their feet to learn from their examples?  I wonder just how often we see the "sticker" and reconsider our desires?

Our scripture today is quite clear - we get our basic equipment from God.  What we choose to do with it is quite a different matter!  Ears to hear are considered basic equipment - yet do we use them to really listen to his voice? Eyes to see are also basic - what we use them to behold the most frequently often determines what influences our lives the most.  So, learning to use our "basic equipment" is of as much importance as learning to use all the "bells and whistles" which come with time.

I have a fairly nice vehicle - but have I learned to master all the bells and whistles on it?  To be honest, no!  I have a basic knowledge of some of them, but could I say I have a mastery of any of them?  Nope!  Why?  Well, I read the parts of the owner's manual which were of interest to me first - things like the hands-free dialing feature on the bluetooth system.  I even managed to program a few numbers into the system so I could push a button and call home in one quick move without taking my eyes off the road.  But...when you look at the display, the number comes up, but it is devoid of a name!  In fact, every number says, "No Name"!

What happened to my desire to own the model with the bells and whistles?  I don't use them to their fullest potential if I don't learn how they function.  The same is true in my spiritual life.  If I never learn how to do more than the "basics" with my spiritual life - a little prayer here and there, an occasional look into the scripture, making it to church weekly - I will never understand how to use the "bells and whistles" given so freely to me when I first came to Christ.

Here's where I am going with this:

- If we are to grow, we have to eat right, and yes, even exercise frequently.  We are given two legs and two arms - both of each are to be used to their fullest advantage.  If we don't use the basic equipment we are given, all the bells and whistles never will amount to much!  In terms of our Christian walk, we grow when we allow ourselves to be fed from the word and we learn to be strong when our spiritual muscles are stretched a little.  When we allow God to work on the basics, we grow!

- When growth is well underway, we often discover all the spiritual "bells and whistles" we have been given.  We notice them more and have a desire to actually see them put to full use in our lives.  Things like the gifts of compassion and mercy.  As we begin to use these gifts, we become more proficient in their use.  We may start out a little on the "basic" side of things, but eventually we will master it!  For a while, we may only be able to make sense of things through our limited focus, but eventually we will begin to see clearly how God intends for these "bells and whistles" to be used in our relationships with others.

Just some thoughts on our basic equipment.  We have to learn to do the basics before we will ever be able to appreciate and utilize all the bells and whistles we have been given!  But...once we begin to see how these bells and whistles operate - we would do well not to stop at a basic use of them!  We need to become masters in their use!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Paint me a picture, will ya?

I absolutely love word pictures - they help me connect meaning to a thought which is expressed.  In God's attempt to help us "connect" the truths contained in his Word, he often gave such vivid word pictures to his teachers and prophets.  You have probably heard it said, "A picture is worth a thousand words."  I don't know if you know the origin of this phrase, but it likely comes from a novel written in 1862 by Ivan Turgenev (Fathers and Sons), in which a character in the book attempts to convey the idea of a picture conveying what may take many words to express when he says, "The drawing shows me at one glance what might be spread over ten pages in a book."  Here is a word picture for us this morning:

Where is the god who can compare with you—wiping the slate clean of guilt,
turning a blind eye, a deaf ear, to the past sins of your purged and precious people?  You don't nurse your anger and don't stay angry long, for mercy is your specialty. That's what you love most.  And compassion is on its way to us.  You'll stamp out our wrongdoing.  You'll sink our sins to the bottom of the ocean.  (Micah 7:18-19 The Message)

We are absolutely able to connect with these ideas, aren't we?  Whether we consider a slate being wiped clean, sight becoming clear, or something sinking deep into the depths of the waters, we are able to "connect" the idea of God's grace to some pretty graphic examples:

- The slate.  In most cultures, there is some form of "slate" utilized in attempting to convey a message.  Whether we draw a picture in the dirt, then scuff it away with our hand, or we use a more sophisticated means such as a whiteboard and eraser, we get the idea.  As quickly as one stroke of the hand, one swipe of the eraser, what was once evident becomes blurred.  Another stroke or swipe often obliterates the original "evidence" of something, does it not?  

- The blind eye or deaf ear.  I am not blind, but I have needed corrective lenses since I was in fifth grade.  Without my glasses, you are a blur.  I remember being a contact lens wearer for the first time.  I awoke one morning to find I could see PERFECTLY.  Being a believer of God's ability to heal, my first thoughts turned to my vision having been restored!  Silly me!  I had just fallen asleep in my contacts!  For a brief moment in time, I understand what it was like to have "restored" vision!  Imagine what it would be like to really see clearly - no impairment in our ability to interpret the detail and clarity of what we are exposed to.  God's grace gives clarity where confusion once existed - as perfectly as only he can accomplish.

