Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Is this really "the worst"?

Give some thought to this one:  The Worst is Never the Worst.

Sometimes I think we imagine the worst, hope for the best, but really have no idea what to expect when life gets a little crazy!  Lamentations is not the most well-read book in the Bible, but it is there for a very specific purpose.  Probably because there is some great wisdom in this third chapter.  First, let me just set out the context.  Jeremiah is the writer and this is considered to be one of the poetic books of the Bible.  The primary purpose in writing was to mourn the huge loss of the Jerusalem, and more importantly, the Temple.  Judah is taken into exile, probably under the Babylonian rule, and now there is great turmoil and sorrow in the land.  Nothing has been the same since.  In fact, the Book of Lamentations is read at the Wailing Wall weekly as a memorial of the great sorrow and tragedy of losing their holy city.  The very title of the book in Hebrew means "How" or "Alas" and was a word commonly used during the funerals of Old Testament times.  The opening words of the book say it all:  She dwells among the nations, but she has found no rest. (1:3)  Then, almost without warning, we find this little note of hope right in the midst of all the anguish spoken in the words of this tiny book:

God proves to be good to the man who passionately waits, to the woman who diligently seeks.  It’s a good thing to quietly hope, quietly hope for help from God.  It’s a good thing when you’re young to stick it out through the hard times.  When life is heavy and hard to take, go off by yourself.  Enter the silence.  Bow in prayer.  Don’t ask questions: Wait for hope to appear.  Don’t run from trouble.  Take it full-face.  The “worst” is never the worst.  (Lamentations 3:25-30 MSG)

The purpose of the writings of Jeremiah to Judah were really thought to offer three things:  reproof for their failure to recognize and serve their God whole-heartedly; instruction to get them back on track; and hope for a restoration beyond their capability, but definitely within the abilities of their God!  Hmmm...seems to me there are times in our own lives when we need exactly these three things, as well!  We don't always "have skin" in the game, do we?  Sometimes we drift a little, getting ourselves off-course as it applies to "whole-hearted" devotion.  It is good to know we are never without hope!

Looking at our passage, there are several points which will provide us with some insight into rising above the "worst" in our lives:

- God proves himself in our waiting and our seeking.  If you have ever had to really seek something which was just not immediately in your view, then you might just know what Jeremiah was saying here.  You get a little focused, don't you?  You direct all your attention, regardless of the other stuff demanding your attention, on what it is you are seeking.  Until you find it, you are "on a mission".  Sometimes, I have to take time to stop to think - in the "thinking" times, I discover what it is I was looking for!  Amazingly enough, God is found in the seeking and the waiting - and it is exactly in those moments where he proves himself faithful, graceful, and merciful to us!

- Life gets heavy and sometimes there is just a whole lot of stuff which is hard to take.  We just find ourselves burdened by what our choices bring into our lives.  I cannot tell you the times I have chosen one thing, only to find it has delivered into my life exactly the opposite of what I imagined it would do.  Jeremiah's reminder to us is to get alone with God - there we will finally figure out that the heaviness is not what he desires for our lives.  In "getting alone" with God, we get "staying power" for the longer hauls in life.  Ever want to just "bale"?  If so, you probably need a little "staying power" which comes no other way than in the "filling times" of being infused with the hope God gives.

- It is easiest to ask "why" or "how", but the greatest revelation comes in asking the "who" question.  When we ask the right question, we get the answer which brings the solution to the problem.  I think this is what my algebra teacher may have been trying to teach me when he was always telling me to "solve for X" in a problem.  Guess it will come as no surprise to you to hear that I finally found out "X" always equals GOD.  Problems of my own making multiplied by issues which are beyond my control always equal God's best opportunity to prove himself greater than my sin!  We always want to "solve for" the WHY or the HOW in life.  God wants us to "solve for" the WHO.  

Now, Jeremiah pens the words, "The worst if never the worst."  Really?  Some of our circumstances look pretty awful, don't they?  In our imagining, nothing could be worse.  I honestly think God was using Jeremiah to remind Judah, and us, our worst is always NEVER the worst because God's mercy holds back the torrents of "worst" which we will NEVER experience!  Yep, things might be a little narly (extreme) right now, but they are not the "worst".  If we trust God, his grace is holding back the "worst"!  Now, this should give us hope!  Just sayin!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Custom-made jewelry

I have one "custom-made" piece of jewelry - a pinky ring.  It is made up of some gold from various pieces I had, but the most precious part of the ring is the three diamonds channel set at an angle into this ring.  They are from my mom's wedding band.  After dad passed, mom knew I had a desire to have the ring made.  I had only one diamond to place there and was considering placing a couple of amethysts next to it, but she offered the diamonds.  The "value" of the ring went up right there!  It wasn't just the physical value of the ring, but the value the heirloom portion of this ring!  She gave me a "piece" of what dad and she shared - nearly thirty years of great love!  No amount of planning on my part would have produced the same ring!  I have worn this ring every day for twenty plus years.  It has worn an indentation into my pinky finger!  

The right word at the right time is like a custom-made piece of jewelry, and a wise friend’s timely reprimand is like a gold ring slipped on your finger.  (Proverbs 25:11-12 MSG)

What you may not know is the gold which went into making this ring was from my wedding band and engagement ring.  After my divorce, I didn't know what to do with the rings.  One day, it came to me to allow them to be "re-created" since God was deeply at work in my life "re-creating" me from the inside out.  In fact, it became important to me to have these rings made into something which spoke a message to my heart each time I looked at the ring.  

The "gift" of the three small diamonds made the ring perfect!  They remind me of the everlasting love of my parents - their support and commitment to me over the years served to bring me through many a bad spot - just like the love of my heavenly father.  Mom and dad never lost hope - even when I was wayward and wandering.  They prayed for my safety and were there to always welcome me back when I had strayed.  Their love for each other stood the test of many a trial - the memory of this love for each other and for me goes with me now each day in a very "physical" reminder - my little ring.

