Friday, November 30, 2012

Four churches in one building...sad day....

I saw a sign the other day on a church just down the street from us.  It sort of broke my heart.  It read, "Four churches call this building home".  Now you might not find this very heart-breaking, but let me explain why it tugged at the my heart-strings.  The sad thing is four groups of people have to see things so differently as to need to be four different churches all meeting in the same building.  I wonder how strong the church could be if ALL the members of each of these churches would lay down their "style" or "uniqueness" and just embrace everyone from the "other" congregations as Christ intended?

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!  (Psalm 133:1 KJV)  

You were all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction, so stay together, both outwardly and inwardly. You have one Master, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who rules over all, works through all, and is present in all. Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness.  (Ephesians 4:4-6 MSG)

Paul says it well to the Ephesian church - "You were called to travel on the SAME road and in the SAME direction..."  Yet, we have chosen so many "directions" in which we will travel this journey of faith, haven't we?  We "divide" ourselves in something called "denominations".  Do you know how the dictionary describes a "denomination"?  It is simply a group having a "distinctive" interpretation of faith.  Somehow, I think we missed the mark of what David described back in the Old Testament and what Paul describes as the mission of the church of the New Testament.  We are CALLED to live in unity.  Now, I don't know about you, but a "calling" is something I take pretty seriously.  It is not a "choosing", but a calling.  Do you know the other word for "calling"?  It is simple:  MISSION.  

We "divide" over the silliest of things, really not so significant in the scheme of things.  Things like what we should wear to church, or how we should wear our hair.  Some focus on whether the music should be loud, or melodious.  Others think a strong outreach to the community is the ticket.  NONE of these is really the focus of the church!  In fact, the focus of the church is really being "ON MISSION" with Jesus.  In order to accomplish that mission, we use all kinds of tools along the way.  We use music to minister - some like it loud, others like it softer.  So have both - and learn to "tolerate" the other's taste!

Here is the crux of what Paul was saying - stay together!  Dividing over the small stuff is really not going to do much for our inward growth and it will be evident in our outward growth, as well.  I suspect such is the case of the "four churches who call one building their home".  We have one Master - Jesus Christ.  No other prophet, teacher, or great leader.  Jesus is central to the Christian faith.  If we believe in Jesus as the only true Son of God, given to be the sacrifice for our sins - we believe the SAME.  We have one God and Father of all - Jehovah, The Almighty, Father God - we call him all kinds of things, but he is the same.  If we believe there is one true God, creator of all things, all-knowing, ever-present, and and all-powerful, we believe the SAME.  

So, why do we divide?  Do you know the other definition of "denomination"?  It is a "group bigger than a sect".  Back in Jesus' day, there were a few "sects" in Jerusalem.  The Pharisees (religious leaders well-studied in the Law) were one; the Sadducees (religious leaders who were responsible for keeping the Temple) were another; the Essenes (Jews who lived at the waterfront of the Dead Sea as isolationists) were yet another.  I could go on and on about these various sects, but the point is they have existed for a long, long time.  In the New Testament, first century church, the goal was to break down these walls of "separation" and begin to come together in unity.  I wonder what power could be evident if we'd just heed this one instruction?

So, now you understand why I am a little distressed by the "four church in one building" sign.  I guess I am grateful all four congregations have a place to meet.  I just know it grieves God's heart for man to live with such division.  If you were to ask me my "denomination", I'd tell you I don't have one!  I am a Christian - a believer in Christ who chooses to fellowship with other believers in Christ.  The church is not the four walls I go into - it is the life I live each and every day while being on mission with Jesus.  Just sayin!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Are your receptors broken?

Back in the day, before thermometers were a common thing in each medicine cabinet, parents used to "test" their children for fever by placing their lips on the forehead of the child.  It seemed like an odd way to do it since we have seen people repeatedly use their hands laid across the forehead to "evaluate" the feverishness of another.  Yet, it was a pretty doggone accurate process!  More accurate than the hand - and the closest to the true determination of "fever" than anything other than a thermometer.  The lips have a great deal of "sensitivity" receptors which allow them to be pretty accurate at interpreting what touches them.

Post a guard at my mouth, God, set a watch at the door of my lips.  (Psalm 141:3 MSG)  
The "sensitivity" receptors of our lips works both ways - affected by what leaves our mouths, and by what touches it!  Maybe this is why David prayed for God to post a guard at his mouth - the entry and exit point for many a good or bad thing in his life!  He is actually probably asking God to "tune up" his "sensitivity" to what both enters and leaves.  I think we all need to pray this prayer at times.  We need to "increase" the "sensitivity" of our lips - not just so we "feel" things better, but so we are able to evaluate things with more "receptors" - just like the mom testing her child for fever.

Two of the top areas of "sensitivity receptors" in our bodies are the lips and the fingertips.  My mom suffers from having lost the feeling in her fingertips, not to mention her vision, so is it any wonder she uses her lips to assist her in identifying something she may not be sure about?  The little candy wrappers with the twisted ends are a challenge for her.  So, she puts the first end in her lips and then pulls with the fingers of one hand.  In turn, she manages to open it.  She has "adapted" to using what remains consistently "sensitive".  Did you know your brain has dedicated more area to receiving the messages from your "sensitivity receptors" on your lips and from your fingertips than any other "receptor" area of your body?  This means we have dedicated more "brain power" to interpreting these sensations to these two types of "receptors" than any other.  

Sometimes I think we rely solely upon our "brain power" to do the interpreting of what it is we are receiving and sending out.  I learned a little song a long time ago.  It goes something like this:

"Holy Spirit come.  Make my ears to hear, my eyes to see, my mouth to speak, my hands to reach, and my heart to reach out and touch the world with your love."  

I wish I could credit for these lyrics, but I honestly don't even remember the title of the song, much less the author.  Just know, these words have stuck with me in good times and bad.  They have been sung over and over as I rely upon God doing just what these words imply - making me more sensitive to the things I need to be sensitive to and less sensitive to the other stuff.