- Nursing anger.  I don't know a human being who has NEVER struggled with nursing anger once in a while.  You know what is like - you just mull it over and over again until you get all worked up about a matter.  Yet, the picture painted for us of God's "anger" or "wrath" is simply not the same as what we deal with in our human dealings.  We "nurse" ours - God might feel angered with our willful disobedience, but he never "nurses" it.  Another term for nursing our anger is allowing it to make us bitter.  When we "nurse" our anger, we are actually allowing the enemy of our soul get a foothold into our lives (Ephesians 4:26).  God give NO foothold to the devil.  It is impossible for him to allow the devil access to his heart or mind!  Therefore, he is not a "nurser" of anger.

- Mercy is your specialty.  Most of us live in a time when "specializing" in a field of study or trade has become the norm.  Very rarely do we see students planning to be "generalists" in any field of study anymore.  In fact, as we go through the planning for our education or career, many guidance counselors have moved from recommending the generalist approach to focusing on a specialty while the student is still in high school.  Now, God's "specialty" is mercy.  Unmerited, unwarranted, and often unsolicited favor.  Imagine that!

- Stamping out our wrongdoing.  I remember the commercials of days gone by when the US Forest Service had a saying, "Only you can prevent forest fires", stated with such authority by an animated bear wearing a forest service hat and badge.  Why did this stick with me over the years?  It was a "picture" which spoke better than ten pages of text!  Just as I had the ability to "stamp out" forest fires by properly tending my campfire when I was leaving camp, so God has the ability to "stamp out" an even bigger fire in our lives - our sin!  

- Sins sunk to the ocean's floor.  I cannot fathom the depths of the ocean's floor.  I know the deepest points are around 36,000 feet (11,000 meters).  That's a long way down!  It is so far beneath the surface of the waters - no light is found there.  No man can explore its depths - because we cannot bear up under the pressure of the confines of the depths.  Now, imagine our sins there.  In a place where no light is any longer shed on them.  In a place no longer explored.  Totally and completely out of sight and no longer a thing to be reckoned with!  Can you say, "Awesome"!!!!!

Now, don't we understand God's grace a little better after all these word pictures?  There is finally a "connection" between our sins and his grace.  Our sins matter to him - not because he wants to remember them, but because he wants to so totally remove them from our lives that we don't even remember them anymore!  Awesome!!!!  Just sayin.....

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Reflecting his grace

We are no longer under the Levitical system of worship which required the bringing of sheep, bulls, goats, oils and grains to the Temple for sacrifice.  If we were, I wonder what our "offerings" would be today?  Since most of us merely go to the supermarket to obtain these "products" of someone else's labor, we don't connect with them as a "sacrifice" at all.  In fact, we probably take it for granted they will be there in the display cases and the aisle shelves when we next venture into the luxury of the market.  I think this is where Judah might have been drifting when God spoke these words through the prophet Micah.  Perhaps they were just going to the "supermarkets" of their flocks and herds - picking out whatever one looked best and merely carting it to the priests to be offered.  If so, they had lost touch with the purpose behind the offering - atonement, forgiveness, thanksgiving.

How can I stand up before God  and show proper respect to the high God?
Should I bring an armload of offerings  topped off with yearling calves?
Would God be impressed with thousands of rams, with buckets and barrels of olive oil?  Would he be moved if I sacrificed my firstborn child, my precious baby, to cancel my sin?  But he's already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women.  It's quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don't take yourself too seriously—take God seriously.  (Micah 6:6-8 The Message)

It is truly a dangerous place to be when we have nothing to offer but the "products" of another's labor.  Yet, as a teenager and young adult, there were times when I have been guilty of simply not being willing to invest the time or energy into having something "uniquely mine" to bring to God.  I relied upon the "products" of another's study and time with God to give me a sense of having something "worth" sharing.  What a mistake!  I missed the opportunity to bring to God what I had right in my hands!  

God's greatest joy is not in the impressiveness of the "gift" we bring, but in the expression of the heart behind the gift.  Maybe this is what Micah had in mind when he told us God did not want us to take ourselves so seriously!  Whenever we think we have to rely upon the "gift" of another to have anything worthy to present to God, we are probably taking ourselves a little too seriously!  Our "gift" is simply to come before him in reverence, yielding ourselves to his use.  

I think Micah hit it on the head when he started with all the questions about how it was WE could "impress" God.  When you look up the word "impress", you find it has a meaning of affecting the mind or feelings of another - it carries the idea of changing or influencing the opinion another holds of you.  If we are coming to God to "impress" him, we simply are coming with wrong motive.  God's greatest joy is seeing us act fairly - exercising justice and honesty in our dealings with others.  This is a sacrifice worthy of his attention.  Yet, it is not something we "do" to get his notice, or to influence his opinion of us.  It is something we "live" because it is an outflow of his grace in our lives.