You see, as I look at this ring, it is not a wimpy band - it is solid.  God's message to me in those early years after my divorce is reflected in the solidness of this ring.  He always kept (and keeps) reminding me he would surround me with his "solidness".  His "rock-solid" foundation became ever more solid with each step I took toward the healing of my heart.  In turn, his "surrounding" grace has always been what leaves an "impression" on my life.  Just as the ring has produced an "impression" on my finger, his grace has left its mark in my heart!

It also has these three small diamonds - none bigger than the other.  They sit at an angle - crosswise.  I wear this ring on my left hand - one finger removed from my ring finger where the wedding band had been.  The three diamonds which are set deeply into the solidness of the gold speak to me of the tangent my small family took as a result of the divorce.  We had each other, none more important than the other, none more in need of God's grace and protection than the other.  In the midst of being a little removed from our original position as a family of four, we were surrounded by God's protection and his love.  

A simple ring, but it speaks volumes to me.  Our writer today reminds us of the "value" of the words of a friend - they are like a custom-made piece of jewelry slipped on our finger.  They are well-spoken in the right timing.  Just as the time came for the old rings to go and the new to be fashioned, so there are times in our lives when the old has to go and the new is beckoning to begin.  In these moments, the words of a friend are often the catalyst by which change begins.  

There is much which can be said about the value in listening to the words of encouragement from a friend, but our writer really reminds us of the reprimand of a friend.  Some of the greatest moments in my life have come when a friend has taken time to "set me straight" by giving me the right word at the right time.  Sure, the message might has "stung" a little at first, but it isn't until we peel the scab away from a sore that the scar really is free to heal and fade!  There are times we need to see the "ugliness" of our "scabbed lives" in order to create a desire to be free of the "scabs".  The first step in healing is in recognizing we are injured!

We all have things from our past and present which we might not know what to do with - things which resemble the "ugliness" of "scabs".  Sure, the injuries are covered - but not with the beauty of the newness God desires to bring forth.  In the aptly spoken words of a friend, the scar may be exposed.  In the continued encouragement of their continued "speaking into" our lives, the scar eventually fades and is only a subtle reminder of the injuries of times past.  Just sayin!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Need a transplant?

Some of the Psalms of David are filled with all kinds of things which seem to be said not once, but multiple times in the same psalm - kind of like a chorus or refrain in a song.  Maybe this is because so many of his psalms were indeed set to music!  As he begins this particular psalm, he lays out the "words of the refrain" - "God, the one and only—I’ll wait as long as he says.
Everything I need comes from him, so why not?  He’s solid rock under my feet,    breathing room for my soul, an impregnable castle:  I’m set for life."  (vs 1-3 MSG)  This refrain, or the crux of it, is repeated not less than three times in as little as twelve total verses!  So, it must be important, right?  Here's what is sandwiched right in the middle of these refrains:

My help and glory are in God—granite-strength and safe-harbor-God—so trust him absolutely, people; lay your lives on the line for him.  God is a safe place to be.  (Psalms 62:7-8 MSG)

David had such a personal relationship with God.  He was always "My God" to David.  He wasn't just the God of his Fathers, but he was up-close and personal with God.  He had developed an intimacy with God, sharing freely of his own heart, and in turn, I believe God shared his heart with him.  He points us to the "granite-strength" of God in many of his psalms.  He also refers to consider the safety of God's protection and covering.  These are not foreign concepts as taught and understood by David, but how did he come to know God as his "granite-strength" and "safe-harbor"?  

I think David faced some tough stuff in life which exposed him to the inadequacies of his own strength as much as he experienced the need to "run for shelter" into the arms of one who could comfort like no other.  We'd do well to take a lesson or two from this man - the man God honors with the words, "A man after my own heart".  Maybe he was a man who actually wanted to live life with a "transplanted" heart!  You know - the exchange of his own hardened heart with the heart beating afresh with the love and grace of God himself.  

There is much to be said about being at the point in life where you need a heart transplant.  In fact, it is a most desperate condition.  When the heart is not functioning well, nothing else in our body seems to function at capacity either.  Without the constant and steady pumping of blood throughout our bodies, we have no life for our cells, no energy source for our brain, and no carrying capacity to transport toxins to the organs which will assist in their removal.  The circulatory system is really like an intricate system of highways and byways - each carrying either life to or "garbage" away!  When these don't function well, it is worse than the traffic jams on a busy highway in rush-hour traffic!

Transplant recipients will tell you what the "exchanged" organ means to them.  There are expressions of gratefulness - for what was once very close to death is now infused with new life.  There is renewed energy and capacity - often allowing actions once only dreamed of as possible.  The same is true when we exchange our hardened and damaged "spiritual hearts" for the "vitality" of God's heart!  We who were so used to producing nothing but what appeared to be death are infused with a newness of life.  There is a vitality which gives us capacity beyond our imagining.  Pretty awesome, huh?

David reminds us "God is a safe place to be".  I cannot improve upon this thought!  Yet, we often choose "places" outside of his protection and care.  We choose to live with "damaged hearts" instead of coming into his watchful care.  Where the heart goes, so does all of activity.  If the heart is burdened and hurting - the activity we reflect will reveal the intensity of hurt and the crushing weight of the burden, will it not?  Here is the rub - we want new hearts, but we fear the transplant!  We hold onto what barely works when offered newness and vitality.  Silly us!  