We all have "sensitivity" receptors in our lives.  One of the purposes of these receptors in our physical bodies is to keep us from harm.  The receptors actually warn us to thins like hot, cold, bitter, or sweet.  In a spiritual sense, we have been given similar "sensitivity" receptors in areas such as our emotions, mind, and spirit.  It is good to post a watch over these in order to avoid undue injury.  Without being aware of what "comes" and "goes" in our lives, we would be opened to all kinds of harmful stuff.  

Let me give you an example of just a couple of these "sensitivity" receptors God has given to us in a spiritual sense.  Maybe we hear words with a little "twang of jealousy" spoken.  Our "ear" receptors have the ability to "filter out" the words to see the real intent of the one speaking them - to divide, to disgrace, or to destroy.  Our "heart" receptors have an ability to reject or accept the words spoken -  but first the "ear" receptors must do their job!  If only one set of our receptors is working, we have a skewed perception.  It is good to use the "sensitivity" receptors of our lips to judge how well the other receptors are working in our lives.  You see, what comes "out" of our mouth is a good indicator of how well the other "receptors" are doing at protecting us from harmful input.  When our ears have filtered out destructive input, our words are likely to reflect back words of grace to the one who spoke with the "twang of jealousy".  When our hearts have not succumb to the emotional roller-coaster of latching onto the emotion behind the words heard, our speech  will likely reveal words of forgiveness, not judgment.

The truth of the matter is - we need our "sensitivity receptors" to be touched by the Holy Spirit.  Once we become familiar with the "sensation" created by his touch, we will not be as susceptible to allowing other things past the "receptors" of our ears, eyes, mouth, heart, or hands!  Just sayin!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Walking the Beam

Ever really concentrate on walking a straight line?  Do you know how hard it is to do when you are spending all that time and attention on doing so?  Now, before anyone thinks I have been pulled over for driving under the influence, let me assure you, I have not!  I was just thinking back to when I was in physical education classes doing gymnastics and was up on the balance beam.  Not only did I have to learn to walk "straight", but I had to focus on maintaining perfect balance, as well.  The mind is really good at completing one task at a time - add in others and the brain is capable, but it needs a lot of teaching!  

Train me, God, to walk straight; then I’ll follow your true path.  Put me together, one heart and mind; then, undivided, I’ll worship in joyful fear.  (Psalm 86:11 MSG)

Our passage today starts with our psalmist asking GOD to train him.  First, let's explore the name of God David used here when he makes this request.  The translation used here is that of Jehovah - the unchangeable one.  David is seeking his training at the feet of the one who is not going to change at the drop of a hat.  He is consistent through all of time.  This provides us some assurances of consistency in "walking straight" which we would not have on our own.  Whenever this name is used in scripture, the writer is wanting us to see the sum total of God's moral and spiritual attributes - consistent throughout the ages, never changing, and always faithful.  Attributes are built into the character - they aren't put there.  So, reliance upon GOD is really reliance upon one who already possesses everything we need for living right, faithfully, and in upright heart.

So, David is asking GOD to train him to walk straight.  He is asking GOD to help him develop habits, thoughts, and behaviors by the discipline and instruction which comes from the "unchangeable one".  Habits which are consistent - not doing this one day and that another.  Thoughts which lean toward purity and honesty instead of jumping to judgmental conclusions which only serve to distract and cause us to be defeated.  Behaviors so aligned with the character GOD is forming within - so as not to waiver - to be "in balance" on this "beam" we are walking.

It is apparent to me that we cannot walk this path on our own.  We get "out of balance" quicker than we'd probably like to admit.  Up on the balance beam in gym class, I was taught to find a "focal point" - not to watch the beam.  The tendency we have is to focus so much on the "line" we are walking that we lose sight of the "end of the line".  Up on the balance beam, if all I did was focus on the next few inches in front of me, I could easily "over-plan" a move and end up going straight off the end.  This could result in injury.  So, my teachers taught us to focus on a "focal point" - not the end of the beam, but some place in the distance on either end of the beam.  As we maneuvered the "line" of the beam, we were ever conscious of the distance between us and the object.  What did this do for us?  As we drew closer to the object, we knew we were at on the beam.  I wonder if we truly made GOD our focal point if we'd be more inclined to "read the beam" a little better?  

David describes what having this consistency of "focal point" does for us in life.  It "puts us together" - making our heart undivided, our mind focused and attentive.  It isn't the "line" that needs our focus - it is our hearts and minds which require the focus.  We get all consumed by the "line" and miss the fact of our heart and mind not having any focus other than the line.  One thing I learned in gym class up on the beam - you WILL fall.  It is unavoidable!  Until you become proficient at "walking the line" without focusing so much "on the line", you will fall.  Once you develop more awareness of your focal point and less awareness of the line, you begin to develop "balance".  Balance is a result of focus - not of mere practice.  As long as I focused on the "line" of the beam, I only saw the "smallness" of the beam.  When I focused on my "focal point", I forgot about the narrowness of the beam and began to experience "balance".  Maybe this is something David is picturing for us - balance.  Not so much because we are aware of the "line" we are walking, but because we keep the right focus in the walk.

As with the beam, once we began to experience confidence in keeping our eyes on the focal point and less on the narrowness of the "line" we were walking, we each began to show less fear of the journey we were on.  I think God's plan is getting us to the point of being less consumed by the "narrowness" of the line we are walking and more consumed by him.  In turn, he gives us balance in all the right ways - heart and mind.  As a result, we experience less "fear" in taking the next steps.  Just sayin!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

In the thick of things?