Being compassionate and loyal in our love seems to be a thing which is only remotely part of most of our relationships today.  In fact, if we were honest, I wonder how many of us could say our relationships even remotely reflect God's compassion.  Instead, we bicker, are opinionated, and hold our ground when we feel we have been "wronged".  We shift our allegiances to another who sees things our way.  It is election season in the good US of A again.  That means the TV screens and newspapers are littered with all kinds of he said/she said smear campaigns.  Instead of pointing out the strengths of their "competition" for the office, they find the weakest point in the guy's career or character and capitalize on it.  Why?  It takes the eyes off of weaknesses of the other guy!

Lest I leave us all feeling a little low about ourselves and others, let me bring this around a little.  God's greatest gift to us is his grace.  The greatest gift we can give back to him is the expression of this grace with others.  We find many opportunities each day to live our his love - to be loyal and compassionate in our relationships.  In so doing, we are pointing others to Christ's grace, as they see it evident in ours.  There is no greater "sacrifice" God could have offered than his gift of grace as evident in his Son's death for our sin.  In turn, there is no greater gift we can bring than to allow his grace to be an expression of his love within and through us.  In turn, we will judge less and embrace more.  We will hold our ground significantly less and find the good in the other more freely.  In fact, we might just see ourselves becoming a more loving and compassionate creation when we really begin to understand the greatest gift we bring is the reflection of his grace back to him!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A pile of socks anyone?

Do you remember growing up and saying stuff like, "When I grow up, I will NEVER have to do this again!"  It was usually uttered in frustration and total rebellion because someone was asking you to do something which you did not like or did not totally "get".  You struggled with the "desire" to do as you were asked because everything inside you was saying, "I don't wanna!"  It was one of those "I'm sitting down on the outside, but standing up on the inside!" moments.  Did growing up really change much?  Probably not.  We just came to realize socks don't magically find their way to the dirty clothes hamper and into the washer.  Someone actually has to "harvest" them from the floor and plop them into the wash water to see them made clean again!  

Meanwhile, all the other people live however they wish, picking and choosing their gods.  But we live honoring God, and we're loyal to our God forever and ever.  (Micah 4:5 The Message)

It was a sad day for Judah - struggling with wanting their own way, but on the verge of catastrophe because of their rebellion.  They struggled with rulers of the nation who bordered on being good to those who were downright misleading and absolutely too open to the influences of customs all around them.  In fact, as Micah pens these words, he points out the "sex and religion" shrines which were now part of Judah's worship - something adopted from neighboring customs.  Micah's message as a prophet to Judah was simply the words of a holy God sickened by the grotesque sin of his people.  

We do an injustice to the holiness of God and the absolutes of the Word of God whenever we choose to "live however we wish" - picking and choosing what we will obey and what we will dismiss as not important or not applicable to our lives.  Unfortunately, we do this more than we sometimes realize!  We "filter out" the stuff which is "hard" to understand or "difficult" to comply with.  We don't mind the "good" stuff - parts like blessings and riches - but we resist the "hard" stuff like obedience and paying a price.

The truth is simple - we need grace.  Why?  It is because of our desire to resist what we know is best for us!  Judah had clear instructions - don't entertain the customs of the land.  Judah had one of those seasons of "sitting down on the outside, but standing up on the inside".  They find themselves in the midst of the question asked of Eve those many years before...."Did God really say....?"  How many times have we faced this same question?  If we could just learn from the past mistakes of those who have gone before us!  

Do you know where this portion of scripture is taken from?  It is the prophecy of the time when God restores Judah!  It begins with:  "But when all is said and done, God's Temple on the mountain, firmly fixed, will dominate all mountains, towering above surrounding hills.  People will stream to it and many nations set out for it, saying, "Come, let's climb God's mountain.  Let's go to the Temple of Jacob's God.  He will teach us how to live.  We'll know how to live God's way." (vs. 1-2)  What NEVER ceases to bring me to my knees is the overwhelming grace of God when we clearly and defiantly choose our own way!  There is so much hope in this passage - look at it again:

- When all is said and done - this suggests there is an end to our rebellion.  We cannot forever resist the truth of God.

- God will dominate - not as a demanding task-master, but as someone we willingly submit to because we see the tremendous love behind his grace!

- He will teach us to live - because without him, we are just making choices based on what we "think" will produce happiness and the freedom we desire.  Just like the socks on the floor, we can ignore wrong choices for a while, but eventually we want to get dressed in something "clean".  The only "clean" garment is the one called grace.

- We will know how to live God's way - because God will connect the dots for us!  Today, we may only have one or two dots connected - in the end, he will reveal the total picture!  In the meantime, we have moments of repentance and submission which allow the next dot to connect to the last.  This process is repeated until we see revealed the final image - his Son revealed in us!