In a spiritual sense, the heart is made up of our emotions and is closely tied to our will.  If we are used to dealing with our damaged emotions, the "highways" of "good emotions" are often so blocked by the highways of our bad emotions so as to not allow anything to "pass through" to the side of "good" very often.  We see only the traffic jam of the "bad" and not the wide open spaces of the "good".  

David reminds us God is "granite-solid".  Granite is one of the most durable of stones.  It is also widely used due to the durability and impenetrability of the stone itself.  I don't know about you, but when I need to make an exchange of this hardened heart for a new one, I want to be able to "stand" on the integrity of the one making the exchange possible.  I want to know what I am receiving is "solid" and will stand the test of time!  God has proven to be "rock solid" - time tested and true.  When we really "get" this, we don't hesitate to "lay our lives on the line".  Isn't that what a transplant recipient does?  They lay their lives on the line - knowing one "sort of working heart" will removed before there is any "space" created for another "working heart".  To receive the new, they have to be willing to part with the old. 

To stand upon the solidness of God's grace, we need to be willing to lay our lives down.  Just sayin!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Taste and See - mmmmmmm!

Can you explain "taste"?  Most of us would say some things "taste" sweet, others sour.  Maybe we'd describe some things as "yummy" and others as "yucky".  Either of these explanations would be correct, for taste is something we each "sense" in our own way, although we are all "built" with the same "sensations" in our taste buds.  It depends on WHAT we are tasting, WHEN we are tasting it, and WHAT ELSE we've been tasting just before we tasted whatever it is we are experiencing right now, doesn't it?  For example, a good cup of hot coffee tastes really good on a cold morning, or just as you are trying to get your eyes open.  But...have you ever had a cup of coffee in the morning after you have had a night of indulging on onions and garlic?  The "taste" of coffee is masked a little by what it was we experienced the night before.  Brush your teeth and use a little mouthwash!  The experience changes, does it not?

Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.  Fear the Lord, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing.  (Psalm 34:8-9 NIV)

In a physical sense, taste is made up of different things such as texture, temperature, presentation, and even smell.  If something has a pleasant texture (not too hard, too soft, but just right), we enjoy it a little more.  If something is way too hot, we burn our tongues and then taste is totally "skewed" by being "burnt".  What we see affects what we taste - this is the idea behind great chefs spending so much time on presentation.  I don't actually do much with the garnish on my plate, but it looks good!  In fact, it "draws" my eye to the plate and makes the discovery of the food that much nicer.  Smell plays into our taste because so much of what we take in is experienced in more than one way.  We are made to experience things with all our senses, aren't we?

Now, in looking at our passage, David challenges us to "taste and see" that the Lord is good.  In other words, he is challenging us to experience God in a multi-faceted way.  Too many times we "taste" and "see" God in very limited ways - simply because we "think" God should only be experienced in this way or that.  We limit our perception of God based on our unwillingness, or just our lack of us being aware God is all around us, waiting to be experienced by all our "senses".  If we limit the experience of God in our lives, we miss out on the "fullness" of what God has for us.  For example, hold your nose and eat a piece of chocolate.  Yep, the texture was the same - the smoothness of the chocolate was experienced.  You might even get a little hint of the sweetness of the chocolate, but do you get the full experience?  I have never been to Hershey, Pennsylvania, but folks tell me the "smell" is divine!  To really "experience" chocolate, I think it would be most perfect to eat it while taking in the rich aroma of it being made!

In considering what makes up "taste", we might just consider the following things about how we experience God in our lives:

- His presence is sweet.  The moment we experience his presence, there is a "sweetness" which we also experience.  For some of us, we will equate this to the richness of God's grace - taken in, experienced fully, we are left with nothing but the taste of "sweetness".  We might also equate this to the "mildness" of his presence - not poking or prodding, but gently enveloping us in his rich graces.  Grace is indeed "sweet" to the senses, but it must be experienced with all of our senses in order to fully be appreciated.  Maybe this is why David told us to taste and see.  Experience the sweetness, the richness of the texture of grace - but also the beauty beheld in seeing his grace change what we could not.  Just sayin!

- His Word may produce a little bit of bitter or sour taste for a period of time. Yep, you read this right - bitterness or sourness.  Now, lest you think I am being a little "down on God", hear me out.  God's Word is indeed a very "sweet" thing most of the time, but think of all the words he spoke through the prophets of old.  Not all those words were the sweetest!  Some of them were downright "sour" or "bitter" when they were experienced.  Sometimes our sin or unfaithfulness brings us the experience of "tasting" God's words of admonishment or chastisement.  We need these words, but they aren't "sweet" to the taste immediately.  Thinking back to what I presented at the beginning, the things we experience prior to tasting God's grace leave us with skewed taste.  We need some "cleansing" before we can really appreciate what God desires for us to experience.  Grace words can also be a little bitter or sour at first - just sayin!

- His influence in our lives is impacted by the various "senses" we utilize to "intake" it fully and the "timing" of our "intake".  The WHEN is just as important as the WHAT when we consider our "intake".  For example, eat just before you go to bed and you may not sleep well that night.  Moms used to tell their kids to stay out of the pool just after eating because some awful thing might happen to them if they swam with full stomachs.  The truth is, the body is just so focused on digesting the big meal, it doesn't make sense to "tax it" by also adding a great deal of physical exercise right after we take in the big meal.  The "intake" of God's word and his grace is always excellent - the "timing" of our intake makes all the difference in how well we experience it!  Prepared hearts enjoy the intake much more than when the intake is on the fly!  Just sayin!

Just a few thoughts on "sensing" God today.  If you haven't opened up all your senses to experiencing God, maybe it is time you did!  You don't know what you are missing!  Just sayin!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Group "norms" or your "norms"?