There are certainly times in life when we just feel like we are "in the thick of things" - you know what I mean - so totally "involved" in something that you almost feel "consumed" by whatever it is.  For a soldier, the greatest opportunity for being wounded, or even killed, is when he/she is in the "thick of the battle".  It is the "busiest" or most "active" part of the battle where the soldier has the greatest risk.  The same is true for each of us in life.  The busiest, or most active part of our circumstances places us at the greatest risk.

When I walk into the thick of trouble, keep me alive in the angry turmoil.  With one hand strike my foes, with your other hand save me.  Finish what you started in me, God.  Your love is eternal—don’t quit on me now.  (Psalm 138:7-8 MSG)

Our psalmist is pleading with God, knowing that he will "walk into" the thick of trouble and the angry turmoil.  In essence, he is saying he is aware of the risks, but he knows he must go into those "places" of turmoil - simply because it is where the battle is won or lost!  The truth is, the battle is either won or lost in each life, not because we stay out of the battle, but because we are right in the middle of it!  Our preparation for battle is significant, but not as important as the LEADERSHIP we submit to in the battle.  For our psalmist, he places his trust in the leadership of the Lord of Lords and King of Kings.  His hope clearly is in the one who he knows will win the battle, not in his own abilities.

In looking closer at our passage, David doesn't say "IF" he goes into battle - he says "WHEN".  In understanding this we get a little insight.  The battle is not optional - it as assured.  It is a foregone conclusion - we don't need to spend a lot of time analyzing this one.  As assured as David was of the battles ahead, we can be just as assured - they will come.  WHEN they do, we need to have the "forgone conclusion" of how we will walk INTO the battle - under the care of the Lord of Lords and King of Kings.  One mighty hands holds back the enemy - the other surrounds the warrior child with its mighty protection and comfort.

As important as recognizing the battle as "inevitable", we also need to see it has a purpose.  David says it well - "Finish what you started in me, God."  The battle most definitely is a place of "faith-building", is it not?  Isn't the intent of God's activity in our lives to ensure the "growth" of our faith?  Therefore, we can conclude, the battle must be a "building ground" for our faith.  David's stance is one of trusting God to take him THROUGH the battle with the end result being God finishing what he had begun in his life in the "quiet times".  We learn a lot in our quiet times with God, but they are put to the test on the battlefield!  Faith is simply belief until it is tested.  On the battlefields of our testing, our every belief has a chance to be challenged - put to the test - to either give us total assurance of the "correctness" of our belief, or the need to "adjust" our belief because it was a little incorrect in the first place.  

David's ultimate goal is to remind us of God's keeping power, but it is IN the battle the protection is most appreciated.  We "know" God is there in the quiet times, but when in the thick of battle, there is a unique transition which occurs.  We don't "sit" and "wait" upon God - we run for shelter into his care and protection.  We align with his direction - something which gives us the "position" of protection in the battle.  We call upon him like never before - simply because we trust his direction to keep us safe and secure.  It is when our "peace" is disturbed that we recognize the authority of the one who can restore peace!

Good news is also part of this passage.  First, God goes with!  He leads the way into battle - he doesn't bring up the rear.  If we keep our eyes on him, we will be kept in the battle.  Second, God is aware of the enemy at all times.  We may think we know his tactics, but only a "proven" warrior is capable of anticipating the next move of the enemy.  Since none of us is "fully proven" in the battle, we need to align with his leadership in the midst of the battle - he is the only "proven" battle-winner!  Last, God will not abandon us in the battle.  He is not a quitter - he is an eternal victor - as such, he brings us through!  Just sayin!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Interwoven yet?

Do you know someone this holiday season who just seems to struggle through it?  The enjoyment of the "build-up" to the 25th of December just seems to add weight to an already heavy heart?  I imagine if we all look around our circle of friends and acquaintances, we'd probably all be able to identify someone whose heart is breaking because of the extreme loneliness created by past holiday memories no longer even a possibility in their lives because of the loss of a loved one or a relationship riff.  There are those who are under the cloud of misery caused by disease riddling their bodies, and those whose homes were ripped away in the hurricane force winds or washed away in the aftermath of flooding.  We are surrounded by needs - we just need to realize they exist!

It’s better to have a partner than go it alone.  Share the work, share the wealth.  And if one falls down, the other helps, but if there’s no one to help, tough!  Two in a bed warm each other.  Alone, you shiver all night.  By yourself you’re unprotected.  With a friend you can face the worst.  Can you round up a third?  A three-stranded rope isn’t easily snapped. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 MSG)

Some will take the loss of "things" as the hardest burden they bear right now. Others may not admit it, but the loss of relationship with someone they loved is more than they are able to bear up under.  Solomon was labeled as the wisest man to live.  Even he recognized the "weight" loss puts in a man's heart.  Nothing quite lifts the "weight" like being "partnered" with the right people in your life!

In examining our passage this morning, a couple of things caught my eye:

- Going it alone is bad news.  We may make all kinds of brave attempts to mask the intensity of loneliness being "alone" causes, but in the end, it works its way to the surface!  Do you know what a partner is?  It is an ally - a companion in the journey.  An ally is a helper - one who joins with you.  The allegiances of allies is something which lends strength in the midst of the battle.  I have a favorite saying - "This is my compadre in crime!"  It is not the truth, mind you, as I am not aligned with anyone who commits crimes, or encourages me to do so! speaks of being aligned with another - being in unity of purpose.  It is a rare individual or two who actually fulfill this role in my life!  Without them, I am just not able to bear the burdens life hurls my way.  Yep, I've got Jesus, but with my "compadres", I've got "Jesus with skin"!

- We need help up when we fall.  We WILL fall - it is inevitable.  I shared a while back about a fall I took at work.  I don't even know how it happened, but one moment I was upright and walking in the beautiful outdoors, and the next I was crashing to the earth!  In a moment, a hand was there to lift me up.  A true "compadre"!  Solomon was not just speaking of our literal "falls" in life, but also our emotional plummets, mind-boggling intensity of imagined worsts which could come some day, and the deep-seated anxieties of unfulfilled dreams.  Fall we will, but if we are "partnered" with another, we find the "hand up" we need!