I find myself writing a great deal about the grace of God.  It is not by accident I point us so frequently to God's unmerited favor - it is simply because we need it so much!  At least I do!  I am not ashamed to admit it - I need his grace repeatedly (sometimes for the same silly thing over and over again!).  It is kind of like the dirty socks - they gather in a pile of soiled mess until we realize we need clean ones!  Then....we find ourselves hunting furiously for the clean pair!  It is in that moment we realize - unless they are "washed" we have no hope of them being clean!  The same is true with us - until we see all our choices as a pile of "dirty laundry" scattered all over our lives, we don't see the need for any "washing"!

Moms everywhere will associate with what I will say next.  We may point out the dirty socks from now till the cows come home, but until the kids actually realize they NEED clean ones, they see no need to gather them up and bring them to the laundry!  Until we actually see our need for grace, we will never gather ourselves up and take ourselves to one capable of removing all our stains.  

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Who's in your circle?

I wonder who people see "hanging around" us when they look our way.  Could it be they see all kinds of people just like us?  Or could it be they see people of various backgrounds, struggling with multiple life issues of their own, drawn to us by something called "grace"?  I daresay, we have a whole lot of "people just like us" in our circles - but are we being as effective as God would desire us to be when this is as far as our circle reaches?

By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, "He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends."  (Luke 15:1-3 The Message)

Jesus is our example this morning.  He is surrounded by a whole lot of men and women of doubtful reputation.  This draws the attention of the Pharisees - the leaders of the church community.  I can say with a certainty - start incorporating those of "doubtful reputation" into your circle and you will soon gather the attention of the "religious".  Why?  They don't understand the example!

Let me explain.  Christ never surrounded himself with the "saints of society".  In fact, he chose the ones society would not hold up as always being of the best repute to actually be part of his inner circle.  Matthew was a tax collector.  You just did not get lower than that!  Some of his most frequent followers were prostitutes.  This was a double-whammy as far as Christ was concerned.  Not only were they women of ill-repute, they were women!  Jews did not regard women as very important - let alone important enough to sit at the feet of a great teacher!

Trust me - begin to enlarge your circles and you will find someone who will criticize your actions!  Yet, when you do, you will be challenged in ways you would never dream possible.  In fact, when you see the hurt of the hearts INSIDE these people within your circle, you will begin to see the desperation for Christ to do a work on their behalf!  I honestly believe you enlarge your circle not just for those in the circle, but for the effect it has on your own life!

In enlarging your circle, you are going to grow.  The hurt and need will challenge you to get deeper into the word of God - looking for answers to their hurt.  You will learn to pray deeper - taking the needs of those with struggles beyond their capacity to endure to the feet of your Savior.  You will develop a language beyond "church talk" - making the gospel message a reality to those who so desperately need its hope.

This is not a long post today.  Yet, it is meant to make us think a little.  Just how effective are we being in the kingdom of God today?  Are we safe in our own little circles of church people - those who see things exactly as we see them?  The danger is we will never develop the perspective to see as God sees!  When we are truly "on mission" with Jesus, we will begin to see the need to draw into our circles those who most need to be touched by our Savior.  We don't pursue the sin - we pursue the sinner.  In turn, the openness of our heart will bring even more hurting people our way.  Are you prepared to be an agent of God's grace?  It is easy!  Begin by showing how the grace of God has changed your life - then open your arms in grace to those who most desperately need to experience it as you have!  

Monday, July 23, 2012

Are you a self-rescuer?

Are you into "self-rescue"?  You know - the constant exertion of effort to pull yourself out of the mess you find yourself in presently.  Many of us try to deal with life by a series of "self-rescue" attempts - don't we?  We simply cannot bring ourselves to admit we messed it up - let alone admit we need someone else to help us out of the mess!  As my kids were growing up, they'd pull out all kinds of toys.  The floor would be littered with building blocks, little people, and remnants of this and that.  By the end of their playtime, just at the point of needing to pick things up so we could "move on" to whatever came next, they'd sit there in the midst of the mess and whine about having to clean up what THEY had done!  In the end, I'd sit down next to them and begin to help them pick up what they had brought out.  Why?  It wasn't because I was delighted to "deal with" their toys and mess - it was because I wanted them to understand the love of a faithful God.  In fact, when they asked for help from me, I was hoping they'd see just how easy it was for them to approach God with the "messes" of their life they'd be sure to have over the years.

Really! There's no such thing as self-rescue, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.  The cost of rescue is beyond our means, and even then it doesn't guarantee life forever, or insurance against the Black Hole. (Psalm 49:7-9 The Message)

The psalmist is really quite plain here - we cannot pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and simply move on.  The mess has to be dealt with - just like the toys scattered over every inch of the floor.  As long as the toys remained where we needed to walk, we'd never be able to navigate without stubbed toes, painful pricks from sharp edges, and a halting gait.  Our failures, no matter what they are, form the same kind of "blockage" to our path of freedom.  We stumble upon them time and time again - unless we let God get down with us, guiding us in clearing them away!