Who do you "hang out" with?  You probably have a pretty "routine" group of acquaintances who you associate with more than others.  Sometimes, we have groups at work or school, others at home and at church.  They can overlap a little, but seldom are they all the same.  When we have all these groups in which we associate, it is easier to be one with one group and quite another with the other, isn't it?  There is not a great deal of consistency between the members of the groups, so being a little different with each group usually doesn't present a problem. day, you find a member of one of your "groups" crossing-over into another!  Perhaps you find yourself a little conflicted because you "act" one way with the present group, but quite a different way with the other.  The truth about associations is the tendency we have to "blend" to their way of acting.  We become like those we hang out with, don't we?  Yeah, we hold onto some of the uniqueness of who we are, but we have a tendency to adapt to the "norms" of the group we are in.

Don’t hang out with angry people; don’t keep company with hotheads.  Bad temper is contagious—don’t get infected.  (Proverbs 22:24-25 MSG)

The "group norms" are the unwritten, often unspoken, "rules" which govern our behavior while in the group.  It is the "norms" which help us to understand how to act.  For example, if you come into a boardroom of well-dressed business men and women, wearing blue jeans and a polo, you might feel a little "out of place".  The norms of the group dictate a different attire as appropriate for the boardroom setting.  There are no written rules, but there is an understood rule of "presentation" of a professional image.  If the norms of the group allow for a free-for-all kind of work environment, such as a creative business such as an art studio, a man in a business suit would feel just as "out of place".  

I think Solomon might have understood "group norms" a little way back in the time he recorded these words to his sons.  He understood the idea of "conforming" to the group values.  If the group values are good, this is not so much of a problem, but if they represent something less, we might find ourselves getting wrapped up in behavior we'd be best to avoid.  "Keeping company" with anyone who sways us away from upright behavior is always risky business.  If our values "morph" to the values of the group we are in, isn't it important to understand the values pretty early on?  

Look at what he says:  "Don't HANG OUT with angry people; don't KEEP COMPANY with hotheads."  Here are two very important distinctions - hanging out and keeping company.  Hanging out is really the casual kind of companion interaction - friends just being together without any real purpose or intent.  Keeping company is more of a consistent kind of attention to the relationship, so as to associate with or consort with them.  

Now, look at these in context.  If we "hang out" with angry people - having no real purpose or intent in our relationships - we might find it very easy to have our norms morphed a little by those we are "hanging out" with, huh?  But, Solomon goes on to remind us it is equally as dangerous to form lasting relationships with these individuals (keeping company) - there is a tendency to partner with (come into agreement with) those we associate with long enough.  Whereas "hanging out" is casual and without any great intention, "keeping company" declares some type of commitment.

So, in context, Solomon warns us against both the casual association with those who have an issue with anger and the committed relationship with one who had issues with being impetuous and short-fused.  Anger is a long-term problem - temper is short-lived, but equally as devastating to the one on the receiving end!  When we "hang with" or "commit to" others who display these tendencies, we both place ourselves in their direct path, AND we have exposed ourselves to the tendency to "morph" our actions to theirs.  

The angry have made their violent rage a lifestyle.  The hothead is probably more dangerous because you never know what will "trigger" the next outburst!  Either way, we are to be very cautious about entering into relationship with these individuals.  Both can lead us down paths we'd probably never want to travel!  The "rub" comes in being "affected" or "infected" by their actions.  There are a whole group of "sins" which affect the one doing the sinning - there are others which affect others, as well.  Anger and hotheadedness are two of the ones which are never content unless others are caught up in their "fray".  

So, it really does matter who we associate with, both in the casual sense, such as at the lunch table at work, and in the more permanent sense, such as a life-long companion.  To be unaware of the damage of their anger or hotheadedness is to be naive.  To this end, Solomon warns his sons (and us) to avoid their company - to not purposefully place ourselves in a position to be affected by their "norms".  Just sayin!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Decluttering Space

Ever feel like you just cannot "pull it all together"?  You just feel like you are under a mountain of stuff and cannot seem to see any relief on the horizon?  Well, I doubt you are in it alone!  Sometimes we just need a good "garage sale" to clean out the "stuff" which buries us so deeply!  We had the opportunity to have a garage sale this weekend.  It was made nicer because my two children joined and the neighbor across the street also had stuff out for buyers to find their bargains.  I wonder at the many people who come, some just shopping for the bargain, but others on a very specific mission - finding the one item they desire.  Either way, they were here to unburden us of the mound of stuff we had accumulated which we really had no use for!

By entering through faith into what God has always wanted to do for us—set us right with him, make us fit for him—we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus. And that’s not all: We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.  (Romans 5:1-2 MSG)

It was the signs, posted with care at each opportunity to draw folks to the sale, which guided them to the destination.  It was also the little free advertisement on the website which advertises these events.  Either way, whether they "stumbled upon" the signs, or purposefully sought the destination by following the advertisement, they came!  What we hoped for was to unburden ourselves - what they hoped for was to take home the treasure they sought.  Hmmm....I think salvation is a little bit like this.  We hope to be unburdened from the stuff which only "clogs up" our lives - God hopes to take the greatest treasure he could find home to be part of his family.

Looking at our passage today, we see Paul laying out a couple of things we will do well to consider:

- We enter into what God wants to do for us by faith.  If we only give this a cursory glance and move on, we miss something very important.  God has had this gift of grace prepared for us for a long time - we just have to reach out to take hold of it.  It is like the people seeing the signs along the roadway - they had to turn first this way, then that, until they came to the destination of the sale.  We often need to pay attention to the signs in life, placed carefully along the ways we travel, designed to draw us into the place we find the greatest treasure of our lives.  God did all the preparation - he laid out the course, provided all the neat stuff we would come to experience, and he even prepared a way for us in advance of us even knowing we'd follow that path!  When we pay attention to the signs and make the decision to actually follow them, we are doing so by faith.  We don't know what awaits us at the final destination, but we trust it will be something awesome!  