- Cold times come and we need to be prepared to "warm" each other.  I don't think Solomon just meant this literally - there is a deeper lesson here.  There have been countless times when a friend has come alongside in my "coldness" of grief or disappointment, gently wiping my tears, holding me close, and just "loving" me back to warmness again.  When "coolness" comes into a man's spirit, there is a lack of passion for the things they once pursued.  In those times, we often need just a "coal" to reignite the fire.  Do you know where many of my "coals" have come - from the fire another has stoked in their hearts just for the purpose of reigniting mine!  

- The "worst" is never enough to drive a true "compadre" away.  In fact, a true friend is there to ride the waves of the "worst" with you.  As if sensing the rise of the "tide" in your life, they just come alongside.  In the simple action of just "being a friend", they help you "ride the tide" until the storm has past. Solomon reminds us with a friend, we can not only "face" the worst, but we can avoid being "overcome" by it.  

Just some thoughts to get us looking outside of ourselves this holiday season.  We have been "partnered" with some very special "gifts" in this walk here on earth.  Someone needs your strength.  Look at what Solomon concludes - a two-fold cord is strong, but a three-fold is even stronger.  Thinking about this, I thought of someone being at the "end of their rope", barely holding on, things just seeming to be "fraying" to pieces in their life.  It is the "interweaving" of YOUR "cord" into theirs which will lend the strength they need to secure their hold.  Don't be afraid of getting a little "interwoven" this holiday season!  You need it as much as I do!  Just sayin!

Follow the Leader anyone?

Do you know the difference between following and leading?  The primary difference is position.  The leader is out front - the followers are moving "behind" the leader, but consistently in the same direction as the leader.  Now, this may seem a little rudimentary to some, but let me assure you, following is a lot tougher than just "getting in line" and "marching on".  If you don't believe me, ask any first grade teacher!  They will surely tell you how hard it is to keep those little one all in a neat row, especially if they are "standing still" for any length of time!  They will wiggle, move out of line, squat on the ground to explore the potato bug crossing in a crack in the sidewalk, or simply fall out of line to go do something else.  I think the same may be true with God in our lives - we line up behind him, but if he stands still for too long according to our estimation of how fast he should be moving, we get a little distracted!

Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?  (Matthew 16:24-26 MSG)

Do you remember playing the game of "Follow the Leader" as a child?  Someone would be"it" and you would all do what the "leader" was doing.  If he jumped, you'd jump.  If he walked in a circle, you were close behind.  If he sat down, so did you.  The idea was to "catch" someone not doing what the leader did!  They were "out".  The last person "standing" was the new leader.  Sometimes I think we try to live out our "obedience" to God's desires in our lives this way.  We line up well, set out to do exactly what he is doing, then at some point, we get distracted.  The moment of distraction may make us feel like we are "out" in this "game of life" - because someone noticed our "distraction".  So, we sit down, watching others go on in their pursuit of the "leader".  Sad, but it true - we sometimes quit because we don't think we "followed" well and we know someone else noticed.  

Look at our passage.  The good news is WE are not the leaders.  If we were, whenever someone failed to "follow well", we'd make them sit out the rest of the game just like we did as kids!  The thing is, we are not focused on becoming the next "leader", we are focused on being the best "follower" possible.  Jesus was quite plain - we are not in the driver's seat.  He has the honor.  Sometimes being in the "passenger's seat" is the most difficult position to be in - especially when we think we know a short-cut to our destination!  We want to direct the driver to take all the little "short-cuts" so we arrive at our destination a little quicker than the rest.  Problem is, our driver has "traffic alert" - we don't!  He knows what lays ahead just around the next turn - we don't.  So, if we demand the short-cut, we may be placing ourselves right in the spot of "delays" and "disaster" without even knowing it.

Jesus lays out a couple of important aspects of his leading.  First, we want to run from what is uncomfortable to us.  He wants to lead us through it.  To run from it seemingly allows us to avoid the emotional stress of the discomfort.  Have you ever tried to run from something you thought was so uncomfortable, only to find your discomfort magnified by your inability to confront the situation?  I have!  It isn't worth it!  I have shied away from touch relationship conversations - only to find the problem just gets bigger.  I have refused to take the first step toward forgiveness and reconciliation - only to find the pathway "back" into relationship is now riddled with lots of messy stuff!  It truly isn't worth it!  We need to remember, Jesus would never lead us where he will not keep us!  He wants us to "avoid" the "traffic" of this kind of stuff - taking the path he leads helps with truly avoiding the "delays" and "disasters" in life.  

Second, he knows we get distracted by the "stuff" in life.  "Stuff" is really a term we use for "clutter", isn't it.  When we don't really know what is "inside" something, we call it "stuff".  Like when we say we have a "junk drawer" in the kitchen.  If someone asked you what you kept in there, you'd likely outline a few things and then add, "stuff like that".  Why?  Simply because you really cannot account for the "stuff" in there!  It accumulates, doesn't it?  In time, you have to clean out the "junk drawer" of all the "stuff" which has been stuffed in there!  "Stuff" just fills space.  It doesn't really need to be there.  I used to clean out my son's drawers on occasion when he was younger.  You would be surprised by what "stuff" a young boy finds fascinating to keep!  There were little pieces of this and that, none of which really had any specific purpose, but it was "stuff" which caught his eye.  So, he picked it up somewhere and there it was, squirreled away in the recesses of the "space" which really was intended for another purpose.  This is the problem with "stuff" - it fills the spaces meant for something (or someone) else!