On our own, the things of our past which are littered all over the floor of our lives are way too much for us to handle.  We just sit there in the middle of them, wondering how we will ever be able to tackle such a big mess.  Silly, isn't it?  We had no concept of how "big" our mess was until we finally realized we needed to clean it up!  As we are "making" the mess, it doesn't seem like much to us, does it?  When it is time to clean up - it is doesn't come as easily as did the "mess-making"!

Sin is just like this - we engage in all kinds of sinful deeds or thoughts - then wonder how we find ourselves surrounded by all kinds of daunting things.  Thank goodness for our faithful God!  He doesn't hesitate to sit down with us in the midst of the mess of our sins, one-by-one picking up the pieces, and moving them out of the path we most need to travel!  In church circles, we might call this the activity of grace and mercy in our lives.  In parable language, we see God sitting with a child, tenderly guiding the child until each of the pieces are picked up, put away and no longer in life's path where they could cause harm or create delay.

Some of us have more "pieces" scattered around the "room" of our life.  We have "pulled out" more things which clutter our "space".   The amount of mess doesn't matter - it all needs to be cleaned up!  Our psalmist reminds us we are incapable of doing the "clean up" ourselves - it is beyond us to "pay the price" of our own rescue.  My kids used to attempt to "get out of" having to pick up their mess by giving me all kinds of hugs and kisses - sweet talking their way as best as they could.  In the end, did all the sweet talk and affection do much good?  Nope!  The mess was still there and it still needed to be cleaned up!

We might try to sweet talk our way out of the mess we are in - but God is too graceful to let us get away with it!  In fact, after all the "loving" is over - he still reminds us about the mess needing attention!  But...he opens his arms and sits right down INTO the midst of our mess.  We aren't there all alone - he is there WITH us.  He is not there as the "mess police" - but as the one who is capable of providing for the "cost" of our rescue.  As a mother, I had many demands - dinner needed to be made, dishes needed to be washed, clothes needed folding.  It "cost" me something to sit down with the kids and help them pick up hundreds of Legos!   Guess what?  It costs God something, too!  Yet...he doesn't "balk" at the cost!  In fact, he already paid it!  

The floor was usually riddled with toys, but also fragments of juice boxes, little bits of strings torn from some shabby cloth, or other such "debris".  These weren't of any value - they were garbage.  In "picking up", some of the stuff clearly needed to be discarded.  When God is asked to sit down in the middle of our mess, he does so with the intention of not only picking up the pieces, but showing us how to discard the stuff which has no value in our lives.  He helps to rid us of the debris!

Just a few thoughts on the value of admitting we cannot pick up the pieces on our own!  

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Befriending a few fears, are you?

Times were different when we were children.  Back in the 60's no one thought it odd to allow their children to play in the front yard - oftentimes running from one neighbor to the next depending on who had the neatest toys to play the next go-round of imaginary game play.  Today, we sequester our children from the world around them, arranging instead for "play dates" because we have a society in which we do not feel comfortable allowing them to run "loose and free".  Sad, isn't it?  I wonder, though, just how much of our life's celebrations we miss out on simply because we live so sheltered?  I think it may be bigger than we think!

But let me run loose and free, celebrating God's great work, every bone in my body laughing, singing, "God, there's no one like you.  You put the down-and-out on their feet and protect the unprotected from bullies!"  (Psalm 35:9-10 The Message)

Our psalmist is penning these words right in the middle of a huge battle of sorts.  He is surrounded by nay-sayers and those who are against him.  In fact, he has been in this battle for a while.  Yet, right smack in the middle of the mess, he speaks about the freedom of his pursuers vs. his own.  Now, you might imagine he would complain about being "hemmed in" - forced to see and do only what his enemies would allow him to do - but he speaks of being "loose and free".  What his pursuers failed to recognize was the celebration within which is not limited by the restrictions we feel "without".  

David could have chosen to pull in and live a very sheltered life.  Safe and secure from the things which might hurt him in the world around him.  Many of us do this without even noticing we are doing it.  We simply "live life" without really knowing what is going on around us.  David said, "Let me run loose and free, celebrating God's great work, every bone in my body laughing and singing..."  It was a prayer as much as it was a statement.  He was conscious of the impact of the negative influences around him - he did not want to be negatively impacted by their presence.