- It is God who sets us right with him, not us.  Sometimes we go about this whole salvation thing from the wrong perspective.  We think we can clean up our own act and somehow unburden ourselves of the junk which has accumulated in our inner man.  The problem is - we often justify a reason for holding onto the junk (after all, it may have a use down the road).  I really spent some time before the garage sale going through cupboards, closets, and the like.  Not everyone is thoroughly cleaned out, but many are devoid of the clutter and the "stuff" which might one day find a use.  Most of us need to realize we might have "cleaner cupboards" if we'd let God clean them out!  The truth is, we justify the need for some "stuff" in our lives - God, on the other hand, knows the "stuff" only clutters us!

- God is all about creating "wide open spaces" in our lives.  His goal in providing for our "emptying" is to allow us to enjoy the sensation of living unburdened (uncluttered).  If you have ever lived in really close spaces for a period of time, then moved into a bigger space, you might just understand this a little better.  When I was in the military, I crammed as much of my "life" into a 10 x 12 foot space as possible.  Stereo, shelves, fridge, bunk, desk, chair, locker, and all my worldly belongings.  It was crowded.  Then I got married and we got a two-bedroom apartment off-base.  Wow!  What a difference!  We had so much space!  Then, one day, we looked around and saw we not only filled the space of the two-bedroom apartment, we filled a small storage unit in the basement, as well!  Aye!  What we did was move from one "cluttered" space into another!  Just bigger!  That is how we are - we want to "handle" our clutter by getting a bigger space.  God wants to clear us out - giving us "grace space".  You know - the place where we come to experience his love, enjoy his presence, and really live free of the clutter we have held onto so long.  Clutter like unforgiveness, resentment, fear, doubt, and the like.  Instead of clutter, we come into God's "grace space" - and a mighty fine space it is!

Now, being free of a "little" clutter is good.  Being free of the "big" clutter is better.  Being "clutter-free" is best!  Just sayin!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Filled Lives

Wouldn't it be nice to "not need a thing"?  To be so "set" in life, nothing we could buy or be given is really needed.  It is nearing the holidays again, so it is time for folks to start making their wish-lists.  You know what I mean - little ones are not even finished carving their pumpkins, but their list for Santa is growing by the minute!  Now, if you were to ask a child what they "needed", their list would include the latest super-hero characters, a new building set, or probably an electric scooter.  If you ask an adult, their "needs" would be a little loftier - like a new set of tires for the car, the full collection of James Bond movies which was just released this summer, or the shiny new appliance down at the local retailer.  We probably have been asked what we want, only to answer back, "I have everything I need.  I don't need anything else."  It is likely true - we have a lot of stuff!  But "stuff" doesn't fill the most important gap in our lives!

Just think—you don’t need a thing, you’ve got it all! All God’s gifts are right in front of you as you wait expectantly for our Master Jesus to arrive on the scene for the Finale. And not only that, but God himself is right alongside to keep you steady and on track until things are all wrapped up by Jesus. God, who got you started in this spiritual adventure, shares with us the life of his Son and our Master Jesus. He will never give up on you. Never forget that.  
(I Corinthians 1:7-9 MSG)  

Paul puts it well - you (and I) don't need a thing - because we've received all we need in the person of Christ.  We've got it all!  What we often fail to recognize is just how much we have been given in Christ.  Some of us only look at Christ as "fire insurance" - a means to avoid hell in the hereafter.  Others of us see Christ as a nice person - filling us with good feelings on occasion.  Still others see Christ as a means to an end - thinking being "in Christ" entitles us to some sort of place of privilege.  The issue with each of these "views" is their lack of connection with the work of Christ in our lives.

Jesus is indeed our "means" to avoid hell, but we miss out on so much more if all we do is buy a piece of property and never see it developed!  We indeed experience some "warm fuzzies" once in a while because we have Christ in our lives - maybe because we experience peace for the first time.  Yet, to focus on the "warm feelings" knowing him produces never helps us to focus on living "above" our feelings.  Seeing Jesus as our "sugar-daddy" (the one who we go to whenever we have a need and then expect it to be met lickety split) makes us guilty of treating God as our servant - something totally backward to God's plan of us being his servants.

So, to get this right, let's look at what Paul says again.  All God's gifts are right in front of us.  This is the focus, not just that we avoid hell, get warm feelings, or have God at our service.  What Paul is trying to do is help us see the thing right in front of our eyes which we have such a hard time focusing on correctly.  We possess all the "gifts" we will ever need - we just have to become familiar with how they operate in our lives.  To this end, Paul tells us God is right there alongside - getting us started and seeing us become proficient in their use!

God gets us started - he also sees us through to the end.  In many cases, we give God access to "get things started" in our lives, but I wonder how many times we don't pay attention long enough to let him see it through to the end?  We have the "warm fuzzy" experience (I call these my "aha" moments) - but then after life begins to kick up around you again, you don't remember the "warm fuzzy" as much as you "feel" the presence of the present issue.  The work God began is still being "worked" - we are just not keenly aware of it if we are just focusing on the "feeling" of the moment.  Chances are, the present issue is just another means to bring out something within where God is focusing his attention.  

Look at what Paul says are the two actions of God on our behalf "after" he gives us the gifts:  keeping us steady and on track.  So, in giving us the gifts, he knows we need to know how to use them.  I have some "toys" (the electronic type) which I have purchased over the years.  I learn some of the basic stuff - like how to turn them on, get them to play the songs I want to hear, and the like.  Yet, I never really use them to their full potential.  I possess a smart phone - probably smarter than the user!  I need a tutorial in using some of its features, but I don't take the time to find out much about the "other stuff" it can do because I am comfortable with what it already does for me!