Last, but certainly not least, he knows we are susceptible to "trading away" what is really the most important thing to keep.  We "trade away" our time - in search of things which we think will fulfill.  We "trade away" our finances - in search of the next great buy or a winning fortune.  We "trade away" our health - by holding onto grudges, living with bitterness, or pursuing life-dominating addictions.  There are lots of ways we "trade away" the best for something or someone who will really not fill the "space" of our lives as it was intended to be filled.  Jesus' objective in speaking to his disciples that day so long ago, and to us today, is to remind us of the importance of not "trading away" the place in our hearts where he is intended to dwell.  

Truly, when we learn to follow the "leader" of our lives, we find "space" is uncluttered, the "stuff" of life is simpler, and his presence with us as we embrace the "tough stuff" is made a little less difficult.  Just sayin!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Jelly anyone?

Have you ever tried to make jelly?  When we look at all those various flavors, colors, and pretty jars all stacked with care on our grocer's shelves, we often forget what goes into making the jelly.  It really is a science - I've tried it!  Some of it tasted pretty good, but I had a few "flops" in the process!  Today, I'd like to share a few lesson I learned in the process.  Pretty jars were all assembled, fresh lids, stock pot filled with water to boil those jars, and sugar all measured out.  Who knew the most important part of making the jelly was not in the "prettiness" of the jar I chose, nor the shininess of the caps which adorned them?  What I learned made the most difference in the jelly was not any of the things I assembled, but the fruit that went into making the jelly!  Who knew?

If you grow a healthy tree, you’ll pick healthy fruit. If you grow a diseased tree, you’ll pick worm-eaten fruit. The fruit tells you about the tree.  (Matthew 12:33 MSG)

If you have mastered this art of jelly-making, you know fruit which is too green actually makes the jelly a little cloudy.  It affects the clarity of the jelly.    The fruit must be ripe, but firm. If it is too green, it does not go through the "straining" process well.  We used to look for the orchards, or fruit markets, who sold large bunches of the fruit - often some quite ripe, while some others were just about ripe.  We'd sort the fruit, because if it was still too green, it would cook up, but we had to exert too much pressure on it to get the juices out of it in the straining process.  It actually made the resulting "juice" for the jelly very cloudy.  If you have ever tried to "force" fruit from your life (or had someone else trying to do it for you) - producing some semblance of "jelly-quality juice" from your life - you might have seen some of the issues of being "squeezed" too hard.  Yep, you "produced" something, but the quality of what was produced only produced something which lacked clarity!

Some of the earlier mistakes I made with "straining" my fruit for the jelly was a result of my impatience.  You see, for the clearest jelly, you allow the fruit to sit in the strainer, juices dripping freely from it.  You don't squeeze the bag!  You add the fruit to the cotton flannel bag, then you wait - patiently.  Not my strongest suit!  I'd squeeze a little hear and there, hoping to get just a little more juice out, or to speed up the process.  The important thing for me to recognize - fruit comes forth in a process of patient and consistent growth, just as much as the clearest juices are extracted in allowing the process of separating to occur.  No amount of my "squeezing" will produce anything as beautiful as the slow, but consistent, process of having the separation of those things which will "cloud" up my life left in the hands of God.

Another common issue with "jelly clarity" stems from the cooking process itself.  If the fruit is cooked way too long, the jelly-juices which are produced are just made cloudy by the "over-cooking".  Mushy fruit produces little particles of fruit which escape the "straining" process.  In turn, they make the jelly cloudy.  The clarity is produced by cooking the fruit ONLY until it is tender.  To be able to produce the clearest jelly, I had to "tend the pot" quite frequently.  I could not just put all the fruit in, turn up the heat, and walk away.  I had to test, retest, and then finally be pleased with just the right quality of "tenderness" which would produce the excellence desired.  I think God does this with us, too.  He allows the "mixture" of fruit in our lives to be brought to a boil, but he doesn't want it to be "over-cooked".  He looks for us to be just "tender-enough" to produce the clarity and beauty he desires.  When we reach this point, he removes us from the heat - so as not to "over-cook" us!

Probably one of the hardest lessons I had to learn was the art of "pouring off" the jelly into the jars.  Pour it too slowly and you allow air bubbles to get in - giving it the appearance of being cloudy.  Pour it too rapidly, and you might actually over-fill, splash hot juices onto yourself, etc.  Letting the jelly sit in the pan for any length of time before pouring it off allowed it to begin to "set up" where it was, so pouring it off quickly was important.  

Sometimes, I think we struggle with some of these ideas as we look at how God brings fruit from our lives.  He "picks" the right combination of ripe and "hard-ripe" fruit in our lives - to make the clearest "jelly"!  He allows the straining process because he knows the "sweetness" and "richness" of the end product when it is allowed to occur through patient "processing".  He might be able to produce "more" juice from the fruit by squeezing the "straining bag" a little, but the sweetest and clearest juices are produces from allowing the fruit juices to "pass through" the straining bag over the course of time.  The goal is not the "quantity" of "jelly", but in the richness and clarity of what is produced.  God doesn't let us "over-cook" - he is attentive to the "fire" in our lives.  We may only feel the heat, but he knows when we are just "tender enough" to produce the most flavorful of juices.

Just some lessons we can glean from the jelly jar today.  Now, the next time you pick up a jar of jelly, think about what "jelly" God is working on in your life.  The mixture of "fruit" he is using, the care he is taking in getting it "just tender enough", and the patience he exhibits in waiting for it to be "strained" to purity.  When he finally "bottles" the fruit in your life, he indeed will be delighted by the richness of it!  Just sayin!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sing with angels' voices

Every year, there are various awards given to music artists - Grammy awards, Billboard Hall of Fame, GMA Dove awards, etc.  Within each award "group" there are various divisions of honor - best album, best single, top artist, etc.  I will never win such an "honor".  I might sound okay in the shower, but to be able to stand before an audience and belt out a tune, totally on key, and with gusto - that's just not gonna happen.  Most of us fall into this category of "singers" - we sing "okay", but our ability to "make music" is not much to write home about!  Maybe what makes the song we sing so significant is not the perfect tone, but the audience to whom we sing.