As I pen these words today, it is one day after the horrific shooting in Aurora, Colorado.  One man, armed to the gills, wreaked havoc on an entire theater filled with unsuspecting movie-goers.  They were innocently pursuing their passion - taking in a movie they had long waited for.  In an instant, their world changed - some will note it has changed them forever.  We live in a society in which "bad stuff" (even "horrific stuff") happens.  We are going along, totally unprepared for the tragedies of life.  Then, without notice - we are plunged smack-dab into the midst of something we never thought we'd have to deal with.  

We cannot control our world.  Try as we might, we cannot "pull in" and sequester ourselves in our own safe little cocoons.  In fact, David's prayer hits it right on the head - he is praying for God to continue to allow him to run free and loose.  He is mindful of the heart's response of fear - how it paralyzes, pulls back, and tends to limit activity which may be perceived as a threat.  We may not be faced with literal assault rifles in our moment of fear, but whether we face the diagnosis of cancer, the loss of a job, or the uncertainty of being left alone after a loved one has passed, we all face our "fearful moments".  What we do in those moments determines the impact these moments will have on our lives (often for a long, long time).

David teaches us what to do with our fear - take it to God.  He shows us how God is delighted for us to recognize when it is we are beginning to "pull in" and feel less like we are running "loose and free".  He is showing us how to be honest with God.  We find him surrounded, spoken of in ways which damage his reputation, and threatened in ways we cannot even imagine.  Yet, he does one thing with this "fear" which delivers him from the "sequestering" effect of fear - he prays!  He opens his heart honestly to God - admitting he's "surrounded".  Isn't this what fear does?  It makes us feel like we are surrounded.  If we are not surrounded by enemies on the outside, we surround ourselves with "walls" to keep others out and ourselves "safe" - don't we?

Look again at what David prays - he not only wants to be loose and free - he wants to be unrestricted in his praise and enjoyment of his God!  Fear keeps us from enjoying God as we should.  We just don't sense his presence when we are surrounded with fear's tight grip - walls thicker and harder than a concrete bunker.  Instead, we are attempting to "deal with" our fears.  David shows us WE don't deal with them - God does!  How?  In freeing us to praise and celebrate his goodness, his faithfulness, and his grace!  Now, that is something I can hold onto!  

I will not make light of the tragedy the families of those in Aurora, Colorado are facing now.  I will not diminish the losses of families with loved ones who have laid down their lives in the line of duty for the service of our country.  Their lives have been changed forever - but God can pick up the pieces of even the most horrific tragedy and bring us through to the "outside" of our walls, if we give him access.  Learning to dance with God is so much more liberating than learning to befriend our fears!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

What quarry are you dug from?

There is a pretty familiar question which we hear many times a week, if not everyday:  "Are you serious?"  Whenever someone poses this question, they may not really be seeking the truth about your level of trustworthiness or your desire to commit to something.  In fact, they might just be saying this to exclaim some message of surprise - like they could not possibly imagine what we just did or said as even remotely possible!  There is another saying:  "Let's get serious now."  This one is often spoken as a word or two of admonishment  designed to get us focused (refocused) on what is at hand.  

Listen to me, all you who are serious about right living and committed to seeking God.  Ponder the rock from which you were cut, the quarry from which you were dug.  (Isaiah 51:1 The Message)

When you are serious about something, there is a process which occurs.  First, there is conscious thought - you focus your capacity for understanding and processing on the subject or task at hand.  Second, you have determined the subject or task to be weighty enough to require your attention and time.  In turn, you make a determination to undertake it with earnestness.

Isaiah is speaking to Israel in his words of prophecy, but there are always tidbits of truth for us in each message.  Today, I'd like us to take a moment to think about the things we take seriously in life.  Could you indulge me for a moment?  If you have paper and pen, take a moment to make two columns.  On the left, put a title at the top "Serious About" - on the right, put a title "Not So Much".  Now, as you go throughout your day, will you take a moment here and there to write down the things you are really serious about - those things you give your capacity of thought to, which you have determined to be weighty enough to require your focused attention, and those you have some sense of earnestness in seeing completed.

I usually undertake this "exercise" on a pretty regular basis.  Why?  Simply because I have a tendency to allow things to drift into my realm of thought and attention which really are demanding too much of my attention and time! As I refocus on what it is I am serious about - I often see my list can be a little too self-focused (taking time and giving attention to what will satisfy my needs rather than the needs of those God places in my life).  Now, this may not be the case with you, but it could very well be.  If so, putting this down on paper actually helps us to recognize the things which are consuming our time and even consuming "us".  

Look at what Isaiah said:  If you are serious about RIGHT living and committed to SEEKING God....ponder....

Hmmm....now do you see the connection between what Isaiah advises and my little exercise?  Yep, as you took time to write those things out in one or the other column, you were "pondering" what it is you are committed to - what you (or others who have influence in your life) have determined to be worthy of your thought and attention.  You can think of pondering as a kind of "chewing upon" exercise.  You kind of keep pouring over and over the list until you begin to see how each of the things listed is really affecting your relationships with God or each other, and even balance in your life.  There is much to be gained by taking time to ponder.