I wonder how many times we approach God's gifts this way - not really concerned with how much more they could be developed in us simply because we are content with what we have already experienced.  If I only used my smart phone to make and receive calls, I really did not need a smart phone!  If I use it to alert me to my next appointments, keep my grocery list in, and be a tickler of upcoming birthdays, I am getting the hang of using it, but still way below its potential.  If I actually begin to explore the apps, I may begin to surf the web, purchase a meal on the way home which will be waiting for me as I arrive at the local restaurant pick-up window, and even regulate my home air conditioning for me while away.  I am coming closer to using this device as its "designer" intended.

God gives us gifts which will only reveal their full potential in our lives when we really nuzzle up to him and learn how to apply them in our lives!  Just as with my smart phone, we have to "use the apps" he gives us!  The "gaps" in our lives are best "filled" with the gifts of God.  First with his presence, then with all which comes as a result of his indwelling Spirit within.  Just sayin!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Abandoning "same"

Have you ever abandoned your post?  In military terms, the abandonment of one's post refers to leaving a place you were "put" in order to provide some security or overall function to the unit.  You just never did this!  To do so left the door wide open for anyone to penetrate your perimeter of defense, gaining access to your depot of storage, or overtake your companions in arms.  The sentinel (or lookout) was to maintain constant alertness, be vigilant, and remain awake - for the sole purpose of observing for the possible approach of the enemy, or to guard persons, property, or a place and to sound an alert, if necessary.  It was considered a dereliction of duties and was punishable under military court-martial.  Indeed, this is considered a serious offense.

First, there’s the matter of being put in charge of writing down and caring for God’s revelation, these Holy Scriptures. So, what if, in the course of doing that, some of those Jews abandoned their post? God didn’t abandon them. Do you think their faithlessness cancels out his faithfulness? Not on your life! Depend on it: God keeps his word even when the whole world is lying through its teeth. Scripture says the same: Your words stand fast and true; rejection doesn’t faze you.  (Romans 3:2-6 MSG)

Paul makes mention of the special tasks given to the Jewish nation to not only write down the Holy Scriptures, but to preserve them at all cost.  They were "placed at their post", so to speak.  They had a direct order to ensure the Word of God was kept secure, understood, and passed down from generation to generation.  But...some "abandoned their post".  In other words, some did maintain the constant alertness or vigilance toward the task they were given.  They drifted.  In drifting, the defenses of a nation were left very vulnerable.  This very vulnerability resulted in many a decline in the nation of Israel - even captivity to some pretty awful dictators.

I believe we all have some "post" to which we are stationed.  It may be as leaders in our homes, or companions in a journey through grief with a friend who has lost a loved one.  No matter the post, there is a required "vigilance" we must keep.  To abandon this vigilance often means the abandoning of the very defenses which will keep our family free of attack, or that companion in a place of security until they are able to stand strong again.

Paul doesn't point out the "abandoning of post" to point fingers at some individuals in the nation of Israel, or to accuse.  Instead, he reminds us all of the faithfulness of God to "stand watch" when we may let our "watch" drift.  God didn't abandon them and he doesn't abandon us!  Our faithlessness does nothing to dissuade God's faithfulness.  It is his nature to keep his word - to stand his post.  

Have you ever "rejected" some truth in your life?  You know what I mean - God speaks to you through some lesson you are hearing, or book you might be reading.  Then, in just about as quick a way as possible, we begin to think how this "lesson" applies to the person next to you, the one down the block, or the person in the cubicle three down from you at work.  It never occurs to you to look to the lesson as something for you!  Or maybe it does, and you just don't want to "deal with it" right now!  I've been there, so you are not alone!

Abandon has a few synonyms which might just help us understand what Paul was talking about here.  First, abandon means to give up or discontinue because you are discouraged, weary, or maybe you find something too distasteful for you.  It is easy to walk away when you are discouraged or weary, isn't it?  When you find something just too bitter to deal with, you don't want to face it, do you?  So, you would rather abandon it than to face it.  Truth can be this way in our lives - it comes, we find it hard for us to face, so we just shift our focus to something else.  In turn, we are left defenseless.  Nothing puts us at risk more than to know the truth and then choose to ignore it.  If you hear your brakes constantly squealing, that little sensor giving a warning they are wearing low, how silly it would be to ignore the warning.  To do so would leave you defenseless at some point.  

Second, relinquish is a synonym of abandon meaning to give up something we'd rather keep.  It is like when your mom tells you it is time to give up your security blanket, or your favorite thread-bare stuffed animal you have toted everywhere with you.  You just "cannot" give it up!  It has become part of you!  Life just would not be the same without it!  Hmmm...I wonder how much God asks us to relinquish and we simply tell him, "I can't, God!  Life wouldn't be the same without this!"  Maybe it is time to ask God if "the same" is what he is really trying to get us to abandon!  Sometimes I think God is after the very thing which keeps us "the same" and we are telling him, "Nope, I like it this way!"  

Third, and probably most important, renounce is a synonym of abandon meaning to voluntarily make a decision to give something up - to yield, or surrender.  It is often at the point we realize God is after the "same" in our life where we come face-to-face with "renouncing" this "sameness" for whatever God has in store for us.  We renounce our grief, choosing to move on, to explore new ways of experiencing love again.  We renounce our sin, embracing new measures of grace, rising above the patterned responses of our past.  We allow God to disturb our present because he is focused on our future.  

In short, there are two forms of abandoning our post which are not exactly what God has in mind and one which hits the nail right on the head!  We often assume a lot of "posts" in life which are just because they produce the sense of "sameness" in life.  God is after your "same" - in gaining access to our "same" he brings "different" - but it will be a blessing!  Hold on - God's just making his way clearer in your life.  Be alert - remain vigilant.  When he calls for you to abandon your post of "same" - do it!  