Sing songs to God, sing out!  Sing to our King, sing praise!  He’s Lord over earth, so sing your best songs to God.  (Psalm 47:6-7 MSG)

Our psalmist reminds us "who" it is we sing for - God himself.  He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords - as such, we sing for his enjoyment and honor - not ours.  This psalm tells us to sing to God not once, but seven times!  We are told to "shout God-songs", not quietly, but at the top of our lungs!  Now, this means we are not to be timid in our worship - but giving it our all.  Then we are reminded to give loud cheers as we see God taking his place - enthroned in our lives.  If this is not enough, we are instructed to "sing songs", "sing out", "sing to", "sing praise", and to "sing our best songs" to God.  

Now, if something is repeated this much in scripture, it must have some importance.  Let's examine a little bit about each of these instructions:

- Shout "God-songs":  What are "God-songs"?  I like to think of these as the songs which emanate from the recesses of our hearts.  The songs which come from both a place of deepest sorrow and mountain top exuberance.  Each has such significance to God - none is less important.  We are to "shout" these songs to him - not to sing them quietly, as though they were not worth his hearing, but with both gusto and exuberance.  Why?  Maybe it is because his ears are turned toward those who "cry out"!  These words capture his attention - moving his heart in response to our expressions of both hurt and hope.

- Give "loud cheers":  If you have ever been at a sports game of some type and your team comes from behind to score the winning goal, touchdown, or the like, you probably have knowledge of what "loud cheers" are.  They express something of both victory and "applause-words".  It is like we are using our words to give applause to the victor.  I think God is honored when our "applause words" declare his victories in our lives, don't you?

- "Sing songs to God":  If you were a country/western musician, would you want to sing some country ballad at the opera house?  Not likely.  Why?  The "audience" would be all wrong for your particular "brand" of music.  The good news is God is the one receiving our songs - as our "audience of one" he receives ALL manners of song, no exceptions.  It is not "what" is sung as much as it is TO WHOM the song is lifted.  Some of us try to sing our songs to the men and women of this world - wondering why they don't respond to them as we think they should.  It is probably because they are not the "audience" who needs to hear them!

- "Sing your best songs":  I appreciated something my pastor said this weekend.  He took us to the book of Malachi, chapter one, and reminded us of the importance of giving God our best.  Why?  Simply because God does not want left-overs!  The passage is quite plain - we think we honor God by bringing him our left-overs, but really we are capable of much better, and God knows it!  We don't fool God by just singing!  God looks for us to bring our "first" of everything to him.  Now, think about it - how much of your "firsts" has God been a part of?  If God is "first" in our lives, then we also deserves to experience the "first" of everything which emanates from our lives.  This includes the good stuff, but I also believe it includes the things like our grief, fears, and even our wavering faith.  God does much with the simple gift of our "songs" only when they are finally "sung".  If we bring him our "song of grief", he is capable of turning it into a "song of hope".  When we bring him our "song of fear", he is able to take away the fear and replace it with boldness.  Even our "songs of doubt" speak volumes to God - for it is in the honesty and integrity of our heart where he can begin the greatest work of rearranging the pieces to bring the best out of what we see as the worst.

Sing to your audience of one!  Sing boldly!  Sing loudly!  Raise the shouts of praise!  But....don't be afraid to sing with honesty!  In the honesty of our words God can begin the work of turning ashes into something which reflects his beauty.  I think when we are singing with this type of integrity of heart, we are singing with "angels' voices".  Just sayin!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Feet planted - heart soaring!

Sometimes we come across a quote which just grabs us.  Such is the case when I came across this one today:  "Live as if you were to die tomorrow.  Learn as if you were to live forever." (Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi)  I may not have originated these words, but they are something which really reflects my heart.  I live for today - because God never assures me I will have tomorrow here on this earth.  I learn for an eternity - because God has assured me I will learn at his feet for all of eternity.  There are certain things worth learning - such things make us stronger, giving us depth and breadth which would otherwise be undiscovered in our lives.

I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength—that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:16-19 MSG)

Have you ever looked at an individual, considered what they "appear" to be like on the outside, and then made an "estimate" of their strength?  If I see a guy who is muscular, with a great set of biceps bulging and six-pack firm, I think he must have spent a lot of time developing his strength.  If I see a busy man in a business suit stop to help a small child explore the wonder of a snail crossing the sidewalk, I see a totally different kind of strength!  There is much to be said about the difference between the outward "appearance" of strength and the inner assurance of strength.  I think this might be what Paul had in mind as he wrote to the church at Ephasus those many years ago.  It is what is on the inside which makes the man, not the display of what we see on the outside.

Brute strength is good if you need to open a stubbornly sealed jar of pickles, but inner strength is even more awesome when you see it manifest in the ability to sense the opportunities that otherwise would be wasted if passed by.  Brute strength is the result of consistent work-outs.  Now, don't get me wrong, there is nothing bad about a good physique or a "tight" body, but if it is our ultimate goal, we miss something more valuable than rippled muscles, and tight abs.  Inner strength is "learned" - not as a result of "working out" in the gym, but in "working out" at the feet of Jesus.  We have a "personal trainer" of sorts, better known as the Holy Spirit, just for the purpose of helping to develop this inner strength.

Paul tells us the strength of the inner man comes in looking first at where we plant our feet.  If you have ever been in any athletics, you might have heard your coach tell you to "plant your feet".  With this simple instruction, you are being urged to get a "stance" which will aid you in having the "base" or "foundation" upon which to build a solid hit, send a carefully calculated pass, or hit some mark down the course.  Some believe having both feet solidly placed means you are not willing to try anything new - the meaning of having your feet solidly planted on the ground.  Paul tells us to plant our feet firmly on love - not human love, but the love of God which permeates us with the vastness of his grace.  Where we "plant" our feet is as important as having them planted.  It is in planting them solidly in his love where we begin to have the inner strength of our being expanded.  