Isaiah was speaking to a nation of "believers" who had taken their eye off of the things which were most important.  In fact, they find themselves driven into servitude to nations around them and living under the burden of being "slaves" to another.  God's intention was for them to live free - unburdened.  How did they get to this point?  Maybe if someone had asked, "Are you serious?" a little earlier, they might not have drifted this far!  I don't know about you, but as hard as it is to hear an accountability partner ask me the tough questions, I appreciate their words!  It is often exactly what I need in order to refocus!

Some advice from our passage:

- Ponder the rock from which you were cut.  Are you familiar with the passage from I Peter 2:5 which refers to us as living stones?  When we actually take time to consider the rock from which we are cut, we are considering the things which make our "cornerstone" so reliable.  His love, grace, and forgiveness.  His truthfulness, commitment, and transparency.  In turn, we begin to emulate the "stone" from which we were taken - we begin to look and act like Christ.

- Ponder the quarry from which you were dug.  I live close enough to some of the copper mines in Arizona to know what a mine looks like.  I also have been to the quarries from which granite is taken.  Having this experience allows me to recognize some things about a quarry.  First, it is a pretty dirty place.  There is a whole lot of "turning over" of soil until you find the thing you desire most.  God has taken us from a whole lot of "dirt".  Second, once the copper is removed or the granite cut, it is a thing of beauty and function.  We are not dug from the quarry of sin to just "exist" - but to be a thing of beauty and function in the kingdom of God.

So, ponder with me today.  You might be surprised what it is you discover about yourself - and God!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Crossing deserts?

I like salty treats - even to the point of craving them sometimes.  Whenever I consume them though, I usually end up drinking a lot of water - because they make me thirsty.  In the end, they leave me thirsty for a long time, not just while I am taking them in.  My body simply cannot process all the sodium in the salty treats without a whole lot of water.  In fact, whenever we find ourselves in the midst of the "excesses" of life, we often crave what we most need to help us deal with the excess.

God—you're my God! I can't get enough of you! I've worked up such hunger and thirst for God, traveling across dry and weary deserts. (Psalm 63:1 The Message)

So, we crave what we most need to deal with what we find ourselves enduring!  Sometimes we are "enduring" stuff by our own doing - like when I eat a huge bowl of Cheezits or eat a whole candy bar.  The sodium from one and the sugar from the other just cause me to "crave" the very thing which will help my body deal with the excess of sodium or sugar.  Now, let's take a look at some of the things we find which develop a more "spiritual" craving.

Our psalmist gives us an example of traveling across dry and weary deserts as a source of both hunger and thirst.  We all have them - deserts.  We may live in the greenest parts of the world, but we endure deserts!  Let's just look at a couple of deserts, shall we?

- The desert of loneliness.  We may find ourselves suddenly without familiar acquaintances.  Perhaps it is the result of a move to a new locale, the loss of a spouse, or the lack of solid friends we can pour our hearts out to.  Regardless of the cause, we find ourselves enduring a sense of loneliness.  At the core of loneliness is the idea of being without a companion in the journey.  This desert is then a place of isolation - whether you wanted it or not.  In the place of isolation, we often find ourselves without the people or things we have found ourselves relying on in the past.  Now, as we examine the purpose of this desert, we might find it hard to imagine a "good" purpose!  Being isolated is definitely NOT God's plan for us humans - he made us specifically to "relate" to others, not to be alone.  So, what "good" comes out of this desert?  

Well, I can only share some of the things which have come out of my times of being on a journey in this desert.  First, I have learned I actually NEED other people.  There is nothing more revealing about our "dependence" on the feedback of others, the sense of hope rendered in a simple touch, etc., than to be suddenly alone.  We need connection.  In fact, believe it or not, we crave it!  Second, I believe God may actually allow some of us to walk this desert to draw us closer to those he has given in our lives.  You know the saying, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder"?  I think it is realized the most in the desert of loneliness!  God's lessons to you may be a little different, but if you will allow him to speak to you in your desert, he will reveal the lessons!

- The desert of despair.  This is a most difficult desert to face.  It is one in which we have lost hope - we are without any sense of things ever getting better.  In this desert, we often find ourselves out so far on the limb, the weight of our burden so great, hearing the cracking of the limb as it strains to keep us upright.  We are "stuck" - we cannot go further out on the limb or turn back.  This is indeed a most difficult desert to cross.  Yet, the most hopeless place is often the place our faith begins to take flight!  