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The set of our sails

Ever hear the warning, "You better choose your words wisely"?  I found a quote recently, actually a little poem, which I think really puts things into perspective as it applies to our words:

You may choose your words like a connoisseur,
And polish it up with art,
But the word that sways, and stirs, and stays,
Is the word that comes from the heart.
(Ella Wheeler Wilcox)

Probably one of her most famous "one-liners" is the simple quote:  "Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone."  She was an American author of poetry, living only a short span of about 69 years on this earth, but leaving us with some great thoughts on the power of words, the joys of passion, and the integrity of our choices.  Another of my favorites is really a very short poem, but it speaks volumes:

One ship drives east and another drives west
With the selfsame winds that blow.
'Tis the set of the sails, 
And not the gales,
That tells us the way to go.

Like the winds of the sea are the ways of fate;
As we voyage along through life,
'Tis the set of a soul
That decides its goal, 
And not the calm or the strife.
(Ella Wheeler Wilcox)

Aptly spoken words impart a little life, do they not?  When words are chosen well, we find them giving direction to our souls.  Look again at her last stanza and you will see she directs us to consider the "set of our soul" - for it decides the direction we take, the outcome of our endeavor, and the destination we reach.  The same is true with our words - they determine the course of many a relationship, opening or closing us to endeavors, and revealing the distance we will travel, do they not?

Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit—you choose.  (Proverbs 18:21 MSG)

The book of Proverbs is chocked-full of reminders to be very conscious of our words - to choose them wisely.  This one verse alone presents us with enough "evidence" to chew on our words a little longer, does it not?  Words kill - therefore, I need to be careful which words I choose to speak.  Words equally give life - when chosen well, spoken with integrity, and directed toward those who benefit from their sharing.  

Either poison or fruit - it is our choice.  Now, I have to direct us to look back to the first book of the Bible for a moment.  The first "choice" we see recorded in scripture dealt with "fruit" - did it not?  Two trees sat in the middle of the Garden.  One the tree of life, the other the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Only one tree "bore fruit" which was to be "avoided" - the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  What one thing led to the "tasting" of this "fruit"? Was it not a discourse of words between Satan and Eve - a twisting of words to fit the plan of Satan?  In fact, this discourse between them is recorded for all eternity - simply because God knows the power of words and he wants us to learn it well!  They can affect the choices we make.

Fruit or poison - the choice is how the words are spoken, how well they adhere to the truth, and the condition of the heart of the one receiving them.  Words can be spoken with a "bent" toward one position or another.  Schools everywhere teach the students to learn the "art of debate" - the presentation of one side of the story or the other with the intent of "swaying" the hearers to accept or adopt "your side".  In fact, a good debater will learn the very "arguments" which appeal to the heart and mind.  Sound familiar?  Remember, Satan is always going to present the "argument" the way WE want to hear it, not the way God wants us to "remember" it!

The condition of the heart - or shall I say the "set of our sails" - determines the course words will take.  We will do well to choose the "set of our sails" not so much with the prevailing wind, but with the wisdom of directing them into the winds of grace.  Just sayin!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Receiving or Refracting

What is a gift?  Isn’t it something given voluntarily without payment in return?  If we have to pay for it, is it really a gift?  I would say it is likely a “purchase”, not a gift.  Why is it we treat God’s “gifts” as something similar to a purchase?  We try to “pay God back” for his grace – a gift of undeserved favor on his part. We try to “pay God back” for the gift of salvation – a gift whose “purchase price” we were totally incapable of paying in the first place!  We need to recognize the “gifts” God gives are not something for which he ever expected payment in return.

Receiving a gift is like getting a rare gemstone; any way you look at it, you see beauty refracted.
(Proverbs 17:8 MSG)

Gifts are given – but they are also received.  If I sent a gift each day to your doorstep, brightly packaged in fine wrapping paper, adorned with a shimmering bow – but you never once opened any of them - what good would the gifts be?  In order for the gifts to “serve” their purpose, they have to be opened, put into use, and enjoyed.  Now, if you took the gift I sent each day, placed them one-by-one unopened on a shelf to admire, most people would think you were a little touched in the head!  On the other hand, if you opened each one, savoring the discovery of the “contents” of the gift, the giver of the gift would be delighted you took such interest in the gift.  The giver would be inclined to give you another, and another, and another. 

Look at what our writer tells us – RECEIVING a gift is like getting a rare gemstone - a thing of beauty refracted.  We need to understand the principles of refraction to really "get" this one.  I know the sparkle of a diamond when light hits it, and the clearness of water when light passes through it, but what does refraction have to do with us?  In short, I think Solomon may have in mind the idea we use in terms of describing how the light enters the eye, and is refracted in order to PRODUCE an image upon the retina of the eye.  Let this sink in a bit.  When we RECEIVE the gifts of God in our lives such as grace and truth, they enter into us, then they begin to PRODUCE the image of Christ within!  The process of RECEIVING allows for the image to become clear to us.  

Light enters the eye, is "bent toward" the retina in order to give us the image of what we are beholding.  Without this "entering" and the ability of the light to penetrate the surface of the eye, we'd all be blind!  In a spiritual sense, when light (Christ) enters us, his light is "refracted" to the very spot where we will begin to form the image of what it is we are beholding.  His light is "purposefully bent" so as to focus it on the very area where "beholding" needs to take place.  Grace "gifts" come, not in bushel-fulls we cannot use all at one time, but in measured ways and at various times in our lives, allowing us to put it into use (unwrap it).  Grace "beheld" today becomes grace "reflected" tomorrow.  