Paul tells us we begin to experience the vastness of his love by getting to know its breadth.  Maybe this is best expressed in the promise from scripture:  As far as east is from west—that’s how far God has removed our sin from us.  (Psalm 103:12 CEB)  Now that is some "breadth", isn't it?  Think on it - as far as the east is from the west - this is how far God's love expands, for his love is the basis of our sin being removed!  We need to test its length.  Part of experiencing something is to "test" it.  In other words, you see if it endures, holds up under pressure.  Paul reminds us to explore the "lasting power" of God's love - it endures when nothing else does.  If this is not enough, he reminds us to plumb the depth and rise to the heights of God's love.  His love is found in the deepest sorrows of our soul and in the soaring "wins" of the mountain-top experiences.  

You know, it will take me an eternity to understand fully God's love.  What I see and understand about his love only scratches the surface right now.  My "finite" understanding is ever expanding, but I know it is limited by what I can see today, understand with my mind, and interpret with my emotion.  In eternity, I will continue to learn at his feet.  How about you?  We need to truly learn to live for today - not letting the opportunities pass us by.  The very "snail" we stop to observe could be the thing which leads us to the next great step in our lives!  Just sayin!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

On a roller-coaster?

Whenever we are holding onto something, or someone, for dear life, we are using a whole lot of effort to hold onto it, as if our very life depended upon not letting go.  In some cases, we are the ones doing the "holding" - simply because we are desperate to not let go.  At others, someone or something else is holding onto us - because to let go would be to experience loss of some kind.  None of us likes to experience loss - no matter how well we are prepared.  Loss is often equated with being "deprived" of something you once had, such as when we mourn the loss of an individual in our lives.  It can also mean an accidental loss of something, much like misplacing something we once were so careful to have been aware of.  Either way, the loss causes us some type of sense of "urgency" and "grief".  Loss is somehow equated with letting go - either consciously, or unconsciously.

“If you’ll hold on to me for dear life,” says God, “I’ll get you out of any trouble.
I’ll give you the best of care if you’ll only get to know and trust me.  Call me and I’ll answer, be at your side in bad times; I’ll rescue you, then throw you a party.  I’ll give you a long life, give you a long drink of salvation!”  (Psalm 91:14-16 MSG)

Our psalmist reminds us of our need to hold onto God for dear life.  This almost implies we could experience a whole lot of grief, or unnecessary concern if we don't!  When we see what our psalmist says in this passage, we will notice some very important aspects of "holding on" which we can take to heart.

Foremost in our thoughts should be the position of "holding on" - not to some "thing", but to the God of the entire universe - the Creator of all things.  When you are holding on "for dear life", you are determined to not let go!  There is a tenacity and determination to hold on, no matter what comes your way.  I have been on roller-coasters at the amusement parks, being thrown this way, then that, all the while "holding on for dear life" until the ride came to a safe stop at the base of the ride.  Roller-coasters are actually built with something expressly for the purpose of "holding on" - that little bar which comes across you, or the one which straps over your shoulders and comes down around your arms and chest.  The "bars" are designed to not only keep you safe, but to give you something to "hold onto" - simply because the ride will be rough!  Guess what?  Life has some rough twists and turns at times.  When we are holding onto the right stuff in life, we find we get through those twists and turns unscathed!  

God tells us he'll be the one to get us out of ANY trouble - when we are holding onto him.  No person, or thing, can do what God can do - they may promise to keep us safe, but the best security system in the world is nothing compared to the shelter of his arms!  Sometimes we stop right there and don't read on in this passage - simply "claiming" the promise that God will get us out of any trouble.  The truth of the matter is God gives us some responsibility in this!  First, we position ourselves to hold onto him for dear life - because our life really does depend upon him!  Then we have to get to know him and learn to trust him.  It is impossible to trust anyone or anything if we never get to know the integrity of the person, or the strength of the object.  We trust the bar across our body on the roller-coaster because it is there, locked into position, and it is solid.  We learn to trust God in much the same manner - because he is consistently there, he is "locked in" on us, and he is a solid foundation!

Simply holding on may not be enough at times - we also need to call out when our resolution is not as strong as it should be, when the obstacles in our path might cause us to stumble, and when our grip seems to be slipping.  If you have ever tried to hold onto something tightly for any length of time, you know you eventually allow your grip to slacken.  Why?  Simply because your attention is diverted from the focus on "holding on".  God reminds us when this happens, we need to call out to him - he is there to strengthen our grip and to pull us even closer.  

What we hold onto determines the stability of the ride!  We can hold onto our "trusted" ways of self-will - trusting in our abilities to deal with life, or we can let go of our grip on "self-dependence" and learn to depend on the "safety-hold" of God's arms firmly around us.  The choice is ours.  What we find ourselves holding the tightest to may not always be the thing which we will find the greatest security and protection in.  If our grip is on the right stuff, we will endure the "ride".  Just sayin!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Seeds of Light and Joy

Seeds are unique to the type of plant from which they come.  You cannot expect to obtain passion fruit from a grapefruit seed, nor tomatoes from a grape seed.  To expect something other than what you plant is silly.  Maybe this is why scripture tells us it is reasonable to expect to harvest what we plant, and we must plant in order to harvest.  The one planting seeds is as significant as the seeds being planted - not to mention "where" the seeds are planted.

Light-seeds are planted in the souls of God’s people, Joy-seeds are planted in good heart-soil.  (Psalm 97:11 MSG)

If God is the planter of the seeds, the harvest is more likely to produce the type of growth which will edify and build us up.  He takes great care in planting just the right seeds which will grow into exactly what we need in order to dispel darkness and to increase our joy.  These two "seeds" referred to in our passage really produce fruit beyond what we may realize at the first blush - probably because of where they are planted.  It is in looking at where God does the planting that we find a little insight into the growth which is produced.