In the desert of despair, we begin to look for solutions we often ignore when things are smooth sailing.  Things like intimate prayer with our Maker - pouring out our hearts to him with eager desperation.  In the moment of despair, don't we often find ourselves looking back to God?  Did you catch that?  We are looking "back" to God!  It is an amazing thing, but despair often drives us back to God - maybe even without ever recognizing just how comfortable we had become without him!

- The desert of brokenness.  The very thing we need in this desert is the very thing we have absolutely no ability to accomplish on our own.  It is only by the restorative and regenerating touch of our God we cross this desert.  We may be "broken" by a whole lot of things - bad relationships, words which have left us scarred, or just a series of bad choices which resulted in us being "undone" by life.  

In the desert of brokenness, we need "repair", don't we?  What we drink the most freely of in this desert is God's grace.  It is indeed a refreshing and restorative "drink".  

Regardless of the desert, look again at our passage.  The purpose of the desert is to cause us to hunger and thirst.  Hunger for the best, thirst for what will refresh truly.  We may have a lot of desert-crossing in our days.  Just remember this:  No desert is without hunger or thirst of some kind.  What we do with the hunger or thirst determines the outcome of the desert-crossing!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Given full rein?

If you have ever ridden a horse, you know the importance of the reins.  They let you direct the horse, don't they?  At least, this is what those who told me how to ride instructed me!  Heaven knows, I have had some opportunities to ride some of the most stubborn horses!  No matter how hard I pulled the reins a certain direction....there was no turning them from their destination!  Now, tell me, what was the purpose of the reins with these horses?  I think it was nothing more than decoration!

"But my people didn't listen, Israel paid no attention; so I let go of the reins and told them, 'Run! Do it your own way!'"  (Psalm 81:11-12 The Message)

All I could do with those horses was to "give them the reins" and let them lead where they wanted.  As you may very well imagine - it was right back to the barn!  They did not want to take me down the trail, but wanted a leisurely afternoon enjoying oats and the shade of the barn!  Imagine that!  Sound like anyone you might know?  I know God has tried to tug on my reins a few times, facing nothing more than my resistance to be "turned" down the trail he desired.  In the end, he gave me the reins to head for "greener pastures" as I saw them.  

Guess what the outcome of my resisting the leading of God was?  Yep, you guessed it - the pastures turned out to be fields of nothing more than briers and thorns!  Isn't it amazing how strong-willed we can be?  We put up all kinds of fight - then end up calling out to God to get us out of the briers!  

From our passage today, I think we can glean a few lessons of the "prodigal":

- The first failure is in not listening.  The lady who taught me to ride when I was in Girl Scouts actually told me I'd never have to whip the horse.  She told me to speak to the horse, or use some little click of my mouth.  Now, try as I might, no amount of sweet talking my stubborn horse did any good.  The more I talked, the more he looked at me like I was goofy!  The silly part of this was my believing the horse CARED about what I was asking it to do!  In truth, he cared no more about going down the trail on the trail ride than he did about how the stock market was performing that day!

Now, let's examine ourselves.  I wonder just how much we are like the horse - hearing, but not really listening.  In fact, we just don't care about what God is asking - simply because we have our own agenda, or our "selective hearing" turned on.  When this is the case, we usually end up with a little "heel digging" going on, don't we?  We dig in, no matter how sweetly God urges us onward.  Okay, true confessions - I actually used tears on the horse to see if I could appeal to some sense in him!  It did not work.  God isn't like us - he doesn't try to manipulate us with tears - he simply asks and then waits.  If we care to listen - we enjoy the ride.  If we don't - well....

- The other failure is in choosing to do our own thing.  When God gives us the reins, he is actually allowing us to do our own thing - choose our own way - even when he knows it will leave us hurt or longing.  When we give full rein to something, we are letting our imagination or feelings develop in an uncontrolled way - a very unreliable way to operate.  God's choice in giving us full rein is to allow us to realize the futility of our rebellion.  

The stubborn horse did indeed return to the barn, but not until after about 30 minutes of digging in his heels and refusing to move beyond the first 100 feet of the corral.  But...he did not get the oats!  Instead, the owner put him in the corral with the others.  We often set out to get our own way, in belief we will realize a certain end, then find ourselves poorly disappointed with the outcome.  Truth is, there is no good thing guaranteed to anyone who takes the reins of control out of the hands of God!

So, learn from me, if you will.  Reins serve a purpose - to control the direction and lead down certain paths.  Giving full rein to the one resisting the reins is usually not going to turn out well!  I have seen riders so in connection with their horses making reins really unnecessary to use very much.  The rider and horse just seem to understand the destination.  There was a bond and a trust relationship between the two.  I think we need the reins less and less as we develop the connection with God.  In time, we begin to sense his leading, not so much by the tug of the reins, but by the subtle movement of his hand, the simplicity of a word from his lips, and the gentleness of his touch.  Here's to not being given full rein!