The other thing I remembered about refraction was more of a lesson learned from my physics class.  When light or sound tries to enter into a space, it has to pass "through" something else.  In the "passing through", sometimes light or sound is distorted.  Have you ever seen rays of sun coming in through the window and observed all those tiny particles of dust floating in the air that you'd never know were there until the light hit them just right?  If you have ever been in a dust storm and really tried to make out the images in front of you, you likely saw only a distorted impression of the image - because light was being refracted by the massive amount of dust in the air.

Now, we all have "clogged" lives, don't we?  Stuff just seems to be jammed up inside.  When God's light is entering into our lives, it often is refracted by the stuff we hold so tightly inside.  Until we clear out a little of the "clog", God's light is there, but it is not making connection with the very thing which will allow his grace, love, and peace to be PRODUCED in our lives.  Sometimes, we don't "feel like" light is getting to the spot where the image is being reflected correctly - it is probably because of the "stuff" the light is having to "pass through" in order to get at what it is aimed toward!  For reception to occur, connection has to be made.  

There must be light - this is God's part.  There must be entry - this is our part.  We have to open up to the gifts of God in our lives - grace, peace, restoration, etc.  Then there must be reception - the focusing of each of these gifts on just the right spot where recognition occurs.  Sometimes we need to unload a little in order to allow the "receptors" to be able to receive what the giver is sending our way.  Remember - the only gift which is really serving its purpose is the one which is received (put into use).  I wonder what more God could do with our lives if we began to "receive" and "reflect" instead of always "refracting"?  Just sayin!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Planning requires a coach

Most of us walk some form of "path".  A path is some course of action - the way we conduct ourselves - which gets us from point "A" to point "B".  Ever get lost?  You think it simple going from where you are right now - but in the complexity of today, the uncertainty of tomorrow, and the muddle of yesterday, the path can get a little twisted!  By the very definition of a path, it some way which is trodden so frequently it becomes "worn" with the continual "passing".  Walk once over a spot and it shows evidence of you being there, but it soon fades with the next cycle of growth or cleaning cycle.  Walk often enough over the same spot and it shows signs of the frequent passing!  

When a person’s path draws favor from the Lord, even their enemies are at peace with them.  People plan their path, but the Lord secures their steps.  (Proverbs 16:7, 9 CEB)

I chose two verses from this proverb this morning.  One speaks of the path which "draws favor" from the Lord and the path which man "plans".  Let's begin with the latter.  Man does a whole lot of planning - reworking the plans to fit the present circumstances.  If you don't believe me, think about how often you have reworked your budget to fit your present earnings!  Solomon begins this proverb with the words:  "Mortals make elaborate plans, but God has the last word." (vs. 1 MSG)  Yep, we make all kind of elaborate plans - but no one has the last word until God speaks!  You know the colloquialism, "It isn't over until the fat lady sings"?  Well, I am not saying God is "the fat lady", but you get my drift!

A plan lays out our way of acting when certain things occur.  It is a kind of "cause & effect" diagram.  This presents itself, we respond this way.  We see this item on sale, we purchase it.  We hear a freight train blow its whistle as we approach the crossing, we stop while it passes.  We get hit with hostility when we approach a subject, we respond in hurt and anger.  One action leads to another.  Now, some of these occur by careful planning - such as waiting for the store to put the item on sale at a price closer to what we are willing and able to pay.  The others don't require such carefulness.  Some responses come by "learning" - such as knowing freight trains cross the tracks and cars don't do well if they don't heed the warning of the whistle.  Others come by stumbling into them - such as when we find ourselves smack-dab in the middle of an argument.

There can be degrees of "rigidity" in our planning.  For some of us, we are "planners par-excellence" - practiced in planning out each detail down to the little stuff.  For some of us, we are constantly reminding these folks to "lighten up" and "take a chill pill" because their "planned existence" is just too rigid for us.  The opposite is true of some - taking life as it comes - not really planning ahead in any real sense of the word.  These individuals like to call themselves "spontaneous".  I think this may just be a big word for impulsiveness!  If the opportunity presents, these people jump on it and follow the path wherever it takes them.  Don't get me wrong, spontaneity is important, but it is not a way of life.

Look again at our scriptures - man plans, God determines the game!  He knows the "players" better than we do - we need his "coaching" skills to give us insight into the plan which will cause us to have both a good defense and a strong offense.  Sandwiched right in the middle of our passage we find the word "secures".  Man plans - God secures.  Man may set out not to fail - only God has the ability to keep us from failing!  

When our path is marked by the "security" God provides, it makes our steps firm.  Where God directs, failure is less likely - simply because the steps are in his keeping.  Let me just say, God is not in the business of being our personal body-guard when we trudge ahead without any concern toward getting his insight into our plans.  He might keep us from being totally lost in the end, but remember the principles of sowing and reaping.  We sow - we reap.  We might not always find our plans producing what we hoped for.  

God's plans for our lives are not "liable" to fail.  In other words, our steps are not subject to the same twists and turns as when we trudge out on our own.  There are a lot of pitfalls we are susceptible to in life.  We fall into them because we do little "pre-planning" to understand how to recognize them.  To avoid them, we first have to recognize them!  No one walks into quicksand if they actually know how quicksand appears when they come upon it.  How do we get to the place of recognizing pitfalls in our lives?  I think it comes a variety of ways, but the most important way is through the Word of God.  As we learn more about God's ways and his intention for our lives, we often see choices before us as either lining up with these or not.  Even the "bad examples" we have in scripture - those who chose to go their own way and reap what they sowed - serve as examples!

We also have the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  He is there as a constant companion - guiding us in our planning.  If we actually begin to obey the "nudging" of his influence in our lives, we might make fewer missteps along the way.  Obedience is deliberate, not accidental!  Just sayin!