Light-seeds are planted in the souls of God's people.  Now, thinking of the soul of man, we might think of the darkness which dwells there when God's light has not invaded the space within.  Our souls are where we focus on the connection existing between God and man - the eternal part of our being which will dwell forever either in the presence of God or the fires of hell.  The soul is often thought of as where we form our "morals" which guide our every decision.  If our soul is shrouded with darkness, the choices we make may be less than "upright".  The "morals" we form may be a little "tainted" by our viewpoint - dark places in our soul tend to yield dark actions.  Our view (our morals) are made lighter by the seed planted by God's hand.

Joy-seeds are planted in good heart-soil.  Knowing the heart is our seat of emotion, isn't it awesome God plants "joy-seeds" there?  He plants seeds of joy - which will bring something to our hearts which all other "additions" of seed will never quite be able to produce.  Joy differs from happiness in that joy is lasting, where happiness is dependent upon the circumstances and the outcomes we experience in life.  Joy is totally deep-seated, or shall I say "deep-seeded", buried deep within the heart.  Joy is a result of "connection" - the connection of the soil of our hearts with the roots of the seeds of JOY God plants deep within the heart.  The heart holds both joy and grief.  Isn't it truly a work of God to turn places of grief into places of the deepest growth - the seeds of joy producing great growth from within the soil of the grief we experience.

The absence of joy is grief.  The opposite of light is darkness.  The seeds God plants are exactly the opposite of the condition of the soil in which they are planted.  The seeds are planted in the very type of soil where their growth will have the greatest impact.  If you have ever seen a plant grow so big as to take over the area in which it was planted, I think this is probably what God has in mind when he plants the seeds of joy in the grief of our soul, or the seed of light into the darkest places of our emotions.

Getting back to the "planting" process, we see scripture advising to not expect a harvest if there is never any planting going on.  So, in giving God access to our souls, we are encouraging seeds of light to be planted.  In giving him access to our emotions, we are encouraging seeds of joy to be planted.  In turn, we can see the harvest they will produce.  These are seeds which we cannot plant ourselves, but we can open up to the planting of our heavenly Father.  We attempt to plant all kinds of seeds ourselves, but they fall far short of the harvest God intends for our lives.  Wouldn't it be wise to allow God to do the planting, in order to have the optimum harvest produced?  Just sayin!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Fritter not!

Are you a "fritterer"?  You know, someone who sees time slip through their fingers, then wonders where it went?  To fritter means to allow something to slip away little by little.  It is unlike a glass slipping from our hand and shattering on the ground because we had wet hands when we tried to hold it. In this case, were were unprepared to hold the glass securely, so it slipped and we were full conscious of it slipping.  To fritter a glass out of your hand is kind of like dozing off with a glass of water in your hand.  Slowly, little by little, the glass tips ever so slightly.  Then it tips a little more, and a little more.  Then in the next short passage of time, the glass lays on its side, contents flowing freely from it.  We can remain asleep, unaware of the contents being spilled, or the condition of our "hand" which "relaxed" its grip and allowed the spillage to occur.

A life frittered away disgusts Godhe loves those who run straight for the finish line. (Proverbs 15:9 MSG)

The key difference between the two events described above is awareness.  In the first circumstance, we were aware the glass was slipping, but could do little to stop it simply because we weren't well prepared when we picked up the glass.  In the latter, we were neither aware, nor attentive.  Life and time come at us this way sometimes.  There are things which life seems to ensure gets on "our agenda" for the day - some we know about, others we don't.  I work in the healthcare arena, so my "agenda" is constantly being altered by the immediate demands of the "urgent" or "emergent".  

As aware as I am of what needs to be done for the day, some "agendas" have to be placed aside for the more urgent needs of another - the glass slips from my hand because I was not prepared for the next demand.  In these cases, I may lose control of my "agenda" for a period of time, but I still remain very aware of what requires my attention when I can get back on track.  I have learned the "urgent" may cause things to slip out of my control for a while, but in short order, I will get back on track, because I have prepared for the "urgent".  You see, I work "ahead" a little in many of my tasks, so I don't see them slip from my hands when the "urgent" comes my way.  As a matter of fact, I am writing this blog post five days in advance of it being posted.  Slippage is insured, but I don't have to be unprepared for it!

There have been times when things seem to be running rather "smoothly" - times like this almost set me up to "fritter".  It is not that I am lazy, but when there are no "urgent" or "emergent" things demanding my attention, it is easy to change my pace to a slower, less hectic pace for completion of my agenda.  Now, for most of us, we'd rather have the latter, but we all know it is not always the best for us.  We are actually doing more harm when we fritter away our time, talent, or treasure, aren't we?  God made each of us with both the ability to experience the "adrenaline rush" of the "urgent" and to enjoy the "peacefulness" of the routine.  

If we are always operating in the mode of "frittering away", we are really operating in the arena of becoming less and less alert to our surroundings.  In time, we become less alert to the things we'd normally pay close attention to, such as the glass of water in our hand!  In so doing, we allow things to slip away - poured out, wasted.  This may not be a big deal if the "glass" contained only water, but if the "glass" contained something more significant, such as deep purple grape juice, you might be more than a little concerned when you finally realized what you'd allowed by your "frittering".  Now, think of your "glass" as filled with relationships, talents, and treasures.  If we fritter away our relationships, we often neglect them little by little until one day our glass is empty.  Sadly, we never realized the "spillage" over time, but nonetheless, it occurred.  If our glass is filled with talents and treasures, the slippage may leave us feeling empty, unfulfilled and a little remorseful over the loss.  Either way, we realize the impact of our "frittering" way too late!

Let's be the kind of people who are alert to the tendency to "fritter away" what we may not want to find ourselves without!  I guarantee you, today's attentiveness to your "glass" will make all the difference with tomorrow's supply within the "glass"!  Just sayin!